Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vancian Magic? Prattian Magic?

"In a world governed by magic, you may find the Law of Similarity, valid."

What's the Law of Similarity?" asked Bayard sharply.

"The Law of Similarity may be stated thus: Effects resemble causes. For example, you can make it rain by pouring water on the ground, with the appropriate mumbo-jumbo."

"Another is the Law of Contagion: Things, once in contact, continue to interact from a distance after separation."

Chalmers continued. "From the elementary principles of Similarity and Contagion, we now proceed to the more practical applications of magic. First, the composition of spells. The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material. In the verbal section, the consideration is whether the spell is to be based on the materials at hand, or upon the invocation of a higher authority. And the verbal component should conform to the poetic conventions of the environment."

However, there is also a somatic component to a spell, subject to more precise regulation. There is some point in connection with this component that eludes me."

(The Compleat Enchanter, L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt)

While the old-school D&D magic system is often described as Vancian, it is actually a mish-mash of different magic systems, mixed together in an unholy goulash. Take the magic system described in deCamp and Pratt's magical misadventures of Harold Shea. In that system, spells can be created, without advance study or meditation, as long as appropriate material, verbal and somatic components are combined. While the impressing of spells upon ones mind was borrowed from Vance, the idea of material, verbal and somatic components, central to the magic system in AD&D, comes from deCamp and Pratt.

While I have a deep attachment to Vancian magic's daily spell preparation (from a game mechanic standpoint), I like the freedom of the Prattian magic system: players can produce any spell effect, on the fly, as long as they can come up with a reasonable argument for particular spell components, and can utter a convincing rhyme that would invoke the spell.

Hell, i'd give out experience points for that kind of "player skill" spell-casting.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Experience: Killing Things And Taking Their Stuff

I'm a very infrequent visitor to 4E blogs like Musings Of the Chatty DM. Sure, Chatty has some occasional insights, that can be teased out and used in my old-school games. He even ran and reported on a couple of old-school D&D sessions. That was quite adventerous of him. But by and large, it is 4E mechanics that are being discussed on his blog, something I have little interest in. However, Chatty's recent post on Re-examining the Dungeon caught my attention, and I found quite illuminating what one of his commentors had to say about experience awards in 4E.

"Part of the XP-for-killing mentality is baked into the 4E game set (and a variety of other rule sets). As your character gets better (levels) what do you get better at?

You get better at killing things.

Virtually all your new powers are about new ways to kill things. You may get a slight increase in your skills (the non-killing part of the game) but these are not new powers. Thus it makes sense that if the focus is about getting better at killing stuff, then you are learning from killing things, ie. XP for killing stuff.

Who has a saving-the-princess skill? No one. The reward for a quest, such as saving the princess, is an abstraction that is a package deal for everything you did to get to that part (of which 'killing' is usually a big part) since you can’t go up in an actual saving-the-princess skill.

Bear in mind that XP is not the reward for killing stuff or for accomplishing goals. XP is a placeholder for the actual reward, which is leveling up.

By taking a look at what a character gains as part of the leveling process, we can see what the actual reward is.

In 4E it is the ability to better kill stuff."

Now, this post could just has easily been a criticism levelled at old-school D&D. After all, i've heard (too many times) that original Dungeons & Dragons was all about killing things and taking their stuff -- as if the mere incessant aping of that trite statement somehow makes it true.

To be sure, there was combat and treasure in original D&D. But, as I hope I have been demonstrating in my posts on experience awards, the bulk of the experience in original D&D was gained from treasure, not combat. It was expected, by the game designers, that the players would find ways to obtain the treasure by cleverness and subterfuge, not by violence and main strength. Not everyone played it that way. And to the extent that they did not, the fault lies with the game designers, not the players: one, the award system was not well communicated; two, the treasure for experience mechanic didn't resonate with those unfamiliar with the swords and sorcery genre.

4E on the other hand has done an excellent job of communicating its' award system. Experience awards are doled out when you kill things. And when you kill things, you level up, thus getting better at killing things.

Was original D&D any different, ask those who killed-and-took-stuff from the beginning, and those who came late to the game, but hear others claim it was always played that way.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Old School Monsters: Giant Slug

"The sucking sound increased to an indescribable slithering, gurgling hiss. Even Conan's iron nerves were shaken by the strain of waiting for the unknown source of the sound to appear.

At last, around the corner poured a huge, slimy leprous gray mass. From its front end rose a pair of hornlike projections, at least ten feet long, with a shorter pair below. The long horns bent this way and that, and Conan saw that they bore eyes on their ends.

Momentarily paralysed with astonishment, Conan stared at the vast mass of rubbery flesh bearing down upon him. The slug emitted a sound like that of a man spitting, but magnified many times over.

Galvanized into action at last, the Cimmerian leaped sideways. As he did so, a jet of liquid flashed through the air, right where he had stood. A tiny droplet struck his shoulder and burned like a coal of fire."

(from "Hall of the Dead", by Howard & deCamp, 1966)

Most of us old grognards understand that original Dungeons & Dragons was designed as a swords and sorcery literature emulator. Modern versions of D&D have lost touch with this fundamental fact, and as Chevski has pointed out, have become self-referential. As I venture into the fantastic fiction referenced in Appendix N of the 1979 AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, I can't help but grin at passages such as the one above, revealing the roots of so many of the game elements that appear in D&D.

