Sunday, January 31, 2010

Just Scored Me Some Otherworld Pig-faced Orcs

I have been waiting for these miniatures for 4 months. Finally they arrived a couple of days ago at my FLGS! As I was paying for them, I told Don at The Sentry Box that he is my new hero. He said he'd like to bring more Otherworld figures into the store, particularly the Demon Idol miniature, modelled on the idol from the front cover of the original AD&D Players Handbook. If you are thinking of buying any Otherworld miniatures, let Don know, that may embolden him to bring that Demon Idol mini in as well, and have someone paint it up for the display case.

Now comes the fun part, painting these Pig-faced Orcs up, and getting them onto the table!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Initiative And Attack Priority

My earliest gaming experience with combat initiative in Dungeons and Dragons was of the semi-random variety. Both sides (the party and the DM) rolled a d6, and whichever side rolled higher had initiative that turn.

As we became "more sophisticated" gamers, we turned to individual initiative, with each player rolling a d10 and adding their Dexterity bonus. The DM would also roll a d10, and attack priority would be granted from highest to lowest number, with the monsters attacking at the same time, based on the DM's roll. At one point, we even applied weapon speeds to our initiative rolls, so that players with faster weapons had a better chance of striking first.

I find this table (from the Ready Ref Sheets) to be very curious. It suggests that, after "Glance", "Breath" and Missile weapons, the longer and slower weapons have priority during combat. To be sure, a character weilding a faster weapon can modify the timing of their attack by having high Dexterity and wearing light or no armor, but the table still suggests that on balance it is the longer, slower melee weapons that act first.

For me, the attack priorities proposed in this table only make sense during the first round of combat, when the combatants first come to blows. After that, i'm not sure I would use this table to determine attack priority. I might still give Glance, Breath and Missile weapons the advantage, but would then reverse the order of the melee weapons, so that the short weapons would have earlier attack priority.

In modern Dungeons and Dragons, i'm not sure it really matters who strikes first (particularly when your characters have advanced several levels). But in Chainmail's Man-To-Man Combat section and Fantasy Supplement, attack priority is of critical importance. That is because, before the innovation of Hit Points, a successful hit resulted in an automatic kill. Therefore, whoever gained attack priority possessed a huge advantage, since, if their attack was successful, they would kill their opponent, thereby avoiding being killed themselves.

This could explain why attack priority and initiative was taken very seriously in early versions of Dungeons and Dragons.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ready Ref Sheets: Chainmail Combat tables

I purchased the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets from RPGNow several days ago.

The Ready Ref Sheets include roughly 60 pages of tables and other content, both stimulating and stale.

Stimulating content includes rules for "Offensive Locution". For example, Characters can use witticisms and repartee to try to affect combat: successful repartee will stop your opponents from attacking, while successful witticisms will allow you to strike your opponent first. What a fantastic idea! If employed as both role-and roll-playing (rather than simply the latter), the idea of repartee and witticisms in combat would add a fascinating dimension to a pirate / robin hood / swashbuckling / three musketeers campaign!

As for the stale content? How about two pages of rules for initiating and maintaining a successful amorous liasion?

Overall conclusion? For all its faults, at $3, Ready Ref Sheets is one Judges Guild product you should not be without.

Several of the included combat tables in the Ready Ref Sheets are printed (with permission) from the Chainmail rules for medieval miniatures. Most of you will already know that the standard combat rules for Original Dungeons & Dragons assumed ownership and use of Chainmail, but that an "alternative" set of d20 combat rules were provided in OD&D, for those OD&D purchasers who did not already own Chainmail. By the time Basic and Advanced D&D replaced OD&D, those "alternative" d20 combat rules had become -- and still are -- the standard. Whether the recommendation to use Chainmail combat was simply a marketing ploy by Gary Gygax, to sell more books, or whether he truly considered the Chainmail rules to be superior, I cannot say.

What I can say is that, looking at the Chainmail man-to-man combat tables, I am struck by how different the Chainmail combat rules operate, as compared to the now accepted wisdom of the D&D community.

Some of that accepted wisdom:

1. Attack probabilities are linear functions.
2. Shields provide additional protection from attacks.
3. Swords are the most effective weapons.
4. Plate is better than Chain, is better than Leather.

In studying the Chainmail combat tables, you will discover that none of that accepted wisdom holds true in all cases!

Take attack probabilities. In standard d20 D&D combat, an +1 improvement in your combat ability will result in a flat 1 in 20 (5%) improvement in your potential combat success.

But the Chainmail combat table uses 2d6, rather than a d20, to determine a successful hit. Therefore, in Chainmail, an improvement (reduction) in your required "to-hit" number, from 10 to 9, improves you probability to hit from 16% to 28% (a 12% improvement). Likewise, an improvement in your "to-hit" number, from 9 to 8, improves your probability to hit from 28% to 42% (a 14% improvement). Think of the impact, then, that a +1 or +2 weapon would have on your combat success, using the Chainmail combat rules! A +1 weapon in Chainmail is the equivalent of +2 or even +3 weapon in the d20 combat rules. This may explain why, in Chainmail, Gygax considered Excalibur to be, at most a +2 or +3 weapon.

