Serpent Men carving out Stone Halls

I’m currently editing, doing some minimal design, and finishing the gods-damned bestiary in my Old-School game system, Stone Halls & Serpent Men.

The elevator pitch is: A small role-playing game for running Old-School adventures.

The keys there are small: About 20 pages, with everything. I’ve made smaller, of course, but not that can run a long-term campaign of old modules.

Old-School: The Old-School Renaissance for me was entirely satisfied by Supplement V: Carcosa, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. But Carcosa’s a super deviant SF/Lovecraft setting, and the latter two are somewhat long, discursive, full of optional rules or details you don’t need if you’re creative enough to Referee in the first place.

New, less trashy, more flexible game designs, with no page of OGL legalese gibberish, don’t accomplish the goal of rolling characters in 10 minutes and crawling, desperate and dehydrated, into B4 The Lost City.

In Jeff Rients’ threefold model, SH&SM is Retro, maybe Retro-Stupid. I’ve done one thing I think is really clever, and the rest is a functional listing of the absolute minimal rules needed to play.

Surveillance: Lasers & Feelings, Scrolls & Swords

Surveillance is my category for not-quite-reviews of other games. Often I get a game, read it, mine it for ideas, but never get around to playing it.

Lasers & Feelings from onesevendesign, and the fantasy variant Scrolls & Swords. Go read them now, they’re 1 page each, you have time.

This is beyond “lite”, yet a little crunchier than my old SIX WORD RPG (“Describe character. Roll dice. Gamemaster decides.”). The style & role descriptors are used to get more dice for actions. I’d probably require that everyone choose different ones, maybe put them on cards? The cards could be face-up, and everyone fights for the card they want, or dealt at random. At first a Sexy Doctor and Sexy Engineer and Other Sexy Engineer sounds fine, but the catfighting over who’s sexiest or senior engineer? Don’t need it.

The ship in Lasers & Feelings, and the comatose Captain Darcy, are kind of boring, like if it has powerful Fightercraft, the Pilot is enabled but nobody else really is. The Bond with fellow characters in Scrolls & Swords is much more interesting.

The basic mechanic is clever. Using your number to represent two traits, and adding extra dice for circumstances, works perfectly. However, the “Laser Feelings” (exactly your number) coming up so often might be annoying; maybe only if ALL rolled dice match your number you get Laser Feelings?

I think I don’t like the lack of combat tracking. “It goes wrong” and “inflicts a complication, harm, or cost” really isn’t enough for me. Perhaps -1d per injury?

Now the awesome bit: The Space Adventure! While this is a very short table, only 6 mostly vague ideas for each, the mix-match results still generate a reasonable variety of adventures. Rolling 6, 5, 3, 3: Alien Brain Worms want to Build the Star Dreadnaught which will Enslave a Planet. Fair enough. Why aren’t they brain-worming? Maybe this planet has brain-worm scanners. Obvious plot hook is to sabotage the construction, or evacuate the planet.

So steal that idea, but with many more specific entries.

Nightmare Eve

Some years ago, in a fairly foul mood at the “wacky Halloween” festivities, I got to thinking about what a real All Hallows Eve would be like.

The dead or demons come into the world; from where? That leads to my version of the Underworld. Why only this day? That leads to ripping off Prince of Darkness. They must be shapeshifters, given the costumes. They like playing with us, given the “trick or treat” choice. So they’re predatory, but at the higher level they’re herding us, they need our fear.

The first time I ran this was in Eden Studios’ Witchcraft/All Flesh Must be Eaten, but it really cried out for a less heroic game, something with a horrible downward spiral. The 3d6 system in this is unkind, to say the least. Damage makes you less and less competent to escape or accomplish anything. Pretty soon you’re just throwing your dead meat in the way of a monster to let someone else escape. Note the Tech rules. That’s your closest thing to magic, the only advantage you have.