Take the Giant Slug (picture above from Otherworld Miniatures). Like the giant slug in the above Conan tale, the D&D version of the giant slug is gray, with a white underbelly, and spits acid with great accuracy. No one should shy away from using giant slugs in their old school D&D games, knowing that this is a bona fide old school monster.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wilderness Alphabet: A Review

James Pacek, of Carjacked Seraphim, recently published The Wilderness Alphabet, A Collection of Random Charts, Tables and Ideas for Use With Various Games of Imagination. As I had previously purchased Michael Curtis' well-regarded and commercially successful The Dungeon Alphabet, An A-Z Reference For Classic Dungeon Design, I was intrigued by Pacek's foray into similar territory. But while I was interested in purchasing The Wilderness Alphabet, its availability only through Lulu was a barrier, since Lulu is notorious for charging exhorbitant Canadian shipping fees.

Thankfully, Pacek came to my rescue, selling me a copy of The Wilderness Alphabet from his personal stash, only charging me the $9 Lulu fee for the book, plus a paltry $5 for Canadian shipping.

The Wilderness Alphabet is a 6"x9", 65-page A-Z reference booklet for wilderness adventure design. Amply illustrated with over 21 pieces of black & white art from the public domain, including liberal watermarking behind the text, Pacek's reference book is also filled with random tables to populate your wilderness environment. The sub-title of this book, "for use with various games of imagination" is, of course, code for "this book is system-neutral". Indeed, you won't find any reference to specific rule-sets or stat-blocks. Instead, you will find page upon page of intriguing wilderness landmark generation tables, around which to build interesting and surprising adventures -- for both the players and referee!

Among the interesting random tables: A is for Archway, C is for Chasm, E is for Edifice, G is for Graveyard, I is for Intersection, Q is for Quagmire, R is for Ruins and Residences, S is for Spring, and Z is for Ziggurat. In addition to 26 random tables, some of which allow you to generate 1000's of results, Pacek gives you several bonus tables, such as "colorful NPCs", "strange sounds", and "Mines". Pacek also provides his own "Appendix N" of additional sources of random table inspiration.

The Wilderness Alphabet is a handy little resource. Like The Dungeon Alphabet, this booklet provides you with both immediate inspiration for generating unique wilderness landmarks (when you are short on preparation time), but also provides the fodder to inspire the creation of your own random wilderness tables.

Considering how attractively presented the material is, and the booklet's utility and reusability, the $9 price tag on The Wilderness Alphabet seems quite reasonable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why Celebrate Thanksgiving Early: Reason #4

Here's the weather that was waiting for us this morning: the first snowfall of the year. I posted several months ago, revelling in the whole two weeks of summer we get each year. Well, it looks like we went directly from spring to winter.

Note the rabbit on the sidewalk. As I was standing on the sidewalk, preparing to snap a photo, the rabbit hopped across the street and decided to stop here, long enough for me to take his picture. What a narcissist!

Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated more than a month before American Thanksgiving -- October 11 vs. November 25. I was reminded of this because my wife purchased a frozen turkey on the weekend, and is planning out the guest-list.

Which brings me to reason to celebrate thanksgiving early, #4: because everybody loves turkey, and you can never eat it too early in the year.

Monday, September 20, 2010

David Trampier, Ambiguity And Implied Narrative

If you want to read a really good article on David Trampier's art, you can find it here.

The term "Implied Narrative" has been adopted to describe Trampier's style, a style of which I am very fond. I must admit that most every piece of D&D art that I have viewed, since becoming acquainted with Trampier's artwork, has been judged against his narrative approach.

Several months ago I mentioned the early black and white artwork of Todd Lockwood. The early Lockwood illustrations also capture a narrative ambiguity which I find compelling.

Viewing Lockwood's illustration of Orcus, I found myself asking: Is Orcus sleeping or drooling? Why is has this woman been brought to his throne? What happens next? The great strength of Tramp, and other artists like Lockwood, is not just that the scenes they depicted were filled with action, drama or suspense.

Like my favorite art, I prefer implied narrative in my role-playing games as well. To quote from Only A Game:

"Implied Narrative: this is another category of [game] narrative where, like The Sims, there really is no writer-defined narrative per se, but the stories emerge from a dynamic play environment."

No writer-defined (or Dungeon Master defined) narrative. I think this is the key (or what we imagine to be the key) to the appeal of Trampier's artwork, and the appeal of old-school gaming. The lack of agenda on the part of the Dungeon Master when it comes to what story will be told.

Like a good Dungeon Master, Tramp wasn't necessarily rooting for the good guys. Heck, we don't even know that characters in his illustrations, or the player characters in our games, are the good guys! That is up to the players themselves, or the art-viewers, to decide.

Just like the ending to their story is up to the players.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Last Train To Trans-Central

This is what KLF is about ...

All aboard all aboard, whoa-oh! Whoo whoo! Whoo whoo!
Come on boy do you wanna ride?
All aboard all aboard, whoa-oh! Whoo whoo!
Last train to Trans-central...

