Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From a Discussion...

This is weak, I know, but in the effort to post more often I'm clipping a piece I wrote as a comment on The Emperyan that I thought was relevant:

"An interesting thought occurred to me the other day as I sat having a conversation with one of my pals about this "old school" movement; the rules matter. Now that epiphany might seem both blatantly obvious as well as simplistic but it's the way that I came to it that brought it home for me.

After commenting that too many rules constrict imagination my buddy said well why don't we take the approach of rules subtraction and apply old school methodology to our current (4E) game. I've heard this argument before...

In a nutshell, it doesn't work. At least within the construct of 4E. 

Here's an example: Say I've got a thief (er, rogue...sorry.) and he's in a bit of a tussle in the local constabulary. The room is strewn with tables and furniture of one sort or another and he's eager to put his vaunted dexterity to the test. After all, that's what thieves are known for right?

So he plans to flip a footstool into the face of an oncoming assailant and then leap onto the table in order to foil the clumsy attack of the bumbling guardsman. 

OK, so in 4E it plays out rather like this:
DM: Your turn...
Player: I kick the small footstool through the air towards the oncoming guard on my left there in order to slow his approach.
DM: What power are you using to do this?
Player: Power? Uhm...Er...


Scene dramatics fizzle out and fade to grey.

To put it simply, the 4E rules are meant to be used in a very certain way. Granted, a creative group could describe what they're doing and bend the power to the action. But IF it doesn't specifically fit then they're shoe-horning things. And this is a pain. Why do it? Why not use rules that were meant for this style of play?

Thus the resurgence of "old school". IMHO of course."

Friday, October 10, 2008

House of the Worm Part 1

Hey ya, (faint echoes from an empty chamber...) ;-)

I had mentioned earlier that I had run a game of Microlite20 during a fest, and that I was going to post the recap of the session. Well here's part 1. Enjoy:

Players / PCs:
Ben - Human Rogue (Atadus "The Salesman")
Chris - 1/2 Elf Ranger (Duncan Sabastian McLoud..(NO that's not a misspelling of McLeod))
Ed - Lizardman Fighter (Sleeeestak)
Ray - Drow Paladin (Zenin)

DM: Jeff

A bright Fall day dawns clear and crisp upon the small town of Botkinburg. Located on the far eastern borders of the Great Kingdom, the town embraces some of the less savory citizens that the kingdom has to offer. It is as far as an individual might get from the law, and yet still be in "civilized" lands... For not far to the east, in fact just across the Hruesen river, lies the Wilderness. And everyone knows that the Wilderness holds only death and danger.

It is this fact that draws the four adventurers to the small town, for it is well known among that particular sect that danger usually equates to money and glory. The Bent Hook is the only tavern in town, better known as "Ortloff's House of Sludge" (for the thick beer brewed in the basement), it provides a warm place to sleep and incidentally, also some valuable information. Apparently many years ago there was another group of adventurers that had tested the Wilderness to the east, and it was here, the Bent Hook, that they utilized as their base between forays. Unfortunately about 10 years ago there was a fire that burnt The Bent Hook to the ground and killed a few of the adventurers. The catastrophe caused the group to disband...An adventuring party hasn't been seen in Botkinburg since.

A back room of the tavern was where they met, planned and drew what they new of the Wilderness on the wall with whatever was handy. Often as not it was a knife or some charcoal from the fireplace used to indelibly mark their progress. Over time a map emerged. It was not particularly accurate but it was a log of where the adventurers had been, the things they had seen and those area that had as yet to be conquered. This wall became famous amongst the patrons at the House of Sludge, it gave the common man a view into the danger that lies only a short distance beyond their dusty doorsteps.

Fast forward a decade and the only remaining part of the famous wall is a section that Ortloff found amongst the ashes after the fire that destroyed his establishment. This small surviving piece of wall seemed to detail an area called Pike Hollow, somewhere off to the north east of Botkinburg...Maybe a day or so of marching through tangled woods, sloping hills and sharp ravines. In the Hollow though lies a hill, and upon that hill lies the House of the Worm. According to the small section of map, it had never truly been explored, but only just "stumbled" upon. And engraved in the wood next to the map itself was a poem of sorts, some if it burnt and obscured by the fire:

"Below the ground, where pale worms crawl,
lies darkness vast, so cold, and deep.
Lord Ramm holds court at the end of the fall,
and there lies the tool, the treasure we seek.
His mind has sipped chaos at the edges of space,
appease his longing with artifice, lor... (burnt)
... (burnt)... of sanguine will slake."