As for the use of shields, looking at the Chainmail tables, you will note several instances where shields are either of no value as further defence against attack, or make you more vulnerable. Case in point: a Mace hits on an 8+, whether I am employing chain, or chain and shield. Even worse: a Halberd hits on 8+ against Leather, but against Leather and Shield, 7+.

Turning to the effectiveness of swords, you will note that the mace, hammer, and morningstar all have the same or better to-hit probabilities against most armor types.

Finally, when comparing armor, there are several instances, such as with the Mace, Hammer or Flail, where Leather, rather than Chain, is the better armor, and other instances where Plate provides inferior protection.

Without a further understanding of the underlying assumptions applied to the Chainmail combat tables, it is difficult to reconcile these Chainmail combat design features with the "modern" d20 combat rules.

Castle Ravenloft - Dungeon Tile Game for D&D 4E

More news from Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast. This from DDM Spoilers from Greyhaze.

Castle Ravenloft #1 (2010)

Distribution (40 miniatures) All Visible?

Release Date: August 17, 2010

"This big box full of D&D goodness contains more than 40 plastic playing pieces, including a Huge dracolich, as well as thirteen sheets of interlocking dungeon tiles, two-hundred cards, and a booklet full of adventures. This cooperative D&D experience plays in about an hour and can be enjoyed as a solo game or with up to five players. Even better, this D&D experience doesn’t require a Dungeon Master. It’s a great way to introduce new players to the concept of D&D, as well as being a fun and exciting way for longtime players to interact with the brand." $64.95

And this, according to

An exciting D&D™ boardgame for 1–5 players.The master of Ravenloft® is having guests for dinner—and you are invited! Evil lurks in the towers and dungeons of Castle Ravenloft™, and only heroes of exceptional bravery can survive the horrors within. Designed for 1–5 players, this boardgame features multiple scenarios, challenging quests, and cooperative game play. Castle Ravenloft includes the following components: • 40 plastic heroes and monsters• 13 sheets of interlocking cardstock dungeon tiles• 200 encounter and treasure cards• Rulebook• Scenario book• 20-sided die.

Sounds similar to Descent, which I had the opportunity to play several weeks ago. Presumably this will be in distribution through toy stores like Toy'r'Us.

Edit: If they were going for an introduction to D&D, wouldn't it make more sense to recreate something like B2? Maybe they're trying to cash in on the whole Twilight "Vampires" thing by choosing Ravenloft.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

First Fantasy Campaign: Only $7.98

One of the items on my Christmas wish-list was the Judge's Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I discovered they are available as a pdf download from RPGNow for only $3, and I figured it would be a great stocking-stuffer.

While I did not get the Ready Ref Sheets for Christmas, I did recently purchase them for myself. After all, at roughly the same price as a premium cup-a-joe at your favorite coffee-house, you're gonna get a lot more enjoyment out of the Ready Ref Sheets.

Perusing the Ready Ref Sheets, I come across the ads at the back. One of the ads is for the First Fantasy Campaign sourcebook, by Dave Arneson, only $7.98. If any of you are thinking of doing a little time-travelling, would you mind picking me up a copy on your way back?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lords Of Creation RPG: How Did I Miss This?

I was mentioning earlier that I am a big fan of Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers series. It informed my early conception of D&D. I am also a big fan of Avalon Hill Games. So I'm wondering how this game slipped under my radar? Lords of Creation is authored by Tom Moldvay, the same guy who edited that much beloved D&D Basic Red Box ruleset.

Published in 1984, by Avalon Hill, Lords of Creation is a role-playing game where the players travel from one pocket-dimension to another, with each dimension having it's own physics and theme. The characters travel through inter-dimensional gates, and, as the characters increase in level, they ultimately unlock their own super-powers. Apparently, one of the early sample adventures is the search for a special horn that will allow the players unfettered access to myriad pocket dimensions.

I am sitting here, blown away. First, how did I miss this game? As as fan of Avalon Hill, I thought I kept myself up-to-date on what they were publishing. Obviously not.

Second, i'm thinking to myself, this game has got to be a role-playing game, based on the Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers series!

I go hunting for a review of this game, and I come across a couple:

A review on RPGNet

A review on Jeff's Gameblog

Andy Collins' review

No mention of Philip Jose Farmer. No mention of The World of Tiers.

Am I seeing something that isn't there?

The Dungeon Alphabet by Michael Curtis

I made the weekly pilgrimage to The Sentry Box yesterday, in search of my special-order of inexplicably elusive Pig-Faced Orc miniatures. I was disappointed, yet again, to find they had still not arrived, but I did make two other emotion-inducing discoveries.

The first discovery was the new Heroscape set. As evidenced by my "nonsensical doomsaying" yesterday, I was not particularly enthused by that D&D/Heroscape cross-over.

My second, far more pleasant discovery, was the last shelf-copy of The Dungeon Alphabet, which I quickly purchased. Though I am a strong proponent of the FLGS system, and make most of my gaming purchases that way, I always suffer pangs of guilt as I make my way to the till with my old-school treasures in-hand: am I depriving some other gamer of their chance to re-aquaint themselves with old-school D&D?