Of the 3 groups I’ve run it for, one of regulars, two pick-ups, nobody’s made it to the next day, so the long-term campaign ideas are ludicrous and untested.

Happy nightmares.

Raise Dead

The first try at this blog sputtered out because I was focusing on work, and already had my old KUOI blog. Or I’m just lazy. Anyway, this is back on. New style, new content.

I’ve got all these little RPGs I’ve made for one-shots, or none-shots in cases where I never got to run them. I’m still full of piss and vinegar about games, may as well rant here. Shooting for once a week, maybe even once a day. Will see.

Addenda: Theming is hard. “Lovecraft” theme which I tried first is +1: an awesome name, +2: looks great, but -1: has a menu you can’t remove from the title.

“Colinear”, which I’m trying now, +1: lets me put up a single banner image without a menu, +2: sidebar looks better, but -1: has a dumb name for a single-column blog, -2: doesn’t box each post

I may have to pay actual money so I can add a goddamned ruler line between posts, and maybe use real Futura titles instead of a shitty clone font.

(Yes, obviously as a former web developer I could give a damn and write my own again, but I hate everything about the web so it’s easier to be a consumer.)

D&D Next Playtest Rules

Time Warp. Level 7 Magic-User Spell. Material components:

  • 1 bag of Cheetos™.
  • 6 bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola™ for that real sugar taste.
  • One set of soapy TSR dice. Alternately, razor-sharp GameScience™ dice (still my specialized weapon).
  • Pencils, lined paper, graph paper, hex paper.
  • Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual”.
  • One copy of D&D Next Playtest

    “Notwithstanding the foregoing, you may publicly discuss your thoughts regarding the D&D Next Playtest Materials and your playtesting experience.”

Mechanically, this looks a lot like a D20 retro-clone; a stripped-down D20 system. It’s not the miniatures wargame crossed with Magic the Gathering® card superpowers of pseudo-D&D 4E, at least. It’s a long way from being a completed game.

Skills There is no skill list! You use your ability scores for checks and saving throws, and some class/other features will give bonuses, but it’s not another damned shopping list. I guess they finally got over their GURPS envy. Exploration and the DM Guidelines have rules blocks with lists of DC targets, and classes that provide bonuses to these. But everyone can do almost any of the “thieves’ skills”, with the exception that only thieves can use actual lockpicks. Thieves are pretty close to totally irrelevant in this game, which makes me happier.

Advantages and disadvantages (anything a class/race is good/bad at) use a second die roll, and you keep the best or worst result; I’d have to see that in play or simulation to know how catastrophic a disadvantage is. It’s a unique solution to the problem, but I think a modifier of +4 or -4 (more? less?) would have been saner.

Hit Points are inflated: They start equal to your Con score plus one hit die. I think that’s too much for a game where a spear still does 1d6 damage. Hold still while I stab you with a spear, Mr Dwarf Fighter (20 HP), stab 5 stab 3 stab 2 stab 2 stab 1 stab 5 stab 3, so it took SEVEN successful stabs to get you unconscious. In the old days, it would take just two, maybe 3. Oh, quit bleeding on my carpet, you damned Dwarf.

Level is vastly deflated and deprecated. There’s no experience table beyond the 3 levels on the character sheets, and the XP awards listed in the Bestiary, so who knows what maximum level looks like. But tasks don’t use level, the game looks far more mortal than it’s been since OD&D where 9th level was a good retirement point.

Combat is vastly simplified. Surprise costs you -20 Initiative (they don’t say “for the first round”, so basically being surprised is a total clusterfuck). Initiative is rolled once at the start of a battle, but other than a single-serving ready action, you can’t change your order. On your turn, you get a move and one action and shut up, that’s it.

Critical hits are a natural 20 doing maximum damage, no second rolls and then faffing about with weapon type.

There’s no rules for wrestling or other unarmed combat. In the weapons chart, there’s damage for an unarmed strike (1d4), but no bolas, whips, nets. Is this an oversight or deliberate avoidance of a complex subject? The Strength Saving Throws section mentions grapples and bindings.

