Monday, November 30, 2009

Abstract Combat rounds in AD&D

“OK, you have a full minute to attack the guy. But, uh, only one chance to hit.”

In my earliest experiences with AD&D, one of the concepts that chapped my ass the most when it came to combat was the abstract nature of a “round” or “combat turn.” As described in the rules, two (or more) combatants would attack, dodge, and block many times in that 60-second round, but only one opportunity to actually get a strike in occurred in each of those rounds.

I know that for my first few years of gaming I just accepted this for the most part, but as I got older and my games themselves matured, and there came times when the one-minute round just didn’t jibe with what was going on in-game. I saw the need for a shorter combat round, assisted by experiences with other games that had shorter combat “turns” or “rounds” of only a few seconds in length that worked out so well. I mean, who wants a minute’s worth of stuff to go on in the game that they don’t get to experience?

So my D&D one-minute “round” turned into a six-second “combat round.” I don’t really recall how I came up with that, but I think it was based on the six-second segment that applied mostly to spellcasting. That seemed long enough for just a little bit of dodging and jockeying, before getting in your chance to actually hit. Thinking in those terms, it just got easier to visualize and describe what was going on almost exactly in a combat, not just a bunch of superfluous flailing around. Also, combats between mid-level or higher opponents didn’t have to be assumed to be 8-20 minute affairs (watch a heavyweight boxing match and you’ll see that length of active non-stop hand to hand combat is beyond ridiculous). Two half decent swordsmen would fight for around a minute if they each got a little less than a dozen attacks in.

I really don’t know that the creators where thinking with the one-minute combat round where you only get on chance to hit. What were they smoking, the drapes? Let’s face it, usually a minute can seem like a long time. Did you ever stand in the shower waiting for conditioner to work? How about a minute-long elevator ride that somebody had just previously farted in (I almost died that day – I’d give anything to get back at that human skunk)? Those AD&D combat rounds stand out as one of the earliest things I “fixed” in my games.

OK, so to make things fair for the spellcasters, some winging it had to happen when it came to doing spells in combat. Most given rounds for spells are a minute as well (outside of 6-second segments and full ten-minute turns), but it’s pretty easy to look at the particular spell and decide on a case-by-case basis if it includes a one minute round or a six-second “segment.” Yep, on spell timing I really wing it, but that is maybe a post for another day.

I should probably mention as an aside, that the abstract nature of hit points never really bothered me. In fact, I actually like the concept of a hit point pool that mostly represents luck, divine favor, and defensive tricks, with just a nick or a heavy wound being abstract in amount compared to the health and size of the victim. Get down to one hit point, and you are almost out of life and luck both. Gotta love it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Inferno - "Go to hell!"

Written by Geoffry O. Dale and released by Judges Guild in 1980, this was one of my favorite modules I hardly ever used. Described on the back cover as an adventure you can use if a high level wizard tells you to "go to hell" or a cleric put a geas on you to steal a demon lord's magic item, this was an an area that only high level characters should tread.

On it's own, the module is a great read, full of the type of atmosphere that Dante's hell tends to conjure up. Just like in The Divine Comedy, you start out in a dark, lonely forest. Although there are no set encounters here, you are filled with a sense of dread and terror. Wandering down the trail, you will eventually find yourself at the gates of hell, and that is where the fun begins.

There is no great narrative, and the areas and encounters you have can be placed in front of the players in any order you choose. I always thought of it as more a sourcebook than an actual linear adventure. Besides various demon lords, you can meet a host of demon and devil servants, undead, and lost souls. Tiamet, Queen of evil dragons, has a cave lair in hell, and it is chock full of glorious treasures and artifacts. You can sail down the river Styx with the boatman, gazing with horror upon the polluted and foul water of the river, and the atrocities and suffering that goes on along it's putrid banks.