Authored by Micheal Curtis (The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope) and published by Goodman Games, The Dungeon Alphabet is a deceptively slim, 50-page hardcover, simply exploding with "system-neutral" tips and suggestions for adding unusual and unique elements to your dungeon-delve.

While sporting a full-color cover, it is also packed with new black and white artwork, produced by great artists, including Erol Otus, Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway, Doug Kovacs, William McAusland, Jesse Mohn, Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag, and Jim Roslof. A veritable who's-who of golden age and upcoming old-school D&D artists.

Each letter entry in The Dungeon Alphabet is a list for a particular dungeon element. A is for Altar. B is for book. And so on. In addition to a list of various game-elements, Micheal Curtis gives you an essay on the significance and uses of that dungeon element, as further inspiration in adding your own item or idea to the list.

My personal favorite from The Dungeon Alphabet: Q is for Questions. Everyone loves a good mystery, and Michael suggests that there should always be unanswered questions, about the dungeon and the surrounding world, to tempt the players into returning to the dungeon, delve after delve.

At $10, I know i'm not the only reader who is mystified by the economics of The Dungeon Alphabet. How can Goodman Games, and Micheal Curtis, possibly afford to produce and publish this amazing book, at that price? It's hardcover. It's packed with incredible art from some of the old-school greats. It's chock-a-block with insights and ideas for ramping up your role-playing campaign. This is a great value, and I would recommend this to anyone looking for a system-neutral dungeon-design resource that is both entertaining and inspiring.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dear Hasbro: I Hate You

Here's the final clue to the true direction that Hasbro and WOTC are taking Dungeons and Dragons.

Heroscape: Dungeons and Dragons, "Battle For The Underdark". It's the ultimate kid-ification and commoditization of fourth edition D&D.

It comes with re-tread D&D minis, on new "Heroscape" bases, and hex tiles and plastic scenery to build a series of combat scenarios between a party of adventures and a Drow warband.

I wonder, for those of you still supporting WOTC's 4E D&D, is this truly the direction you want to see Dungeons and Dragons take? At what point will those "true fans of of D&D" vote with their wallets, and refuse to spend another penny on Hasbro/WOTC D&D products, in protest.

While I am not one of those purists that spurns any RPG product, unless it was printed before 1989, I am disgusted at the thought that D&D will now be sold by Hasbro as a bland and simplistic tabletop combat game, complete with pre-packaged battle-scenarios and recycled miniatures.

It's a sad day for the D&D legacy.

Edit: for anyone who would like to find out more, here is a link.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Appendix N: The Maker Of Universes

I have a particular fondness for Philip Jose Farmer's The Maker of Universes, and several of the other books in the World of Tiers series.

The Maker of Universes was one of my earliest introductions to adult fantasy literature, as I first read this novel while still in grade school, but just after my introduction to a little game called Dungeons and Dragons.

James “Chevski” over at Grognardia reviewed The Maker of Universes over a year ago. In his review, he described this book as an example of “classic wish-fulfillment fantasy.” While I appreciate James’ take on this novel (and by association, the series), I ascribe to it a slightly more sophisticated message of guilt, restitution and redemption.

I have not read this novel for several years, but I will try to provide an accurate summary. The Maker of Universes tells the story of one Robert Wolff, a WWII amnesia victim, now aging professor, who is viewing a new condominium development with his wife. Hearing music, he opens a closet in the condo to find a magical gate, through which he sees a red-headed youth, in a Garden of Eden setting, and dressed as an American Indian, fighting several hideous humanoids. The youth is blasting notes from a horn, and, seeing Wolff, he laughingly tosses the horn to Wolff before the magical gate closes.

Wolff, who is unhappy in his marriage and is regretting his retirement, returns to the condo and uses the remembered music notes of the horn to re-create the magical gate. The horn, you see, is the equivalent of a master key, allowing access to myriad pocket universes, based on the notes played. Wolff thus enters The World of Tiers, a disc-shaped world make up of levels, each level stacked upon the level below it. It is a pocket universe, with its own physics. It was built by one of the Lords, a member of a race of virtually immortal humans possessing incredible technologies, which include the ability to create pocket universes. Most of those Lords rule over their own universes as cruel despots, creating tricks, traps and weird monsters, and coveting the universes of other Lords.

The lowest level of this particular universe (The World of Tiers) is a veritable Garden of Eden, with unusually beautiful and exotic naked inhabitants, and food and water with apparent restorative powers, reversing the aging process, and returning Wolff to his peak physical condition (that particular feature of the novel may explain why many view this novel as classic wish fulfillment fantasy).

Shortly following Wolff’s appearance in The World of Tiers, the hideous humanoids (Gworls, surprisingly poorly-designed creations of the Lord), return, and make off with both the magical horn and one of the beauties that befriended Wolff. The Gworls are taking the horn, and the beauty, back to the Lord. Wolff decides to pursue the Gworls, initially simply to re-capture the horn so he can return to Earth. As the story progresses, his purpose evolves to that of rescuing the beauty (Chryseis) and defeating the Lord as well, and Wolff climbs up from level to level, in pursuit of his quest.