Ortloff takes the group outside and points off into the hazy distance, "That's 'bout where Pike Holler lies...least ways, that's what them that's been there's told me. You git across that river by way of the Troll Bridge." Each of the adventurers look at one another, "Troll Bridge or Toll Bridge?" 

Ortloff scratches his head, nods and says, "Yeah, that's what I said." 

Meanwhile, Duncan takes careful note and memorizes the landscape as reference in preparation for the march through the dark trees.

A few preparations take all of an hour and the doughty band of explorers are off, heading down the bank of the mighty Hruesen river in search of this "Toll / Troll" bridge. Warm and crisp fall weather accompanies the group on their journey to the bridge, but the landscape changes quite drastically. It's more than obvious that the town's folk do not venture this way, for the banks are overgrown with thick vegetation and there's nary a trail to be seen.

Not long after their departure though the group happens across an old, weathered, stone bridge spanning the Hruesen. This must be it. Sitting in the middle of nowhere this obviously dwarven structure has no roads leading to it nor is anything evident upon the opposite shore. Old Spanish moss hangs under the bridge, slowly dragging it's hoary fingers idly in the water and lichens cover nearly every other weather worn surface. Nonetheless, it looks structurally sound.

Atadus approaches from the side, under cover of the foliage, while using the susurrus of the Hruesen to mask the sound of his approach. The contrast between the shadows and the bright sun makes peering under the bridge difficult, and therefore the thief is taking his time. Zenin is not of the mind to "wait", and he proceeds to stomp across the bridge, throwing caution (and prudence?) to the wind. Sleeestack joins the dark elf, and the noise of metal clad boots on stone reverberates up and down the river.

A dark shape, detaches itself from under the bridge like a bloated bi-pedal spider and clambers up from the dark. "Who walks upon my bridge?" rumbles forth from the creature as it makes its way up. Zenin answers with a query of his own, "Who wants to know?". As the creature finally makes its way to the top of the bridge and stands up, it's full size can be seen. Standing between 7 to 8 feet tall, the hunched grey-skinned brute's hands swing below its knees and nearly drag on the stone of the bridge. Beetling eyes stare from beneath huge brow ridges set in a craggy face appearing to have been carved from primordial stone.

"I want to know....I am the keeper of this bridge. And to use it you must pay." rasps the monstrosity. Zenin asks what the toll might consist of. Goats, replies the guardian. "Well, we're fresh out. I think we'll just pass instead." quips the dark elf paladin as he attempts to nimbly step past the brute.

"No, you NOT pass!" roars the creature as it takes a double armed swipe. Battle is joined, and as hoary as this monstrosity seems, it is no match for the combined might of the adventurers. Sleeeestack's enchanted sword proves to come in handy, as part way into the combat the creature slams its palms down onto the stony surface of the bridge and quickly regenerates all of its wounds minus those made from the lizardman barbarian's blade.

Soon enough the wounds are too much to overcome, and the behemoth topples over. As it's massive body strikes the bridge a resounding "CRACK" splits the air and dust rises from the ancient structure as it starts to shake in its foundations. Seems that the guardian was connected to the bridge in more ways than one.

Atadus, ever the conscientious adventurer quickly grabs a rope from his pack, ties it about his waste and hand the bitter end to his Lizardman companion. With a shout he runs across the shaking bridge, plants a foot and swings over the side, using the rope as a lever...and up underneath near the large central pillar. Quickly surveying the situation through choking dust and falling stone, the thief spies a cleft in the pillar with a small black box firmly ensconced. He nabs it and swings back out. Just as the far end of the bridge on the Botkinburg side collapses with a groan and a splash.

The small worn box is dealt with quickly and opens to reveal 40 or so grey coins. They are obviously quite old, as the face of each is stamped with a frightful lizardlike countenance of a long forgotten king of the Lizard Empire. It is not recognizable by any of the adventurers so they divide them up and pocket their just rewards. Wounds are cleaned, a little food is broken out and thirsts slaked, and afterwards the journey towards the House of the Worm is continued.

The foliage becomes thicker and the travel that much more difficult. Duncan takes his bearings many times, and the party is thankful for that as they make their way through tangles of scrub oak and tight underbrush. As the day passes its zenith Duncan raises his hand as he hears a noise up ahead...