I never really had a place for this in my regular game world, but I did use it for a mini-campaign I was running in the City State of the Invincible Overlord (a rare series of sessions I ran with characters starting at 10th level). But a good indication of how much I loved a module in my teens and in my 20's was how long it stayed in my bathroom magazine rack. It was there for almost a decade!

I Ebayed this book several years ago during one of my game materials purges, and it is one of the game books I wish I had again to give it another read. Sure, like a lot of Judges Guild items any DM with decades of experience should be able to come up with a similar adventure setting off the top of their head that would suffice. Still, who needs to come up with an adventure they will never run? I just want to have another read of it to bring back some great old memories of an old school module I wish I had the chance to get more use from. It was really one of my faves.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You’d GM it if you could (but probably never will)

Since the 80’s, I’ve always tried to have an alternate game to do for my D&D groups whenever I was feeling a little burnt out, or if a player important to the current scenario was missing. From the late 80’s until the late 90’s, my usual alternative would be either Champions (my long-running setting was based heavily on Superhero 2044), or Call of Cthulhu. Both genres originally would meet with resistance by the group (they never burnt out on my D&D), but after a couple games under their belts my players would often request an alternative session.

After several years off from gaming, I have had this new group going strong for over a year now. At a time of year where it is easy for players to miss a game due to end of the year obligations, it is more important than ever for me to introduce an alternative game. Something that we can do if only three players can make it (I like at least four players for the D&D session, but three is ok for most other stuff).
For months I have been putting thought to this. For the most part, I don’t feel like putting all the prep into Cthulhu like I used to do. My Champions setting is something I would like to rekindle, with my only consideration being that we play for only around three hours on a Wednesday night. Many simple combat scenarios can take more than three hours with Champs.

Having remembered the great times running Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha when I was a kid, I have also been tossing around the thought of doing Met. Alpha using the Mutant Future rules.

So last week I got together with a couple of my players (the ones most into doing an alternative genre) over a few beers, to work on characters for both Champions and Mutant Future just to see how we feel. Both players came up with mutants (a human and a plant), and the results of their random mutation rolls really brought back the old fun of those old mutant games. Both characters ended up with one really crippling bad mutation, but the others were so good they wanted to use the characters as is (the plant got the faster aging mutation, but also got the three dice of acid blood damage mutation – nice. The human mutant got the slow action mutation, but also got the disintegration and teleportation powers).

Then we really got to work on the Champs characters (oh, the crunch) and there were some good ideas there as well. A street level game is what I want to go for at first. Andy came up with a chop socky Hong Kong cop, and Paul (a fairly new player to the group) dreamed up a two-fisted chemist who carried special attack vials of chemicals (web, acid, smoke screen) and knew Savate (French kick-boxing.)

So the alternative will for sure be Champs or Mutant Future based mostly on great characters getting created, maybe both. But this has me thinking about the games and settings I have wanted to do for a long time, but probably never will. Maybe one day I will game more, and on the weekends, but twice a month on a Wednesday night isn’t exactly conducive to lots of experimenting. And with at least a couple of my players not wanting to play if it isn’t my D&D, these alternatives will always be the least priority in what we do.

But here are the ones I’d like to do if I could, but may actually never get the chance:

DUNE – I never really could get into the book when I was younger, but I always got a kick out of the David Lynch film. Several years ago I suddenly got into a Dune phase. I watched the directors cut of the film, and went right out and got the book. With the film setting up some of the locales and themes in simpler form, I was able to enjoy the nuances of the book more. I even read the two or three sequels that followed. Then I logged in countless hours on the Dune 2000 video game. It was around that time I got a real hankering to GM a game in the Dune setting. With no official game releases on this, I probably would have used the Hero system . With players running mentats, pilots, warriors, etc. I would have adventures across the planets of the empire and finally to Arakis itself. Whenever I mention wanting to do a Dune game to my players, it usually goes over like a lead balloon. So I guess this one shall remain a dream unfulfilled.