Equipment. Man, those ridiculous copper pieces are still there, but Electrum is back! Party like it’s 1974! Values of each coin in CP by edition:

Edition         CP      SP      EP      GP      PP
OD&D            1       5       25/100* 50      250
Holmes          1       5       25      50      250
Cyclopedia      1       10      50      100     500
AD&D 1st Ed     1       10      100     200     1000
D20             1       10      -       100     1000
D&D Next        1       10      50      100     1000
UK 1660-1971    1       12      -       240**   -
Harry Potter*** 1       17      -       493     -

* “If Electrum is added it is optionally worth either twice or half the value of Gold.”

** 1 Pound Sterling was worth 20 shillings, but actual gold coins varied radically as gold/silver exchange rates changed.

*** CP = Knut, SP = Sickle, GP = Galleon. Makes no less sense than anything else.

For a similar tale of inflationary confusion, see Roman currency.

Armor has better variety. Light armor adds Dex mod, medium armor adds half Dex mod, heavy armor adds no Dex mod. There’s 4 armors for each weight, plus light and heavy shields (+1 and +2 AC). There’s non-magical fantasy armor at the top of the price charts, so you still have something to spend loot on.

Weapons are most of the usual list divided into Basic, Finesse (can use Dex instead of Str), Martial, Heavy, Missile, and Complex Missile. But some classes still have arbitrary lists of allowed/proscribed weapons, such as the Wizard has “Daggers, slings, and quarterstaffs”, even though the Cleric has basic weapons including hammers, maces, handaxes, spears, etc. So no blunt weapon restriction? Still quite awkward and unlike any real (non-D&D-fanfic) fantasy literature.

Adventuring gear list is insanely long (4 pages in a 31-page booklet!), still has a 10′ pole, but no chalk for marking your way. Do you think anyone looks at these items anymore? Or is it cut-and-paste?

Encumbrance is still in pounds. Are we not past that yet? Hey, at least it’s not coin-weights anymore. I’m used to modern games which use “X items” capacity and common sense.

Magic The Wizard example can cast 3 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited cantrips (Detect Magic, Light, Magic Missile, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp — no little non-combat cantrips? I miss Color, Fart, and Stinkeye (may not be actual cantrips)). The Cleric examples can cast 2 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited orisons (Detect Magic, Radiant Lance, Death Ward shown). I think this may be an overcorrection, but at least nobody will call a Wizard “fire and forget”. You still have to prepare specific spells, so your least popular spells will never be cast even if they’d be useful.

The spell list makes no real distinction between arcane and divine magic. Spells once again have verbal, somatic, and in some cases material components. It’s not clear if you have to gather sand for Sleep, but it is clear in cases like Continual Light’s 50 GP of ruby dust(!).

I’ll look at the Bestiary and Caves of Chaos tomorrow, then try an actual playtest when I can kidnap some players.

Classes in D&D

D&D 5th Edition’s (#dndnext) classes seem to be varying between 4 and 50. I think there only need to be 3, just like in Original D&D, or Swords & Wizardry White Box.

Fighting Men: The Fighter fills every non-magical combatant role from heavy knight, to barbarian, to hunter, to thief. Which weapons and armor the Fighter uses determine what else they can do. A knight in full plate and a half-dozen heavy weapons needs a heavy mount to get around, and the expense of this implies either a feudal system with dozens or hundreds of peasants supporting the knight, or massive treasure hoards protected by dragons, that only a knight can extract. A barbarian’s few heavy weapons and medium armor make movement important, and probably sailing or riding to strike with surprise at undefended enemies. A thief uses light weapons and light or no armor to get maximum speed and stealth.

