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Updated: 2 months 1 week ago

Rob Kuntz & Arneson's True Genius

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 16:24
TLDR: this book is a hot mess, but buried in it is an interesting, if IMO flawed, perspective. 




CaveatThis is my reading of Rob Kuntz' book: Dave Arneson's True Genius. It was not an easy work to unlock. Any errors in representing it are mine. I am very critical of Rob Kuntz in this summation and review, even though I found some of his thoughts "interesting." I don't want anyone to interpret my dislike of this work, or its execution, as in any way devaluing Arneson's contribution to D&D. It has been established in very authoritative forums (like Peterson's Playing at the World) that Arneson contributed a number of critical, innovative, and formative ideas to role-playing in general and D&D in particular.
Who is Rob Kuntz?Rob Kuntz, as a teenager, lived with Gary Gygax's family. He was there when Dave Arneson demoed Blackmoor to Gary in 1972 and was an early playtester, taking part in Gygax's Greyhawk campaign of the same year. He literally saw the birth, a good portion of the evolution of D&D. Rob also worked for TSR from its founding through 1977.
Part 1: Assertions About GygaxIn Arneson's True Genius, Rob Kuntz makes the following claims:

When Gygax used Arneson's ideas to design D&D, he did irreparable harm to Arneson's legacy and the entire potential future arc of the hobby by:
  • "Redacting" Arneson's ideas. Gygax built a marketable system of role-playing by taking what was already established – wargame rules – and adding to them some of Arneson's ideas that were groundbreaking but neutralized through systematization. Kuntz refers to this as "enchaining" D&D and reducing it to a "market +1" state. Meaning Gary used Arneson's ideas to make the next predictable market thing.
  • Setting the precedent for the industry. The fact of D&D's success created inertia that moved the entire hobby community in one direction and defined the role-playing industry. This financially-proven groove meant that other possible futures were left unexplored, e.g. one that extended from Arneson's way of playing the game. 
  • Discouraging others from creating. When Gygax created AD&D, he moved D&D from an open system – which encouraged players to invent – to a closed system – an "official" rules set that discouraged innovation and established TSR's intellectual property. This was directly contradictory to an Arneson's open and flexible system ideas.
  • Doing all of this in bad faith. Gygax (like Arneson) never played D&D by the rules he set forth. In selling the D&D rules to the world, Gygax actively suppressed the true style of play in which he and Arneson indulged themselves and their players.

My Impressions of the Book and the Above ClaimsDave Arneson's True Genius is frustrating to read because of its poor organization, vague ideas, and ridiculously stilted and ornate language. Some paragraphs are so convoluted that I had to guess at their meaning after several failed attempts to decode them into English. The entire book has only about 55 pages of actual (widely-spaced, large font) text, and they contain the same half dozen ideas repeated throughout. 
The argument that Gygax damaged Arneson's ideas, and his future potential, and hoodwinked us all by selling us a set of rules that falls short of the Platonic ideal of a role-playing game is academic, rhetorical, and immature. It boils down to crying over what might have been. This is especially silly when one realizes that Arneson had decades in which to present an alternative by a) fully describing his original play style and b) building on it. Arneson failed to do either of those things in any way that engaged or inspired a significant portion of the community.
In assuming that the move to a closed set of rules (with AD&D) was solely about denying the creativity of DMs, Kuntz misses that it enabled a more communal, common play experience and the production of adventure modules (some of which Kuntz helped write). Otherwise he makes a fair point about the shift in corporate attitude regarding extensive "home rules."

As for the accusation that Gary never played his own rules as written, I say "a designer designs." It's no wonder that both Gygax and Arneson sessions were more "R&D" than "QA."

Part 2: The Garden of Eden When he is not blaming Gygax for putting D&D on the wrong path from the outset, Kuntz is lauding Arneson's genius, ascribing to him amazing feats of intellect without actually describing most (any?) of them. In trying to imagine what we missed due to Gygax's nefarious activities, Kuntz suggests that any forward trajectory from Arneson's conceptual model would essentially end in a recreation of "the human brain." Any "throttling" of the system would damage its potential.

If we were to indeterminately throttle his [Arneson's] conceptual model into the future what we would note as an end result would be akin to a massive array of information having multi-functional processes interconnecting at all points. Eventually we would have the workings of the human brain (Kuntz, 41).
It sounds like Kuntz is talking about artificial intelligence or perhaps a Futurama-like visualization of Arneson's brain in a jar. It's a game of passive-aggressive keep-away in which Kuntz tells us we have done/are doing RPGs all wrong while simultaneously telling us it's virtually impossible to describe the right way – the Arnesonian way. "... what system(s) organization transpires in their [TSR/WotC D&D] place would be anyone's guess (Kuntz, 40). [Emphasis mine.]

To read him in a more charitable light, the best possible role-playing system would be one that exists only in the heads of every DM running a game and would be entirely unfixed – free to evolve and iterate as needed. Kuntz calls this the "Garden of Eden" state. Mechanics are fluid and the hivemind of players both allows for expansive movement by invention and contraction by a general consensus of best methods.

To me, this is the real meat of the book. The thing I was waiting for. Perhaps the best way to read Arneson's True Genius is to just start on page 40 and end on page 48.

My Thoughts on the GardenThis Garden of Eden argument reminds me a bit of Dawkin's Selfish Gene (1976) in which he invents the term meme (with a meaning quite different than it has in today's social media) and discusses the way songbirds communicate ideas through imitation and innovation without losing an innate quality of sameness. I kind of wish Kuntz could have made his argument (only) along those lines. Had he simply defended role-playing as an activity owned by everyone – and left off blaming Gygax for bottling spring water – he might really have been saying something important.

As it is, Kuntz' writing reads like an academic fever dream that would be "like, really deep, man" after the joint has been passed a few times around the circle. He is reluctant (unable?) to quantify anything about Arneson's genius and leaves it almost entirely to broad, unsupported, and ultimately meaningless declarations.

Sadly, I would have to say this book is an embarrassment and possibly does more harm to Arneson's legacy than good. And yet, if you can get past all of its flaws, there is at least one clever thought in Kuntz' rambling manifesto.

AftermathThe final few pages of the book are an attempt to debunk Arnesonian D&D as a derivation of Chainmail and/or Brauenstein. The conclusion is that they were influences, but not ingredients, and I'm fine with that. The argument isn't worth reading.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Lords of Mars

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 00:19
I made a new game.





I'm almost too tired to talk about it right now, so I'm just going to let you have a look! It's a pastiche of John Carter of Mars based on Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons. More on the making of it, and its future, tomorrow.

Enjoy. Comments, typos, etc. welcome.

Get it here: https://rayotus.itch.io/lords-of-mars





Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Herbert Zamboni

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 15:25
TLDR: It's a monster, it's a puzzle, it's either one depending on how you approach it. Neat design.

This morning I played in an online game of Delving Deeper with Cody Mazza of the No Save for You podcast. (He and I talked about Delving Deeper recently in a two-part episode.) Cody was running Greg Gillespie's excellent megadungeon, Barrowmaze, so I don't know whether to credit him or Greg with this idea.

The party is following the tracks of a rival gang of explorers. (The Bogtown Bastards if you must know. Curse their rotten hides!) We came upon a room at the East end of a hall, with an exit to the North. In the middle of the room (and filling most of it) was a huge quivering mass of flesh and several dead bodies. We needed to get to the door on the other wall, but were understandably reluctant to try and pass this quivering mound. I suggested tossing in a body in the corner opposite the wall we wanted to get to. The mass grew legs, stood up, shambled over to the fresh corpse and then dropped down on it. While it was raised up, we saw faces of other dead people in its belly. Yikes!

I named it Herbert Zamboni – because we plan to come back with a monster charm spell and use it like a zamboni to clean out the hallways for us. Even this time around we used it to polish off dead bodies so that they wouldn't reanimate as zombies, which is something that seems to be happening in the Barrowmaze. After leaving the dungeon it occurred to me that it might actually BE the thing turning corpses into zombies. Like maybe it eats corpses and poops out zombies. We'll see.

Anyway, I liked the fact that this encounter was either a monster or a trap, depending on how you approached it. We could have tried to fight it or burn it, but instead we decided to trick it. (I only had 2 hit points, so you had better believe I wasn't going to try and fight this bugger.)

I drew a picture of Herbert later. At the last second I added some subtle/weird eyes. Or are they nipples? Or maybe both - eyples that lactate milky tears. Shrug.