RUNEQUEST – I played this more than I ran it as a kid, but I loved it. I always dug the simple elegance of the Chaosium basic role playing system, and the mythical, ancient Greece styled setting was a great break from our D&D games that were going strong at the time. With most of my current players preferring the pulp fantasy of D&D, this one shall likely remain a dream as well.

TRAVELLER – another great game from my youth. Like Runequest I played more than I GM’d back in the day. At Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, where I hung out as a kid, this was a heavily played game, much more than D&D. I also really loved the Dumarest novels by E.C. Chubb as a kid, a major influence on Traveller even thought it doesn’t get enough of that credit. Although I’m not a fan of the whimsy of the character creation process, and that I think there could be more character development as games progress, I really would love to do a straight Sci Fi game with little or no fantasy elements.

KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC – I loved the video game on XBOX so much it made me want to run games in that setting, despite not being a hard core Star Wars geek. KOTOR is so removed from the yammering muppets, mincing droids, and lame humor of Sir George’s works, it really shines as a separate, more mature section of the SW multiverse. I actually got the chance to run several games for an established Star Wars gaming group recently, and despite that not working out the way I would have liked, I would love to spring this on my regular group. Problem is, they ain’t exactly hard core Star Wars geektards either. Long live Jar Jar (not).

BUNNIES & BURROWS – Even though I sold my first edition of this 1970’s game on Ebay a few years ago (sniff), I would love to run a small campaign of this Watership Down inspired old school RPG. I think I would find an alternative sytem to use for the character types (maybe Chaosium’s basic role playing) as presented in the original game, but I would really love to see how game play would pan out. Just going out in the field to look for truffles is a huge danger to these characters. So tense, furtive gameplay would be the order of the day. Yep, another lead balloon for my players. I don’t think they would buy my pitch.

So, those are some of mine. What kind of game would you like to GM, but probably never will?

Monday, November 23, 2009

How Tolkien is my D&D world?

I thought I would throw my hat into the ring (hold the applause) regarding the “Tolkien’s influence in D&D debate”, inspired by very recent posts at The Cimmerian and Grognardia.

Both posters are greater wordsmiths than I, and much more knowledgeable about the classic works that Gygax and his peers cited as influences for their game. I can merely speak upon my own humble experiences on this matter. I don’t know art, but I know what I like.

I mostly agree with James at Grognardia that many of Tolkien’s influence on the game as originally published at least seem superficial. The inclusion of Orcs and Hobbits and such surely were not what the game was meant to be about. The “feel” of original D&D for sure felt more like Lieber and Vance. You could picture The Gray Mouser or Conan creeping through a classic dungeon much more than you could picture Frodo in there. So in terms of gameplay, it didn’t feel much like Tolkien.

I think the Tolkien influence had more to do with a certain ground work, a laying of stone foundations sort of thing. I think it is safe to say that most fans of fantasy in the 60’s and 70’s started out with the Hobbit before moving on to LOTR and finally to darker, more adult oriented tales by less “romantic” authors. Just like in my case, there was a certain “growing up” happening.

As a kid on his way to a life of loving fantasy settings, I picked up a copy of The Hobbit left behind by one of my older brothers had discarded, and was on my way. It of course led to the Ring Trilogy (and multiple readings thereof). That love affair lasted for years until Jr. High, when I discovered Fritz and Howard (turned on to them now that I had met people of my own age who loved fantasy and showed me what they were reading). By the time I read fantasy other than Tolkien, I had already been playing/running D&D for a couple of years.

As I read more boldly adult, flesh and blood lusty adventuring, my game world got just a shade darker and sleazier. Finally, adventuring wasn’t just about ideals of chivalry and destroying dark lords. My games started becoming more about the characters getting glory, gold, and laid, just like Conan, Mouser, and other greats of darker fantasy. I think this, more than anything, is what Sir Gary and the others meant the game to be. A kid wants to be a noble hero like Aragorn. A young adult and older wants to be a badass horndog like Conan.

