21 December 2012

Location of Bywater on Karameikos Maps



I recently noticed, after reading The Tainted Sword (Penhaligon trilogy, book 1) that some of the maps on Pandius.com show the wrong location for the town of Bywater, in Karameikos. The top map is a quick and dirty scan (I'm not going to cut apart my book for a proper flatbed scan, sorry) from that novel, and the one below it is from the Escape from Thunder Rift adventure module. Hope this sets people straight.

22 November 2012

A few House Rules; Combat Mods and Weapon/Armor Restrictions

"To Hit" and Damage modifiers by PC ability scores In the BECMI rules, as well as the Cyclopedia and BX versions, player characters are given a modifier to their "to hit" and damage die rolls based on their STR score. A high strength gives bonuses, a low score gives penalties.

For calculating damage, this makes some sense; the harder you thrust with a dagger or swing with an axe, the more damage you will do to your opponent. The attacker's strength granting a better chance to hit in the first place is less logical.

For this reason, for quite some time, I have house ruled the combat bonuses, for both melee and missile attacks, to generate their to hit modifier from DEX, and their damage adjustment from STR, with one caveat; only Fighters, Dwarves and Halflings qualify for a modifier to their base to hit roll. So...

Fighter, Dwarf & Halfling To Hit Modifier by DEX score:

Dex Score "To Hit" Modifier
3 -3
4 to 5 -2
6 to 8 -1
9 to 12 0
13 to 15 +1
16 to 17 +2
18 +3

All classes modify the damage done on a successful attack with their STR score as explained in the rule books.


Optional Rules for using weapons and armor normally forbidden to your class

Especially with the advent of later editions of the D&D game, as well as the influence of video games, recent fantasy films and other factors, many players will wish to play Cleric, Magic User or Thief characters that break the standard Classic D&D model of those archetypes. Sword wielding Clerics, Magic Users adventuring in armor and other odd combinations are likely requests from players creating new PCs for a campaign. The first reaction from many a DM, including me, is to say no and demand everyone play by the rules as written, however, I've slowly come to the conclusion that the players should be able to create the character they want, within reason, and the rules can be slightly tweaked to allow these weird PCs.

Fighters, Dwarves and Halflings are allowed (almost) any weapons and armor. The only exception to the rule is the use of very large weapons by halfling PCs. This should just be a matter of common sense, I won't waste time combing through the weapon lists in detail, but suffice to say that from the Basic rulebook weapon list, the Battle Axe, Long Bow, Two Handed Sword, and Pole Arm should be barred to Halflings. At the DM's discretion, a very strong (Str 16+) Halfling PC in a life or death desperate situation could possibly wield one of these once in a while using an "untrained" penalty (explained below) of -2 to hit and -2 to damage. I recommend discussing this possibility in advance with the DM and other players, to avoid arguments within the game.

Thieves are well rounded combatants, skilled in the use of many weapons and armor types. The restrictions placed upon the class tend to reflect a preference for light, quiet weapons and quiet, nonrestrictive armors that do not hinder any of the class abilities. In the event that the player wishes his thief to wield a weapon not normally allowed to the class, I impose an "untrained" penalty of -2 to hit and -2 to damage. STR bonus or penalty to damage is still applied in addition to these modifiers.
In the unlikely event that a thief character wishes to don heavy armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -4 penalty to DEX, and is unable to use any of his thief abilities while wearing any outlawed armor.

Clerics are the least restrictive class in combat, outside of the Fighter group. With a choice of any armor type, the only request you're likely to encounter is the use of a barred weapon.
In a campaign that uses a specific Mythos or Pantheon of gods, each with a detailed portfolio, mythology and iconic weapon used by that deity, I allow the cleric a choice, to be made at character generation and unable to be changed later without 1d6 months of "offstage" training time and the loss of one level of experience. The PC may either use the normal cleric selection of any blunt weapon, or forgo those weapons and be trained in only the specific weapon of his deity.
For Example: Artemy, a Cleric of the god Ares, might decide to forgo the use of the normal selection of blunt cleric weapons, allowing him to train in the use of the Gladius (short sword), the favored weapon of that god.
In the event of a god like Ares or Athena, where two or more weapons (short sword and/or spear, in these cases) might be considered iconic, the cleric must still choose only one of those weapons to be trained in. A Cleric who uses a weapon forbidden to him suffers the same untrained penalties a thief does; -2 "to hit" and damage, and must additionally make a successful WIS ability check each time the forbidden weapon is used or face the wrath of his god and lose all spellcasting and undead turning ability for 24 hours. Desperate, life or death situations may warrant a modifier to the WIS check, at the DM's discretion, and repeated willful violations may invoke harsher punishments, again, at the DM's discretion after a proper omen or warning is given by the cleric's god.