And that was my kinda music.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Holmes Basic DnD: Experience Points

All this talk on the interwebs about what image most captures your conception of Dungeons and Dragons has me thinking about the Basic Dungeons and Dragons rule set, edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes.

Published in 1977, the illustration on the box cover of Holmes D&D was the first full cover treatment, that I had ever seen, of a D&D encounter between adventurers and a dragon. It blew my then 11 year old mind, and was the subject of much day-dreaming.

The cover, by David Sutherland III, shows two adventurers -- a blond, pointy-hatted wizard, and a heavily-armed and armored fighter, aiming his bow and arrow -- confronting a roused red dragon lying atop an immense hoard of treasure. The wizard is holding a torch and casting a spell with his wand, as the two stand in an archway made by two pillars. The final encounter in the Dungeon, or at least the most rewarding, if the adventurers are successful and cart all of that treasure back to town!

Holmes D&D is, arguably, the most flexible of all iterations of Dungeons and Dragons. I say this mostly because it is incredibly rules-light, being only 48 pages of rules (for character levels 1-3), compared to the 64 pages for Moldvay, and Mentzer, D&D rules. It's "lean-ness" provides more opportunity to "play it your way", but Holmes is explicit in encouraging that freedom.

"A final word to the Dungeon Master from the authors. These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll -- roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!"

Holmes had his own idea of regarding the purpose of adventuring in D&D. He has this to say about the course of an adventure, and the rewards to be pursued.

"Many gamers start with a trip across country to get to the entrance of a dungeon. A trip apt to be punctuated by attacks by brigands or wandering monsters or marked by strange and unusual encounters. The party then enters the underworld, tries to capture the maximum treasure with the minimal risk, and escape alive."

Holmes, like other editors of D&D rulesets, encouraged players to recover as much treasure as possible, while avoiding any associated risks. While no definitive directions were given on the proportion of treasure to be awarded (compared to the amount of experience that the characters were expected to receive as a result of defeating monsters) Holmes does provide us with a sample dungeon, stocked with denizens and loot. In that dungeon you can recover 4500 gp worth of treasure, and obtain 750 xp from monsters, in addition to recovering two scrolls, a +1 dagger and two magic swords. The experience points from monsters equals 15% of the experience points. Therefore, 85% of the experience is derived from the treasure (not counting the magic items).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mentzer D&D: Experience Points

Every version of Dungeons and Dragons, along with most of the other competing fantasy role-playing games, provide their own take on the awarding of experience points. I've already covered the rules for awarding experience points in The Fantasy Trip, The Arduin Grimoire, Dragons At Dawn and 4E game systems.

The 1983, Mentzer version of D&D (a series of D&D rulebooks sometimes referred to BECMI) provided another take on the awarding of experience. It is interesting to see the evolution of experience awards. Although Mentzer D&D still focused on experience for treasure and monsters defeated, the explication was becoming ever more specific.

"Did you notice that you get a lot of experience for treasure, and not much for killing monsters? It's better to avoid killing, if you can, by tricking monsters or using magic to calm them down. You can sometimes avoid the risks of combat." (Players Manual, page 12)

As has been explained better elsewhere, the reward systems of early versions of D&D were all about searching for and looting ancient treasure hoards (that were often also guarded by fell beasts). If the looting of the treasure could be accomplished without having to face the "risks of combat", all that much the better.

And speaking of treasure, in Mentzer D&D there was a 1 in 6 chance that treasure would be in an otherwise empty room, a 2 in 6 chance of treasure in a trapped room, and a 3 in 6 chance of treasure in a room occupied by monsters.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TFT Adventure: The Sewers Of Redpoint

I've posted several reviews of the Legends of the Ancient World (LotAW) adventures, published by Dark City Games. Some, like The Dark Vale, have been very appealing, both from an aesthetic and practical point of view. Aesthetic, in that my tastes run towards minimalism, both in art and in roleplaying accessory design. Practical, in that all of the LotAW adventures are created for pre-programmed play, thus theoretically minimizing the required preparation time, and permitting small group and solitary play.

The Sewers of Redpoint is yet another adventure in the LotAW adventure line. LotAW, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, is a retroclone of an earlier, and now out-of-print game system know as The Fantasy Trip. The Sewers of Redpoint is a pre-programmed adventure, similar to the Microquests published for TFT, and includes a handy, coded map, that allows the referee to graphically follow the player's progress through the adventure.

The hook for the adventure is straight-forward. The child-avatar of the Church of the Sun-God has been kidnapped by cultists. The players descend into the Sewers of Redpoint to save the child-avatar, before he is sacrificed to an eldritch evil in some hideous ceremony.

Like the other adventures in the LotAW line, this is a 32 page pre-programmed adventure: the players move from paragraph to paragraph within the adventure, making choices along the way that lead them in different directions within the sewers. And like most pre-programmed adventures, there is little room for deviation from the programmed script.

Of all of the LotAW adventures, this is my second favorite, after The Dark Vale. Any adventure, like The Sewers of Redpoint, that includes cultists, black ceremonies intended to raise eldritch evils, and multiple plot-lines, is a winner in my books. I also like the handy referee's map at the back of the adventure, which militates against one of the weaknesses of this format: the difficulty in advance preparation by the referee, given the structure of a pre-programmed adventure.