Magic-User: The essential traits of a wizard, from Merlin to Thoth Amon to Elric to Gandalf, are direct attack spells, and information gathering: Detects, identify items, ESP, clairvoyance, and languages and lore skills. I’m no fan of Vancian magic, but for D&D it’s traditional and mandatory. To make up for the very limited low-level spells per day, I use the cheap scroll-making system from original D&D (100 GP/level, 1 week/level), and gift starting Magic-Users with a few 1st level and maybe one 2nd level scrolls. An alternative solution is to have cantrips which can be performed for free; this makes Magic-Users more true to genre, and a weak attack cantrip (1d4 damage at most) or Harry Potter-ish Stupefy and Disarm charms keep them in the game. Magic-Users in myth and literature wear no armor, but often have weapons, especially swords.

Cleric: Clerics cover the range from pure spell-using priests to combatant paladins, Brother Cadfael to Roland. Holy men healing people is a common fantasy trope, all the way back to that weird “Bible” anthology some people take so seriously. Turning the undead makes Clerics useful even when their spells run out. Scrolls can fill out low-level healing abilities, as with Magic-Users. Clerics wearing heavy armor is unusual, but some paladins like Roland and Turpin did; the old “blunt weapons” restriction only makes sense for one segment of priests of one religion at one point in history, and should be discarded.

Not Included: Thieves are just very weak Fighting Men, they do nothing special, if you have even the simplest skill system or stat checks. Rangers are just Fighting Men with bows. Paladins are just Clerics who fight more than cast. Cavaliers are Fighting Men with horses. Assassins are just Fighting Men; killing people is what Fighting Men do. Druids are just neutral Clerics.

My thoughts on races may be seen even more radical, but that’s because they are based on history and mythology, not the incestuous Tolkien-D&D-novelization-pseudofantasy cycle that ends in Salvatore’s “Good Drow” bullshit books.

Dwarfs: In Norse mythology, Dwarfs were maggots in the body of Yggdrasil, and only mentioned being powerful Fighting Men or having dark magical power. Wagner’s Ring Cycle reinforces these roles. Tolkien’s adaptation is peculiar for having no practical magic, but their role as heavy fighters was set. I’d prefer if they could only be Fighting Men, but wizened Dwarf Magic-Users like Alberich are appropriate. Is it too late to dump the anti-magic nonsense?

Elves: In Norse mythology, the Alfar are either of light or darkness, and do healing or cursing magic depending. In Celtic mythology, the Elves do mostly illusions and sometimes healing magic. In Tolkien, Elves do healing magic, there are no Elven battle mages, that’s what they use bows for. So I’d prefer if they could be Fighting Men or Clerics, and not Magic-Users. Certainly I see no precedent for the multi-classing element.

Other Non-Humans: Genocide. Hobbits, er, “Halflings”, are vermin, an abomination to be wiped from gaming. Gnomes are annoying, best used as nuisances by the DM. Half-breeds aren’t as good or interesting as their full-blood parents. Orcs, Ogres, Goblins, Lizard-Men, etc. don’t fit well in a Human-centric campaign, which most fantasy literature reflects. These could well be statted up in the Monster Manual so the DM can allow them in unusual campaigns, but in the main book, only Humans, Dwarfs, and Elves have any legitimacy.

Hasbro Announces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

The breaking news of the day is that Hasbro’s D&D 4E [1] is dead, D&D 5E is on the way, in a NY Times article by Ethan Gilsdorf.
Over at Forbes, David M. Ewalt talks about playtesting the new edition.

First, the message of the medium: The Rise and Fall of D&D is in the NY Times and Forbes? It’s not a big-money business. It’s not even a medium-money business. There’s a few tens of millions of fans, who play a huge variety of RPGs, some of which are labelled “D&D” and some of which are not. Are NY Times and Forbes editors or readers big D&D nerds?

The things that drove D&D down are pretty simple, but they don’t really address them, just a facile “videogames did it”, which misses the forest full of ravenous trolls for a pixie stabbing them in the ankles. And if they don’t understand them, they can’t fix them.