Herbert Zamboni
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Strategic Review 102 Summer 1975

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 23:24


Contents:
  • Expanded to 8 pages 
  • An opening memorium to Don Kaye
  • Editorial from Brian Blume to assure everyone that TSR is not in it for the money 
  • Survey for the Strategists Club awards banquet 
  • Cavaliers and Roundheads rules additions
  • News from around the Wargaming World
  • Q&A about D&D rules
  • New Ranger class
  • Creature Feature: the Roper
  • A treatise on Medieval Pole Arms (as promised)
  • Additional unit organizations for Panzer Warfare
  • Ads for Origins I (Baltimore, MD), Gen Con VIII, a game by TSR called War of Wizards, and the Tactical Studies Rules catalog: Cavaliers and Roundheads, D&D, Greyhawk, Tricolor, Warriors of Mars, Star Probe, Chainmail, Tractics, Panzer Warfare, Boot Hill, Classic Warfare, dice and miniatures

Items of  Interest:
The loss of lifelong friend Don Kaye was a huge blow for Gary, just as the business is really taking off. Gary and Don needed capitol to start TSR and Brian Blume bought in for 2k, each partner owning a third of the company. Don was fairly reluctant to partner with Blume at first. Don died of a heart attack shortly before a surgery scheduled to correct it, and his third of the business went to his wife. She didn't want to have anything to do with it, so Brian persuaded his father to buy out Don's share, making the Blumes a 2/3 controlling interest in TSR. This would cause problems later.

One account I read said that Don worked on Boot Hill before he died, but credit on the 1st edition is reserved for Blume and Gygax.
The Wargaming World news is varied but mentions an early zine by Flying Buffalo and the ongoing shift in wargames to sword & sorcery and science fiction themes. 
The D&D Q&A is probably the most valuable and interesting part of this circular. It opens with an explanation that Chainmail is for large-scale battles (1:20) and that the "alternate system in D & D be used to resolve the important melees where principal figures are concerned." It then goes on to say: 
When fantastic combat is taking place there is normally only one exchange of attacks per round, and unless the rules state otherwise, a six-sided die is used to determine how many hit points damage is sustained when an attack succeeds. Weapon type is not considered, save where magical weapons are concerned. A super hero, for example, would attack eight times only if he were fighting normal men (or creatures basically that strength, i.e., kobolds, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and so on).Considerations such as weapon-type, damage by weapon-type, and damage by monster attack tables appear in the first booklet to be added to the D & D series -- SUPPLEMENT I, GREYHAWK, which should be available about the time this publication is, or shortly thereafter.Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on.
After this is an example combat between a single hero and a bunch of orcs, who swarm the hero and try to grapple him! Two hit, but when they roll the grapple check the hero shrugs them off. There are lots of little interesting notes, like how many orcs can attack at a time and that the one who attack from behind get +2.

How to do saves and morale for monsters is clarified. Experience for magic items discussed. And the fire-and-forget spell system is rehashed, noting that wizards can only cast a memorized spell once but can memorize the same spell multiple times.

The most important thing here is to see what parts of the rather fuzzy rules set confused people the most (or mattered to them the most).

The Roper and Ranger are cool additions. Oddly enough the illustration above the roper is a dragon and purple worm. Huh. I would think a roper would be pretty easy to draw – easier than a dragon anyway. Joe Fischer, a name you see a lot in early Dragon articles, wrote up the ranger. The emphasis is on traveling light and operating alone at low levels; they can only own what they carry, can't hire men at arms or servants, and can't work with more than one other ranger. They do, however, get tracking and some followers and spells at later levels. The followers table opens up the idea of unusual companions (e.g. lawful werebear, pegasus, hill giant, etc.).

The Pole Arm article is about as tedious as expected. Stats and special notes are given for 12 different pole arms. Several others are mentioned as variants.

In TSR news we find out that price of dice is rising!
Finally, be prepared for an increase in the price of multi-sided dice sets. The volume of business we do in dice is increasing, and what has been carried as an accommodation has reached the point where it is barely breaking even; then the manufacturer upped our price by some 35%. The cost will go to $2.50/set immediately.
According to an inflation calculator, that's about $12.10 in 2019. So it was fairly high; given that you can buy a basic set of dice for around $9 or less.

I wondered if War of Wizards was any good. The advertisement promised $5 pre-release rules sets for a game that would cost at least $7 on release. Heading off to Boardgamegeek, I found some pictures and discovered that it was written by M.A.R. Barker of Empire of the Petal Throne fame. Players over at the geek rated the game a measly 4.7. The games counters (cardboard chits) are horrendously bland, but everything else looks pretty good. The battle takes place on a 20-space track, and there are 71 different spells to choose from. There were two editions published back in the day, '77 ad '79. And Tita's House of Games published an edition in 1999. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Strategic Review 101 Spring 1975

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 03:57


This TSR house engine began as a six-page, two-column circular with clean, sans-serif fonts. Printed before the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, it provides an interesting look at D&D in diapers.

Contents included:
  • News – primarily plans for future publications 
  • A "Creature Feature" in which the Mind Flayer made its first appearance
  • A summary of changes to the new printing of Tractics
  • A discussion of spears in Chainmail, which ends in a promise to really do pole-arms justice in the future (which had me snickering, knowing just how much space they got in AD&D)
  • Two and a half pages on "Solo Dungeon Adventures" 
This last article and largest feature of SR101 was penned by Gary Gygax, with thanks to George A. Lord and play testing credit to Rob Kuntz and Ernie Gygax. Most of the three pages consisted of random dungeon generation tables that would later appear in the AD&D DMG, roughly three years later.

Some of my own earliest solo explorations used these tables and I found them to be quite workable. I was using the DMG versions, but I may have to give these precursors a whirl.

One thing I have to say, I love the look of this zine. I wish that Dragon had adopted some of the same no-nonsense styling. But I realize I may be in the minority in that wish.

Look for more of these posts as I continue my forensics into early D&D. It's, quite frankly, fascinating to see the ideas come together.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Philippe Druillet Is a Genius

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 19:35
TLDR: Druillet's Lone Sloan is all about the drawings, and the drawings are INCREDIBLE.

This isn't really RPG related, and yet it seems like something I want to talk about in this space.





Let me talk about the story first. An interstellar rogue is approached by some red priests to rip off the emperor of a pleasure planet. It gets messy. Despite all the high action, the story is a bit plodding at times, but by the end it all kind of comes together in something pretty cool. And, honestly, it read like an RPG session!





The drawings have that kind of greebly-vastness that only certain artists can pull off. Every panel is packed with squiggly details that suggest as much as delineate, but are nonetheless exact in their own way. Not just noise in the same way that the best punk music or stoner rock isn't just noise.





The panel layouts are incredible. They have a kaleidoscopic symmetry that reminds me of the work of Joseph Stella.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Evolution of D&D in a Nutshell

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 16:57
Click to embiggen.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Yokai Goons

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 16:20
TLDR: It's hard to pick a favorite Tunnel Goons hack, but this might be mine: a two-page ghost detective game set in the Meiji Restoration period of Japan (follows the Edo period). 

Yokai Hunter. In format this free game is two tri-folds: one for the player(s), referred to as the "Hunter," and one for the "Grand Master."

Front of the Hunter's Book: woodcut by hokusai, 1834.
Let's start with the latter, the GM tri-fold. It contains a summary of 10 different types of Yokai (supernatural creatures); 2d8 (15 total) missions; a summary of the historical period; further information on how to create Yokai, hunters, and NPCs; and cogent advice on running the game, with questions about the setting the group can/should explore.

The Hunter tri-fold contains a character sheet; d20 table of names, ages, and occupations; an equipment list; and the core rules. I have already talked about Tunnel Goons in previous posts. Yokai Hunter differs quite a bit from the original game, taking Nate Treme's invention and making the system into something with the right bells and whistles for a period ghost hunting thing. Here are some of the highlights.