Again, Zenin seems to care naught for subterfuge nor the party's safety as he continues on his noisy way. Sleeeestack shrugs his massive shoulders, and again, follows the paladin's lead. Atadus and Duncan, on the other hand, figure that this is the perfect time for prudence as they disappear quietly into the surrounding brush.

Stepping out of the forest not far ahead comes a group of men...if they can be called that. Rumors and children's ryhmes have hinted at these proto-humans for decades. From the mist shrouded past, these creatures appear man-like but yet again, not like "modern" man. They have jutting brow ridges, thicker jaws and are stoutly built, not to mention the primitive skins they're clothed in and the stone tipped weapons they carry... These are most certainly "cave men".

A brutish character steps to the fore, he raises his hands in the air and stands still, appraising the newcomers. The only sound is the creak of Duncan's bowstring.

No one makes a move as each side sizes up the other. There seem to be nearly a dozen of these cave men and they are obviously on some type of hunting expedition, as small capons and birds hang from crude rawhide belts alongside leathern sacks and other stone trinkets of lesser known use.

Surprisingly, the apparent leader steps forward, hands still raised in the air, and in halting common asks where the characters are bound to. They mention that they are going to slay evil. The leader of the cavemen shakes his head in confusion, but at the same time seems to take particular notice of the metal weapons that the dark elf and lizardman are wielding. He takes another few steps forward and slaps his hand on an obsidian axe, while still looking longingly at the metal weapons. "Strong...to kill. Good. Last long and long." he says, and he points to the weapons.

On a hunch Zenin pulls one of the platinum coins from the bridge out of his pouch and shows it to the leader. Looking over his shoulder at his wary men, the proto-man approaches and reaches out for the coin. He looks at it with amazement and then bites it, apparently satisfied he puts it in a sack at his waist and fishes around in it for a second. He draws forth 5 small, smooth, black stones. "Fire god live here", he says as he points to the stones, and then he drops them in Zenin's palm. They're immediately warm...warmer than they should be.

Looking closely, Zenin sees a dim red glow at the stone's heart. Their use is determined soon enough...

With a nod of his shaggy head, the leader turns and strides off into the thick woods. His hunters, following in a loose band, disappear with him, like wisps of smoke on the wind. After some dead reckoning by the ranger, the group decides that they're moving in generally the correct direction as they move off through trees.

Time passes and the terrain becomes more ruggedly hilled, with small gullies and ravines appearing, making travel that much more difficult. Eventually, towards evening, a hill is crested and off in the distance the ruins of a tumbled tower are sighted. At last, the House of the Worm.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A few thoughts on differences

"In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game." - Quote from SquareMans blog

I was reading a few of my "breakfast blogs" while partaking in my brisky mornin munchin (I don't really "like" Gungans btw), and noticed this quote on SquareMans blog. For some reason, maybe it was the right time in the right place, it resonated with me.

I've had the discussion with a buddy of mine about why Dungeons and Dragons has evolved in the way that it has. We're were both pretty sure that it has to do with a couple of things:
  1. Remove the Bad GM (as per SquareMans) from the equation.
  2. Something to do with Gary Gygax (RIP) and his view of how people were playing the game.
  3. Allow people to gather at conventions and be able to play w/out sitting around a table for 3 hours trying to figure out a standardized set of "house rules".
Now I'm not claiming that I know it all. In fact, quite the opposite. I don't claim to know diddly really. I've got a fair amount of years under my belt in terms of playing the game.... but that hardly qualifies me as any sort of an expert. But, like everyone else, I've got an opinion and lordy lou...lookee here, we have a medium for me to espouse that opinion.

If I were to add to SquareMan's quote up above I'd say that in so doing, the game has actually deprecated the DM. What I mean is that the rules have become so encompassing in their attempt at standardization and the "fair" game, that they've relegated the DM to the role of adjudicator and story teller.

Some of you may say, hey, that doesn't sound so bad. But when I say "story teller" I'm also saying that if you laid out a module in front of the group and said "read the text box, nothing else", AND you had a rules lawyer in the group, you could do away with the DM completely. This is a strong statement... I know. But if you think about it, you'll see that there might be a kernel of truth in what I say.

Let's take a modern day game (4E for argument's sake) as an example, it runs very much like a war game. You have "figures" that move in squares. They have powers that they can utilize on a time-managed scale. (Sort of like you could "force march" your troops only so many times / game.) Now take a recent WotC released module. It has everything you need as a DM stated right there. You read out of the boxes (if you like, you're never forced of course) and utilize the monsters given.