Magic Users suffer the harshest restrictions on the weapons and armor they may use, as well as the toughest penalties when violating those restrictions.
In the event that a magic user wishes to don armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -4 penalty to DEX, and is unable to cast any spells while wearing any armor. To keep things fair, I apply a similar penalty to the Elf class. Elves are somewhat trained to use magic while wearing armor and do not suffer a DEX penalty for wearing armor, but each time they cast a spell while armored, they must make an INT ability check to successfully complete their spell. This check is modified by a -2 penalty for non-metallic armor, and a -4 penalty for metallic armor. A failed check means the spell is interrupted and lost from memory.
When attempting to use a weapon barred to their class, Magic Users suffer the usual untrained penalty of -2 to hit and -2 to damage, coupled with their likely penalty to damage from a low str score, if applicable.

The other thing to keep in mind when characters, such as Magic Users, with low STR scores attempt to equip bulky armor and heavy weapons is the impact on encumbrance. Even in campaigns where carrying capacity is handwaved, I suggest a DM use common sense and not allow situations where a STR 6 Magic User is toting around (though perhaps not actually wearing...) a suit of plate armor and a couple long swords, in addition to his spellbooks and other adventuring gear.

Any thoughts? Feedback is welcome!

29 August 2012

Reinventing Karameikos: A couple very cool fan-made products

I wanted to make sure everyone is aware of, and has downloaded, these two cool Karameikos based adventure/supplements. Although unofficial, they're very well done, and based simply on the Expert Set and X1 material we've covered so far.

Expert Adventure Supplement 1: Luln
by RC Pinnell
Detail and development of the town of Luln, with a built in adventure and some adventure hooks for further development.
http://www.lulu.com/shop/rc-pinnell/luln/ebook/product-13508970.html

Expert Adventure Module 1: The Ward of Wereskalot
by RC Pinnell
More adventures near Luln, this time a short trip across the border into the Five Shires and the ruins of Wereskalot.
http://www.lulu.com/shop/rc-pinnell/the-ward-of-wereskalot/ebook/product-13578152.html

28 August 2012

Reinventing Karameikos: Info from the D&D Rule sets 1

So we've established the foundation for our campaign setting with the bare basics found in the Isle of Dread adventure module. Now it's time to poke around the various products that lead up to Gaz(etteer)1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the first stand alone sourcebook (meaning, that's all it is, it's not otherwise a rulebook or adventure that happens to have setting info within) for the Known World campaign setting, later to be known as Mystara.

The logical place to look first is the actual D&D rulebooks, so that's where we'll go next.

Although I have posted in the past about adapting their sample dungeon material to Mystara, the first two Basic Sets (Eric Holmes' and Tom Moldvay's editions) contain no reference at all to the Known World. They arguably contain no mention of a setting as we define it now at all, beyond the scope of "There's this town called portown and there's a dungeon nearby".

When we get to examining the Karameikos Gazetteer sourcebook, it becomes apparent that the sample Group Dungeon in the DM's book from Frank Mentzer's Basic Set has been retro-assumed to be set in Karameikos, in the town of Threshold and the nearby ruins, but a careful reading of the rule book on simply its own content reveals no such tie to the setting. The PCs are in a town, there's a ruin called Mystamere Castle nearby where the evil icky-bad villain Bargle is hiding out. That's it.