  • Sentence-based character concept: "I'm a [trait][occupation] who [something from your past] and seeks [a goal]. E.g. "I'm Hachiro a nervous smuggler who is hunted by a former patron and seeks anonymity." (Hunters where ritual masks when they hunt so I imagine my character "hiding" in this role, drawing on his family's knowledge of ghost hunting. His dad wanted him to go into the family business, as it were, but Hachiro turned to smuggling to get rich quick – and because ghosts scare the bejeebus out of him.)
  • Path-based stats: Courage, Self-Control, and Wisdom. These are somewhat self-explanatory, but they are used in interesting ways. The system describes them as follows: when you roll dice "the GM will indicate which path you should follow: Courage (for actions that involve impetuosity or anger), Self-control (for actions in which it is necessary to remain calm and control one's impulses), or Wisdom (for actions that require certain knowledge or prudent and thoughtful behavior)."
  • Special Equipment. When you acquire an item you test Wisdom and, if you pass, the item grants a +1 bonus, situationally. This is a really interesting way to codify magic items into a system in an unexpected and fun way.
  • Resolution gradation. Not sure what else to call this. The author Chema González (aka Punkpadour) has essentially worked PbtA resolution categories into Tunnel Goons. 10+ you succeed. 9 = you succeed, but suffer a consequence. 8 or less you fail and the situation escalates.
  • Advantage/disadvantage. And Chema throws in this mechanic, which has become really popular in designs since the introduction of D&D 5e. The hunter rolls an extra d6 and discards one – highest if disadvantaged, lowest if advantaged.
  • Cursed die. And Chema adds a cursed die that starts at a d8. Basically you roll it "when you want to bet your very soul" in an action. You can't roll it while advantaged. The die, however, works like advantage – you drop the lowest one in your pool which contains 2d6 and the cursed die. If the result of the cursed die (whether you succeed or fail) is higher than your current Curse Resistance you attract bad luck and lose a point from your Curse Resistance tracker. I'm not going to get any further into this mechanic. You can read it for yourself, but you basically have a pool that shrinks as you become more cursed and is replenished only through ritual cleansing at a holy site (at a cost). And the cursed die changes sizes based on your points. It's cool.

So, what's not to like. Well, I do have a small reservation about two things: 1) having both + and advantage mechanics in the same system and 2) having difficulties that exceed 10 when 10 is a success. (What does it mean if you get an 11, but the difficulty is a 12? Did you get a mixed success, as in a 9?) But beyond that – and I don't really know if any of this is a problem without playing the game – there is nothing to not like. Which is to say, everything about this game just sings to me. It looks fantastic. 
BTW, the art, font-choices, and design sensibility are all wonderful as well. The character sheet is really attractive and makes the curse mechanic much easier to grok. 

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solo Play: Eternal Caverns of Urk Part 1

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 20:30
The mad prophets have sentenced me to walk the Eternal Caverns of Urk until I receive a vision from the First God. I fear I will not return, and if I do I may be no longer sane.

[This is a solo play narrative, making use of Nate Treme's Eternal Caverns of Urk zine. My character is Kesh the Domite. HP 10, Brute 0, Skulker 1, Erudite 2. Items: mirror, flask, cloak uneven gray. I tried to stay in first person, but probably messed up some.]

Beneath a merciless noon sun I stare into the dark, cool void of the cavern's mouth. The rock in this region is chalky, formed into great boulders and plates of rainbow hues. Black moss coats the entrance. I remind myself that I have been commanded to enter, but my feet are unwilling for the moment. I check the meager "gifts" I was given when parting from the prophets, the only things I was allowed to bring: a flask of clear liquid (water?), a small mirror, and the strange cloak of striated gray that they insisted I wear despite the heat.

I step inside. The air is cold and mildewy. I will soon be grateful for the cloak I think. And the use of the water seems obvious enough, unless they have given me poison, or more likely some form of dream nectar. What of the mirror? Of what possible use could that be?

I walk for some hours, leaving the light behind me. Moving in total blackness by the touch of my fingers on the wall I begin to think I can see floating lights. At first I am convinced they are random flailing of my optic nerves, but they resolve into softly glowing eyeballs the size of beer barrels.

At first I am too terrified to move, but they keep their distance. Watching. One of them bounces and gyrates in a crazy motion, never breaking its steady gaze upon me. I walk forward, but this seems to displease them and they bar my way. Another takes up the crazy looping antics of its peer, but with a sinuous grace in place of the frenetic hopping of the former. When it stops I start to walk forward again, but quickly see them draw together. So I imitate their ritualistic dancing with some moves of my own. Katas I learned from my youth. Concentrating on my breathing and execution to calm my fears, I go through the 39 stations of the most complicated routine I know.

[This is the first roll I made other than generating random stuff. Turns out these giant eyes were into dance battles. I got by with a 10, including a +1 from Skulker.]

The eyes glisten around me. Then they all weave and bob excitedly, looking at each other as much as me. And for a miracle they arrange themselves in a broken line ahead of me, softly lighting my way.

And I go forward.

The cavern is wide here. Filled with strange yellow fungi of many hard-edged facets. Their geometry seems something more than random and I contemplate them for some time. The air here has grown warm and humid. And glowing drops of water fall form the ceiling in a florescent rain. Parched, and unwilling to drink from my flask, trusting this unnatural water over the unknown liquid in the gifted flask, I point my face toward the cavern ceiling and drink.

My heart freezes as I see a flabby mantis clinging to the ceiling. Inverted over me and frozen in with it's thorny forelimbs reaching toward me. Had I not looked up ... I shudder to think.

I tuck and roll forward into the yellow "trees" as the mantis springs forward and down. [Roll+Skulker, Success - barely] He misses, but quickly recovers and scuttles across the ceiling, hunting me. The cuboid blooms of the trees are between us, giving me cover. The mantis stops, seemingly befuddled, and stares in my direction with that strange pinched face. Suddenly there is a small voice ...

In my head! "Come out little one. Show yourself to me. I am no threat to one such as you. We will be friends."





It's a soothing voice, but something tells me not to trust it. [Roll+Erudite, Success - barely]. I know better than to come out, but I find myself unable to move. I call out loudly. "Help!"

For some minutes the voice keeps trying to coax me from my spot. I bite my cheeks and pinch myself to keep it from soothing me into feeding myself to this psychic monster. After an interminable time, I hear soft, thumping footsteps. Then a loud crack and the mantis drops, almost on top of me, stone dead.

"I say. Come out of there young fellow. You can't go messing around with these Prizing Mantises you know. Dangerous stuff. Luckily I was returning from my hunt and heard your call. Come with me and we'll get you a stiff drink. I expect you could use one!"

I hear the fruity, mellow voice of this rescuer long before I see him. It's a rather nice voice and I stand up, revealing my location. "Thank the prophets that ... Oh, hi there."

I went a bit speechless at this point. Before me is an 8' tall fellow covered in pink fur. He is extremely round and a bit bear-ish, but with two, short horns curving over his fuzzy dome. Despite his fearsome size, he somehow seems a bit comical to me, standing there in a fussily-stitched vest of green and holding the smoking barrel of some metal staff, but something tells me not to laugh. Bad manners I think – but it's more than that. I sense a vague danger. "Thank you for the rescue. And yes, I could use something to drink. How far is it to your home?"

He informs me that he and his people are camped just a few caverns further in. And that they would be welcome of some outside news. So I walk along with him, skipping to keep up at times. His gate is awkward but covers a lot of ground. As we walk, he prattles on endlessly about the flora and fauna of the caverns. As if educating me.

In fact he is telling me things I had no way of knowing ere now, but somehow it rubs me the wrong way. Like he is some pompous professor trying to fill my head with useless facts that he will test me on later. I try to listen, but I spend more time sizing him up than absorbing his words.

When we reach our destination, I am shocked at the level of comfort represented by something so hastily called a camp. Slender lightweight rods support little gaily colored cabins of silk. There is a small fire, hardly needed for warmth here, but the flames are licking at pot of something that smells incredible! A spicy stew of some kind that promises to be both hearty and energizing.

[Took a break here for tonight. I think I'm in trouble as these fellows are into taxidermy.]
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solo Play: Tunnel Goons & Dungeon Builder

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 02:37
5 minute solo play on a work break using James Hron's Dungeon Builder, which is tricky to use but a very cool format. For rules I used Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons.

Dungeon BuilderI've described Tunnel Goons in a previous entry. Dungeon Builder is an idea generator. You have a two-level map with dungeon rooms. In each rooms is a series of three single-digit numbers, e.g. 211 or 332. Sometimes you see 2--. In the pamphlet is a number of tables with three columns of words each. The numbers in the rooms reference which table to roll on and the position of the number says which column. So 211 means roll for a word in the first column of table 2, then roll on table 1 for a word in the second column and one from the third column of the same table. 2-- means roll once and read all three words straight across, using table 2. Clever, huh?

