Friday, 22 June 2012

Gone Fishing

Off to Lough Erne for a week.

Once the Dice are Out of Their Bag, They Must Draw Blood!

This better be worth it
Here's a classic mistake I made recently while running a game. There was a storm, the ship was in trouble. A PC was on deck and I said "give me a Dex roll". They failed....and I had no idea what I wanted to do with this information. I certainly wasn't going to kill the character by throwing them overboard from a boat with low-level characters who had no way of rescuing them in the middle of a heavy sea and strong winds. The character was simply standing on deck for some reason, so there wasn't even a task to interrupt by falling.

Characters do not need to roll for every task, even when things are difficult. If the result of failing is simply "well, I'll get up and try again" or whatever, then the dice roll is pointless. Just tell the player that they succeed, perhaps adding that it was tricky. Want to climb a tree to see where you are? You climb the tree. Ride a horse out of town? Fine. Even a character who can't actually ride should not be forced to roll until they succeed if all that's going to happen is exactly that.

Dice are about risk and as previously mentioned AD&D deals in resources (much like life), so risk is about wasting those resources and if no resource is at risk the dice should stay in their bag. A "resource" can be time, money, hit points, loyalty, the character's life, a henchman's life, personal reputation and goals, or any number of real or abstract possessions. When those things are on the table then there is a reason to get the dice out because then the result is meaningful to the players and there is some thrill of waiting to see the outcome and the relief of a good result and the adapting to the setback of a bad one. If you as DM can't think of any resource which would be lost by a failed roll or gained by a successful one, just narrate some reasonable outcome and press on.

In the case of the ship in the storm, "You're tossed around by the rough seas for about half an hour at which point you hear a horrendous cracking sound as the main mast splits about half way up" (as the damage from the storm accumulated) would have been much better and, if you don't rush it, might even give a player a chance to ask about the mast and whether anyone should be doing anything about the fact that the sails were still unfurled.

It's easy to slip into a habit with dice but always remember that there are resources at the table too: fun, momentum, and play time being key ones. Don't waste them with pointless dice rolling.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Rulings, not Houserules

Overly Casual Gamers
I mentioned in the cleric post that I "hate houserules".  One reason for that is that I often play with casual gamers - ie, people who play games in general rather than being specifically roleplayers (and sometimes not even gamers) who care, or want to care, about Systems. When we sit down to play, it's enough work for them to get their heads around the parts of the PHB that are important to their character. Giving them a houserule document of more than a paragraph is not usually their or my idea of upping the fun levels.

But there is a deeper reason - roleplaying is not about rules. In fact, it is very specifically not about rules and all about rulings at the table at the time.

The RPG designer who tries to write rules to cover every eventuality is a fool (I learnt this the hard way). They're a fool to themselves and a fool to their players. Every new rule adds a loophole and every aspect of the characters' lives which are covered by a rule begs the question of why some other part isn't, so that the whole process feeds on itself if you let it.

Some game designers, particularly Robin Laws as an example (I've just done a preview and I see Zak's latest post is about Laws - must be something in the air), drew a line in the sand over this and instead looked for all-encompassing "unified" rules. The idea being that by finding a brush that is broad enough, it is possible to cover all actions in one or, at most, a few swipes. No gaps are left and there is no massive pile of rules to memorize. Lovely.

Kate Moss: the
Role-Playing Game
The only problem with this idea is that it doesn't work for any sort of complicated characterisation either of the characters or their world. We all know that the real world is complicated and inconsistent. Putting a single mechanic over it makes everything feel like one of those strange models that appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan - initially inviting but on closer inspection devoid of any substance other than class-A drugs. Well, most RPGs don't include hard drugs, but the point stands.

In Laws' case, the rules become totally abstracted from the gameworld (and tend to be associated instead with some aspect of the setting that the players respond to, in contrast to the characters) and are essentially themed board- or card-games. Well designed ones, but totally unable to carry a campaign with any but the most dedicated fan of the settings.

The so-called third edition of D&D is a strange system which manages to apply the unified mechanic idea and yet be mind-bogglingly complicated at the same time, but even when designed by someone who isn't an idiot the UM comcept creaks all over the place as the one-size-fits-all quickly shows why people pay good money for tailor-made clothes.

Which is where the DM comes in (or the GM-this isn't really a D&D point). The DM is that tailor, and the tailoring is done during play, not before it. The rulebooks give the baseline "if nothing special is going on" guide of how things work. The DM decides when those guildelines need bent or discarded, or when new ones are needed.

It is a classic mistake to write down these decisions in the name of consistency. Even writing them down in the name of "that's a good rule" is often a mistake, in my experience. And my experience is of being the sort of person who can fill boxes with print outs of rules and "good ideas".

In the long run this tendency strangles the DM and the game. The best thing about playing with non-RPGers is that it has forced me to scrape everything back to the bone. No written-in-stone houserules, no charts of new weapon speeds or skill difficulties. I've restricted myself as much as possible to re-writing some of the more badly worded rules into a more intelligible or faster form which doesn't to change their actual meaning in terms of the game world.

Apart from my notes, the only thing I actually use at the table now is my re-written combat tables which I've laminated for play.

I do aim for consistency in decisions that effect the party. If I decide that a certain wall needs a d% roll against Dex x 3, then that's the rule the whole party uses at the time (thieves get a by in the case of a wall that other people can climb). But it says nothing about what I'll rule at the next wall. I might use 3d6 (something of a habit, in fact); I might use d20 or 4d6.

This does not bode well for
a night of wild adventure.
Running a role playing game is a learning experience for everyone - hopefully the players are learning about the gameworld and their characters, while the DM is learning how to run a fun game. Tying yourself to years of precedent is a bad idea and you should always allow yourself to go back to the rules and start from scratch when you feel the need. It both frees you to apply what you've learnt and  gets you away from bad decisions.

Obviously, many things about the rules of any roleplaying game annoy someone enough that they never want to play with some aspect of the game. The economic system of AD&D is a good example. Anyone who is interested in some level of economic reality in their gameworld will quickly see that the objective of throwing heaps of gold at the players and then taking it off them again does not sit well with a study of the English wool trade of the 13th century.