What the LotAW adventures suffer from most is the price. At $12.95, this is expensive, notwithstanding the addition of a playing board and counters. To compare, some are purchasing the new 4E Red Box at for $13, and that comes in a sturdy box with a greater variety of accessories. And Raggi's Hammer of the God, for the Lamentations Of The Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying game, which has garnered early, favorable reviews, is priced at $10.

I can recommend The Sewers of Redpoint adventure to those of you who enjoy the LotAW game system, and don't mind paying a little extra for a related adventure.

Canadian Health Care System

Someone gave me a good-natured poke yesterday, when I observed that the Canadian prices of role-playing games, produced in the United States but marketed in Canada, are inexplicably high. In response, they made a humorous dig at Canada's Health System. Since I know they meant no offence, and were simply trying to inject a bit of humour into the topic (which I appreciated!), i'm not going to belabour this, but merely point out the following.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as a percentage of GDP, the following (leading) industrialized nations spend the following amounts on health care.

United States 16.0%
France 11.2%
Germany 10.5%
Canada 10.4%
Sweden 9.4%
England 8.7%

Now compare the life expectancies for those countries.

Sweden 81.4 years
France 81.2 years
Canada 80.7 years
Germany 80.2 years
England 79.7 years
United States 77.9 years

How about infant mortality (number of infant deaths per 1000 live births) statistics?

Sweden 2.5
Germany 3.5
France 3.8
England 4.7
Canada 5.1
United States 6.7

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dragons At Dawn: Experience Points

Anyone who has been following the old-school blogs for a while will remember the 2010 release of the Dragons At Dawn (D @ D) roleplaying game. Edited by D.H. Boggs, D @ D is a meticulously researched re-creation of the original fantasy game, as played by Dave Arneson at his gaming table from 1970-1973. That was prior to Arneson's collaboration with Gary Gygax, resulting in the 1974 printing of a little boxed set called Dungeons & Dragons.

D.H. Boggs did an admirable job of re-constructing those early rules and game approaches. Boggs also provided several direct quotes from Dave Arneson, on his approach to running a fantasy game and doling out experience points. I find Arneson's comments and original experience point system instructive, as it reveals just how far removed modern experience point systems are from the original purpose of the mechanic. Here's what Arneson had to say about experience points for roleplaying, as quoted in D @ D.

"The all pay lip-service to the roleplaying part, but they all end just having you roll different dice for different situations. There again, that has taken away from a lot of the spontaneity of actually roleplaying. When I do my games, I give roleplaying points for people staying within their character. If they want to go out and kill things, that's easy to do, and a lot of referees, that's all they do, but there's more to it. The richness is not in just rolling dice, the richness is in the characters and becoming part of this fantasy world." (Dave Arneson, Pegasus Magazine #14, 1999)

Not surprisingly, much of the criticism of later versions of D&D (and those other fantasy roleplaying games that have touted themselves as improvements to D&D) has been the focus, and pre-occupation, with making combat more prominent, cinematic, interesting, or (shudder) verisimilitudinous. Every version of D&D, and most competing systems, seem to spill inordinate amounts of ink creating ever-more elaborate and labyrinthine combat systems. This has culminated in what some players, of later versions of fantasy roleplaying games, lovingly refer to as "the grind", where most, or all of the gaming session is spent on one, or a few, combats.

Original D&D is oft-criticized for it's simplistic 'experience-for-gold-looted' mechanic. A fair criticism, from those who demand verisimilitude in their fantasy roleplaying. It is not realistic, they argue, that a person gains experience for lifting some gold and treasure out of a hole in the ground, don't you know.

D @ D uses a different set of methods for awarding experience points. One of those may be passing-familiar to those who use an 'experience-for-gold-squandered' mechanic.

"Wizards: Experience points are awarded to Wizards when they successfully complete the creation of a spell in the laboratory....Neither use nor casting of spells counts towards experience. If the player continues to make the same spell over and over, the referee may at some point opt not to recognize more experience points for it or give some lesser percentage. Likewise, the referee may opt to award more experience for successful new research.

Priests: Priests are awarded one experience point for every gold piece worth of treasure donated to their faith or otherwise spent in the service of their religion. Treasure must be gotten through the Priest's personal adventuring and cannot be donated by anyone else. Referees may take away experience points for any behaviour contradictory to the tenants [sic] of the Priest's faith.

All other classes: All other classes are awarded one experience point for every gold piece spent in accordance with the nature of the character. Referee's [sic] and players may develop special interests for the characters if desired, or simply award the points for any spending which is voluntary and not for some unusual project such as freeing a hostage or donating to a bridge construction project. Only cold, hard cash won through adventuring and subsequently spent may be converted to experience points." (page 43)

In the fantasy game originally played by Arneson, it was primarily through the recovery, and appropriate expenditure, of long-lost treasure hoards, that characters advanced in levels. Appropriate expenditure is a critical component for all classes, as it is only through the expenditure of gold (and the Wizard's case, both expenditure of gold for the spell-making materials, and time, in creating his spells) in ways meaningful to the character's motivations and interests that the characters can advance.

If you have not taken note yet, let me draw something striking about this experience points system to your attention now. No experience points for monsters killed in D @ D.