A nice neat plot path dictates how things will play out in their entirety. Now obviously things don't always go as planned...but the skeleton, musculature and nervous system have been laid our for you. The players add the skin. Viola, you've got a game!

In the above scenario, given honest gamers, you could lay the module out in front of them and tell them to only read the boxed sections. When they need the monsters they could read all they need from either the core books or the module itself and play against them.

Example (most of this is made up...I don't have a 4e PHB in front of me):
  • Player - "I shift one square and use my daily, 'Positioning Strike' power." clickety clickety roll... Success! Orc takes 2W+Dex and player can move adversary's mini 2 squares in any direction.
  • Orc - (stats and powers listed for player to look at.) Takes a "move action" to reposition and uses its "Octopus from Above" encounter power...clickety clicket...die is rolled. Success! Player takes 2w and is now considered grappled.
  • Player 2 - Rinse Repeat
This is obviously a very "dry" example. But the current game doesn't scream for colorful descriptions...It's all about powers, combinations and tactical movement. This honestly  doesn't require a DM IMHO.

When I was young I used to play Squad Leader a LOT. I often played it solo though... I couldn't find many people interested in playing a game with me. This was a wonderful way to learn strategy and how you could use the rules to win.... Hint, hint.

What ever happened to, "I kick the table over, put a shoulder to it and push it into the orcs coming through the door"? These types of things take a DM to adjudicate. It's a free form style that can't be defined by rules. In 4E I'm consumed with staring at my sheet and powers and trying to figure out what might be the best tactical solution to the current situation. D R Y.

I'm not complaining really. I like 4E for what it is. But it is NOT in any way related to Dungeons and Dragons of yesteryear. Not one bit.

Friday, October 3, 2008


This is a game blog. Mostly about RPGs, fantasy role playing in particular. Dungeons and Dragons, Microlite20, and Castles and Crusades are all my flavors of the day. I like all of them for different reasons.

Dungeons and Dragons 4e: I like it because that's what the group plays. In my experience, it's a good game for a few short sessions. It's fun in a miniatures, wargamey kind of way.

Microlite20: Is tons of fun for an old school, rules (very) lite style game. I've only played it for a short while, so my perspective might be a bit skewed. But man, I had an assload of fun running it!

Castles and Crusades: This was the game that I stumbled upon, and eventually chose, after my disassociation with Dungeons and Dragons when WotC announced the release of 4e. It's a great game, but you know what? I almost think that microlite20 could conceivably take its place. I'm weighing the options.

I digress. This isn't about what system I'm into playing at the moment, but rather this post was spurred by a dragon's foot post about the "first game" you played in. I think I've written about how I started, about Jim and his Napoleonics games and his love affair with everything Tolkein.

But my first game... What was that like? I remember the guys: Fish (our DM), Dave, Wayne, Shawn and myself had all gathered around Fish's kitchen table. I had been introduced to the rules (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook) by way of Fish handing it to me in the Jr. High (I was 13) gymnasium and saying "Here are the rules. Read em."

Now pause for a moment and imagine that. Someone handing you a book like the old PHB with the only explanation being that it's a game about Elves, Dwarfs and Orcs. He told me that the first few chapters were all I needed to read. First few CHAPTERS?!?

I'd been a war game buff for quite a few years at this point, and therefore was no stranger to rule sets that needed a few readings for clarity's sake. I dug into the PHB with relish when I got home that night. I loved parts...and I hated others. I was stunned at the difficulty. The book was pages upon pages of small print. Yeah there were really cool pictures in there too, and that helped motivate me somewhat.

I spent a few days with that book and read the first few chapters, as I was told, and then skimmed the rest. Confusion reigned. I was so completely lost that I thought I'd never ever understand the game. But I went to the first session anyway.

And had an absolute blast. I rolled up a magic user. We used the old 3d6 in order method and I apparently had a high intelligence. I don't remember his name. I don't remember much about him at all, other than he had magic missile and a dagger.

Fish (if I remember correctly) was either using Quasquetron, or that dungeon out of the back of the Holmes rules. He'd expanded upon it quite a bit using graph paper and I think he had numerous levels. The structure was totally cool, it was a maze of rooms and passages, some worked, some natural.

And at the end of one of the levels? A room with a hydra and a secret door, behind which was a staircase leading down to the next level! Oh man...that was seriously the coolest thing in the world to me at that time. I mean, a hydra! Whoa. And it was quite obviously guarding something REALLY amazing.