These cases are where the booby traps really lie for the unwary. AD&D is actually quite well put together in terms of its objectives and it can be surprisingly hard to make permanent changes to the system which stand the test of long term play, but it can be done.

In the end, though, role-playing is what happens when the rules get out of the way and if they're to be out of the players' way they must also be put beyond the DM's reach and s/he must instead "wing it" rather than be constantly cracking open a book to look up some table or other. This is where the real fun is for both sides.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

City State Encounter: Achmed & Co.

Pulp fantasy settings,
where everything
is black and white
Who: A trio of petty crooks, one a magic user, one a thief, and one a houri (from White Dwarf #13).

Where: City State of the Invincible Overlord, but any large city will do.

Possible Hooks: PCs may be victims of Achmed & Co.; or hired by a patron who was and who wants revenge; or they may be wanted after a job goes wrong; or they may simply meet and start hanging around with them, getting involved in their schemes, etc.


Achmed is a magic user by class, but a thief by nature. Until recently his main M.O. was running children's magic shows in market places and street corners using a wide range of cantrips. He and his beautiful assistant Helen would entertain the crowd while her brother Tom would prowl the parents, particularly fathers (and other males) who were distracted by Helen's particular charms picking the odd pocket but mostly, like his sister and his master, listening for gossip which would indicate possible rich pickings. Once a mark was selected, a plan would be hatched -- straight forward thievery, seduction, magical trickery or a combination of all three -- to separate them from whatever horded wealth the trio could winkle out of them.

The shows continue but recently Achmed's success has allowed him to make a new investment: a crystal ball. This, he hopes, will allow them to case their targets in greater detail and be that much surer of both the possible rewards and risks. Helen's attractions make it easy to keep males engaged long enough to get a good affinity for the ball.


Magic user, 15,000xp (4th level).
S:10 I:14 W:7 :C11 D:14 Ch:10 Cm:15, Chaotic Neutral, 32 years old.

Hp: 9, AC: 10, CL:0


  • Scroll of 5 cleric spells (levels 1-6)
  • Scroll of 4 magic spells (see below)
  • Potion of rainbow hues
  • Murlynds Spoon
  • Crystal ball
  • 1000gp

Spell Books


Useful: Clean, Flavour, Freshen, Gather, Spice, Wrap, Warm, Stitch, Polish, Dry, Sprout, Clean, Dampen, Colour

Reversed: Dirty, Untie
Legerdemain: Change, Distract
Person-affecting: Sneeze, Giggle, Yawn, Scratch, Blink
Personal: Bug, Gnats
Haunting: Tap, Creak, Whistle, Footfall

1st Level Spells

Affect Normal Fires, Enlarge, Feather Fall, Message, Read Magic, Shocking Grasp

2nd Level Spells

Locate Object, Stinking Cloud, Vocalise.

Scroll Spells

1st level: Message
3rd level: Fly, Water Breathing
4th level: Minor Globe of Invulnerability


When doing his magic shows, Achmed will have a full complement of 12 cantrips memorised, along with Locate Object and Stinking Cloud (in case an escape is needed).

When out on a job, as he often is with Tom, he will memorise the cantrips Distract, Sneeze, Creak, and Footfall. His normal set of first level spells is Feather Fall and Enlarge. His selection of 2nd level spells remains Locate Object and Stinking Cloud.

Only if he is expecting serious trouble will he resort to Enlarge, Shocking Grasp, and Vocalise (to allow silent casting from cover).

Achmed loves cantrips and could well be bought off with the offer of a couple of new ones.

Now available!
Achmed Action Figure!


Achmed hails from Tarantis direction and his swarthy complexion lends a small degree of exoticism to his act even in jaded Rhamshandron. He plays on this with lose and rich textiles, a turban, and even a
(costume paste) bejewelled scimitar tucked into a silken sash/belt. A matching but much more serious curved dagger (unsuitable for throwing) hangs below the sword and this is what Achmed will reach for if things go very badly wrong.

His beard and moustache complete the down-market vizier look, although things have been going well recently and the look is less down-market than it was 12 months ago.

The son of a sailor, Achmed can spin a tall tale based on his father's and may perhaps give out a clue to some island-based adventure if the PCs engage him in friendly conversation.

Tom (henchman)

Thief 7,500xp (4th level)
S: 13 I: 12 W: 11 C: 11 D: 15 Ch: 13 Cm:9, Neutral, 17 years old.
Hp: 11, AC: 3 (10+7), CL: 0


  • Bracers of defense AC4
  • 3 +3 darts (CL 3)
  • Ring of mind shielding
  • 3000gp

Skills (including UA bonuses for no armour)



Thin, pale, with sandy-coloured hair, and rather spotty, Tom followed his sister into a life of crime and has gradually begun to enjoy it as his success and training has improved his ability.

He eschews both armour and direct confrontation, preferring to work in the garb of an upper middle class young man of leisure and trust to his legs if things go bad. Like his master, this act has become more
convincing of late as funds have increased.

Currently content to wench and wander, Tom's main irritation in life is paying his Thieves' Guild dues which he resents. He has not found any friends in the guild and thus has no real weight with them should
he get into trouble with the law.


Houri 7,500xp (3rd level)
S: 9 I: 13 W: 10 C: 12 D: 13 Ch: 15 Cm:17 (fascinate 8-); Neutral evil; 21 years old
Hp:8; AC:10; CL: 0

Hide in shadows 20%


  • Potion of vitality
  • Poison potion
  • Ring of free action
  • Philter of beauty
  • Philter of love
  • 450gp



Detect charm
Kiss of sleeping


Transfer charm


Her professional dress is a strange combination of Amazon-Goth - long blonde hair combined with pale skin and heavy eye make-up. 5' tall, 36-25-35.

Off-duty she retains the hair but braids it. She has had some trouble from real amazons in the city but so far she's managed to avoid any real trouble.

She is tired of the small-time stuff and eager to hit some big scores now that Achmed has his crystal ball. Her powers, natural and magical, have left her with a very low opinion of men and her weakness may be knowing what to do with one who is able to resist her when she's firing on all cylinders.