The Rules Cyclopedia contains a sort of mini-primer on the Mystara campaign world, published after the bulk of the Known World Gazetteers and at roughly the same time as the setting was being prepared for conversion into the AD&D 2nd edition world of Mystara, so we will come back to it later. The various "Basic Sets" that followed the RC return to the early trend of not assuming or describing any larger setting for their sample dungeon.

That brings us to the Expert Sets. Starting with Dave Cook's edition. The sample wilderness key and map section has some information.

...the map shows a section of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The Duchy is a large tract of wilderness and unsettled land claimed by Duke Stefan Karameikos the Third. Although he claims control of a large area of land on paper, large portions of it are held by humanoids and monsters. The two main settled areas are the coast near the main city of Specularum and the Black Eagle Barony on the Gulf of Halag.
Two new bits here. First, Duke Stefan is "the third". This part of his title was not mentioned in the Isle of Dread material. Second is the introduction of the Black Eagle Barony and the naming of the large bay/gulf between Karameikos and the Five Shires as the Gulf of Halag.

The weather throughout the area represented on this map is generally temperate and mild with short winters of little or no snowfall and long summers. Rainfall is ample but not heavy and easterly winds blow cool breezes from over the sea.

The mountain range running along the north edge of the map is known by different names by the peoples of the territory including the Black Peaks, the Cruth Mountains, or The Steach. The two large river systems that provide drainage from the area are left for the DM to name.

I really like that second part. While canon, including the maps from Isle of Dread, calls those peaks the Cruth Mountains, the locals also call them the Black Peaks or The Steach. These are great imagination joggers for a DM wanting to expand things. What evils lurk in the mountains that gave rise to these other names?

Due to the climate, large sections of this map are heavily forested. Humans engage in lumber operations near the edges of the forests, but are loathe to venture too deeply without good cause. Timber, both hardwood and softwood, is a prime resource of the area, and is either exported or used to build ships in the shipyards of the port of Specularum.
Again, the hint of mystery and danger lurking in the depths of the forests. While the map shows some of the major monster types to be found in various regions of Karameikos' forests, literally anything could be waiting for those adventurers brave or foolish enough to wander off the loggers' trails.

Specularum - Originally a trading port founded when this area was first explored, Specularum has become the major city of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Approximately 5,000 people live in or immediately around the city. The Duke maintains a standing force of 500 troops and may raise an army of 5,000 from the surrounding countryside in times of war. A small fleet of warships is maintained in the harbor.

The city is primarily noted for its excellent harbor facilities and shipyards. Walled on the landward side, the city is also protected by 2 breakwaters that extend into the harbor, restricting passage to a narrow entrance. Overlooking the harbor is the Duke's castle, providing ample defense of the harbor.
Without dictating too much of the local flavor, this gives us a general idea of what Specularum is all about. It's a maritime trading city with a strong military presence. Safe and secure. I quibble with the low population a little, but this is one case where later material (the Karameikos Gaz, in fact) fixes that, bumping it up to 50,000.

Black Eagle Barony - This area of the Duchy has been given as a fiefdom to Baron Ludwig "Black Eagle" von Hendriks. The central town is Fort Doom, a forbidding structure. It is rumored to have dungeons filled with those who have displeased the Baron, an extremely cruel and unpopular man. The Baron may have possible connections with evil slavers and disreputable mercenaries. The Baron maintains a garrison of 200 troops, using them freely to quell dissent and cruch attacking non-humans.
Again, without force feeding us a bunch of detail, this paragraph manages to conjure up quite a few ideas for adventure. Rescuing allies from the Baron's dungeons, fighting off the slavers (or being captured by them and forced to escape!), run ins with corrupt troops or mercenaries. Fun stuff.

Luln - Composed primarily of persons who have fled Black Eagle Barony, merchants who have come to trade with the Baron, and some non-humans who have left the wilderness, Luln is a base town for adventurers esploring the Haunted Keep, also called Koriszegy Keep, and the surrounding land. Somewhat lawless and open, the town can provide most of the basic needs to any group of adventurers. The town is poorly defended, relying on the goodwill and capabilities of both the Baron and the Duke for its defense. Approximately 500 people live in the town.
Although later material devoted to Karameikos shifted the presumed base of operations of the PCs to Threshold, this entry shows that Luln is an ideal spot to center a campaign around. Lots of adventure opportunities abound nearby, and the possibility of local adventurers being called upon to defend the town until reinforcements from the Baron or Duke arrive.