Dive 1My Goons character is Kravdraa (aardvark backwards): HP 10, Brute 0, Skulker 1, Erudite 2. Carrying: dagger, pizza, midnight blue robe

Underlined stuff was generated randomly.

Kravdraa enters The Grisly Halls of Hell. Snooping around he found a loose stone and pried it free. Upon doing so, however, a poison viper jumped out and bit him (DC 5, rolled a 2, 2 damage, HP 08). Behind the stone was a spellbook.

Taking the left hand door from there, Kravdraa found himself in a courtyard with a strange tree. It's sappy red bark (bloodbark) made Kravdraa uneasy, but just as he decided not to go further into the room, the tree reached for him with it's suddenly animate, leafless branches (vampire, unstable)! Kravdraa scurried this way and that but was trapped. (DC 12, rolled a 4, HP now 0).

The tree hugged K to its bark and slowly drank his blood over several days like a delicious milkshake and converted him into a sapling slave.

Dive 2Oops. Maybe I had better add some reaction rolls. Take two.

Tabmow: HP 10, Brute 1, Skulker 1, Erudite 1. Carrying: mace, leather jack, torch.

Revisits the Grisly Halls of Hell! (I didn't re-roll the name.) In the first room is a sneaky outlaw with a bow was hiding. Tabmow failed to see him, but the outlaw turned out to be friendly. (Reaction roll.) He was scared of this place and decided to team up with Tabmow.

They go right, down a short hall and enter a room in which a unicorn is being overshadowed by a spooky illusion! Tabmow suspects it is an illusion and tries to scatter it with his will but fails. The spooky illusion reaches for the outlaw and the outlaw's heart freezes in his chest, instantly killing him. This makes Tabmow mad and a fight ensues in which Tabmow drives off the illusion but takes damage (HP now 8).

Tabmow sets the unicorn free and heads toward the entrance with the beautiful beast following (reaction 8), but by a different door. This was unfortunate as they ran into a nightmarish "hollow" wizard. The wizard was contemplating reality and didn't become immediately aggressive, but he did tell them to "Turn back!" -- and they did, because this guy looked tough. (He was.)

Going back the way they came however, they were blocked by a set of precious undead teeth – floating fangs of pure gold – chattering madly at them as they danced around the room just out of reach! Tabmow and the unicorn charged the choppers and made short work of them to escape.

FindingsTunnel Goons is quick and fun, but very swingy when it comes to combat. Probably needs more hit points or something. It's very easy to die in 2 failed rolls. I guess, when you think about it, your character is a DC 7, because when you roll 2d6 you would do/take damage 50% of the time against another DC 7, right? You'd be evenly matched. So rating "easy" as an 8 might be a stretch. That's probably average difficulty because you will usually have at least a +1 at your disposal. Easy should be more like 5 or 6.  To Nate's credit, it's hard to set difficulty standards because you don't know how liberal people will be with adding +s from their inventory. If the average bonus is something like +3, then his DCs would be spot on.

Dungeon Builder is a cool start to something better, but a bit rough in its current form. I felt like the columns of text were missing some sort of underlying structure (like adjective, threat-noun, twist) that would have made the results a bit more meaningful and easier to interpret.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Shroom Goons

Sat, 08/24/2019 - 23:59
TLDR: Shroom Goons is a free and awesome game with cool art. Play tiny shroom people and fight smorks!

"Trama is the loosely woven hyphal tissue in basidiomycetous fungi forming the central substance of the lamellae or other projections of the hymenophore."

Oookay. :) It is also one of the three stats in Shroom Goons, an awesome little hack of Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons. At first I wasn't crazy to see that the concise package of Goons had been expanded to over 2,000 words, but they all count. The page of setting material is outstanding as is the mutations. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Characters & Canges to the SystemIn form, you are a 3-6" tall sentient fungus.

Mechanically, it is standard Goons with renamed stats, Siblings, cool items, and Traits. Siblings are other mushrooms from your original patch with whom you share a psychic bond. When (ok, if) you die, you carry on in the body of a sibling.

The items work the same as in original Goons but the wild inventiveness of them is to be admired. You may be carrying a Teaspoon Shovel, or d6 Beer Can Tabs, or even an Insect Wing Glider or a few pages from a Car Repair Guide.

But what really makes you special is your Trait – which is a kind of mutant power. There are 24 of them and you get one randomly: Devil Fingers, Witch-Butter Body, Mindtrap Spores, Mimicry ... it's your superpower.


Art by Karl Stjernberg?! I'm sold.

The WorldI'm just going to reproduce the first two paragraphs of the setting as written. Because ... it's just so cool and fun.

Shroomfolk hail from the enchanted wetlands of The Fluorescent Neverglades. Surreal, brightly colored swamps and marshlands that by the light of the Nevermoon looks like the world you see in blacklight posters. The Shrooms tend to build settlements on raised glades and in the mossy trees overlooking their spawning patches. Shroom folk are a relatively pastoral lot -- building small farms of cultivated compost and herding bugs, tame rodents, and other fungus-based animals (such as “Shroom Steeds”). Of course the Neverglades have many inhabitants -- froglorps, banthers, rocodiles, and the dreaded Smorks. Smorks are a species of small, bluish pig- faced imps. They are chaotic, often clumsy, and always dreadful despite their jolly demeanors. They sing cheerful murder songs while raiding the Shroom villages. You can always spot their leader by the blood-red caps they adorn.
Fucking Smorks. Amiright?!


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Higher Struggle

Thu, 08/15/2019 - 16:23
TLDR: a cool, free game that could be used as a campaign sub-system to model the struggle between factions and powers.

One of the things that always impresses me when I read The Lord of the Rings is the time Tolkien spends setting up the higher struggle between powers. Sometimes we see it in the form of councils and plans, other times we see it in the form of a conflict of wills. Galadriel or Aragorn contesting with the Eye of Sauron, for instance. This battle above and beyond the literal battlefield is fascinating. It informs the latter as well, allowing us to see in every clash of arms the larger forces at work.

What am I rambling on about?

Well, it's the desire for that layer in our RPG games. Often GMs achieve it with recurring villains and reveal it through rumors and one-on-one interactions with NPCs. But is there a better way to model it?

I have seen political struggle represented in sub-systems before, or at least models that approach it. There is a nice social combat model in Diaspora, for instance. But I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as useful or simple as this little design by Mark Hunt.


Get the game here!

Scandalous Goons is a hack of Tunnel Goons, which I mentioned in a previous post. The rules of the game are basically the same, but instead of classes Mark supplies the stats of Reputation, Rumor, and Connections. And in place of inventory items we have assets like Military Honors, Spy, Blackmail Information, and Married Well. The third change is really about trading out health for a bank of Influence points.

Two things make this little game an ideal "bolt on" to about any campaign.
  1. It's very easy to adapt to your particular scenario. Change or add stats. Come up with new/different assets. Allow different factions to start with more or less Influence. An hour's work would probably be more than enough to totally customize Scandalous Goons to be completely in step with your group's campaign.
  2. It's easy to implement without interacting or interfering with the mechanics of whatever RPG you are playing.
Oh, did I mention it's also free?! 
I can't wait to take this game and use it to model the politicians, gang lords, and guild masters of a fantasy town. Or to play out some huge space opera game where star lords and planetary tyrants develop assets like warp drive levels, planetary defenses, cloaking devices, trade goods, super soldiers, etc. 
Thanks, Mark!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Simple Skills System (Revised)

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 23:00
TLDR: an idea for implementing simple skills in pre-2e D&D. 

Each character details their background in 50 words or less, using full sentences. This background can be revised between adventures to incorporate an extra sentence per level gained.

When a character attempts something that would require unusual skill, and the GM agrees that it is possible, even if it’s very unlikely, he sets a difficulty at 4, 5, or 6 and indicates the most-closely related ability.

The player then rolls dice as follows, trying to meet or beat the difficulty on at least one die.

  • 1d6 if unskilled
  • 2d6 if skilled (character background suggests a related skill) OR the related ability has a positive bonus
  • 3d6 if skilled AND the related ability has a positive bonus

The odds to work out to be:

  • 1d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 50%, Dif. 5 = 33%, Dif. 6 = 17%
  • 2d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 75%, Dif. 5 = 56%, Dif. 6 = 31%
  • 3d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 88%, Dif. 5 = 70%, Dif. 6 = 42%

If all the dice show a 1, the failure is a “botch” and is worse than a normal failure, if that’s possible. “Extra” successes usually add minor positive benefits.