Each level has it’s own theme, such as a Garden of Eden level, American Indian level (replete with Indian tribes and Centaurs), Medieval European level (with Dragons and Castles), Meso-American level, and a Mesopotamian level. Wolff has many adventures, and meets and travels with the initially-encountered red-headed youth, Kickaha (another Earth-man, Paul Janus Finnegan by name, also trapped on The World of Tiers), encounters Podarge (a harpy, created as a result of one of the Lord’s experiments of transferring human brains into monstrous bodies) and befriends several other interesting characters who help him along the way.

Wolff ultimately confronts and overthrows the Lord, and in the process discovers the horrifying truth behind the authorship of The World of Tiers.

Unsurprisingly, The Maker of Universes informs my views on Dungeons and Dragons. The existence of a long-extinct race of super-powerful humans, who created and shaped the worlds that the players now inhabit. Items created by those Lords which have super-technological ie. magical properties. Sophisticated tricks and traps to protect the castles, towers, dungeons and homes of these powerful Lords. Bizarre experiments, creating different types of monsters that are now encountered. Magical gates, with their own special keys for activation. The disappearance of those Lords, due to the wars caused by their paranoia and covetousness.

The first four books of this series, The Maker of Universes, The Gates of Creation, A Private Cosmos, and Behind the Walls of Terra, are well-worth reading, if you are looking for the kind of inspiration that I am mentioning above. I recommend stopping after The Walls of Terra though, as feel that Farmer lost his way in his last two books, The Lavalite World, and More Than Fire.

The World of Tiers novel-series definitely deserves to appear in your own personal Appendix N.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Original D&D - Blackmoor Harpy

I'm not sure why we never used Harpies as opponents in any of our D&D games. We certainly never lacked for artwork to inspire us. The Harpy image (above) comes from the Original D&D Blackmoor Supplement II. She has her own distinct look in this artwork, quite apart from the later more hideous harpy images that populated the D&D rule and monster manuals, including the one from the Holmes basic set which I posted earlier. I think the image above is perhaps the one and only time that the D&D Harpy truly received favorable treatment. She seems to be swimming rather than flying though. Even today, with 4E (the latest version of D&D) the Harpy is relegated to ugly sister of the Siren. Perhaps that is justified, based on their greek mythological origins, although it is odd that they are substantially the same creatures.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New Campaign - Red Box Calgary

P_Armstrong, of Ode to Black Dougal fame, has posted his intention to start a face-to-face Red Box campaign in Calgary, using the 1981 B/X Dungeons and Dragons and Labyrinth Lord retro-clone rulesets. You can find his post regarding the commencement of that Red Box campaign here, and the Red Box campaign wiki site here. He is proposing that the games be held on Sunday afternoons, at The Sentry Box, the largest FLGS in Calgary. Sunday gaming sessions have been proposed, as The Sentry Box has an available private gaming room that day.

I'm very enthusiastic about getting involved in the Red Box Calgary campaign. For one, Mr. A is suggesting a startup date of February 28, which gives me lots of lead time to make any adjustments to my family schedule.

I'm also happy to hear he will be using a combination of B/X and Labyrinth Lord rulesets. While I do have two copies of Labyrinth Lord, I also have the Basic D&D rulebook, and intend to go to eBay for the Expert rulebook, so i'm covered (or will be) as regards the old B/X rulesets. But including Labyrinth Lord makes me more comfortable about using The Sentry Box gaming space for the game sessions, as anyone without the B/X rules can purchase the LL rules from TSB, thus supporting that business. I like supporting the businesses that support gamers through the provision of free gaming space.

In addition, I'm happy with the inclusion of Labyrinth Lord as I am not above pimping the retro-clones, like Labyrinth Lord, for those people who want a "living" ruleset to work with. It's a good ruleset, and getting it into existing or new gamers' hands can only help to foster additional enthusiasm for old-school gaming.

The campaign is being structured in the sand-box style, with the players using the Red Box wiki site to collectively negotiate where they will go adventuring, and the DM then preparing for the game accordingly. I am looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Both Vancouver and New York have Red Box campaigns. I intend to check out their wiki pages, to see how that approach works for them.

If you have been wanting to get involved in (or try out) a face-to-face "old-school" campaign in Calgary, here is your opportunity! I've already signed up on the Red Box Calgary Wiki Site.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Otherworld Miniatures - Old School Eye Candy

I was visiting my FLGS on the weekend, hoping that my Otherworld Miniatures Orcs had arrived. Sadly, they had not. Do you feel my pain?

I mentioned yesterday that I was sorting through some of my old Dungeons and Dragons materials. Flipping through the pages of the Holmes Basic rulebook, I came across the above illustration, of a trio of Harpies threatening a party of adventurers.

I really like this old artwork, despite its apparent lack of sophistication. Others in the OS community have made similar remarks, particularly in relation to humourous art in Dungeons and Dragons. The old rulebooks included some classic humorous panels, such as the adventurers wearing mickey mouse noses and ears, as they attempt to invade the shrine of a rat god.

I'm not sure how to describe the feel of that early black and white art, other than to say that it suggests numerous possibilities, rather than proscribing and limiting them. It could be because each of the artists had their own style, or maybe just because everything about D&D was so new at that point. Certainly the old artwork strikes an emotional chord for me, that D&D players, who did not grow up with that art, may not share.