The text goes on to add a little detail on the gnomes of the Duchy, including a small sample dungeon based in a typical gnome stronghold. This stuff isn't especially relevant to a larger examination of the setting, so I'm not going to reprint it here.

Lastly, a fairly small scale,  detail map of Karameikos is included. The most useful part of this map are tags detailing what types of monsters are found in the various regions. The area that they chose to place the keep on the borderlands module in is infested with Frost Giants! Watch out!


22 August 2012

Making Karameikos Manageable, or Back to Basics

When starting a new Mystara campaign, Karameikos tends to be my usual starting point, mainly because it is the most standard Euro-Medieval fantasy of the various regions of the Known World that still has a human focus. I also love using Humans and Halflings as the main 'civilized' folk of the campaign, and having the Hin of the Five Shires right next door is a bonus too. The only problem with Karameikos being the most developed of the regions of Mystara is that some later material conflicts a little with early stuff, and to me, the region loses it's wild and unexplored allure.

With that in mind, I've decided to strip the Grand Duchy (It's not a kingdom! :P ) back to it's original presentation, then examine the later material and suggest some of my own ideas for using it in a campaign.

We'll start with module X1: The Isle of Dread. Along with what is essentially a slightly expanded version of the Expert Rule Book's map of the Known World and nearby island chains, a brief paragraph summary of each nation and region is included. For Karameikos, it has this to say:
Grand Duchy of Karameikos. This part of the continent is a wild and unsettled land claimed by Duke Stephan Karameikos. In reality, little of the land is under the duke's control. Large areas are overrun with monsters and hostile humanoids.
Following the brief "gazetteer" of the Known World, there are a few brief notes on climate and weather. Given Karameikos' relative position to the countries mentioned, I think it is safe to assume the statements about Thyatis and Darokin would apply to the Grand Duchy as well. I've bolded the relevant information for reference.

Weather & Climate
The general weather patterns of this part of the continent move from west to east. Hence, much rain falls on the western edge of the Altan Tepe mountains, while little or none falls on the Alasiyan desert. The warm offshore currents near Thyatis and Minrothad modify the weather somewhat in the south, making the climate there similar to the Mediterranean.

The southern farm lands are extremely fertile, due to a thick layer of rich ash from the ancient volcanic hills. The farmers here have discovered better ways to grow most crops. The heavily irrigated and terraced gardens of the southern farmlands produce more food than any other area on the map.(1)

The climate in the Thanegioth Archipelago is tropical, similar to the Pacific South Seas islands (Oceania) and the Caribbean. The climate south of the Cruth mountains (running west to east) is moist and temperate, with mild winters. The climate of Darokin and Glantri is warm and sunny, similar to that of southern France. The climate of the Ethengar steppes is mild in the summer, but cold and bleak in the winter; like the Russian steppes around the Black Sea. The climate of the northeastern coast is wet and mostly overcast, similar to that of Denmark.
(1) I make the assumption that in Karameikos, the strip of coastal lands, one or two hexes wide on the X1 and Expert Set continental maps, where there are no forest map icons, is mostly rolling plains, small hills and grassland, with farmsteads and ranches scattered about, most notably near the cities of Specularum, Luln and Kelvin, with a smaller farming community around Threshold, as shown on maps of that city, found elsewhere.

All in all, this bare bones bit of information makes Karameikos sound like a great locale for adventures using the "standard" Euro-fantasy medieval to early renaissance D&D genre. Consider also the fact that every major terrain type is present in, or fairly close to, the Grand Duchy. Forest, plains, coastlines and mountains abound, and snowy, wintry locales can surely be found in the heights of the Cruth mountains. The vast deserts of Ylaruam are a short trek to the northeast, while the murky depths of the Malpheggi swamp lie just west of the neighboring Five Shires. With a major port such as Specularum, the tropical islands are within easy reach as well.