So Tolkien put down the foundation for me, and I think it was a lot like that for Gygax. You start out with the Tolk, then you will always treasure the Tolk. But you will inevitably “grow up”.

And the one thing that truly lets me know Gary had Tolkien in his heart and on his mind? Look at Gary’s writing in any of the gamebooks. A very old Victorian style. It sure sounds more like what Tolkien would write in the forwards for those books than any other fantasy author outside of Dunsany.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Free Porn!!!

Pretty grabby post title, eh? Only yelling “free beer!!!” at a Ren Faire will get you more attention (believe me, I’ve done it). Here’s Zack S. of Playing D&D With Porn Stars title description:
I play D&D. Nearly everybody in my game is a stripper, or a porn star, or both*, so everybody's very busy, but when we do get to play, we like to do it up right. (*Yes, I'm serious.)

If you want subscribers to your game blog fast fast fast, then one great way to do it is to use the word “porn” in the title. Calling your blog page “Playing D&D with porn stars” seems to be a home run. So much more so than “Temple of Demogorgon.”

You want to not believe it at first. I mean, in geeky circles that would be your first reaction. You WANT to believe it, but some groups have trouble getting a female in the mix period, much less one who will play for pay. When I tell people that in the 90’s most or all of my 4-6 players per session were usually female (I only boinked a couple of them), they don’t believe that. Getting one girl there is hard enough for most gamer guys.

Personally I tend to believe it. I mean, I am an LA native and have lived in Venice Beach my entire life, and I have seen a lot of what this city has to offer. And although I have not had porn stars or strippers in my games (although I have had actors, screenwriters, and priests), some of the gals could have been if they wanted to. And actual sex has occurred before, during, and after games I’ve run. Yeah, some of that included me (but not always, unfortunately).

Girls in my games over the last 30 years have varied wildly in the looks department (I’d say the late 80’s was my heyday of great looking gals in my campaigns), but regardless of the physical description, I was usually pretty grateful to not just have a bunch of guys sitting around playing make-believe.

“Zak S,” a resident of Hollywood, has already achieved a fairly big following to his blog in a very short period of time. As of today, he has just over 40 followers. About as much as me. But I started my blog in January. Zak started his last month. I’m guessing most of the followers are awaiting tales of post game orgies and bukkakes, but those do not seem to be forthcoming. Zak actually puts together typical gaming posts, fairly lacking in the salacious details of the porny connection. Actually, they are very decent posts about the typical gaming subjects we gamers want to read/write about.

So. Zack S. knows some strippers and porn stars, and he gets them to play D&D. OK, we aren’t talking dolled-up blond airheads here, such as big names like Jenna Jameson and Katie Morgan. The girls Zack shows some pics of are more tattooed goth/rocker chick than glamour-puss. The seem very much like girls I know in LA, except in my case I would know them more for the folk music and hippy scenes (hey man, there are demonstrative chicks in those scenes like you would not believe) than from strip bars. But most of those girls don’t have a lot of interest in gaming unless their boyfriends get them into it.

So how does Zack do it? Well, that is probably a tale we would like to hear more about. It just so happens he isn’t up front with that information, much less where we can find out more about the girls he puts up pics of (they seem to have twitter and facebook accounts, but that doesn’t necessarily tell me where I can see them “work”).

Maybe Grognardia James needs to seek out an interview? Zack isn’t exactly the old school interview James wants, but what the hell, Zack probably has a tale or two to tell. Who cares if it doesn’t involve Gygax?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beyond the Crystal Cave: Role-play and non-violence

(Over the weekend I noticed a reader comment on Grognardia asking James to blog at some point about this module, and it got me thinking about it again a bit. Although I really only post about more personal aspects of gaming now, I thought I'd rehash this one from last January. It was a pretty interesting module)

Published by TSR’s UK division in 1983, UK1 seems to be inspired by “forest/garden levels” in dungeons. It is, of course, a dungeon-like adventure, in that you cannot fly nor float into the area due to an impenetrable force field. You can actually destroy the force field - If you are a 20th level wizard, that is. It is so funny when modules actually describe how you can affect something, even when there is no chance in hell of having what you need to affect it! This module is designed for levels 4-7, so it’s doubtful anyone involved would have the contacts to get a super-wizard to help out. Note that just like any other aggressive act in the module, destroying the force field has a consequence – the dispelling wizard will be sucked into a vortex, and spewed out in some random place and time. Why did they even bother to go into this? Sheesh.