A second weakness is her tendency to gloat over her conquests.
Achmed's previous assistant also
had some anger issues
(photo:Lois Olson)

Her brother Tom will defend her to death, but she may abandon him in a crisis.


The Houri is a good NPC class and suits the CSIO well. It was designed by Brian Asbury and if you search with his name online you should have no problem finding the details of the class. As a PC class it is not really recommended but, hey, whatever floats your boat.

Edit: this appears to be a legitimate link via Asbury's old pal Rory Mclean to a "free for non-profit use" and slightly updated version of the WD Houri.

These guys are a typical minor gang from my City State notes and may be individually or collectively encountered in bars or streets anywhere on the east side of the city, near the thieves' quarter and the merchant quarter.

Thursday, 14 June 2012


Hurricane? What are the chances?
Weather is either important or not important.
  1. It can be important in its own right - eg, a hurricane.
  2. It can be important because the players need something from it - eg, a favourable wind.
So, for an area, make a set of encounter table sub-table for weather rated by uncommon, rare, and very rare. Stick "roll on weather sub-table xxx" as a line on the appropriate encounter charts to cope with #1. If you're doing something where weather comes more to the foreground for some reason, then put the contents directly on the main charts. This means weather will alert you when it has become important.

For #2, when the players ask what the weather's like, roll a weather encounter directly and judge accordingly. If the weather indicated is "common" then it is not note-worthy - not unusually hot or cold, wind in the prevailing direction etc. Don't bother making an actual encounter chart for common weather.

If it's not important, don't waste time on it. Do not come up with a massive table which you roll on each day. The weather is "normal for this time of year in this place" unless the tables alert you otherwise.

Also: "earthquake" is not weather, not even in Greyhawk.

Encounter Charts

Random Bode
When I were a lad, I did encounter charts the "proper" way, like in the DMG. With a calculator.

When I were a bit older, I programmed the computer to do the maths.

Now: for each of common, uncommon, rare, or very rare I make a chart with 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, or (if you're Zak) 100 entries and roll 1d100 for encounters:

1-65: re-roll on common
66-85: re-roll on uncommon
86-96: re-roll on rare
97-00: re-roll on very rare

Much simpler, although it does require two rolls instead of one. I suspect most people who read this will laugh at the idea that it took me 30 years to come up with this.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

AD&D Clerics - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

"They're blunt bullets, Mr Wiseguy Vampire"
The AD&D cleric is by far my least favourite class in the game both in terms of roleplaying and the mechanics of the class. The main problem is the lack of a clear archetype, and that comes down to a fairly long list of muddled ideas that make up the foundation of the class:
  1. Firstly there's the name. "Cleric" is not "Hobbit" or some other made-up word. It's a real word which was fairly common to non-gamers (which we all once were) and it comes with a lot of baggage. In particular, it had a strong Christian undertone for most of the early players and it was of no particular note that OD&D's clerics bought a "cross" and not the later "holy symbol".
  2. Next, the actual origin story of the class is as a vampire hunter. Not even a general vampire hunter, but a class created with a specific (player-character) vampire in mind - Sir Fang of Blackmoor. This introduces the whole bit about the undead. This aspect is okay with me as one thing that can be said of most priestly types is that they have deities and deities have always had a strong association with the afterlife. As such, having the generic cleric take an interest in those things which refuse to "pass over" seems a decent fit to me.
  3. Then we have the AD&D PHB text that tells us that the cleric "bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood of medieval times."
  4. But, unlike knights - religious or otherwise - "All are likewise forbidden to use edged and/or pointed weapons which shed blood."
  5. And then we have the paladin class. If that's not a class which "bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood of medieval times" I don't know what is, which leaves the question of what the cleric's doing then.
  6. Meanwhile, in fantasy stories (particularly pulp) the evil high priest so often mentioned in early D&D materials was generally a wizard who happened to worship or summon demons and the like and very rarely did much in the way of weddings and bar-mitzvahs.
  7. Finally, there is the gamist origin of the class's mechanics. In the roots of the genre there's really only three common classes: the fighting man (or woman), the sorcerer, and the thief. In the early days we didn't have thieves in the game, before even OD&D there was the fantasy supplement to Chainmail and it had heroes and wizards. The cleric is clearly informed by a design decision that a third class could be squeezed in which was a bit of both. This has little to do with any sort of thematic or roleplaying goals.
What a mess of sometimes conflicting influences. Indeed, on top of that there was the biggest conflict of all in the early days: the total lack of God (capital G). The class was obviously Christian or at the absolute maximum stretch Abrahamic - I could just about squeeze Saladin or King David into the AD&D cleric, I think - yet there was not a mention of the obvious deity they served.

This problem got a little less pressing as settings and supplements were developed and sold which expanded the idea of the cleric to polytheism but this in turn threw several of the other problems into even harsher relief: a cleric of a healing god who trains in the use of armour and weapons? A priestess of Diana who enters combat but can't use a bow? What the hell?

Not D&D
The early RQ rules throw a harsh but useful light on this mess, I think. In RQ2 (the only copy I have), each cult has Rune Priests and Rune Lords. To be generous, the AD&D cleric is the analogue of the Rune Lord and there is no actual equivalent of the Rune Priest at all. AD&D actually has religion without priests; a true sham.

Even looked at this way, there are still several problems with the class - the specifics of weapon limitations, for example but also the spell lists. But I think there is some mileage in emphasising the idea of the standard cleric class as being a "champion" class for their various religions.

Which still leaves the paladin. Well, I have a solution in mind for that which we'll come back to later.

The RQ Rune Priest represents the "other path" - the ones gifted especially with powers from the god to go out and alter the world and take their culture to other lands and prove the superiority of their gods.

A Cheap Solution
I hate houserules, but I hate clerics more. So, here's my thinking.

Firstly, the cleric as we know it gets a boost. In addition to the thematic problems it has, the class is weak in other ways which leads to real problems from about 7th level onward, when the fighter has gained multiple attacks. Already 2 combat levels behind, the cleric gets an additional ⅓ penalty to his/her effectiveness in combat. The pigeon-hole marked "healbot" beckons ever more strongly.