But I digress. The Harpies seemed familiar, and it was due to more than just the fact that I had seen them long ago in the Holmes Basic rulebook. Heading over to the Otherworld miniatures site, I re-discovered, again, why their miniatures are so appealing to me ... if i'm not mistaken, Paul Muller must have used the above artwork as his inspiration for the pair of Harpies he sculpted for Otherworld.

Otherworld Miniatures is going to put me in the poorhouse if they keep on producing such excellent miniatures.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Holmes Basic And Crappy Dice And Artwork

Lately, I've been sorting through my old Dungeons and Dragons collection.

As some of you are already aware, a garage fire several years ago destroyed most of my old gaming stuff. Fortunately, some of my collection followed me over the years, and thus avoided that garage fire. The surviving bits included my Holmes Basic set, pictured here. As you can see, it includes the old "crappy" dice, along with module B1, In Search of the Unknown.

I was reading one of the more prominent and successful new-school D&D blogs recently. One of the posted criticisms of the "old-school" community's publishing efforts is the penchant for those authors to include new artwork, in the style of the mid- to late-1970's black and white D&D art. That critic felt that it made the newly published old-school materials appear amateurish. As I read through the Holmes Basic rulebook and module B1, I came across several fine examples of that style of artwork.

I must admit that I like that style of artwork. And the reasons I do are similar to the reasons that I like the original rules, warts and all. The black and white artwork, like the written OD&D rules, seemed to allow for more imagination to be used by the reader and viewer. The criticism that the old-style of art-work makes the publications appear amateurish is an understandable one, but which misunderstands what the old-school is all about -- a hobbyist and diffused approach to gaming and publishing, rather than a corporate and monolithic one.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Swords And Wizardry Sells Out ... Again

That news coming from James "Chevski" over at Grognardia.

Hope you got your order in before the White Boxes were sold out!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Swords And Wizardry White Box Offer Re-Opens

Chgowiz reports that Brave Halfling Publishing has just announced the sale of an additional 50 White Boxes.

This is good news for all of those people who missed putting their order in for a white box prior to the initial run selling-out.

Head over to BHP and put in your order for the White Box!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Legends of Steel: A Review

I have been planning on purchasing the Legends of Steel sword and sorcery setting for several months, but it took until Christmas to bring those plans to fruition.

Legends of Steel is the brain-child of Jeff “Evil DM” Mejia, whose blog can be found here. The Legends of Steel setting has already been ported over to the Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria RPG game systems. I am familiar with both of those game systems, having recently purchased and reviewed Barbarians of Lemuria, and having also purchased the Savage Worlds Explorers Edition and Fantasy Companion. In fact, the Legends of Steel setting is what originally twigged my interest in Barbarians of Lemuria.

The Legends of Steel book that I received is the Savage Worlds Edition (LoSSW). Having read both Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria RPGs, I now wish I had asked Santa for the Barbarians of Lemuria edition of Legends of Steel, if only because I prefer Barbarians of Lemuria to Savage Worlds.

I should explain at this point that my preference for the Barbarians of Lemuria over the Savage Worlds game system has more to do with my dislike for skill-based RPGs than any deficiency in the Savage Worlds game system itself. As far as skill-based RPGs go, Savage Worlds is considered, by many, to the ultimate skill-based system, and that game system has a shelf-full of related settings and expansion materials to its credit.

LoSSW is, of course, a licensed Savage Worlds product. At 70-pages long, and 8.5 x 11 saddle-stitched, LoSSW is both setting and rules-supplement. The interior is black and white, with a smattering of sword and sorcery appropriate artwork within. The characters depicted on the front cover of LoSSW also serve as sample characters in the final appendix of this book.

Roughly 20 pages of this 70-page book consist of the rules supplement. As it is meant for the Savage Worlds setting, eight of those pages consist of new sword-and-sorcery related “Edges.” I presume those would have been relavoured “Boons” had this been the Barbarians of Lemuria edition of Legends of Steel. The remaining 12 pages of the rules supplement portion provide advice on preparing for and participating in a sword-and-sorcery campaign.

The new Edges in LoSSW are fairly well known. Among the most infamous of those 32 new edges: “Sexy Armor” allowing the character to run around in a chainmail bikini or loincloth but be considered to have chainmail armor, for game purposes; “Just the Thing” allowing the character to somehow always have just the thing the party needs to get out of their current predicament; and “Cannon Fodder” allowing the character to recruit extra henchmen when the need arises. Those new edges certainly complement the sword-and-sorcery flavour of this game-setting.

The next 35 pages of LoSSW serve as a high-level overview of the Erisa game-world. That game world is vintage sword-and-sorcery, as if torn from the pages of your favorite pulp novel or magazine. Jeff gives you enough information regarding each land, city and kingdom in Erisa to whet your appetite, without overwhelming or restricting your freedom to make each location your own. He uses the SWOT format (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) for each entry, which is invaluable as a starting point, while still allowing you to customize this setting. Among my favorite locations: the Moor of the Witch Queen, and the Raven Hills, near Broaq-Nohar, and the Dark Lands near Radu. Both would be ripe for throwing at a party of adventurers!