Monsters certainly appeared in Arneson's games, and were an obstacle to the recovery of treasure, but their destruction did not merit experience points.

Imagine removing the benefit of experience for monsters-killed and think just how radically this would change the nature of your fantasy roleplaying game.

Gaming and the Canadian Exchange Rate

I was looking at the recent Dungeons and Dragons 4E Essentials release schedule, and couldn't help notice the following product line-up information.

Dungeon Master's Kit
An Essential D&D Game Supplement
James Wyatt and Jeremy Crawford
Awesome tools, rules, and adventure content for every Dungeon Master.
If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons player interested in taking on the role of the Dungeon Master, or if you’re an experienced DM looking for more game advice, tools, and adventure content, the Dungeon Master’s Kit has exactly what you need to build your own Dungeons & Dragons campaign and excite the imaginations of you and your players.
This deluxe box contains rules and advice to help Dungeon Masters run games for adventurers of levels 1–30. It also includes useful DM tools such as a Dungeon Master’s screen (with tables and rules printed on the inside), die-cut terrain tiles and monster tokens, and fold-out battle maps.
Game components:
256-page book of rules and advice for Dungeon Masters
Two 32-page adventures
2 sheets of die-cut monster tokens
2 double-sided battle maps
Fold-out Dungeon Master’s screen
Item Details Item Code: 244640000Release Date: October 19, 2010 Series: Essential D&D Game Supplement Format: Box Price: $39.99 C$47.99 ISBN: 978-0-7869-5630-2

As of September 14, 2010, the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar is roughly $0.97 US. At that exchange rate, the pricing on the Dungeon Master's Kit should be $41, not $48. Hopefully Canadian retailers will not be forced to charge those exorbitant prices, and will get a break on the wholesale price from WoTC. Here's an even more extreme example.

Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
An Essential D&D Game Supplement
Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek, and Rodney Thompson
Exciting new builds and character options for the druid, paladin, ranger, and warlock classes.
This essential supplement for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game presents exciting new builds for the game’s most popular classes: the druid, the paladin, the ranger, and the warlock. Each class comes with a set of new powers, class features, paragon paths, epic destinies, and more that beginning players can use to build the characters they want to play and experienced players can plunder for existing 4th Edition characters.
In addition to new builds, this book presents expanded information and racial traits for some of the game’s most popular races, including dragonborn, drow, half-elves, half-orcs, and tieflings.
Item Details Item Code: 247510000Release Date: November 16, 2010 Series: Essential D&D Game Supplement Format: Trade Paperback Page Count: 352 Price: $19.95 C$35.00 ISBN: 978-0-7869-5619-7

At $35 Canadian, compared to $20 US, that's an exchange rate of $0.57, compared to the current $0.97. I trust this $35 Canadian price is just a typo, or a placeholder for the correct price.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Fantasy Trip And Experience Awards

In the late 1970's, Metagaming Concept's The Fantasy Trip was briefly in the hunt as a competitor to TSR's Dungeons and Dragons.

The Fantasy Trip, comprised of the Melee and Wizard microgames, was developed by Steve Jackson, when he was still a fresh-faced game developer working for Howard Thompson at Metagaming. Steve went on to develop Metagaming's advanced version of The Fantasy Trip: In The Labyrinth, Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard.

While Melee and Wizard started out as straight-up arena combat simulations, the Fantasy Trip franchise morphed into a role-playing game as additional products were added to the line. By the time In The Labyrinth was published, in 1980, experience points and leveling up had become the standard approach to fantasy role-playing character improvement, and appeared in this game. But while D&D was strongly class-oriented, The Fantasy Trip was among the earliest of the skill-based systems.

Experience Awards in The Fantasy Trip were doled out for a host of activities. Here is what Steve Jackson had to say about experience.

"The record sheet is also the place where you keep track of experience points. The GM will award (or subtract) experience points as you play; they are your character's reward for staying in character and achieving his objectives, whatever they are.

The object of this game is the same as that of life itself -- to survive and to better yourself at your chosen pursuits. Experience points are awarded by the Game Master whenever a character does something "well." Any action which would teach the character something (or which shows that he's learned his lessons well) should be worth experience points. Trying a valiant action and failing should also be worth something.

Experience should be awarded as follows:

FOR COMBAT: One experience point for every hit of damage you put on a foe... [and] the person dealing the killing blow to any enemy gets experience points equal to the foe's basic Dex.

FOR CASTING SPELLS: A Character gets one [experience point] for each point of strength expended in trying to cast a spell in a pressure situation. Spells cast in creation of magic items are a special case. Give a wizard 20 xp for each week he spends creating magical items.

FOR DIE ROLLS: Making a saving throw against danger (thus avoiding it) or putting one of your talents to good use (thus learning more) are worth experience. Any character who successfully makes any roll on 4 or more dice will get experience points: 10 for a 4 die roll, 20 for a 5 die roll, and 30 for a 6 die roll.

FOR TIME SPENT IN PLAY: Each hour of real time spent in play is worth 5 experience points to each character actively involved. The GM should not award points to characters who don't participate or who waste time deliberately.