I suggest
  1. That clerics get bonus attacks at the same levels as the ranger (8th and 15th) and the fighter's multiple attacks against <1HD based on combat level (ie, 3 at 4th level, 5 at 7th, 7 at 10th etc).
  2. That clerical HD be increased to d10, but without the fighter's additional hp bonus for 17+ CON.
  3. Minimum STR of 9.
  4. The cast spells as a PHB cleric of one level lower, thus they get no spells at 1st level.
  5. May be proficient in any weapon, but retain -3 penalty for non-proficiency and 1/4 rate for new slots.
and that a new class - priest - is introduced. It is based on the current cleric class (ie not on the above modifications) but with these changes:
  1. Free casting. Any spell on the cleric list OR on a single (picked at character generation, if there's a choice) spell list associated with their deity (ie, listed as used by them in DDG) may be cast subject to the restrictions of the normal PHB class spells per day. This would allow magic user spells (for example) to be cast but still none higher than 7th level.
  2. Weapon list reduced to that of the magic user but otherwise combat remains as per PHB. Proficiency as per magic user in all respects.
  3. Armour as per magic user.
In both cases, the character should be allowed to have proficiency in 1 (and only 1) melee weapon which is strongly associated with their deity, if any, and 1 (and only 1) missile weapon strongly associated with their deity, if any.

As regards experience points, until I've had a chance to try this out I'm going to hope that the changes balance out and we can use the cleric table for both. Free casting is a big boost, but losing armour is a big penalty.

Oh, and the paladin becomes a sub-class of the new cleric (the fighting guy). The paladin's powers are as given in PHB with the exception that they get spell casting from second level. XP costs are increased by 10% from the PHB paladin.

A More Expensive Solution
Rebuild the class completely for each deity. There's fun.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Combat Level

Sulu's, sir. One of 'em!
I generally don't use the combat tables in the DMG any more, having re-written them some time ago to make armour versus weapon modifiers easier to use. I'm not going to go into that system right now, but since I mentioned Combat Level (CL) in the stat blocks for the Weeping Medusa I thought I'd explain the basic system (without weapon Vs armour) here.

"Combat Level" appears in the DMG as well as its synonym "Combat Ability".

Combat level is simply a number representing the level of fighter that something fights as. So a 5th level cleric has a basic combat level of 3. A 4th level fighter with a +1 to hit from strength and +2 from a magical sword has a combat level of 7.

In a standard combat, the attacker rolls 1d20 and adds their combat level to the die and the DM then adds the target's AC to that. If the result is 21 or more, it's a hit. Any roll of 20 is counted as 25.

If combat level is so high that a figure can't miss, then they hit automatically with a bonus to damage equal to (CL+AC-21), so a 15th level fighter attacking someone with no armour will do 4 points of extra damage per hit.

My original PDF with more details is here, but here's some tables of combat level as well:

Monster HDCL

Cleric LvCL

Thief LvCL


Magic Wands

Archmage Sooty
doesn't need verbal
The generic magic wand comes in several variations:

The Cantrip Wand
This allows the casting of any cantrip the magic user or illusionist knows without need for memorization. If there is a verbal component then it must still be used. casting times are unaffected but of course the cantrip can not be interrupted.

(M, I), 5000gp/1500xp

The Verbal Wand
This allows the casting of any spell the user has memorized but without the need of a verbal component.

(M, I, D), 10000gp/2000xp

The Material Wand
Allows the casting of any currently memorized spell without the need for a material component. Each use expends one charge per level of the spell cast.

(M, I) 14000gp/4000xp

The Magic Wand
Combines the Cantrip, Verbal, and Material wands so that spell casting becomes a case of simply waving the wand appropriately. If the wand is used to replace a material component then it will expend one charge per level of the spell cast.

(M, I) 40,000gp/5000xp

All these wands are rechargeable and will be found with 1d20+80 charges.

These wands represent a different type of magic from the Vancian casting of AD&D and if used widely they will change the nature of the gameworld, so think about it before placing even the cantrip wand. I've set the values quite high, but even so they may be a bit low given the impact they might make on a campaign.

Island Encounter: The Weeping Medusa

Location: A small island off the normal trade routes; out of sight of other land.

Possible hooks: Storm blows ship off course; patron hires PCs to look for princess; PCs find clue to location of Johydee's Mask (DMG p158); random encounter while exploring sea area.

Monsters: Four gargoyles (MM p42), one unique medusa (see below).

Special Treasure: Map/clue to Johydee's mask (DM's responsibility, not provided).

Other treasure: 1200sp, gems and jewellery worth ~15,000gp.

Backstory: Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who fell afoul of an evil and jealous stepmother who wanted her natural daughter to inherit the throne. She hated the princess but her own daughter would not co-operate with a plan to kill her, so she "sent her away" alive. She was able to swear that the princess was still alive somewhere and so assuage her daughter's guilt enough to allow it to be outweighed by her greed. The King was charmed so as to not ask too many questions and the search for the princess was half-hearted and trailed off with an official explanation that she must have drowned while swimming in the lake, although she was known as a strong swimmer.

In fact, she was doubly cursed by her stepmother who transformed her into a medusa and laid a spell of confuse languages on her so that she would be unable to explain to anyone that she was not the evil monster that she seemed. She was taken away to a distant and uninhabited pair of islands where she is guarded by four gargoyles (naturally immune to her petrifying gaze) bound to keep her alive on the islands and kill anyone who attempted to rescue her.

The princess's fiancée eventually uncovered clues to her fate and, armed with knowledge of the location of Johydee's mask (which renders gaze attacks harmless) he set out to rescue her. Along the way he was captured by pirates who misinterpreted his map and sailed to the island of the weeping medusa where they met a stony fate. The remains of the pirates' treasure remains mingled in with the wreckage of their ship.

Time frame: The DM must decide on the time that has passed since the above storyline; it should probably be at least a year but could be thirty or forty. Which it is will affect how useful the map is to the players, should they find it. The medusa form is effectively immortal, as are the gargoyles.