ExampleA player wants his character to run at full speed across a tightrope between high buildings to escape pursuers. . 
The GM says, "that will be a difficulty 5 DEX test." Note that the GM wouldn't necessarily have to call out the difficulty; that's probably a matter of style. The GM should not consider the character's skill at all when setting difficulty. Rather the difficulty should be solely based on the situation. Is there strong wind and rain? Is the character carrying a lot of stuff? How hard would it be for a normal person to do this given the situation?
The character has a positive DEX bonus and, according to his background, was once a circus performer, so he rolls 3d6. If the highest die in that pool is a 5 or 6, the character succeeds. If two or three successes show, perhaps he gets across at high speed and can get out of sight before the pursuers catch up. Or he has plenty of time to cut the rope and not get shot at by crossbows.  
If the highest die is less than 5, he fails. The GM might allow him to catch the rope or a ledge on the way down, but the character will be in dire straights.
If all three dice show a 1, the character plummets to the ground with no chance at grabbing the rope. If he survives, the pursuers probably had people tracking him on the ground as well. 
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Gakking Goon

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 15:12
TLDR: Nate Treme wrote a neat little game, Tunnel Goons, and has invited people to hack it.

The marvelous Nate Treme recently created a rules-light role-playing game called Tunnel Goons as part of his amazing Eternal Caverns of Urk.* A few days ago he announced Goon Jam, a call for people to hack his game. To help, Nate offered up a text-only version to help people get started.

I've been "called" lately to design something fun that isn't combat or violence focused. My first response to the Goon Jam was to use this opportunity to scratch that elusive itch. So let's take a quick look at what there is to hack in Tunnel Goons and what kinds of games it might support.


Bounty from Nate's Patreon
The GameIn a nutshell, you divide three points between three classes and select three items to add to your inventory. In Tunnel Goons the classes are Brute, Skulker, and Erudite. When you try something you roll 2d6, add the points from your relevant mode and a point for each relevant item. Your inventory can get up to ten items in it before it starts imposing a penalty on your Brute and Skulker rolls. Sometimes tests are merely succeed/fail; other times you are fighting enemies and difference between the difficulty score of the enemy and your roll is the damage you do (or take). Damage reduces the enemy's difficulty, so that there is a death spiral kind of mechanic. Each hit makes the next attack easier to land and makes higher damage more likely.

So what is there to hack? Without changing the basic rules – and I think not changing those too much is in the spirit of the challenge – you have the three classes, the equipment list, and whatever flavor text you add to work with.

Classes (Modes)I'm going to rename the classes as "modes" just to shift your thinking away from any associations with traditional RPG terminology. In calling them modes, I want to highlight that they are essentially an angle through which you address any challenges. The most obvious change here is to rename the modes. For instance, you could make them Wit, Soul, and Antics to create a game about bards who use logic and riddles or heart-felt performances or humorous capering to make their way through life's minefield. You could also increase or decrease the number of modes, with corresponding shifts in the initial points a player can spend on them. Be careful to set a limit. The game is based on a 2d6 curve, so every +1 is a really big deal. Since the original game has an initial limit of 3 on any mode, I would stick with that.

EquipmentIt is a time-honored tradition in RPGs to define characters by equipment. Many look down on this because it seems a little superficial, but it doesn't have to be. The things you carry around with you say a lot about you. But more to the point, the initial list of things you offer to players when they make their characters does a lot to determine the type of game. If you want to move away from a "fighty" game, for instance, don't supply a fighty mode and certainly don't list a bunch of weapons that players can choose for their inventory. In the aforementioned bards game, I could supply all kinds of bric-a-brac, but no traditional weapons. Though I might supply a few things that could be used as a weapon – like a jester's scepter (club) or pocket knife (dagger). I think the primary goal here should be to supply interesting items that aren't necessarily useful in an obvious way, or at least not useful for doing things you want to de-emphasize in the game. If you give players a bomb, you can't complain if they go around blowing things up, right?

Is That All?Yeah, I think so. Modes and items are the core of the game. You could bolt on other stuff, but ... I guess I would caution against adding mechanics of a different kind. If you find yourself adding other kinds of dice or a roll-low mechanic, you are getting away from the heart of the original.

For my money, the equipment list is a wide-open space for tinkering. After all, who says it has to be equipment? It could be spells, stunts, assets, or just about anything you can draw on in a situation for a dice bump.

Good luck! I can't wait to see what y'all make.


=======================================================

* I hope I don't sound disingenuous throwing around words like "marvelous" and "amazing;" let me assure you they are well earned. Of all the Patreons I back, the ones for Nate Treme and Evlyn Moreau have been giving me the most joy – with apologies to all the other Patreons that also give me joy.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Do You Play It RAW?

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 19:24
TLDR: rules-as-written (RAW) means different things to different people. Here are some distinctions that I personally think make sense.

Rules-as-written, or RAW, as most people like to write it. What does it mean?

RAW
Used literally, it means whenever you have a question about how to play you follow what the rulebook says to the best of your ability. If you make a ruling at the table and a player looks it up then, or after the game, and finds a contradiction between your ruling and the text, you go with the text. It also means, in a literal sense, that you aren't subtracting, adding, or modifying the rules in any way.

RAI
It's pretty hard to play any game like that. There are bound to be some awkward and unclear phrasings, typos, or missing rules that make playing RAW difficult. The next step away is, I believe, rules-as-intended, RAI.

Rules-as-intended means that you stick close to the rules and play them as you believe they are supposed to be played. You are not adding, subtracting, or changing the rules unless there's clearly an error in the text, a rule is unplayable (wasn't play-tested), or you have to fill in a gap where the rules are silent. When you do fill in a gap, you do it by following the logic and spirit of the rules. You aren't inventing so much as extrapolating. Personally, I still consider this RAW, especially if the rules encourage you to invent/fill in the gaps.

Rules+
Taking another step away from RAW is adding things that don't obviously change or interfere with existing rules, but clearly weren't intended by the original rules either. Let's call this Rules+. For instance, you bolt some kind of sanity mechanic onto Oe D&D. Or allow two-handed weapons to do more damage than other weapons to make up for the fact that their wielders are forgoing the use of a shield and may be attacking late in a round. The thing about adding rules is that no matter how careful you are, you are affecting existing mechanisms. Perhaps adding a Sanity mechanic makes the Intelligence ability score in D&D less important? Or adding a differentiation for two-handed weapons begs you to add rules for parallel instances, e.g. dual-wielded weapons, reach weapons, rate of fire, etc. Adding rules is a slippery slope, especially if what you liked about the original rules set was their "simplicity." Adding rules begets greater complexity.

Rules –
Clearly, if there is a Rules+ there is a Rules–, meaning you drop some rules because they feel clunky, slow down play, aren't meaningful, etc. Subtracting may reduce complexity, but you may also be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As with adding rules, you can quickly find yourself playing a different game. For example, the Save progressions are part of class strength and weaknesses, as well as a way to differentiate between the peril of various threat types, in Oe D&D. If you dump those in favor of straight roll-under tests by ability, you may be losing one of the classes' primary advantages (good Saves) or negating one of its drawbacks (bad Saves). Also, dropping Saves means dragon breath, poison, and rays are all roughly the same type of threat, aside from prescribed damage (and in Oe it's all d6 based).

Hacking
Finally, there's hacking. It's hard to see where house-ruling ends and hacking begins sometimes. Changing the setting is a clue for a lot of observers, but you could very often change the setting of a game without touching its mechanisms, other than perhaps relabeling a few weapons. It's a distinction of quantity and quality. One big change or lots of little ones can result in the feeling that you are playing a different game. And the minute you feel like that, you have hacked the original. You have voided the warranty on play experience; if it goes south it's on you!

So, Are You Playing RAW?
It's my opinion that if you are doing literal RAW, RUI, or perhaps even light Rules+, you are. It's a matter of not believing you know more than the designer of the game and taking care to try the rules as written first before you make any adjustments or outright changes. Any such adjustments or changes should be governed by making the game play to its strengths, rather than making it feel different or fit a different style/genre of play. If that isn't your mindset, then you probably aren't playing RAW.

