Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Dark Secrets

What man was not meant to know.
In many of the sources which Gary Gygax listed in his Appendix N of the Advanced Game's Dungeon Masters Guide, magic/sorcery is a dangerous practice often dealing with sinister forces posing threats to one's sanity and mankind in general. This is reflected in certain game "magics" starting with the game's original edition.
Volume 1 of the three little brown books lists a spell called Contact Higher Plane. Its use may cause insanity. Its use may reveal dark secrets which threaten mankind's existence. From its inception, the world's first role-playing game has included the concept of planer dimensions - planes of existence which are normally beyond human perception, but can be reached using powerful magics. These planes have included everything from hell to various elemental environments. 
The spell Contact Higher Plane establishes communication with an entity from such alternative plane, a deity, demon, or other supernatural being, who may divulge certain information to the caster in the form of answers to specific questions. The risks involved include false information as these beings may be deceivers, and insanity. I suppose the idea being that contact with such knowledge may unsettle the mind of the caster.
In the original edition of the world's first role-playing game Contact Higher Plane is a potent spell. It is ranked as among the spells of the fifth level and therefore only available to Magic Users of considerable experience - namely those who have reached 9th level or above in their class. In terms of the game this represents many sessions of play to reach such lofty levels. Magic Users of 9th level carry the title of Sorcerer, and may command such additional powerful magics as Polymorph Self (and Others), Dimension Door, Invisibility, Fly, as well as such destructive magics as the dreaded Fireball and Lightning Bolt (in addition to many lessor magics).
The resulting "Insanity" can be role-played as permanent, or temporary, as debilitating or as a mildly amusing personality quirk, all depending on the preferences of the referee and player. Depending upon how the referee rules on it, such "Insanity" may be cured using Cure Disease, Remove Curse, or Wish magic.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Playing Catch-Up

After your character dies. 
Bad luck and a failed saving throw, perhaps. A poor decision that just didn't work out the way you hoped. The inability to run away fast enough, or some other misfortune occurs, and the character's hit points reach zero, then the referee's words, "you're dead!" rings out across the game table. Not to worry, death in D&D isn't necessarily final. It may just mean you need to get your character resurrected, or perhaps now is the time to roll-up a new character? One who will likely be even more interesting to play than the recently deceased - for every new character is full of possibilities! 
We role-players can put a lot of effort into our in-game avatar. We get attached to our player character, either through putting a lot of effort into character generation or through the events which happen during play resulting in emotional attachment. Loss of a favorite character can result in loss of desire to play the game. All that time, all those experience points, gone and wasted...
Let's suppose that the dead character had advanced in levels, yet resurrection/raise dead is not an option. You have played this character in company with the characters of several of your friends for months and all the PCs have all advanced in levels to the point that playing a 1st level character among higher levels may seem like less than fun. This may appear like a problem.  How will a new 1st level character fit in with the higher level party? How can they contribute? Fortunately, the creators of the world's first fantasy role-playing game gave us a solution.
Looking at the numbers, we can see that higher level characters advance at a slower rate than lower level characters across all the classes. Some classes advance much more quickly than others (that's part of "balance" in the old school game). Looking at the OD&D fighting man class, we see that it takes 8000 experience to reach Hero (4th level), but it takes an additional 8000 to reach the next level, Swashbuckler (level 5). In the time it takes our hero to advance from level 4 to level 5, a fresh recruit can advance through the first three levels and be entering level 4 - one level lower than the chap who didn't die. The first five to seven levels are all set up this way so that the next level requires twice the experience points. Magic Users advance slowest, Clerics have the quickest (lowest exp totals) advancement. Take a starting level Cleric and by the time the party's Magic User advances from 4th to 5th level 9 (10,000 - 20,000), your newly christened Cleric will be just 2000 exp short of 5th level (Curate - 12,000).
Sure it may require hanging back and sheltering behind the front line fighting men for a few sessions, but that is a good way to get to know the magic user who will be back there with you. As a Cleric, even one of lower level everyone will appreciate your turn undead ability and cure light wounds spell (once you reach level 2 and can cast, that is). Choose a fighting man and shoot arrows for your first few sessions or fight from the second rank using a spear. Even a first level magic user gets Charm Person or Sleep, both are useful spells. It seems Gary thought this one through and provided a solution for helping a starting character catch-up to the higher level PCs within about a level so that players who lose a character won't feel that they are too far behind for long. Thank you, Gary!