Start point: Assuming a voluntary landing, if at night there is a chance (30%) that the medusa is eating and her cooking fire is seen. Otherwise, the island appear fairly bare and uninteresting unless seen from the south east in which case the wrecked pirate ship may attract attention, or from the north when there is a 20% chance in daytime of seeing the medusa herself walking on the shore. Perhaps the PCs have been hired to look for the princess or her prince. Otherwise, there's no specific reason the sight of the islands should cause a landing unless it is a search for supplies.

If a ship looks like it is coming in to land (ie, is approaching and is within a mile or so), at least one of the gargoyles will see it and make the alarm call to alert the others. This sounds something like a huge torrent of water gurgling down a deep drain. Other than this, the gargoyles will make no obvious action until a boat has anchored or beached; preferring to trap the crew on shore where they can rip them limb from limb.

The Medusa
The medusa form is slightly different from the standard AD&D one and more like the mythical one. Firstly, the medusa is unharmed by non-magical weapons of any sort. Secondly, the reflection of her gaze has no effect on her or anything else. However, like the AD&D medusa, she can not fly.

She wears goatskin (her flimsy royal silks having long ago succumbed to the weather and the many sharp edges of the stony island. When she first realised what had happened to her she wore a blindfold so as to not accidentally petrify any would-be rescuer. When the pirates came she quickly realised that they were not trying to rescue her and with the help of the gargoyles she turned them all to stone through fear and frustration. She no longer wears the blindfold but will attempt to keep out of reach of anyone who lands on the island until she can decide what they want. If simply chased and cornered, she will assume the worst and unleash her powers in self-defence.

Her alignment is neutral and her only treasure is a platinum and jade armband which is worth about 8gp if melted down but would fetch a price of 1700gp from a collector interested in what is obviously a ancient and royal jewel.

Beehive Stone Cells
Her home is a stony area near the highest point of the main island ("M")where she has rebuilt the remains of some long-forgotten hermit's cell and put some low stone walls up as a wind break. From a the distance there is no sign of life about these things and they are overgrown with weeds.

Most days, she wanders the northern shore for a while, pondering and weeping over her fate. She is humanoid but with a body that is covered in thick scales (treat as scalemail). She wears a hood to keep her snakes docile and quiet and from behind looks somewhat like the attractive young woman she once was (and still is if transformed back).

Her now-reptilian metabolism means she eats very little and finds it tiring to move about in the cold or at night - 6" move rate.

Stats: AC: 5 (as scale); HD 6 (CL 8); Move 9"; Attacks: 1; Man-sized; +1 or better to hit, poison, gaze petrifies to 3" distance, can see and affect ethereal and astral beings. Total xp: 912
Bite (+poison): 1-4; HP: 27

The Gargoyles
The four gargoyles station themselves at the points marked North, South, East, and West.

They hunt on the small island for the princess when she is hungry (which they can detect as part of the magic that binds them to protect her from harm, including suicide and simply starving herself), catching a goat every now and then and killing it so that she can cook it without it turning to stone.

The gargoyles are evil and delight in smashing the statues that the princess makes, whether they are birds she glances at when they surprise her with their singing or goats that stick their heads into her cell to look for shelter from a storm, or the 154 pirates looking for a fortune.

They can fly reasonably well (class C) and can attack from the air with either their horn (damage 1-4) or claws (1-3/1-3). They will probably initially resort to dropping stones on any boat, to sink it in shallow water, hitting random targets if they are densely packed on deck but mainly hoping to put a hole in the bottom as they did with the pirate boat.

Each stone dropped will do 1-3 hull points (DMG p54) of damage and 6d6 damage should it strike a person on deck (save for no damage; dexterity applies). The gargoyles need 13+ to hit a medium sized ship from their attack height of 60'. If forced to fly higher by defensive fire, then give them -1 to hit per 10'. Remember that they are +1 or better to hit, so normal arrows etc. will not drive them back.

Manoeuvre  class drops from C to D when carrying any load. They can carry the princess in a pinch at class E and a maximum speed of 12", but they are bound to keep her within a furlong (22" in game terms) of the islands' coasts.

One gargoyle will remain with the princess at all times of threat, despite the fact that generally they are over-confident in their immunity to weapons; if the princess ever managed to exceed a furlong from the coast of the island, their binding spell would be broken and they would return to wherever they were summoned from.

Stats: AC: 5; HD: 4+4 (CL 6); Move: 9"/15"; attacks: 4; small (hp<20) or man-sized; +1 or better to hit. Total xp: 761
Claw/Claw/Bite/Horn: 1-3/1-3/1-6/1-4; HP: 28,17, 17, 19

Boat Area
The Pirate Ship
The ship is about 60' long and resembles a Viking longboat with a small poop deck at the rear where a helms man would have used a steering board (on the starboard side, obviously). The ship lays in shallow water with most of the hull visible at low tide. Anyone clambering into it will find the inside overrun with seaweed. Inspection will demonstrate that there are several major holes in the bottom.

The poop deck is in whatever state of decay that suits the time the ship has been here and under it is the remains of the captain's small cabin, no less seaweed and barnacle encrusted than any other part of the ship. A casual glance into this space shows it to contain a few old brass instruments and rotten clothes. A very careful, lit search of this room at low tide will reveal that under marine growth, limpets, and about a foot of water is a 2' tall statue of a sea god made from platinum and gems. Not especially artistic, the statue is worth about 12,000gp (and very heavy - 220lbs) as bullion and gems.

Scattered about the ship are silver pieces from the sailors' personal belonging. There is 1000sp in the boat but some sort of magical process would be needed to get it all, or an almost complete disassembly of the boat itself. Each turn of searching will produce 1d6 sp and has a 10% chance of unearthing a gem or jewel from the following list. Each can only be found once (duplicate rolls are non-finds) and no more than 6 items can be found (the remaining four have washed away):
  1. Azurite - 10gp value
  2. Large carved jade, chipped - 100gp
  3. Large carved coral - 500gp
  4. Gold earrings - 10gp
  5. 1d6 Pearls (100gp each)
  6. 1 Black pearl (500gp)
  7. Wrought gold filigree broach with coral insets - 1,600gp
  8. Gold sword hilt with rubies (no blade) - 3,000gp
  9. Silver drinking goblet with diamond armorial design - 2000gp
  10. Large violet garnet - seems 500gp but when examined by gemsmith or merchant is only 100gp.
There are signs of other treasure such as tapestries and similar material taken from merchant ships but these are rotten and worthless now.