GAME MASTER'S DISCRETION: The Game Master can give out extra experience points (or take them away) whenever he feels it proper. The GM might give out extra experience points to a character who figured out a riddle, defeated or frightened enemies by a cute trick, or even cheated the other players out of treasure. Points should be taken away for actions that are very out-of-character, or for very stupid actions...." (In The Labyrinth, page 10)

Considering that The Fantasy Trip was a skills-based role-playing game, experience awards for making die-rolls makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the player selected the skill, out of a myriad of choices, and then had the wherewithal to use that skill during the game (hopefully in an unexpected and novel way).

Arduin's Experience Point System

The Arduin Grimoire is one of those rule sets that is hard to take seriously, and yet hard to dismiss. The Arduin Grimoire, Volume I -- the first of nine Arduin Grimoire volumes -- was introduced in 1977. The series chronicled the gonzo Dungeons and Dragons house-ruling of Dave Hargrave. The Arduin Grimoire is notable not only for its odd fusion of fantasy and sci-fi, and being the first published house-rules for Dungeons and Dragons, but also its early disagreement with the "experience points for gold" system employed in OD&D.

Hargrave had this to say about the awarding of experience points, in Volume I of his Arduin Grimoires:

"In the Arduin Universe, the ability to advance to higher levels is based on earned merit and not on the acquisition of treasure. Therefore, points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience." (page 2)

Hargrave had little to say, in the first Volume of the Arduin Grimoire, about experience for monsters killed. Presumably, he agreed with awarding experience for defeating monsters. However, he did provide an alternate experience points chart to replace the "experience points for gold" system, which I provide, below.

Death (with successful revival), reincarnation, curse changed into another type entity -- 400 xp

Being sole survivor of expedition, acquiring the mightiest of artifacts (Satan's own pitchfork, nuclear weapons, phasers, etc.) -- 375 xp

Defeating in single combat, demi-gods or major demons (above and beyond the normal points) -- 350 xp

Defeating in normal combat, any creature that is four times your size or is 20 hit dice or larger (whichever is greater) -- 325 xp

Acquiring a major artifact (machine gun, explosives, staff of black wizardry, wish rings with 5 or more wishes, etc.) -- 300 xp

Doing spells of tremendous magical import (the conjuring of major demon, using a gate spell, raising the dead fully and the like) -- 275 xp

Being cursed, acquiring a cursed item, dying but being regenerated back to life, using spells of major magical import (astral body, teleporting, prismatic wall, etc) -- 250 xp

Acquiring most staffs, major rods (lordly might), using a single wish, acquiring +5 weapons or armour, and doing heavy magic spells (wind walk, phase door, cure disease, raising the dead, regenerate manna points or limbs, etc) -- 225 xp

Acquiring items that are +4, magic items that are unusual (wands of wizardry, slaver's lash, etc), doing difficult spells like: limited wishes, all psychically draining one like: ESP and the like -- 200 xp

Acquiring +3 items, wands, most rings and amulets, and doing spells such as transmuting rock to mud, monster summoning and the like -- 175 xp

Being point man, acquiring +2 items, lesser rings, amulets, etc, doing spells like dimension door, deactivate traps, polymorph self, and the like -- 150 xp

Acquiring single or limited use items (single shot, spell storing rings, etc), +1 items, doing spells like: wizard eye, or throwing a thunderbolt that kills the B.E.M. just in time to save the party -- 125 xp

Being expedition leader, coming within one point of dying, acquiring potions (100 points per dose), scrolls (100 points per level/use), and for doing spells like: create food and water, mass invisibility, etc -- 100 xp

Being rear guard, doing simple detection spells -- 75 xp

Figuring out a trap, tripping one and taking damage, all lesser spell use (locks, knocks, winds) going over half damage, doing extra dangerous and uncalled for acts (checking for secret places, when you know there are traps, etc -- 50 xp

There's lots that can be said about Dave Hargraves alternate experience points system. At the higher levels, the experience points awards seem meager compared to the risks and accomplishments. 375 experience points for recovering Satan's own pitchfork? 300 experience points for acquiring the staff of black wizardry? Apparently Dave was pretty stingy with his experience awards.

On the other hand, there are some interesting observations here. Giving extra experience to the expedition leader, point man, and rear guard is a good idea. Experience for figuring out a trap -- assuming it was done with "player skill" -- is also appropriate. Experience points for magic spells cast is more problematic for me, since it is a character skill, and players already get experience for monsters killed by magic.

Other than slowing down the awarding of experience, all that the Arduin experience point system has done is to replace experience points for gold with experience points for magical treasure. If one can criticize xp for gold as being unrealistic, would the same criticism not apply to xp for magic items?

Monday, September 6, 2010

2010 WOTC 4E Red Box: A Review

Would it be vain to suggest that the old school community is having a measurable impact on the marketing efforts of Hasbro and Wizards Of The Coast? While its certainly comforting to imagine that the design and distribution of the new 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Starter Set (4E Red Box) is a reaction to the blossoming of the old school community, it is just as likely that the look of the new 4E Red Box is simply a clever marketing ploy by WOTC, to get those parents who fondly remember D&D to buy a copy of this new D&D game for their kids.

Whatever the reason, the announcement of a new 4E Red Box several months ago provoked old-school and new-school fingers to race furiously across keyboards. Those groups alternately predicted that the 4E Red Box heralded the end of civilization, or a new golden age of role-playing.