The last 10 pages or so consist of a introductory adventure and sample characters (using the Savage Worlds character creation system, of course).

Oddly, one of the missing elements of this book is a bestiary. While a bestiary is not required, it has become such a staple of game-settings that it was a bit jarring to discover that LoSSW does not contain one. Granted, any sword and sorcery monsters you may need can probably be obtained from a host of Savage Worlds or other products, including the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion. But I always figure that a few extra snakes could always be thrown in for good measure, don’t you agree?

One minor comment about the choice of binding. Both the Savage Worlds Explorers Edition and Fantasy Companion are 6.5 by 9 perfect-bound. If I had my druthers, I would love to see the same binding format employed for LoSSW, rather than larger saddle-stitched format, if only to fit more elegantly with my other two Savage Worlds books.

If, in addition to the new edges and rules supplement, you are intending to use the Erisa world, or at least mine it for great ideas for your own sword-and-sorcery campaign, LoSSW is well-worth the $23 asking price. The Barbarians of Lemuria edition is also available as a $15 PDF, along with a $35 hardcover from Lulu. At $35, the hard-cover Barbarians of Lemuria version seems relatively pricey, but if it also contains the bestiary, new flaws, and careers promised in the BoL PDF version, perhaps it is worth it.

More Trouble With Hit Points

I've never been terribly satisfied with the concept of hit points. I know i'm not the only one in the old-school community, as others have blogged similar sentiments, along with their work-arounds.

One of my issues with hit points is this: which of the hit points represent the capacity to absorb wounds, and which of the hit points represent luck, fate, and good fortune? I ponder this issue, because the rules for the recovery of hit points vex me. While wounds should take time to heal, the same may not be true for luck and fate. Admittedly, hit points are an arbitrary and artificial representation of of how much risk you can endure and how battle-proficient you are. But if hit points, particularly at higher levels, are mostly luck and fate, why should it take several days, or weeks, to recover it? What purpose does the slow hit point recovery rule serve, other than to arbitrarily delay the adventure?

WOTC's 4E solution to the problem of hit point recovery is to implement their healing surges system. That allows players to recover hit points after (and sometimes during) combat, thus extending the game day, and shortening the periods between adventures. But WOTC's solution to the recovery of hit points is as arbitrary as their rules for meting out hit points in the first place.

Another of my issues with hit points is a selfish one. As a DM, I find it annoying to track hit points for multiple antagonists, particularly when those antagonists are mooks or rabble. For example, here is a wandering monster table from Module B1, In Search of the Unknown.

As you can see, the hit points for the eight Orcs range from a high of 6 to a low of 2. With the characters inflicting an average weapon damage of 4 on the Orcs, most of the Orcs will be killed with a single blow. But three will need at least two hits to dispatch. Tracking which Orc has how many hit points may not be terribly onerous when there are only 8. What if there are 28? Again, (and for "cinematic effect") WOTC has solved that problem by giving rabble one hit point. You hit the rabble, and it dies. Again, their solution works, but is completely arbitrary, since Troll rabble and Orc rabble both have one hit point.

My preferred solution to those problems: implement a system of wound and luck points, and rationalize and condense hit points to a level where a a hit point equals one successful hit.

With regards wounds and luck, each player would possess both wound points and luck points. When damage was inflicted, a player could chose to use their luck points to avoid the wounds, and the luck points would be refreshed, either after each battle, or after a good night's rest. Only the actual wounds inflicted would require healing.

As for rationalizing hit points, some number of hit points would be condensed into wound and luck points. For example, 3.5 hit points might equal one wound point. Weapons would do one wound, unless they were either exceptional or magical weapons.

The biggest problem I see with this solution: rpgers love rolling dice, and implementing such a system would eliminate the need to roll for damage. No more euphoria when a player rolls the maximum weapon damage, nor the groans of despair and recriminations when the player rolls a "1".

Such a change might be too much for players to bear.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls

I've been avoiding writing this, and my review of Legends of Steel, for several days. Why? Because frankly, i'm not sure I can do those two old-school offerings justice. Several far-more-capable bloggers have already described and critiqued both Legends of Steel and Stonehell Dungeon. Nevertheless, as I had made a commitment to several OSR fellow-travellers to provide my thoughts on those books, I give you the following.

I was surprised to find myself in possession of both Stonehell Dungeon and Legends of Steel, several days after Christmas. Santa had already been very good to me, and I presumed that the rest of my Christmas wishlist would be doled out over the next several months, when the opportunities and cash-flows warranted. To my delight, I was handed a box, and discovered that the Lulu items appearing on my Christmas list had been ordered, but too late for Christmas delivery.

Inside the box were Labyrinth Lord, Legends of Steel, and Stonehell Dungeon.

Stonehell Dungeon is authored by Michael Curtis, of The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope fame. Truly, much of the propulsive energy behind the OSR is due to Michael Curtis and a handful of other Old-School Renaissance bloggers. They are actually publishing (commercially) the materials that others have only talked about for the last 10 years.