The Pirate Statues
The area around the ship, and within it, is littered with the smashed stone corpses of the men who were killed by the medusa and the gargoyles. As one goes further from the ship these become less frequent but there is still a macabre feeling as one walks about that there has been a mass slaughter and that body parts have been scattered about the landscape (which is, of course, true).

The Cove Area
On the north-west of the main island are two headless statues cowering in a small cove (C), their hands thrown up to protect themselves as they huddled with their backs pressed to the wall. Unnoticed by the gargoyles, these two pirates had attempted to make a break for it with some of their possessions - a small locked chest. Inside there is about 200sp, two gems (an ornimental Rhodochrosite, and a  semi-precious Bloodstone - dice for value as needed) and a map.

The Islands
The two islands are dry and scrubby, with just about enough in the way of trees to provide shelter and food for a few dozen goats of varying ages. There are a few seasonal springs and the old monastic/hermitage collection of beehive cells where the princess currently resides has a small pond outside carved into the stone of the hillside which generally contains water all year around (boil before drinking). The landscape itself is unvarying scrub, olive trees, and cacti, so the maps just show elevation. The lightest yellow band on the attached maps show the range of the tides and the other colours show height in steps of 30'. The gargoyles at their stations have a horizon of about 7 miles (assuming an Earth-like world).
Medusa's "Lair" area

As well as eating the goats, the princess has also taken up fishing but even though she tries to land and kill the fish with her eyes closed there are a fair number of stone fish in little piles around the beaches.

At low tide, the smaller island can be reached by wading across in water waist-deep for an adult male human.

The Pirate's Map
This is a suggestion based on what I rolled up from the DMG; change it to something that fits if it is unsuitable but the map should lead to a guarded treasure of at least 45,000gp value in a monster's lair 30-40 miles away:

The map shows the islands of the medusa and some land to the east with a point marked on a mountain. There is text in a language which should correspond in your campaign to what Latin was in the 17th century on Earth - a language widely used by the educated but not commonly spoken any more. An accurate translation of this indicates that the islands are to be the second port of call after visiting the "Master of Gold Dragons" in his stronghold with the gift of "the statue" in return for the loan of the Mask of Johydee. This guardian is in fact an old gold dragon in human form, living the life (and with the abilities) of an 8th level monk with the standard followers for his level. His monastery-fortress contains his dragon treasure as well as the famous artefact. He is lawful good and his aim is to keep the mask away from those who would do evil with it. He is known to sometimes loan it out for short periods to those who are of his own alignment and who show a appropriate levels of sacrifice (ie, bring him something to add to his hoard); the price varies depending on how worthy he deems the cause. Monks of 8th level or higher will recognize him for what he is and treat him as separate from the normal hierarchy (ie, he doesn't count as the local 8th level monk who must be defeated in combat).

The map merely mentions "Master Gin-ti" as those using it knew who he was and makes no mention of his true nature (which they did not know) or even the monastery as such. The point of the map was to show the medusa islands, a fact which along with a bad translation doomed the pirates who captured it.

That's the situation at the start of the encounter. The main thing the DM needs to decide upon is how long it is since the pirates landed and were killed. If it was, say, 40 years ago, then even if the princess is somehow rescued it is unlikely to have much effect in the campaign as those who might have supported her will be dead. If it was just last year, then there is the potential for all sorts of political shenanigans in the wake of her story being revealed in whatever country you decide to place her background.

Likewise, names are left to the DM to decide based on personal style/setting.

A soft-hearted DM may find that the seemingly lost prince charming is an intact statue in the captain's cabin of a bound and blindfolded prisoner who might be restored to flesh and blood. Or not, as the case may be.

The main treasure is intentionally difficult to find and even if found it will be a burden rather than a reward until it can be disposed of properly. It is left to the DM to decide if anyone is looking for this statue which is probably looted from a temple somewhere.

This was an experiment in putting a simple encounter up on the blog; as usual I've written much more than I planned and the maps are a bit disappointing and a lot less detailed than they would be if I drew them with a pencil on paper. I've used a one-mile hex and a couble of one-furlong hexes (the two smaller sizes in my imperial Campaign Map Book) and if you print the latter out on an A3 page then they should be directly usable as one hex translates directly to 1 inch for movement, ranges etc. Using a few bits of Lego as markers for where gargoyles and PCs are should be easy enough.

The encounter is not meant to be a "scenario" as such, just something to throw in as an encounter at sea. There's not nearly enough happening on  the islands to take up a full play session, but the implications of what the players find may lead on to other things.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Die or Save

The well known phrase or saying "save or die" is an example of how something can creep into the language and become accepted and widely used and yet express exactly the opposite of the real situation (the common use of "crunch" for rules and "fluff" for the important stuff is another example).

There is no "Save or Die" mechanic in OD&D or AD&D.

Not the DM's Fault
What actually happens is that the character is in a situation where they face certain death (or whatever) - a dragon breathes on them or a giant scorpion stinger hits them. At this point, all seems lost. BUT! They get a chance to somehow avoid or at least mitigate the effects.

This is a classic situation in the fantasy that forms the roots of the game - the villain casts a dire spell and is astounded as the hero resists it; or the supposed poison only incapacitates the victim or is shrugged off.

Saving throws and hit points represent that particular type of author's favour that allows the central characters to get out of "impossible" scrapes or survive against massive odds. As the characters rise in level they become more and more central and gain more favour. Thus, there is no direct connection between a character's ability scores and their saves (other than some flat bonuses) - Frodo saves well because he's important in a metagame sense rather than by dint of high ability scores or other in-game reasons.

The phrase "Save or Die" is really part of the mythos of the legendary Killer DM (much spoke of; seldom encountered) in early gaming fostered by those who have "contemporary design sensibilities". The two go together because a DM who wants to can arbitrarily declare anything a "sudden death" situation - falling down the stairs; eating mushrooms; climbing a wall. S/he can put poisonous snakes in the beds of the inn or giant spiders in the PC's coach. Of course s/he can!