Speaking of the Five Shires, it's interesting that the homelands of the major Demihuman races are all close by as well. The Hin (Halflings) are direct neighbors to the west, while the Elves of Alfheim and Dwarves of Rockhome are both a short trip (across the neighboring human realm of Darokin's rather unsettled eastern wilderness) to the north. This makes it quite easy to justify having all four of the standard PC races present in the towns of the Grand Duchy, rather than force the players and DM to concoct rambling backstories to explain what a particular character is doing there.

The Expert sets (both Dave Cook's and Frank Mentzer's editions) have some more detailed information on Karameikos and the city of Threshold, but I want to take this examination of the Karameikos subsetting one step at a time and not get mired in referencing too many sources in each post, so we'll take a look at those next time. Even if you stick with what we have so far from X1's map and map key notes, you could easily start to build a campaign, so to put it bluntly, everything else is basically just fluff anyway.

19 July 2012

Cthulhu in RPGs: Too much of a good thing?

Recently, there's a big trend in RPGs, especially the old school "clone" games, to insert massive amounts of Cthulhu-style themes and monsters into otherwise standard swords & sorcery fantasy. While games like Call of Cthulhu, which is true to the era, style and stories of HP Lovecraft and other mythos authors have done quite well, and stand alone optional sourcebooks, such as Realms of Crawling Chaos for the Labyrinth Lord system as fine, I've been wondering if there is a point where too much of this material harms not only the campaign it's injected into, but the material itself.

Two main points here:

First off, the "monsters" and great old ones themselves are supposed to be rare. Shocking and horrifying because they are not things one encounters on a regular basis. By featuring these monsters, curses and the related madness they cause at every turn, I feel a campaign does a grave disservice to them. They become mundane, just another critter to bash, loot and collect xp from. The mystery and horror is utterly lost.

Second, and more specific to a "normal" fantasy world like Mystara (or the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Golarion, or whatever your preferred flavor is), the whole role of the Great Old Ones and their related beings is kind of moot. In the Lovecraftian mythos, the main reason these dudes pop up is because curious and foolish mortal men long for forbidden knowledge and power and conjuring up the unknown powers of ages long past is the only way to achieve their goals.

In a standard fantasy milieu; arcane magic, the binding of magical creatures, pacts with demons and devils, and faithful service to "real" gods and immortal beings who can grant wondrous powers in return all serve as paths to the learning and might the foolhardy summoners of Cthulhu's mad servants seek. So why bother venturing into a no-win situation that holds only eventual madness and destruction when there are actual easier and less risky ways to do it?

I have no issue with throwing in a bit of Cthulhu inspired weirdness now and then, but it should remain properly weird, horrifying and insanity inducing, and it should be thoughtfully introduced into the campaign to ensure you are not only preserving the integrity of the material, but actually furthering the development of your campaign.

Any thoughts? Any experience using the new breed of mythos-heavy material, such as the DCC RPG, which is "chock full 'o Lovecraft-style goodness", as they say?

01 June 2012

D&D Next: OId School? One Old Schooler's Thoughts

I've been discouraged lately by the amount of old school bloggers and forum users that I've seen proclaiming D&D Next to be an 'Old School' rpg, the mechanical equivalent of OD&D or Classic D&D.

I haven't the slightest idea why people are saying this. In terms of play style, rules are irrelevant. A proper old school oriented DM can easily use any incarnation of the rules, even 3.5e or 4e, tweak it a bit and run a game that feels just like the old game to those playing. Likewise, as Mike Mearls flat out stated he did on his D&D Next updates posts on WotC's site, you could take 1974 OD&D or 1980 Basic D&D and tweak it to play like 4e. The DM and players have more control of this than the rules do.

So the rules need to be examined on their own merit. Is the D&D Next rule set anything like the Classic D&D system?