Fair enough?
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Design Noodling in the 2d6 Space

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 06:07
TLDR: I couldn't sleep so I made a game. Skip down to Give It a Name! to get past the process notes.

If you were to ask me what my favorite die was, I would probably say the d6. While it's odds are rarely intuitive or seemly, there are so many things you can do with it that are interesting and quick to read at the table. The point of this is that I am up late tonight working on yet another way to use these basic cubes to make an interesting resolution engine. 
The IdeaHere is the game in a nutshell:
Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" and roll 3d6 instead, and drop the lowest die. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. A high die on successes is the damage you do. (No separate roll to resolve damage.) 
The odds work out that you succeed 41.67% of the time on 2d6 and 68.06% of the time on a roll 3d6. Which is kind of nice in that 3d6 puts you above the 50-50 threshold, AND moves the middle of the curve above the 8+ success line. 
CriticalsSuccess is its own reward, since you do more on a high roll. But I wanted to give the GM permission to screw people (make a "move" in PbtA parlance) when a player rolled really poorly. So I started with the idea that any failure that includes a 1 is a critical fail. That was problematic because the odds were way too high (31% on 2d6, 19% on 3d6) and it ran counter to the idea of high die (not low die) indicating degree. In fact, the idea of high die indicated degree of failure as well as success came after I looked at the odds. Before it was high die on success, low die on fail.
As a result, a critical fail became any failure that included a 6. The odds of that came out to 5.56% on 2d6 and 1.39% on 3d6. That seems to be in the right range and I left it there for a while. But as I was jotting down design notes, I realized two things:
Raising the BarThe first was that I wanted some way for the GM to raise the bar on really tough things. I came up with two variations. Since players need to roll 2d6 to hit an 8, the GM can't take away a die. Variation 1 was for the GM to raise the bar by requiring 2 or even 3 fictional advantages for the push. The other was for the GM to make 5's and 6's a critical fail. Or even a 4+ on the high die a critical fail. (The odds of a high die of 5 on a fail are 17% for 2d6 and 5% on 3d6. The odds for a high die of 4 on a fail are 33.3% on 2d6 and 11% on 3d6). I didn't like either of these options because they didn't feel good or were too fiddly to explain/not intuitive enough.
The second note I made was that I was originally hoping that the math would work out such that a player who pushed not only increased their overall chance to succeed and their chance for a "critical success" (which I suppose equates to hitting a 6 on the high die), but to also increase their chance for critical failure
In writing that second one out, I realized I could meet both of my design goals with one simple change.
The Final Version?Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. A high die on successes is the damage you do and a 6 gives you an extra benefit in the fiction. On the other hand, a fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure; the GM can heap on the pain!
If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" and roll 3d6 instead, and drop the lowest die. This of course increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage. However, when you push, any fail is a critical fail in that the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than a simple failure. 
I liked this idea, but wasn't fully married to it yet, and I'll explain why in a moment. First, though, I want to show the odds:
2d6 chance of success = 42% and critical fail = 6%.3d6 chance of success = 68% and critical fail = 19%.
This makes pushing dramatic! 
I suppose my one reservation is that it may not be very logical. Yes, putting extreme effort into something can raise the stakes on failure. On the other hand, higher skill, the right equipment, or a relevant ability, which I give as the justification for a push, probably shouldn't result in a higher chance of critical failure. 
One more tweak? Let's give it a shot.
The Final Version (Probably)Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates the degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!
If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. 

If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear,
you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure.
Now the odds look like this:
2d6 chance of success = 42% and critical fail = 6%.3d6 chance of success = 68% and critical fail = 1% when you use skill, power, equipment or 19% when you use pure willpower, desperation, or reckless effort.
Give It a Name!Hmmm. I'm not sure how original this mechanic is. I've never seen it before, so I'm going to name it and release it under a Creative Commons. (Yes, I know you can't really copyright mechanics. Humor me. If you use this mechanic somewhere, stroke my ego by giving me credit.)
The text of the rules may change a little over time for brevity. But for now you should use some variation very close to the following. Feel free to use it exactly as written.
Dice Punch Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates your degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. It also reduces your chance of a critical failure.If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear, you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure. Text of Dice Punch is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, 2019, Ray Otus. 
What Is It Good For? I feel like this bit of mechanics would be great for a micro-game or a very cinematic game where characters are defined by only a handful of adjectives/labels. It leaves the question of what damage means wide open. I would give most characters/opponents d6 hp per "level" and consider 0 hp to mean "out of action" (dead or the equivalent in most cases, probably something impermanent for player characters). Here's an example game written with Dice Punch.
Dice Punch Bowl In know, the name makes no sense whatsoever.
Get together with a small group of friends and three dice to share. Each of you should add one element of inspiration: e.g. Jedi knights, a death race, and neanderthals! Figure out some kind of world where these things make sense together. These rules assume you know a bit about role-playing games. One of you will be the Game Master; the rest will make characters as follows.
 
Choose:
  • A folk (like human, lizardfolk, trollkin, or cat-people)
  • A calling (like sailor, mystic, librarian, or psychologist)
  • Three to five mundane bits of equipment that might prove useful
  • One "special" – a power or bit of specialized equipment that is unique to your character.
  • Your character starts with 6 points of health. If you lose all 6 you are out of action for a while. The GM will tell you what it will take to get going again, if you aren't actually dead.
When you do something risky, roll the dice!

Roll 2d6 and get 8+ to succeed. Succeed or fail, your highest die indicates your degree of success/failure. The high die on a success is the damage you do, and a 6 allows you an extra benefit in the fiction. A fail with a high die of 6 is a critical failure, and the GM will make your character's life worse!

If you have a relevant skill, power, or specialized bit of gear you can "push" the roll; Use 3d6 and drop the lowest. This increases your chance of success and your chance to get in some big damage or gain that extra benefit. It also reduces your chance of a critical failure.

If you don't have a relevant skill, power, or specialized gear, you can still push. However, any fail is a critical fail. Whether you roll a 6 or not, the GM can do things to make your character's life a lot worse than on a simple, non-critical failure. 
Failure can mean you take damage. The GM will give you a wound or two. 
When you play the game, the GM frames scenes and poses questions. You answer for/as your character. It's a conversation! Keep up the exchange until the GM tells you it's time to roll. After you roll, the GM will describe what happens or ask you to describe it, and the conversation continues.
After a session or major accomplishment, the GM may award everyone an "advance." An advance gives you an additional d6 of health; roll a die and add it to your total. An advance also means you can add a stunt. To add one, write down a bit of useful gear you used, or a special trick you did in the fiction of a previous session. In any subsequent session, you can name a relevant stunt (once per stunt per session) to reroll the dice. You must take the second result, however.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Is It Worth Spell-ing It Out?

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 21:31
TLDR: the simplest expression of a spell may be the most fun in play and engender the most creativity.