The fact that AD&D doesn't have a rule that says they shouldn't doesn't change the fact that the players can up and leave because the DM is a moron. There's no rule against being a killer DM but there's no rule to say that anyone has to put up with it either.

But the problem with putting rules in to control such a DM is that you end up with rules that limit all DMs while the bad ones will just find other ways to be annoying (there's an infinite supply).

The saving throw mechanic is part of a players' ability to make a judgement - if I do this I have a chance to make it. The alternatives should be obvious and top of the list is "run away" or at least "don't do that". The player knows that the touch of a ghoul paralyses or that a medusa's gaze will turn them to stone or that a room full of gigantic cobwebs might mean poisonous spiders and that might mean poisonous bites. It only becomes "Save or Die" when the DM (and not the player) eliminates the choice of facing the danger.

Of course, the players don't know what's around the corner much of the time but that's just another way of saying "we're not scouting very well". Whether you're in a "funhouse" dungeon or a more logically balanced scenario the party that allows their fate to be determined by random rolls without trying to minimise the number of those crucial rolls is responsible for throwing away the charatcers, not the DM. Calling the act of repeatedly and blindly putting your head in the lion's mouth "save or die" is to put the cause and effect the wrong way around.

Later editions of the game gradually moved away from true exploring towards a bland conveyor belt of combat. The game system took on responsibility for producing encounters which the character party could face with a set level of danger. The players no longer had to worry about making sure that they were not walking into a deathtrap - instead, deathtraps were made illegal. Ultimately we end up with fourth edition which is simply a sort of chess on steroids battle system, with even the roleplaying reduced to a bunch of dice rolls in the "Skill Challenge" system. I'm not sure where the "challenge" is in that, unless it's to avoid RSI from the dice rolling.

It's a testament to the standards of players out there today that this attempt has failed both strategically (the game was a flop) and tactically (many players who do play 4e have hacked this sort of rubbish out of it). Players - yes, even youngsters of the "entitlement generation" as many Grognards refer to them - actually don't want their minotaur delivered in a box for free XP, even the ones that like tactical skirmish games. Which is probably a good thing for imaginative DM's everywhere who want to invent actual challenges for their players to try overcoming; there still is an audience for that sort of play.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Way of Weird

There's a lot of talk at the moment about "Weird Fantasy" (not the magazine) and I've been looking at some of the examples. Probably the most well known at the moment are Jim Raggi's Lamentation of the Flame Princess and Geoffrey McKinney's work in Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown. Certainly these two have been very open about wanting to produce Weird Fantasy. The problem arises: what is "weird" in a fantasy world?

Raggi has generally marked out the unique monster as the touchstone of the sub-genre and I first heard of him via his Random Esoteric Creature Generator (or possibly his "I hate fun" essay; I can't remember which exactly) which had the express purpose of obviating the need for a "monster manual" by having every monster be different. Likewise, LotFP has no book of monsters and all the monsters on the Raggi-produced Isle of Adventure are unique.

I don't feel this is a productive approach to the question of weirdness in the game world. Partly this is because it's a lot of work to keep coming up with new monsters for every single encounter, but also because I think is is actually counter-productive; the weird simply becomes mundane.

The "weird" is that which is outside the norm; the things that stand out from the background. But that background need not be like our world nor lack the existence of re-occurring monster types.

Not Weird
When a PC is walking down a main street of a city in Tsolyanu in M. A. R. Barker's Tekumel, s/he will bargain with insectoid Pe Choi, engage in frustrating lingual difficulties with four-legged two-armed literal-minded Tinaliya and attempt to avoid the dung of the four-faced Ahoggya. None of this is weird, on Tekumel.

Once the underworld is entered, however, things change. Ancient crypts may contain anything from sentient clouds of eyes to incarnated weapons in the form of women whose kisses incinerate their lovers, to mouths with hairy legs. But all interspersed with "ordinary monsters" and human cultists as well as the various non-human races and alien technology.

Every campaign needs some bread-and-butter monsters and the repetitiveness of many supposedly unique monsters simply points up how hard it is to be original every time. AD&D's hoardlings and Glorantha's Broo actually become quite dull after a while as their randomness becomes their most distinctive characteristic. When everything is weird, nothing is.

To me the key to a good Weird Fantasy campaign is indeed uniqueness, but used sparingly; less than once per scenario. The background and its patterns of what counts as normal needs to be firmly established so that the players can genuinely feel a shock when those patterns are broken.

I've only managed to frighten players a couple of times at the table, and both times were by the use of unique monsters but the fact is that they only knew they were dealing with something unique and weird because they had internalized the rest of the fantasy world with its orcs and owlbears and so on; there was an established style which allowed their expectations to be undercut effectively.

It is possible to build a fantasy world where all monsters are unique but I think the only way to pull it off is to replace monsters generally with people - evil high priests, magicians, and lots of 0-level minion types - rather than to simply generate dozens of singular monsters and go on as if nothing had changed.

Interestingly, many of the monsters in the monster manual reflect this too, in that many of them are drawn from "real" myth and were originally imagined as being unique. The catoblepas was Weird Fantasy in the 16th century. The one and only chimera was a bizarre and unsettling combination of impossible characteristics 21 centuries before that.

But if I were to pick out one MM monster that has fallen the furthest from its Weird Fantasy original, it would be the minotaur.

The story of the minotaur is horrific and perverted in many ways. We tend to think of the Greek myths as something rather highbrow, but many of them are nothing more than horror stories obviously invented with the same aim as The Exorcist - a thin layer of religious moralizing used to excuse some gore and thrills.

So, Daedalus builds a fake cow for the queen of Crete to climb into so she can have sex with a bull. Depending on where you learned about the Minotaur this is either a bit of a shock, or you're so used to it as a part of the story that you don't really think about it. Think about it now; imagine it's a real news item about your own queen or first lady or whatever you have in your country. Imagine people's reaction.