(...and yes, the bearded figure pictured above, taken from Vol. 1, is labeled as a "Goblin"!)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Thief - the Redundant Class

Skill Monkey or Scoundrel

Thieves are a new class introduced in Supplement I, Greyhawk and therefore presumably are a character type also played in the original Greyhawk campaign prior to their inclusion in the supplement. Theives, and their class abilities, are the introduction of percentile based task rolls in the game and as such seem to be very similar to, if not the same as, introducing the concept of skills as found in the later editions. 
Listening at doors, forcing open stuck doors, and avoiding (or falling into) traps of all kinds - these are abilities listed in Volume 3 of the original little brown books titled Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. They represent typical underworld hazards which presumably may be dealt with by any character of any class pre-thieves! We are told here that traps are sprung on a roll of 1-2 on a d6 whenever a character passes over them. If the die comes up 3-6 does this imply the trap has malfunctioned? Is it accidentally bypassed? Or is said trap noted and avoided through careful movement of the character? Like many aspects of play, the authors do not explicitly tell us what they are thinking in the original edition texts and we are left to our individual interpretations - which I believe is the intent. 
As anyone who has read this blog may know, I am a huge fan of the original edition three little brown books (which were packaged in a small white box - hence the title of the blog!) Many fans of the original edition like to include material from the first supplement - Greyhawk - in their game. I generally do not, preferring to make up my own supplemental material as I need it. Such "do it myself" material is reflective of my preferences, which in itself is a satisfying thing, and is consistent with the milieu and the home-brew setting which I like to run my games in.
In the Greyhawk supplement, we are introduced to a new character class, Thieves and with them a new way of thinking about the milieu and the game. The character class description of thieves in Greyhawk includes a list of abilities and a table of (mostly) percentage dice rolls needed for successfully using those abilities. The full list of abilities is as follows:
– open locks by picking or foiling magical closures
– remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)
– listen for noise behind closed doors
– move with great stealth
– filch items and pick pockets
– hide in shadows
– strike silently from behind
– climb nearly sheer surfaces, upwards or downwards
Listening for noise behind closed doors, really? But, humans, dwarves, elves, half-elves, or halflings may listen at doors for noises in the original edition as discussed in Volume 3, so we already have rules for listening at doors, rules which apply to all characters, before thieves! Volume 3 says to a roll of 1 on a d6 to allow human characters to hear noises beyond a door. A roll of 1-2 is sufficient for dwarves, elves or hoblings to hear such noises. Greyhawk says starting level thieves (who may be humans, dwarves, elves, or hoblings) may hear noises on the roll of 1-2 on a d6 - does this sound familiar? By the way- this is the only thief ability using a d6 roll mechanic rather than percentile and it is preferred by some who use the d6 as a substitute mechanic for the percentile system of the other thief abilities (Lamentations of the Flame Princess being one such system).
It seems odd to me that thieves specialize in abilities ("skills"?) which other character classes may already perform as a matter of normal exploring, adventuring and fighting? I get the class archetype and inspiration/desire to have a character modeled on Gray Mouser, but I am uncomfortable with the implication that the listed thieves abilities should now become the sole domain of the class of thieves as a character class. 
In Greyhawk it states that a level one thief has a 20% chance to move silently. Are we also saying that any non-thieves have even less chance to sneak quietly across a room while attempting to move silently? Thieves are given 10% at first level to hide in shadows (a roll hardly possible to achieve). Are we saying our non-thieves have virtually no ability to conceal themselves in a doorway hidden down a dark alley? Both these circumstances seem more dependent on the peculiar environmental conditions than on "skill". I also question whether a locked door is similar to a stuck door which, as it states in Volume 3, can be forced open by any character on a successful die roll? What about striking silently from behind? Would not a fighting man who stabs an unsuspecting victim in the back have an increased chance to hit - and do more than normal damage as well?
In later editions of the world's mot popular game, "skills" are included which apply to all character classes as well as some skills which are more class specific. Thieves become "rogues", although they retain much of the character which originally defined their thiefly role in the game. The specialized role of the class as scout and trap handler during exploration and as back-stabber during combat is now part of the game's lore and is an expectation of players. As a player of the original edition, however, I see the inclusion of thieves as a player character class as both optional and up to the referee.
The inclusion of thieves is a perfectly rational decision in some campaigns, original edition or later. It depends on how you as referee would like to shape the milieu in your campaign. Usually I prefer to leave them out and allow all adventurers to tap on floors and walls in search of traps, force locks open and climb. If I am going for a campaign of urban shenanigans prominently featuring a thieves guild, I would encourage thief characters because their inclusion supports the sort of story I am hoping will emerge during play. (I also usually avoid monks and assassins in the milieu, but I will leave that topic for a future post.)