Let's find out. I'm comparing things to the Mentzer edition Basic rulebook, but I'll proceed in the order things are presented in the D&D Playtest documents, so you can follow along:

How To Play Booklet (the 'player's handbook')
Basic Rules
Making a Check - Determining Success
Most of us know this mechanic as an ability check. D20 is thrown against a difficulty class (DC) set by the DM, modified by the PCs relevant ability score modifier.
Believe it or not, no such corresponding rule exists in the Basic D&D game! Many of us added a similar mechanic, usually a d20 roll equal to or less than the ability score, to succeed, but officially, this is not part of the game.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Contests
Since there's no rules in Classic D&D for checks, contests, or opposed checks, are obviously also not included.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Attacks
D&D Next continues the 3e and 4e mechanic of D20 roll + bonuses to beat the opponents Armor Class. Classic D&D uses the "THAC0" system (whether the streamlined THAC0 mechanic itself, or the earlier charts based on the same idea, no matter). I'm not going to fry my brain with it here, but a detailed mathematical analysis of the two systems shows them to be identical except for the removal of subtraction and negative numbers. I'll give D&DN the benefit of doubt here.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Saving Throws
Saving Throws as D&D knew them are gone in this edition. What D&DN calls saving throws are simply situational ability checks. I assume the term was left in to appease older players, but the fact is, D&DN does not use saving throws.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Advantage & Disadvantage
If luck or circumstance is on your side, you roll twice and take the better result. If the fates are mocking you, you roll twice and take the worse result. In Classic D&D the only thing remotely close to this is simple bonuses or penalties applied to dice rolls to reflect circumstance.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Ability Scores
Generation of ability scores is not discussed in this draft of the rules, but we can assume that D&DN will at least include the '3d6 6 times in order' generation method that Classic D&D assumed, or any variant thereof that individual DMs and groups adopted over the years. Likewise, the specific 'subabilities' of AD&D 1e & 2e are still gone, as in 3e and 4e, with high or low ability scores just granting a simple plus or minus to skills and abilities they might relate to. This is pretty much how Classic D&D handled abilities.
Old School Mechanic? Yes

Damage & Dying
0 hit points or less is dying. A negative hit point total of your Con score plus your level caps this threshold, further negative than that and you die. In Classic D&D, 0 hp means dead. Keep in mind something here. This means that a 1st level Classic D&D magic user can take, at most, 7 hit points of damage, with an 18 Con score and the resulting modifier to HP. That same first level magic user (wizard) in D&DN can take 23 points of damage before death. 4 normal, then 19 negative. This is a huge change, not as trivial as it might seem at first glance.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Conditions
This is a set of rules that summarizes and codifies the effects of various special attacks and damage on a character. Classic D&D lacks this defined presentation, but does include such damage effects as blindness, deafness, paralysis, etc, so it's not fair to call this a new school mechanic.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Coinage
The electrum piece is back. It was gone in 3e, not sure about 4e. A very minor but fun old school nod. However, Platinum pieces are still worth 10 gp as in 3e, instead of 5 gp as in Classic D&D, making the coin system a wash, system wise.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Armor Class
Armor Class starts at 10 and rises as armor improves. In Classic D&D, AC descends from 10 as it improves. This is a math issue, kind of like attack rolls.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Weapon Categories
Weapons are broken down into Basic, Finesse, Martial, Heavy, Simple Missile and Complex Missile categories. This affects which ability score modifies the attack and damage rolls, defines who may use them, etc. Classic D&D lacks any such categorization and adjustments. Although AD&D did introduce weapon categories, speeds, and variable attack and damage vs different armor types, the implementation was much different.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Spells
At first glance, things seem alright, memorize the spell, cast it, forget it until you memorize it again. Sounds old school enough. But, read closer, there are now minor spells, which may be cast once per round, every round, all day long. An example minor spell? Magic Missile. This, in addition to the elevated level of daily spells available to casters (and the fact 1st level clerics can cast spells at all, is decidedly not old school in intent or impolementation.
Old School Mechanic? Not even in Gygax's worst nightmares.

That covers the How To Play/PHB playtest book. Tomorrow I'll cover the DM Guidelines, but I think you can see where this is going. D&D Next is old school? Doesn't look like it.

19 May 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Presto the Magician



It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.