Not that many months ago, debate raged in our tiny corner of the blogosphere regarding the definition of, and feasibility of producing, a commercially-viable megadungeon. Several bloggers speculated that attempts to produce a commercial megadungeon were ill-advised, fraught with near-insurmountable obstacles and doomed to failure. While I cannot say that Michael Curtis has produced the penultimate megadungeon, his Stonehell Dungeon is a worthy entry to that category.

Stonehell Dungeon is 134 pages, and, while designed for use with Labyrinth Lord, is sufficiently rules-light to allow its use with other versions of the original fantasy role-playing game. Other than a touch of red ink on the front and back covers --used to evoke a blood-splattered look -- Stonehell Dungeon is printed entirely in black and white. The book is punctuated by the occasional black and white illustration, but most of the artwork consists of the dungeon levels themselves. As has been mentioned elsewhere, Michael Curtis employs the one-page dungeon concept, although he spreads each dungeon-section over two facing pages in the book, rather than containing the map (and related comments) on a single page. I appreciate the one-page dungeon approach, as it eases the burden of the gamemaster, by reducing the need to flip pages during play.

Michael Curtis provides some background on the construction and population of Stonehell in his introductory chapter. I understand the compulsion to justify the creation and continued existence of any dungeon, and the author does a remarkable job of creating a believable and intriguing backstory. Had I been advising Michael, I might have suggested putting the dungeon-background in an Appendix: being heavily influenced by systems-theory, I feel that putting the author's backstory at the end of the book would re-inforce the message that Stonehell Dungeon is the DM's, to put their own stamp on things as they wish, with the author's backstory being one of several possible histories.

The upper, ground level of Stonehell Dungeon is reminiscent of the Caves of Chaos from B2, Keep on the Borderlands, as that canyon and its caves might have looked in their earliest incarnations. Michael has remarked somewhere that he had added a few homages and references to early D&D in Stonehell: I enjoyed the reference to the Wolf-In-Sheep's-Clothing as the players pass the Gates Of Hell, and plan to have the related Bunny appear more than once in the games I gamemaster with this setting, and perhaps even in unexpected locations.

As mentioned earlier, Stonehell Dungeon employs the one-page dungeon concept. Since a megadungeon wouldn't be a megadungeon if it wasn't big, Michael had divided each of his five dungeon levels into four 30 by 30 quadrants, with connectioning hallways between them. Stonehell Dungeon has been criticised for the artificial nature of those divisions, and for the overlay of a theme to each of those quadrants. I suppose the criticism is a valid one, from a design perspective. But I wonder if players won't simply be oblivious to this artificiality, at least in the early going?

As for the dungeon itself, the amount of creativity poured into this setting is inspiring, and a more than a little bit humbling. At $13 for this book, I think I got back my money and then some, after reading to the end of the first dungeon level. While I have yet to feel that I paid too much for any of the old-school products I have recently purchased, having finished reading Stonehell Dungeon, I feel guilty for paying far too little.

I don't see how a gamemaster, or aspiring fantasy adventure or setting author, can go wrong with the purchase of Stonehell Dungeon. If you are in either of the above categories, you owe it to yourself to own a copy of this book.

Descent: Journeys In The Dark

Being somewhat of a gaming creature-of-habit, one of my new years resolutions was to try some new games. Therefore, when the opportunity to try Descent: Journeys in the Dark with a couple of friends presented itself, we took the chance.

Descent is highly rated on boardgamegeek, ranking as the 56th best boardgame on that website, and a perennial fixture on their list of hottest games. There are a lot of folks who enjoy this type of game, with at least 5 expansion sets (Well of Darkness, Altar of Despair, Tomb of Ice, Road to Legend, Sea of Blood) released since 2005. And Descent has spawned several copy-cat adventure board-games, like Doom, World of Warcraft, Battlelore and Runebound, and is arguably in the same genre as Talisman.

The game itself comes in a huge box, easily 30” by 12” by 8”. The contents include monster and character miniatures, an infinitely re-configurable interconnecting set of dungeon tiles, full-color treasure, monster, character and skill cards, and assorted bits a-plenty. The artwork is excellent. The rules come in 12” by 12” booklets, of perhaps 30 or so pages in length. The game costs $80-90, but considering the art-work and the quality of the game contents, it is probably good value for the money.

There is a significant amount of pre-game preparation involved in playing this game. The Dungeon-Master (called the Overlord) and the players must spend some time, before the game begins, sorting and organizing the various items and game-bits. That process took the five of us about a half-hour, but set-up may be faster for those who are more familiar with the game and its mechanics.

Once the bits, miniatures, cards and dungeon tiles were sorted and the prepared, each of the players selected from sixteen different pre-defined characters, each with their own strengths and special abilities. In addition, each player received three extra abilities and a certain amount of gold to purchase their starting equipment.

Descent, as far as I can tell, is pure dungeon-crawl. The two games we played were strictly of the “kill the monsters and take their stuff” variety. We didn’t do any trap-searching, puzzle-solving, negotiating, clue-synthesizing, or role-playing. But considering the stripped-down nature of this dungeon-crawl adventure game, we spent a lot of time referring back to the rules. In fairness however, the friend who brought the game had only played it a couple of times before, and the rest of us had never played it.