Monday, June 22, 2020

Pick One

Ways to Improve
The original edition of the world's most popular role-playing game relies on class level as its principal mechanism for character advancement. In that edition, ability stats are rolled randomly, in order, and barring magic, they don't increase or decrease over the life of the character. Advancement in original D&D is accompanied by increased hit points, better to-hit and saving throw target numbers, and for magic users and clerics, an increased capacity to cast magic spells. Skills don't exist as such, at least not in the original  three little brown books. Supplement I, Greyhawk  does introduce the thief class with its percentile based skills - more on that later.
Tunnels & Trolls is considered by many to be the world's second published role-playing game. Like D&D there are six ability scores which are created by random dice rolls. T&T makes use of ability score improvement as its principal manner of increasing character power. As the T&T character accumulates experience points the player may choose to add to the ability scores, thereby improving their character's combat adds and the odds for them to successfully make a saving throw. 
The "Advanced Game" would add skill proficiency to its second edition as an optional rule. Skill based systems like RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu are among the oldest competitors to D&D. The skill system does not generally rely on levels or classes, rather characters each have a number of specific skill abilities which may be improved through play and earned experience. The player may choose what skills their character specializes in and in the case of Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing d100 system, successful use of the skill earns an experience check which entitles the player to roll for skill improvement during the bookkeeping segment at the end of play.
The world's first role-playing game is now in its 5th edition - an edition that includes class levels, skills and ability score advancements. Any one of these three methods to improve the character seems adequate in itself and if a simpler game is desired, choosing just one way to advance thereby improving one of the character power curves, may be enough to increase future chances of successful adventuring. All three methods together is perhaps redundant and may lead to an unnecessarily complicated character build paradigm.
The original edition of the game assigns each class level a title. A first level fighting man is called a "veteran". At fourth level they become known as a "hero" and at level eight, "superhero"! The title is indicative of the character's proficiency, and at the table of an experienced referee, a hero should be able to do things that would be unlikely for a mere veteran. And as for a superhero - well the name kinda says it all! 
Not everything the player wants their character to do during an "adventure" needs to involve a dice roll. Many times it is appropriate for the referee to simply state, "Your character is an experienced hero, so that action presents no problem for them." How satisfying is it to hear that? No dice roll means no chance of bad luck messing things up and making your hero look bad. No fudging, no re-rolls, just an experienced character doing heroic things. And having one less dice roll means less game time is taken up and the pace of the game moves more quickly. 
So many times when I am thinking through the mechanics of the game and wondering to myself whether this contemplated change or that may improve my game, I find that Gary got it right from the start. And I sit in amazement...

Friday, June 12, 2020

Referee Journal

Write It Down!
The referee, or GM, of a role-playing game has many responsibilities. Among the more difficult for me is remembering the details of previous sessions. I prefer to improvise a lot of content at the table. I find this frees up my time (and avoids wasting time on things that never get used) and also allows my players more freedom to get off the rails and take the session where they feel led. 
Pre-game referee preparation is important - maps, encounter tables and creature stats all require preparation in order for the table session to go smoothly. I spend a lot of time thinking about the next session and about where the campaign may go, but my written notes are often outlines, bullet points, maps, brief stat blocks and home-brew random tables. This is the result of having distilled my thoughts into the most meaningful symbols. Having this material condensed and organized is a great help once I sit down at the game table.
What happens at the table is as important, or more important, than what happens during referee preparation, however. (Remember, we play to find out!) Therefore notes need to be taken during the game so that things are remembered and there is consistency in the campaign from session to session. Consistency adds greatly to the verisimilitude when the referee mentions something from several sessions ago and players recall having met that named NPC in that small village while doing something that maybe seemed trivial at the time - and it all starts coming together for them. Without written notes, I have trouble recalling what name I gave the NPC, or even the small village, and maybe what the player characters where doing there in the first place. So I try to remember to write it down, either during the session (preferable!) or the next day before my memory degrades. 
Like many of us who started play during the late 1970s or 1980s, I used a three ring referee binder. I have depended on index cards, on sticky notes and even electronic devices. In the last decade or so I have grown to prefer using a sketch book - a small bound book of blank pages - or a journal. The books are readily available, look nice, and are durable and easy to transport. The one pictured above (acquired from Lulu Publishing) contains a mix of lined pages, hex pages, graphed pages, and blank pages. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Fantasy, Fiction, and Canon