For your consideration, five iterations of one of the most basic of all D&D spells, by edition (skipping over a few):
Light: A spell to cast light in a circle 3” [30'] in diameter, not equal to full daylight. It lasts for a number of turns equal to 6 + the number of levels of the user; thus, a 7th-level Magic-User would cast the spell for 13 turns. [Oe Men & Magic, WotC collector's edition "reprint"]This is our baseline. As far as I can tell it is faithful to the '76 Whitebox edition. I am trying to find an earlier scan.
Light*     Range 120' / Duration 12 turns
This spell casts light in a circle, 30' in diameter. It is bright enough to read by, but not equal to full daylight. It may be cast on an object. The light may be cast at a creature's eyes. The creature may make a saving throw, but if it fails, the victim will be blinded for 12 turns. In the D&D BASIC rules, a blinded creature may not attack.
* Reversible
[Moldvay/Cook Basic]The spell gains a fixed duration, range, and some adjudication text because somebody decided to cast it "on" a creature's eyes and some GM allowed it. Note that the monster gets a saving throw. Also, it's now reversible. 
Light (Alteration) Reversible 
Level: 1   /   Components: V,S
Range: 12"   /   Casting Time: 4 segments
Duration: 6 turns + 1 turn/level   /   Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: 2" radius globe
Explanation/Description: This spell causes excitation of molecules so as to make them brightly luminous. The light thus caused is equal to torch light in brightness, but its sphere is limited to 4” in diameter. It lasts for the duration indicated (7 turns at 1st experience level, 8at 2nd, 9at 3rd. etc.) or until the caster utters a word to extinguish the light. The light spell is reversible, causing darkness in the same area and under the same conditions, except the blackness persists for only one-half the duration that light would last. If this spell is cast upon a creature, the applicable magic resistance and saving throw dice rolls must be made. Success indicates that the spell affects the area immediately behind the creature, rather than the creature itself. In all other cases, the spell takes effect where the caster directs as long as he or she has a line of sight or unobstructed path for the spell; light can spring from air, rock, metal, wood, or almost any similar substance.
[AD&D PHB]The spell now has a school and components, the duration is a level-dependent length, and the area is increased to a 40' diameter (assuming a 1":10' grid square). The spell gets a physics justification, and the brightness is characterized more specifically as torch-like. Details on the reversible version are given (and vary in duration). Magic resistance is mentioned, and there is some text about what happens if the target resists or saves vs. the spell.
Light     Evocation [Light]
Level: Brd 0, Clr 0, Drd 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, M/DF
Casting time: 1 standard action
Range: Touch
Target: Object touched
Duration: 10 min./level (D)
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No
This spell causes an object to glow like a torch, shedding bright light in a 20-foot radius (and dim light for an additional 20 feet) from the point you touch. The effect is immobile, but it can be cast on a movable object. Light taken into an area of magical darkness does not function.
A light spell (one with the light descriptor) counters and dispels a darkness spell (one with the darkness descriptor) of an equal or lower level.
Arcane Material Component: A firefly or a piece of phosphorescent moss.
[D&D 3.5, Online SRD]The spell school is changed, and it gets a clerical domain. Components are expanded and specified. Range is reduce to touch, duration is still level-specific but simplified, and the spell is no longer reversible but instead "counters" spells of its opposite. Note that it's a lot harder to tag an enemy's eyes with Light now! 
Light     Evocation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: V, M (a firefly or phosphorescent moss)
Duration: 1 hour
You touch one object that is no larger than 10 feet in any dimension. Until the spell ends, the object sheds bright light in a 20-foot radius and dim light for an additional 20 feet. The light can be colored as you like. Completely covering the object with something opaque blocks the light. The spell ends if you cast it again or dismiss it as an action.
If you target an object held or worn by a hostile creature, that creature must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw to avoid the spell.
[5e PHB]Light is leveled-down to an at-will cantrip (probably happened in 4e, actually), duration is fixed, and a Dex save is included for unwilling targets. So it's even harder to tag an enemy; you must first touch them and then hope they fail their Dex test? Or, perhaps there is no longer a touch attack roll, you just do it and then they try to dodge it. Yeah, probably that; I'm not a 5e expert yet.

So, I ask you, did the spell get "better" along the way?

What I believe is going on in this progression is an illustration of the attempt to systematize all the common aspects of the game – to replace GM rulings with set rules. There is good and bad in that.

By spelling things out (yuk yuk), the player experience is possibly more consistent from session to session and table to table. Also, the player has the fairly complete knowledge of how the spell works. One might even argue the load is lighter on the GM, though it's really a question of whether the GM prefers to memorize/look up rules or just make them up as needed.

However, spelling it out constrains the use of the spell. The more words devoted to the exact behavior, targeting, etc. of the spell, the narrower its usage becomes. This gets dangerously close to that strange argument about whether you can only do the things the rules say, or whether you can do anything the rules don't expressly forbid. I'm not getting into that tedious argument with anyone, but I think it's safe to say that this spell description rules out certain things. The phrase "one object that is no larger than 10 feet in any dimension" means that the spell has to be cast on an object – not living tissue like an enemy's eyes (reinforced by "if you target an object held or worn by a hostile creature") and it can't just emanate from you. This, very clear picture of how Light works – down to letting the caster choose the color – shuts out other choices that might be made for flavor or utility. What if I wanted to use a jar of fireflies as a component? Or cast the light on my palm so I could open and close my fist to send morse-code like signals? Maybe I wanted a halo around my head so I could look angelic.  
For fun, here are two more descriptions of light, one from a streamlined take on the old school rules, The Black Hack, and one from a Oe retroclone, Delving Deeper. To my way of thinking, the brevity of these entries rules! 
Light: Creates dim light from a Nearby spot or object that lasts for Ud8 Minutes.
[The Black Hack 2e, "Ud" references the usage die mechanic.]

Light (reversible, duration: 12 turns, range: 120ft) Causes an object to shine as brightly as a torch, illuminating a 15ft radius. The reverse, darkness, creates a sphere of impenetrable darkness with a 15ft radius. [Delving Deeper v3, Vol. 1]

* Froth of the Thought Eater Podcast has suggested the spell summary in D&D 3.5 to be an excellent resource. There we have this gem: "Light: Object shines like a torch."
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Sword & Backpack: On Dice

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 13:11
TLDR: Dice are cool. 
... each player should possess a personal 20-sided die. The die is used to resolve combat, make skill rolls, and so on. Sharing a die is fine, but it’s weak magic. In Sword & Backpack, dice aren’t just tools, they’re a direct line to fate, a link to the great mystery. As such, they should be respected. Your personal die should be carried in one’s pocket at all times. It’s a totem. Respect it as such.Emphasis mine.

You can find a primer on, and links to, Sword & Backpack here. S&W is a tongue-in-cheek presentation of the simplest RPG rules imaginable. Basically roll a d20 and see if it's high or low, and how high or low. Sounds simplistic, sure, but what more do you really need? Also, the formatting of the rules is kind of cool; the small pages are meant to be printed, cut out, and pasted into a 3.5" x 5.5" (or thereabouts) notebook.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Choose Your Own Story, or Stop and Smell the Slimes!

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 14:19
TLDR: avoid linearity in your adventures, yes, but also learn how to make recursiveness not tedious.

I have a mild addiction to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They are an early example of what we refer to now as Interactive Fiction (IF) and share a lineage with the text-based adventure games of old: Colossal Cave and Zork, for instance. As such, they are role-playing games that evolved along a different path from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it works like this. You begin a story and, after a few pages of text, are given a choice like "If you go decide you can't delay in finding your lost dog and go down the stairs into darkness turn to page 114. If you decide to go back for a light source and supplies first, hoping that Spot can take care of himself for a while, turn to 32." As you read you are offered choices and follow the branching story path until you reach a passage that culminates, for good or ill, in "The End."

[If you find the CYOA books fascinating, there is an interesting (and freely-available) role-playing game – or perhaps story-telling game, if you make such distinctions – called Cheat Your Own Adventure. It is based on the story-telling style of CYO and the experience of reading the books with a thumb-in-the-page to mark options you didn't take.]

As I read the CYOA books, I map them to keep track of storylines I have abandoned with my choices and want to follow up on later. I keep reading through to various ends until I know I have visited every passage in the book. Here are three books by Edward Packard that I have read in the last year or two, and what I learned from mapping them.

CYOA 12: UFO 54-40 (1982)
You are abducted by aliens while traveling on the Concorde. Will you get along with the aliens or will you be brain-wiped? Will you find human allies to help you escape? Will you reach the paradise planet, Ultima?

I mapped this one some time ago and used a method that later evolved into something more data-oriented and less visual, as you can see. If I were to re-map it like the others, it would look more like #18 than #45, which is to say less recursive.

Whether intentional or through a printing error, there is a thread of the story you can't reach without cheating in this one.

Lift on left is cut off, let me know if you have a use for the full data
CYOA 18: Underground Kingdom (1983)
You enter the hollow earth through a fissure that seems to be rapidly closing. At the core you discover a black sun, mysterious golden birds of high intelligence, and warring tribes of furry people.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice
CYOA 45: You Are A Shark (1985)
You enter a temple where you find yourself trapped by a chimeric idol. A seated monk leads you through meditations in which you experience many lives as different animals. (Or maybe just one, depending on your choices.) The not-subtle subtext is that humans are jerks.