Having recently purchased a copy of the 4E Red Box, I thought some might find it useful if I shared my thoughts regarding this product, now that the game is "in-hand."

The 4E Red Box is $20, is 9" x 12" , and is 2" deep, but don't let the depth of the box fool you into thinking you are getting 2" worth of gaming materials. WOTC could have made the box 1" deep and still have provided all the materials in the box. A 1" high, sloped, cardboard boxliner (sloped so the dice fit inside) reduces the interior depth of the box, so the enclosed materials won't flop around. Inside, you will find two 8.5 x 11" booklets (a 32-page players book and a 64-page dungeon masters book), a set of black dice with white numbers, a sheet of cardboard counters representing characters and monsters, a double-sided battlemat, four character record sheets, and several sheets of power cards.

The production quality is top-notch, as one would expect from Wizards of the Coast. The booklet artwork is full-color and bleeds to the edge of the pages. The cardboard character and monster counters feature art typical of 4th Edition D&D. WOTC has recycled the crossroads battlemat, appearing in other 4E products, but the reverse battlemat reveals a dungeon, designed specifically for the 4E Red Box. While only four character sheets are provided with the game, WOTC gives permission to photocopy the character sheets for personal use.

The Players Book is simply a two-column choose-your-own-adventure book consisting of 100 entries (with the manual being 32 pages, that works out to 3 entries per page). In making several adventure decisions, those 100 entries take you through 4th Edition D&D character creation. For example, your first choice, upon being ambushed, is to determine whether you wish to cast a spell, heal a comrade, sneak around the attackers, or confront them in mortal combat. Depending on which choice you make, this determines your starting character class. During three in-book encounters (two combat and one information gathering), you make additional choices about your alignment, starting weapons and equipment, ability scores, healing surges, and powers or spells. Once you finish the Players Book, you are encouraged to gather three or four friends, and have them walk though the included adventure to create their own characters.

There appears to be very little resource management in the 4E D&D. Neither the Players Book nor the Dungeon Masters Book provide any lists of equipment for purchase. Every character is assumed to have all of the materials he or she needs for adventuring (rope, torches, etc.). The resource management in 4E is all in about your hit points, healing surges, and powers.

The 64-page Dungeon Masters Book provides additional encounters and advice on how to run encounters. By the end of the encounters outlined in the Dungeon Masters Book, each of the characters should reach 2nd Level.

Is this boxed set worth $20? If you are interested in playing 4E D&D, and have never played Dungeons and Dragons (or any role-playing game) before, it is, and may be the product for you. But, while the contents of this boxed set are quite nice, if you have played role-playing games before, you don't need to buy this product. The character generation in the Players Book is oversimplified, and you don't need 32 pages and 100 entries to accomplish this exercize. It should take someone, with even a passing familiarity with role-playing games, no more 2-3 minutes to make the choices that might take 15-30 minutes following the examples in the Players Book.

If you are someone who played D&D 20 years ago, and want to get back into the "most recent" version of the game, this product is still probably not for you. Wait for the other more comprehensive D&D Essentials game materials. Understand though, that this is not the D&D you played in the 1980's, or even the D&D you played in the 1990's. 4E is an "encounters-based" game, with experience doled out for completing quests assigned by the referee, battling monsters, and participating in "skill-challenges", where you roll dice against a certain skill, in order to continue the adventure.

Did the 4E Red Box convince me to play 4E? No. It reminded me why I lost interest in 4E to begin with. But that doesn't mean that it is not right for you. If your favorite part of D&D was engaging in combats, participating in heroic quests, and obtaining magic items, and least favorite was role-playing your character, solving puzzles, exploring abandoned ruins, and managing your material resources effectively, then 4E is worth checking out.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

BX Companion: A Review

One of my fellow old-school bloggers recently remarked that its feels like a second golden age for Dungeons and Dragons. That comment was made in relation to the explosion of available rulesets, accessories and adventures compatible with early versions of D&D. In some ways, we are now experiencing an embarrassment of riches in the old school community.

One has to look no further, in verifying this observation, than to such newly-published works as James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, Rogue Games' Shadow, Sword & Spell, or JB's B/X Companion.

While the former two are stand-alone games, JB's B/X Companion is intended to supplement the 1980 Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Dungeons and Dragons rulesets, thus provoking the title of this book, the B/X Companion.

When first published in 1980, the B/X D&D rulebooks promised a companion-level supplement would follow. That companion supplement was never published, due to the replacement of the B/X with a 'kiddified' BECMI set of D&D rulebooks. JB has corrected that oversight, by publishing his own version of a companion rulebook.

While ownership of the original B/X rulebooks is not absolutely necessary to get value out of the B/X Companion, it is presumed that a purchaser will also have a compatible basic/expert ruleset, such as Labyrinth Lord or some other similar game, in order to use this book for gaming.

The cover of the B/X Companion, by Brian DeClercq, fits in perfectly with the Moldvay/Cook rulebooks. The three adventurers from the covers of the B/X rulesets are shown, in a fitting homage to the original 1980 Erol Otus covers. The rulebook itself is 64 pages, the same size as the Basic and Expert books, and features 25 excellent interior B&W illustrations by Michael Cote, Kelvin Green, David Larkins and Amos Orion Sterns.