Make it up or look it up?
What makes a role-play setting great for game play? Is it that the setting includes all the traditional tropes? Is it that the setting is totally off the charts and so totally alien that everything is new and unexpected? Or is it that the setting is so very familiar that it seems real because either it is a close facsimile of our own world, or perhaps it's one borrowed from a very popular and well known literary source - such as Middle-earth?
Kitchen sink fantasy: There are many ready-made fantasy worlds that are available from various publishers. Some of the better known are Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms and a number of settings that seem to include everything that occurs in the rule volume. All the creatures and player character races make their appearance as well as anything the referee would like to home-brew and add to their version of the setting. If you like variety, this may seem like a great idea, but it can have issues with consistency and plausibility. 
Gonzo and unknown: Settings that contain very few familiar elements can seem overwhelming to players who can take nothing for granted. Such settings suggest the player characters be from someplace else, otherwise they should have a lot of information about their home world which the players don't have. Learning the peculiarities of a new setting can be fun and it can be confusing. A few surprises helps keep things fresh. Finding the right mix of novel and familiar, serious and whimsical is a balancing act which can perhaps be a challenge for some referees.
Altered reality: The idea that there are multi-dimensions and alternative realities between which characters may travel exists in a number of fictional sources and can make for some excellent role-playing. The concept usually includes a world with many familiar elements, but one where a few significant factors are altered allowing for changes to history or politics or dominant species or anything else. A world much like our own, but one where people and dinosaurs co-exist could be one example. Planet of the Apes is an example drawn from the novel by author Pierre Boulle and the movies.
Middle-earth: Perhaps the quintessential inspiration for fantasy world settings, the imaginary world created by J.R.R. Tolkien has had a huge influence on fantasy fiction as well as fantasy role-playing. Many of the tropes Professor Tolkien defined in his body of work have been imported in part or in whole into a number of settings. There have also been a few FRP games written specifically for playing in a licence version of the Middle-earth setting, often including the professor's leading character cast as either NPCs or playable characters. 
Games with an inherent setting notably include Empire of the Petal Throne, RuneQuest, and Harnmaster, which are systems designed to play in a detailed and specific setting. These three systems and the world settings they include have provided a devoted fan-base decades of game play. The world settings are usable with other FRP game systems and each of the three has appeared in publications using different game rules.
Empire of the Petal Throne is a game first published by TSR the year following D&D's release. It is set on the world of Tekumel and includes much information on this setting in addition to an adaptation of the D&D rules to give a Tekumel feel. Created by M.A.R. Barker, a professor of languages, who also wrote novels based on Tekumel. It is an alien world set in a pocket dimension where humans from earth were stranded many centuries ago. Tekumel includes a number of truly alien creatures and is one of the earliest game settings to require referees and players to set aside much of what they know about our reality and assume nothing will be familiar.
RuneQuest is set on Glorantha, a mythological bronze-age lozenge of earth floating on an ocean inside a sphere. Myth and legend is reality on Glorantha and the characters are expected to interact heavily with the political and religious aspects of Gloranthan society as part of play. As the name implies, the magical runes which represent various elements, forms and aspects of the Gloranthan world play a significant part in game play. 
The world of Harn is a low magic, fantasy setting with a very real and historical feel about it even though it does provide for including elves and dwarves and magic users. The world of Harn, named after an island continent where the original modules were set, is presented in a rather unique manner as a series of articles, (see image of Harndex above) - many of these predate development and publication of the Harnmaster FRP game. Harnmaster is a game written by the Harn world creator, N. Robin Crossby, to give players a rule system that incorporates the design philosophy and specific unique elements of the Harn setting.
Worlds that have a large body of published lore can seem overwhelming at first. The referee who tries to know everything published regarding the setting prior to running their first game may face a daunting task. Fortunately most settings come with the caveat to "make it your own". Altering some setting aspect, whether done by design or by accident, will not break most settings. Worlds are dynamic places, changes happen and this often adds to the feeling that the fictional world is a real, living place where the unexpected can happen. Players like to know the actions of their characters can change things in a world setting. An unchanging world is a dead world. Following canon so closely that new things, things not recorded in the original material, never happens can stifle the fun of playing the game. Recreating the journey of Frodo and the fellowship has much less appeal than visiting Middle-earth with characters of your own and while noting many anticipated elements, also discovering something new about a world that is mostly familiar yet still contains surprises.
So how much can we change canon and not disappoint players who may be familiar with the published setting material? As with most design it yourself decisions, this is probably a discussion that needs to happen among your player group. Your tolerances for making changes will vary!