Created on an island (in the World of Greyhawk) by a wizard and his elvish wife, the gardens still go on long after they had passed away. It is always summer in the garden, and it is full of various sylvan creatures, including leprechauns, pixies, centaurs, an Ent, dryads, and unicorns.

The local governor asks the party to enter the gardens and bring back a young couple. The official offers up 10,000 GP for their return, a hefty sum for any rescue mission. The party will eventually have to earn it, because all of the creatures in the gardens believe the young couple to be their old master and mistress reborn. Within that fact dwells the challenge of this adventure: there is no evil in the garden, but every living thing is your enemy. Many of them, as described in the module, will attack on site.

Like many TSR modules, many spells did not work as normal. In this case, many of the most common spells a druid might use did not work at all. This was a very strange thing, considering druids also were granted a level while they stayed in the garden, but things that did not make a lot of sense were often included in TSR products.

This adventure heavily stresses non-violent parlay, and role-play is more essential to this adventure than most others. In something like “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief,” you ultimately won’t have much choice but to barge and bash your way through it. But in UK1, every page is full of bad things that will happen to you if you are aggressive, steal anything, or harm anything in the garden. Even worse, the official who hired you has an amulet of ESP, so if you show up after a nasty act looking for the 10,000, he will deny you and have you thrown out of town. If the party really is evil, this would be a great time to show it. Kill the governor, take his amulet (easily worth over 50,000 in my game), steal a boat, and disappear for awhile.

There are two combat encounters in the caves leading into the garden. There are some Mudmen, a by product of the magic stream exiting the cave, and also an ochre jelly. But after these fights, don’t fight anything else or you not only forfeit the reward money, you’ll have the entire garden population after your head. The young couple is held up in a magical tower in the garden. This place pretty much would count as a mini-dungeon, but once again you have to walk on eggshells or face dire consequences.

The "boss monster" (forgive the video game lingo-lax) of the gardens is "The Green Man." The spirit of John Barleycorn is alive and well in the place. This meant nothing to me in the 80's when I got this module, but later on when I joined a group at the local Renaissance Faires based on Morris Dancing and folk music, I learned a lot about this old English country spirit. Morris dancing is about making the "ale crops," barley and hops, grow by doing worhipful dances and country dances in his honor. If I run the scenario again in the future, I will use him more than I did the first time.

There is a magical oracle force in the “Cave of Echoes” that lead into the garden that can be entertaining. As described in the module, it will pretty much grant any minor wish to a zero-level NPC who is in need. It has no respect for greedy players though – if they wish for something, it just gives mysterious gibberish. So great fun can be had with this, and you can really see who the greediest player character is judging by how they approach the oracle.

Most DM’s would find it a challenge to keep players entertained, seeing as most of the adventure is passive (or is designed to be). I actually altered things to make it easier: I had a powerful party of evil NPC’s enter the garden to loot it, and that way the players had somebody they could fight and not incur wrath.

As a player character, the most troubling aspect of the gardens is the time stream. For every hour spent within the garden, a month passes on the outside. When I ran the module for the first time, I think the party spent 8 or 9 hours in the garden, and that was after finding out about the time slowdown a couple of hours into it. They stepped it up a bit, but a party unaware (as the module hopes they will be) could easily spend a night or two in the garden, especially if they happen to befriend some creatures and hang out with them. So a typical scenario could have the party come out to find 2-4 years have passed. Yowtch. At this point, have the players put the character sheets away and start new ones. The world will catch up to the garden visitors eventually.