Above is an example of the interior artwork. The illustration is by Michael Cote, showing three adventurers, standing before a bas-relief that reveals a battle between themselves and a one-eyed, tentacled monstrosity. If you enjoy the artwork, above, and the illustrations from the original B/X rulebooks, you're in for a treat with the B/X Companion. The artwork in the B/X Companion captures the same feel as the artwork from the original books. JB was most fortunate to have such a diverse and talented group of artists providing him with illustrations for this rulebook.

The Companion title of this rulebook, refers (of course) to character levels 15-36, since the original B/X rulebooks only covered characters levels from 1-14. In early versions of D&D, high level play was not restricted to combat with larger and more dangerous monsters, although JB covers that ground in the B/X Companion. In addition to those sorts of adventures, the B/X Companion also provides rules for running Dominions, commanding armies and engaging in mass combat, and travelling to other planes.

The rulebook is laid out in a 2-column style, in keeping with the presentation of the original B/X rulebooks, and is well-written. It includes rules for advancement for the various classes, descriptions of high-level magic-user and cleric spells, additional advice on adventuring, new combat rules, along with a mass-combat system, new high-level monsters, additional magic items, dominion creation and management, advice on designing high level adventures, and rules for travelling to other planes.

All that in a scant 64 pages.

Among my favourite parts of this rulebook are the mass combat and monster sections. The mass combat section feels true to the role-playing conventions of Dungeons and Dragons, but also utilizes a wargame system that provides a sufficiently abstract combat resolution, in order to ensure mass-battles do not become bogged down in the minutia of individual combats. The section on monsters provides several novel creatures, such as animals of legend, jubjub bird, and ruinous powers.

At $28, this rulebook is expensive. But for sheer nostalgic bliss, fused with broad applicability to old-school and B/X gaming, the B/X Companion rulebook has few peers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Doling Out Experience Points

I picked up the new 4E Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set ("4E Red Box") on the weekend. It was my first in-depth look at 4E, and it was illuminating to see just how far Hasbro's 4th Edition D&D game has strayed from the roots of original D&D. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the doling out of experience points.

I'm a firm believer that systems matter, that rewards matter. The systems of rewards that a game employs sends a message about what is expected of its players. If a game rewards players for staying in character, they will focus on that. If it rewards them for looting ancient treasure-hoards, they will do so. If it rewards them for the completion of quests, they will seek them out. If it rewards players for engaging in combat, they will pursue that activity.

Tom Moldvay had this to say about experience points, in the 1980 Basic D&D rulebook:

"Experience points are given for non-magical treasure and for defeating monsters. For every 1 gp value of non-magical treasure the characters recover, the DM should give 1 XP to the party. Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting or wits. The DM may also award extra XP to characters who deserve them (fighting a dangerous monster alone, or saving the party with a great idea) and less XP to characters who did less than their fair share." (page B22)

"The choices [of treasure] should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure, usually 3/4 or more." (page B46)

B/X D&D allows for the earning of experience through combat, but also permits players to gain the equivalent experience points by overcoming monsters through magic and clever play. However, according to Moldvay, most (3/4 or more) of the experience points are intended to come from the recovery of treasure. Therefore, the main goal of characters is to seek out and recover treasure, and, to a lesser extent, fight monsters and use the player's wits.

Compare this to the new 4E Red Box. If I understand the rules correctly, you obtain experience in 4E by performing two activities: completing encounters and concluding quests. Following the experience point guidelines, in the adventure supplied in the 4E Red Box, the players obtain 80% of their experience from encounters (combat) and 20% from quests. Therefore, the 4E D&D players are expected to do two things: battle monsters, and, to a lesser extent, investigate and resolve the plot-hooks laid out by the DM. And while there is monetary treasure to be had in 4E D&D, i'm not sure what purpose it serves, since the characters get no experience from treasure, and never seem to need money to buy things in 4E.

In B/X D&D, characters get the same experience points, whether they defeat a monster by magic, combat, or clever play. But in the example adventure supplied in the 4E Red Box, if you avoid combat with a White Dragon through clever play (ie. rolling some dice during a skill challenge), you get only 300 xp for the encounter, rather than the 750 xp obtained for defeating the dragon in combat. Therefore, the message to players is that they should engage in combat, rather than role-play an encounter.

It's no wonder, then, that many people, who have played D&D since first edition, express bafflement at the direction the game has taken. It was drilled into our brains, from early on, that combat was dangerous. It was to be avoided if possible, and if it could not be avoided, players made sure they stacked the deck in their favour, prior to the commencement of hostilities. On the other hand, 4E encourages combat, discourages role-playing (since it punishes those who use skill-challenge rather than martial solutions), and rewards players that allow themselves to be led by the nose towards the satisfaction of pre-determined quests.

My FLGS had at least 100 copies of the new 4E Red Box on display over the weekend. Clearly, people are buying, playing, and enjoying, 4E D&D. I wonder if they are aware of, and agree with the system of rewards built into 4E? Is it okay with them that the 4E system explicitly discourages role-playing, rewards combat over all else, and encourages passive acceptance of pre-determined quests?