One thing I'd forgot to mention, I was late to the party. What I mean is, the other guys had been playing for a little while before I joined, they had a few sessions (at least) under their belts and had a slight inkling of what was to go on. I on the other hand, was clueless.

I remember that the most confusing thing for me was initiative. When Fish told us to roll for initiative Shawn picked up a d6 and rolled. I remember being completely baffled at the outcome. We rolled high, we won. But what did we win? It took me some time to come to grips with that concept.

I fell in absolute love with the game though. I was an instant convert. I adored JRR's works and I voraciously played war games when I could. You might say that I was the perfect target market. A 13 yr old boy, from a small cow town, surrounded by brainiacs of like mind, who all LOVED the genre and had VERY fertile imaginations. (Fish ended up getting a doctorate in lasers. Dave an engineering degree then an MBA...and the list goes on. Very very smart folks taught me the game.)

So what happened? I don't remember the specifics. I think we fought some orcs. I zapped one and fought off a few with my dagger. Shawn played a 1/2 orc fighter with an 18/00 strength, he was the rock star of the party, dealing out killing blows left and right. I was back row fodder. I honestly don't remember what Dave and Wayne played.

In the end though I got munched by a giant ant. It must have been either the first or second session. I know it was early on. But holy hannah, what a blast. I rolled up a ranger for my next character and named him Sparrow Hawk. (Can you guess what I was reading at the time?) I kept that character alive somehow and played him all the way through Jr. High school, through High School and on into University. I eventually retired him at 16th level,  but did I ever get some serious mileage out of that guy. I still have that character downstairs in a folder.

It all started way back in '77. To think, I've been playing this game for 31 years, and I don't see any sign of stopping anywhere in the near future...I'm now teaching my daughters. ;-)

Game on.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fest report

Well, the fest happened last weekend and even though we were missing a few folks, it went off without a hitch. I think that I had mentioned in my previous post that our regular DM had to bail at the last moment due to work conflicts. Bummer...

So we had to make due. And make due we did. ;-)

We ended up playing a game of Settlers of Catan on Friday night. It was good fun and Ben won, apropos since it was his "going away" party in the first place. Lots of beer was consumed and we all had a great time. I'd never played the game actually, and I have to say that it was really a cool experience. There's a LOT more strategy involved than I had initially thought.

Saturday dawned bright and early...and we started gaming around noon. Chris ended up sleeping late, as was his due.

We started in on a game of Microlite20 that I had prepared for. I had created a small folder for each of the players that contained rules and a couple of character sheets. The aim was to let the guys experience a rules-lite old school-type game. I don't think that there was anyone in that room that had ever played an edition of Dungeons and Dragons earlier than 2nd edition. This was their introduction to a type of gaming that has sadly gone the way of the dodo.

Rolling up characters took us all of about 20 to 30 minutes, including explaining some of the quirkier parts of the rules. After we had finished with that I placed them in a tavern (of course) and told them about a place called 'The House of the Worm" that was located to the northeast, in a place called "Pike Hollow". (Yes, I borrowed freely from a few sources...to be sure.)

The game played quite smoothly and there were very very few pauses for rules adjudication. I was pleased. Most of the game-play revolved around a more free-form style which was new to most of the guys. They are all experienced role players though and picked up on the spirit of the game and had a bunch of fun.

I won't go into detail about the game itself other than to say that I had a complete BLAST running the game. It was so ad-lib and free flowing that I was ecstatic. I tried very hard for a swords and sorcery appeal, something that just dripped old school flavor. I think I succeeded, the guys all raved about the game when we broke for dinner.

Unfortunately we didn't continue, but instead decided to give one of the other guys a chance at running Star Wars. Which was fun.... But a little more "involved" than the microlite20 game.

It was funny, as I started rolling up and creating my Star Wars character I was immediately lamenting the heavy-handed approach to running a game. And Star Wars isn't all that rules intensive compared to other systems. Still, it was a HUGE difference from microlite20.

The guy running the game, while good at making stuff up on the fly, was definitely into the rules and a little less into the "game" and flavor. I'm not complaining, I had fun, I'm just making an observation.

I'd like to run another game of microlite20. I'm not sure that it will ever happen though...sadly the guys I play with are REALLY into the WotC thing right now. "Sigh", what's a guy to do? The upside though is that I finally got to play a rules-lite, old school session with some grown ups AND one of the guys playing totally dug the game and setting and was talking about trying to run a sandbox game with me sometime in the future. Yeah!