This is the most "recursive" CYOA I have read to date, with many ways to loop back through the story. I was surprise that, for me, the recursiveness did not make the story better. For one thing, there are fewer endings because different lines end up merging into the same track.  I suppose the upside of is that you can experience most of the book in a single read with the right choices – looping back naturally and choosing a different path each time. In some ways, I felt like I was robbed of the many-stories-in-one-book nature of earlier CYOAs.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choiceSame data, but visualized in tree form
How This Relates to Tabletop Role-Playing Games
It seems that over time Packard worked fewer endings into the books. UFO 54-40 has 30 endings. Underground Kingdom has 21. You are a Shark has only 14! This may have been a reaction to readers frustrated by very short story lines – in Underground Kingdom you can die in four pages, having only made two choices. And some of the endings are abrupt and disappointing. Very few take up more than half a page. The trade-off is that a lot of the story-lines, instead of ending, loop you back to an earlier point. 
This brings to mind some essays I read a while back on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The reference is to Jenell Jaquays, who wrote The Caverns of Thracia (1979) and other classic RPG modules under the name Paul Jaquays. 
Turning Jennell's name into a verb, the author, Justin Alexander, contends that dungeons should be looping, not linear. That's a gross over-simplification of what is spelled out over five essays, but it relates to the CYOA structures above. If we can think of non-looping, branching paths as linear – and I think we can – "Jaquaying" would mean to mix it up a bit by having multiple ways to progress through the story that aren't mutually exclusive. In You Are A Shark, you can take a "left-fork" that later returns you to the same fork, allowing you to go right (or left again). When it comes to dungeons, you can add the idea of multiple entrances (beginnings) as well as exits (endings), and I generally agree with Justin.
However – and I think you knew there was a "but" coming – re-treading the same old paths can be tedious. So how do we design dungeons that are "Jaquayed" without being boring?
Recursive, not RepetitiveFirst of all, we don't have to work too awfully hard at this. There is an inherent interest in "the road not taken." Players will naturally want to return to areas where they skipped over a door or turning, just to see what they missed. And humans have a kind of completist itch in any case; they want to know they have set foot in every available square foot of dungeon.
So really the tedium of going back through the same areas is about the signal to noise ratio. Think about your drive to work, there's nothing qualitatively positive about the repetitive part of it. You've seen those roads a million times. So how do you keep the drive fresh? Well, nature helps. An unusually lovely sunset, the change in seasons and conditions, the random appearance of interesting animals. All of those things can make "the same old drive" eventful. And there are things you do yourself to break up the drive, you play different music or an audiobook. You play games with license plates, doing math or trying to make words out of the random letters. You call an old friend or parent.
These same tricks work in the dungeon. The GM can change the conditions or introduce new creatures into old areas, of course. Instead of a pretty sunset or a flight of geese, the dungeon has become smokey with accumulated torch use and stings your eyes, or the sounds of the party has drawn a patrol of bugbears into the area, or killing the displacer beasts on the way in now means the kobolds can lay claim an area they long avoided. 
The GM can also throw up detours. Perhaps there is a new cave-in or hastily thrown up barricade. Maybe a shifting hallway trap or an illusion makes the characters believe they are in the same hallway when they really aren't. 
To complete the analogy, the party can play "road games" to pass the time, perhaps with some encouragement from the GM. Not fighting their way through the halls and rooms this time might give the party more time to explore on the way back/out. Maybe there were runes they didn't notice before which help fill in some of the dungeon's history, or they could use the time to search for secret doors (again). I generally use the "you get one attempt" rule unless the fiction changes. So here it is; the fiction changed – the characters are traveling through the hall way at a later time, or in the reverse direction, or after having cleared it out. The GM might even let them find the secret stuff automatically this time, or at least throw out really pointed hints and reduce all the difficulties by a step or two.
Stop and Smell the Slimes!This advice might take a little effort to employ, but it's worthwhile. I'm as guilty as anyone about short-handing things that are repetitive in role-playing. After a while it's natural to not describe the same halls or the same attacks and just say things like "you go north for 40 feet" or "I attack the kobold." But it's a quick death for a game to indulge in this form of abbreviation. After all, you are playing the game to experience the excitement and the wonder of being a different person in a different world. Don't rush through it! Take a moment to stop and smell the roses: admire the dwarven stonecraft or collect a sample or two of various useful slimes and molds.
Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure, you can change the "text" of the game as you go. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, the fun is in the journey, not the end.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

A Quick Creature Design Primer for Troika!

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 04:47
TLDR: what it says on the tin, really. A quick breakdown of Troika! monster stats, guides for creating original monsters, and a linked spreadsheet containing all the core book creatures.

Art by Shoji Ohtomo
Designing from ScratchLet's keep this simple. Just pick numbers based on comparative creatures and consider the typical stat ranges as follows:

SKILL
Skill ranges from 3-16, but about two-thirds have a Skill of 7, 8, or 9. Just remember you are working with a curve. There's a big difference between those three numbers! The "drop off" on either end of that middle range is severe.
  • Low Skill 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Goblins, Living Dead 
  • Moderate Skill 7-9: Knights of the Road, Orcs, Harpys, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Thinking Engine, Ogre
  • High Skill 10-16: Tower Wizard, Manticore, Dragon
STAMINAStamina ranges from 3-46, spread pretty evenly. Remember that creatures that use spells don't spend Stamina on them, so you don't need to adjust for that. This is just a measure of toughness. Base your score on how long you want them to stay up in a fight.
  • Weak 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Sympathy Serpent
  • Average 7-14: Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Lizard-Folk, Orcs, Man-Beasts, Living Dead, Trolls, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Tough 14*-21: Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres, Manticores, Dolms, Alzabos
  • Titanic 22+: Dragon, Ekodat, Loathsome Wurm
* 14 is a kind of slip-point between really tough humanoids and loutish or "puny" giants. And if you prefer, you could use 3+ 1d6, 2d6, 3d6, or 4d6 as rough "hit dice" guides for creature size.
INITIATIVEInitiative ranges from 1-8, but only 4 creatures out of 36 exceed an Initiative of 3. Creatures with multiple, area, or follow up attacks need an extra point or two to get those in. 
  • Slow 1: Goblins, Living Dead, Trolls
  • Average 2: Pisceans, Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Orcs, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Tigers, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Fast 3: Gremlins, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres*
  • Supernatural 4-8: Alzabo, Manticore, Loathsome Wurm, Dragon
ARMOURArmour ranges from 0-4.
  • None 0: fifteen creatures from Living Dead to Tower Wizards
  • Light 1: nine creatures from Goblins to Thinking Engines and Ogres
  • Heavy/Tough 2: six creatures from Trolls to Cyclops
  • X-Heavy/X-Tough 3: five creatures including Salamanders and Manticores
  • "Impervious" 4: the dragon
DAMAGEDamage as weapon or creature size/type. Seriously, I can't make this easier than just thinking about the creature's "weapons" and looking at the damage tables for a comparable. 
MEINPick any six labels. They don't need to represent any kind of sequence and there are 158 unique ones among 36 monsters, so I think it's safe to say you can be creative. Common ones are Aggressive, Confused, Curious, Fearful, Hungry, Playful, Spiteful, Tired, and Watchful. Some of my personal favorites are: Absent-Minded, Beatific, Blooming, Doubting, Hagridden, Inveigling (and Fake Inveigling), Mewling, Plagued by Thought, Rancorous, Rowdy, Smug, and Unstable. 
SPECIALSSpecials aren't always directly combat-oriented. While the Manticore and the Dragon have special combat attacks, lots of other creatures have specials like the Cyclops' foresight, the Parchment Witches spell variety, or the Pisceans' penchant for eating the party's supplies. 
The DataIn case you are wondering where these numbers came from, I put the Troika! creatures into a spreadsheet (also in available in comma-delimted form). Enjoy.
Converting from Advanced Fighting FantasyTroika! is based on Fighting Fantasy. The monster manuals for the RPG based on FF (AFF) is called Out of the Pit and Beyond the Pit. The presentation of each is slightly different: 
Troika! Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 6
Initiative: 1
Armour: 1
Damage as Weapon Mein
1 Curious
2 Dismissive
3 Preoccupied
4 Gossipy
5 Overly Friendly
6 ParanoidAdvanced Fighting Fantasy Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 5
Habitat: Hills, Plains, Wilderness, Caves, Dungeons, Marshes
Number Encountered: 1-6
Type: Humanoid
Reaction: Hostile
Intelligence: Average The stats are The obvious differences are that Troika! includes Initiative, assigns a number to Armour, and teases out the reactions with a Mien table. AFF, on the other hand, supplies a Habitat, Number Encountered, and Intelligence rating.

To convert an AFF monster to Troika! you will minimally need to assign an Initiative number, Armour rating, and Damage Track (or list it as "as Weapon"). You can obviously work with the ranges above. The rest is icing. And you shouldn't need to adjust the scores where the two systems' stat categories align.
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