Monday, June 8, 2020

My Adult Hobby

A Personal Story
In 1977 I was a freshman in college. I saw an ad in The Squadron Shop catalog for this new game, Dungeons & Dragons. It suggested that I might combine my love of gaming with my love of Conan and Gandalf and other fantasy characters I had read about. Up until this point, gaming for me has been centered around my interest in history (and historic characters like Napoleon I). My first board wargame and my first miniatures gaming were both about the Napoleonic Wars. I had The Squadron Shop catalog because I enjoy assembling and painting models. That fall I suggested to my girlfriend that D&D might be a good present for me at Christmas.
She came through for me and by the new year, I was deeply confused regarding how to play this new "wargame". It took me and my friends, who were also into gaming, a while to figure it all out, but eventually it all came together and we had discovered a new love - fantasy adventure gaming. By then I had turned 19 years old.
I did not grow up playing D&D. I came to the game as an adult working my way through college. D&D was not my introduction to gaming, that had come almost ten years prior when I purchased Avalon Hill's Waterloo wargame. Computers were mainframe machines and my first college programming was done using punch cards. Popular culture had (obviously) not yet been influenced by D&D, and folks in America were just discovering the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, mostly through a bootleg paperback edition.
I think now about how we come into the hobby, what we bring with us when we first sit down at the table and roll some dice, and I think that it matters to how we approach the game and what we expect from it. Our prior knowledge shapes how we interpret the game and the genre of fantasy gaming. You see, D&D was never a child's game to me. It was, from the beginning a game I played as an adult with other adults, many who were older than me and most (like D&D designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson themselves) had already spent years playing wargames.
As everyone today knows, D&D took off in a big way and it wasn't long before players younger than me joined the growing ranks of folks who were excited to play the new adventure games like D&D. For many D&D would be their introduction to the genre of fantasy. The population of D&D enthusiasts in those early days was diverse - at least from the perspective of the interests which drew us into the hobby. The game had a significant presence on many college campuses and in hobby shops that sold models and wargames, but had not yet entered the mainstream. Some folks heard about the game through science-fiction fan clubs, while a more general interest in tabletop games brought others to D&D as "that new kind of game" everyone was talking about. Some discovered the game through their friendship with a gamer and still others came to it much like I did, through my previous interest in historical wargames. Eventually copies of the new game started to show up in book stores and toy shops where new audiences discovered it. As soon as the then "new" computers could handle the required coding, D&D made the jump to digital. All the while, more and more D&D was seeping into the collective conscious as part of our popular culture.
New players today come from an even broader and more diverse background than those early D&D pioneers. Video games, movies, toys, and music have all been influenced by elves, dwarves, magic users and the other fantasy tropes found in D&D. "Class" and "level" and "player character" have entered our cultural lexicon as familiar concepts even for those who have never "rolled the dice". Online gaming and stream views inspire many to try the game they watch. Each new perspective adds to the richness of the collective tapestry that is the D&D hobby.
This view, that it matters in some ways, is reinforced when I get to hobnob a bit with another gamer of my age or with one who is even a little older, and there seem to be precious few of the latter these days. Sharing stories with a fellow gamer who came to the hobby as an adult during the time I did has become a special treat (and almost a guilty pleasure) as we share a collective experience and a unique perspective. Not a better one, just one that is ours. This "shared experience" is true of younger hobbyists as well, as they also share a commonality together with their respective cohort. It has always been my experience that there is room at the gaming table for all and that each new (or old) player enriches us all by their enthusiasm for the game.