We never finished either game of Descent. The first game started at about 9 pm, and we finally stopped (just short of the last encounter) at around 3 am. A week later we tried Descent again. That game started at 8 pm, and we finally called it quits at around 2:30 am, having reached, but not completed, the final monster encounter.

Ironically, the Descent adventures we were playing were only 5 rooms each, with a handful of monsters in each room. Whether it was due to our inexperience, or the nature of the game itself, combat seemed to take much longer than I would have expected. After we packed up the game for the second time, my wife remarked “That was a fun game, but we could have played three games of Settlers of Catan in the same amount of time.”

Perhaps our experience with Descent was atypical. But while I can appreciate the quality of this game, between the beautiful artwork, top-notch contents, and simplified rules, I did discover that I am not a fan of simple dungeon-crawling. I missed all of the other elements of a role-playing game, such as mapping, exploring, interacting with dungeon features and inhabitants, solving puzzles and enigmas, synthesizing and drawing conclusions from in-game clues, negotiating, and so on.

Would I play Descent again? Sure. For me, playing “the game” is only part of the fun: getting together with friends, the out-of-game jokes and conversations, the food and drink, those are often what make the evening truly memorable. But would I pay $90 for my own copy of Descent? Unlikely. After all, how many old-school game accessories could I buy for $90? I could probably get several of Urutsk, Cursed Chateau, Dungeon Alphabet, Majestic Wilderlands, B/X Companion, Dungeoneer RPG, Legends of Steel, Warriors of the Red Planet, Stonehell, Swords & Wizardry White Box, Savage Swords of Athanor, and The Grinding Gear (to name just a few!) for what I would pay for Descent.

And putting it in that context makes my purchase decisions very easy!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My First Game of Magic Realm In 2010

The Sentry Box is having it's 30th Anniversary Party this weekend. The Sentry Box is actually older than that, but Gord became it's proprietor 30 years ago.

I made a visit to The Sentry Box yesterday, with my two girls in tow. What should I discover on the used games shelf but another copy of Magic Realm for $50! Gord said it had been there for some time, but I don't know how I could have missed it. At any rate, another Sentry Box customer, who had sold his copy of Magic Realm many years ago and was waxing nostalgic, saw it in my hands and I offered to give it up to him (as I already have one copy). In the end, he decided to keep watching eBay, to see if he could get an unpunched copy.

After returning home, by way of McDonald's -- as a treat to the girls -- I wasted no time unpacking the game to see if all the parts were there. The game was complete! It appeared to be a true "first printing" of the game, as three of the Tremendous monster counters were misprinted, with the wrong monsters on the reverse side of the counters.

Since I had already unpacked the game to confirm its completeness, and had sorted all the chits, counters and cards, I suggested to the family that we take the game for a spin.

We played the first scenario of Magic Realm. The first scenario is basically a scavenger hunt. The characters meet up at the Inn, and challenge each other to visit all six dwellings -- the Inn, House, Chapel, Guardhouse, Large Campfire and Small Campfire -- and bring back one treasure. The character who returns to the Inn first, after visiting all six dwellings, and finding a treasure, would be the victor.

I played the Black Knight. My son DJ played the White Knight. My girls, Ceilidh and Meg, played the Amazon and the Woodsgirl, respectively, and my wife played the Witch. Fortunately for us, we were playing the scavenger hunt scenario, where the monsters block you but do not attack, as in short order we ended up with multiple Dragons, Trolls, Spiders, and Goblins blocking our paths. The Woodsgirl and Witch went in one direction, towards the Ruins and the Guardhouse, while the Black Knight, White Knight and Amazon headed in the other direction, towards the Chapel.

The Witch and Woodsgirl spied a couple of Trolls on their way through some Ruins, but found a secret path and so gave the Trolls the slip, finally arriving at the Guardhouse. Meanwhile, the White Knight, Black Knight and Amazon followed the Cliffs towards the Chapel, running into a couple of angry Giants and a demonic Imp. After making our way past those monsters, the Amazon located the Vault of the Troll-King in the Deep Forest, and looted the Battle Bracelets and magical Living Sword. The White and Black Knights were most appreciative of the Amazon's searching efforts, grabbing the King's Vestments (the Imperial Tabard) and the Lucky Charm from the Troll-King's Vault. My Lucky Charm must have been working at that point, as the Troll-King never appeared to take back his treasure!

Because of the number of monsters blocking our paths, the Woodsgirl had nearly caught up to us by this time, and, after locating the Altar on the edge of the Cliff, she grabbed the glimmering ring and the magic wand. The Witch found the Statue at the base of the Cliff, but could not find any of the treasures hidden nearby. While the Witch continued her search for a treasure, the Woodsgirl, White Knight and Amazon made a mad dash back to the Inn, having obtained a treasure each and visited each of the 6 dwellings. Meg (the Woodsgirl) was the victor, returning to the Inn mere moments before DJ (the White Knight) and Ceilidh (the Amazon) crashed through the Inn door. As for me (the Black Knight), I was still at least a day away, having been blocked by the Dragons, despite my lucky charm, and my wife (playing the Witch) was still looking for her treasure as the other three characters ended the game.

The game came down to the wire, and the kids had a lot of fun. Meg was quite excited to win, which was an unexpected turn of events (she had gone off towards the wilderness at one point).