But, hey, it gets better. The queen gets pregnant and has the child. It's half human and half bull (which half is which, is surprisingly not completely agreed upon in antiquity but the bull-headed version is the most popular); let that delivery room scene play out in your head for a moment too (and the version where the head is human too, why not?).

No longer weird
So baby Asterion (as he was named) is locked up in a maze "with convoluted flexitions that disorders debouchment" (ie, a maze of twisty little passages, all alike) and was fed human women to keep him alive for "religious reasons".

The Minotaur is a layer cake of freakishness piled on freakishness and the effect in the mind's eye of the listener at the plays written about it was exactly the one desired by Weird Fantasy writers - the skin crawling, hair-raising feeling of wrongness.

Yet the minotaur (little 'm') is one of the most tired and mundane of all fantasy tropes today, IMO. In many settings players can play a minotaur, meet other minotaurs, settle down, raise little minotaurs and run for mayor of Bullpen (pop. 103). About as bland a "monster" as one can imagine.

The minotaur illustrates two sides of the coin: the original shows what the essence of the Weird is - the feeling of wrongness that can be evoked even in a real world where real people believe that nature spirits inhabit practically every glade and hill and gods walk the Earth in human guise almost daily. Being supernatural is not Weird in itself, and you can have a deeply supernatural world of wonders without having to make everything unique.

On the other hand, uniqueness is vital to the Weird in that familiarity inevitably erodes shock. "Blink" was one of the best Doctor Who episodes of recent years; "Time of Angels" wasn't. The minotaur is a warning to everyone who thinks they can recapture the original atmosphere of a monster by bringing it back, especially bringing it back in numbers. What you get the second time is not Weird any more, no matter how dangerous you make it.

You Say "Contemporary", I Say "Decadent Crap". Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.

From the Diana Jones Award 2012 nominations page:
If you're looking for a big system that can stand up to long-term campaign play as well as D&D but is designed with contemporary design sensibilities, BWG is the game for you.
The Burning Wheel system has introduced a host of design innovations over the years. A few examples: with the fail forward mentality a missed die roll isn't a failure, it's an unexpected outcome; instead of the GM designing adventures, players direct the action by listing their beliefs and what they intend to do about them; players can make world-setting contributions by creating NPCs using the Circles mechanic or historical facts using the Wises mechanic; and players develop rich character concepts using an elaborate (and fun) Lifepaths mechanic reminiscent of Traveller.
I don't think I could sum up what's wrong with "contemporary design sensibilities" any better than the above list. Of course "contemporary design sensibilities" is code for "better" in whatever field it appears in, often about 5 years before those sensibilities are thrown out and regarded as brain-dead crap by the next wave.

Design sensibilities are subjective and "contemporary" or "modern" or "avant garde" are just stamps people stick on them to make them sound objective. By dint of being subjective, of course, there are always people who don't agree with them - often quite contemporary people.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

I Love Islands (true)

I have a thing for islands. I can honestly say that there are islands in JG's wilderness campaign I still dream about today, 30 years after first reading about them. Apart from the romance of the isolated setting, which captures in itself a lot of the romance of fantasy role-playing itself (ie, getting away from the world), islands have a lot going for them as scenario settings. To wit:

  • Space with limits. An island may be from less than one to several dozen square miles. That's a lot of room, probably with resources to find and use, perhaps allies to befriend and strange artefacts to discover and attempt to decode for clues. But at the same time, if a demonic monkey is hunting you, the island is still an island and you're going to have to find a solution to the monkey at some point.
  • In-game rationales. Islands are a prefect excuse for stuff laying around for centuries unnoticed, or for weird monsters (that can't swim) to be roaming without the local bigwigs sorting it out, or for freakish and bizarre governments or cults that have been unmolested by concerned neighbours.
  • Lack of reinforcements. The PCs can't simply "phone the police"; if there's a situation then they have to deal with it. The space on the island may give them more breathing space than in a dungeon but the setting gives a certain amount of focus and impetus.

When used as the setting for the very first scenario for a group of new characters the shipwrecked trope is one of my favourites as, in addition to the above, a shipwreck also:

  • Explains why a group of potentially very different characters are together; even allowing for alignment combinations that would not work in other situations.
  • Gives the characters an automatic sub-plot to deal with in that they presumably want to find a way off the island and back home but have lost the one they had (ie, the ship).

Of course, in a fantasy, islands need not be land surrounded by sea. They may be land floating in a sky, over a sea of fire; or pumice on lava; or ice on sea; or Law in Chaos; or settled land in the midst of a thick, vicious jungle ruled by Nazi ents sworn to the extermination of grass and the lower life-forms that feed on it. They could even be shrinking bubbles of reality in a cloud of extra-dimensional dreams. Whatever they are, of course, they need not be there the next time the characters come by that way.

Islands formed the core of Sinbad's adventures, Conan had a few of his most memorable adventures on islands, and they naturally figured very prominently in Greek myths. Islands make excellent places to put the weird (of which I'll write a bit more next time) and certainly make good "beyond the borders" areas. They can give a scenario a direction while leaving the players enough options to avoid an outright railroad.

Once the characters are higher level and can start teleporting or using magical air transport, the appeal of islands as setting diminishes as their isolation is diminished, but they still retain a romantic air of "what if" about them where things stranger than the norm, even for a fantasy campaign, can be encountered and interacted with.
"At last they stood on the ultimate pinnacle, their hair stirring in the sea wind. From their feet the cliffs fell away sheerly three or four hundred feet to a narrow tangle of woodlands bordering the beach. Looking southward they saw the whole island lying like a great oval mirror, its bevelled edges sloping down swiftly into a rim of green, except where it broke in the pitch of the cliffs. As far as they could see, on all sides stretched the blue waters, still, placid, fading into dreamy hazes of distance.
"The sea is still," sighed Olivia. "Why should we not take up our journey again?"
Conan, poised like a bronze statue on the cliffs, pointed northward. Straining her eyes, Olivia saw a white fleck that seemed to hang suspended in the aching haze." Robert E. Howard "Shadows in Moonlight"
"Hex 0229 Isle of Greysend-A shipwrecked squadron of charmed knights who have married all of the goblin women" Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Map Two: Barbarian Altanis