First, Wizards and then Hasbro made each new edition more complicated, annoying, and less RPG-like than the last; 4E isn’t even really an RPG, just RPG stats attached to a boardgame. The “Ravenloft” boardgame is just 4E cleared of unnecessary mechanics like role-playing and a GM. Hasbro seemed almost determined to discard settings with any character, like Greyhawk, and switch entirely to generic brand “Forgotten Realms”, or just a “points of light” non-setting between dungeon crawls.

Casual D&D players haven’t had a simple, usable, complete game from Wizards since 1983. The 2010 “Red Box” was just a demo, with only level 2 advancement. The new edition desperately needs a starter set that is not crippled. Pathfinder’s Beginner’s Box is an excellent game, which I’ll be reviewing here soon, and it has a full, simple game up to level 5. If Hasbro can’t make a better starting experience, they will continue to fail and be dead on arrival.

Second, they wasted time and money on new technology that didn’t matter, instead of the only one that does: ebooks. Which makes this line hilariously ironic:

“Even if players increasingly bring their iPads, loaded with Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to the gaming table.” —Ethan Gilsdorf

There was a brief time when Hasbro allowed PDFs of older editions of D&D to be sold, and I have a large set of the modules and a few books. But Hasbro has never sold current editions in PDF, and seem dedicated to never doing so. Not everyone is so blind to the “future”, Paizo sells all of their Pathfinder books in PDF, print, or PDF+Print bundles. So do most other publishers now.

Third, they have to compete with everyone else who makes RPGs, either cheaper or for free, almost always with better, faster, simpler mechanics, and more interesting settings. Would you rather hack through a series of setting-less dungeon crawls with hours of counter-twiddling per battle, or role-play in A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Age, and complete an adventure in a night or two? The latter two combined will cost you less and be infinitely more fun. Even if you unreasonably played a new game every 6 months, it would cost less than keeping up with modules and supplements for D&D 4E.

Fourth, they have to compete with older editions and retro-clones of those editions. My preference is for Swords & Wizardry, where it is 1978 and always will be. Others prefer AD&D and OSRIC. If you have a rules set you like and a GM with a modicum of imagination, you never need to buy another book. That spells doom for any game company that tries to make it “big time” like Hasbro.

Fifth, MMOs. The people who “leave” for MMOs don’t generally stay gone. They often play both, or come back to tabletop. Having a branded D&D MMO that wasn’t terrible would help retention, but that didn’t work out (I have no real opinion of DDO, as it doesn’t run on Mac OS X, while World of Warcraft does; but that’s failure enough). But if you left D&D 3E for a few years, there’d be no compelling reason to buy into 4E and start over, when you could pick up your old books, or Pathfinder, or Dragon Age RPG or anything else, and carry on.

So What Now?

Mike Mearls is the guy who drove 4E into the ground, but he’s still in charge. Monte Cook has returned to Hasbro, and is an excellent game designer (though D20 didn’t always show good design, it sold very well indeed), but if he’s not able to call the shots, I don’t see how this situation will improve.

Hasbro’s “D&D Next” is trying to crowd-source ideas and get wider playtesting for the new edition, which apparently is playable but still so malleable they could take it in entirely new directions?

And finally, Jeff Rients has an excellent suggestion: Release old editions as PDF so they can be studied and learned from. Hasbro not selling PDFs hasn’t stopped people from playing retro-clones and other RPGs. They might as well make a little money off those players, and try to make the next edition enough better that a few come back.

I Had In Mind Something a Little More Radical

I have another solution, though. Repackage the Moldvay/Mentzer D&D Basic Set and the D&D Cyclopedia as “Fifth Edition”, add some new art, and sell those. They’re better games, and the work’s already done.

[1] Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns TSR, which has the same initials as Gary Gygax’s former company Tactical Studies Rules, and Gary Gygax created D&D with some assistance from Dave Arneson. Calling whatever Hasbro sells “D&D” is kind of weird.