"Presto" the Magician

7th Lvl Magic User , Lawful
Str 11
Dex 9
Con 13
Int 17
Wis 15
Cha 12

AC 6
HP 24

Aside from his green Wizard's Robe +3 (acts as a Ring of Protection +3 for AC and Saves) and the Hat of Many Spells, Presto carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a magic user type adventurer, except a spellbook. His totem item, the Hat of Many Spells, grants him all the abilities of a 7th level magic user, and also enables him to 'mimic' normal spellcasting, but he has yet to actual acquire a spellbook and learn any spells to cast traditionally.

Although he is a magic user while trapped in Mystara, Presto's spellcasting ability is somewhat limited by the fact that he was not trained in an academy or apprenticeship, like most members of his class are. He has the normal allotment of spells per day, but until he gains a spellbook, and can master the essential spell Read Magic to begin expanding his magical arsenal, his selection of spells is "limited" essentially to the abilities of the Hat (see the item description below). Although the Hat's powers are effectively unlimited, its use is risky and not certain to succeed, so any PC magic user, elf or wicca that can teach him more about spells and magic in Mystara will earn a strong friend and ally.

In the real world, Albert is the typical geek. Short and scrawny, he's also more than a bit clumsy and a total failure at most athletic activities. He is a smart kid though, and has a huge imagination, most of which is occupied by his fascination with magic. Real world stage magic, that is. He's never really gotten good at it, but his constant pestering of his friends to help try out his latest card trick or sleight of hand illusion has earned him the teasing nickname "Presto". Whether he realized the negative connotation or not, he's embraced the name, and only rarely refers to himself as Albert anymore.

His interests made Presto the natural choice for the magic user role in the party, and its one he revels in, though he's a bit frustrated because he sees all around what magic can accomplish in Mystara, but he has yet to really master the basics and start learning "the really neat stuff!" He's not quite as clingy and dependent on the others as he leads on, in fact he actually kisses up to Hank and the girls because he doesn't really know that they like him for who he is, not just because he goes along with whatever they want. Presto and Eric get on each other's nerves, and although he genuinely likes the kid, Presto sometimes forgets that Bobby is so much younger, and gets frustrated with the lack of a shared perspective.

As mentioned above, Presto's biggest goal, aside from getting home (or, maybe even surpassing that? He is the most likely to actually enjoy a life in Mystara if he can become a competent magician.) is learning the basics of magic use, so that he can start using the spells he sees and hears about without subjecting himself to the whims of the Hat of Many Spells. He'll try and buddy up with any non-hostile magic using PCs to accomplish this, unless the rest of the gang strongly advises against it.

The Hat of Many Spells (Totem of the "Magician" (Magic User); Minor Artifact)

The Hat of Many Spells is a large green hat, crafted in the usual tall pointy style wizards are famous for. When carried by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class), the Griffon Shield imparts the HP, Saving Throws, Spellcasting and Combat Abilities of a 7th level Magic User. This boon does not apply to classed characters, and does not include actual knowledge of any particular spells, these must still be learned in the normal fashion.

In addition, the Hat may be used to mimic spells. The user simply takes the hat off and holds it in one hand, while waving his other hand above it and chanting a simple rhyme to let the Hat know which spell is desired. The resulting magical energy then bursts forth from the Hat, but with wildly varying outcomes.

In a free form campaign attempting to stay true to the exact tone of the Animated Series, the DM should carefully consider the exact wording of what the user requested from the Hat, and twist it slightly, in a good natured way, to determine the result:

If Presto tries to call forth "light" from the Hat, he might end up holding an ornate desk lamp in his hand, with nowhere to plug it in, of course.

If he asks for "something to save us from these dang rats" during combat, the Hat might serve up a large platter of roast beef sandwiches, which could be used to distract the rats, allowing the party to escape.

You get the point. I realize though that this is pretty arbitrary and requires a lot of quick thinking and "winging it" from a DM. To allow a more traditional treatment of the Hat as a magic item, I've attached the following document, a pdf file containing a d100/percentile roll system for determining the outcome of attempting to cast a spell from the Hat.


Thanks to blog founder and co-author Rich "chatdemon" Trickey 
for work on finishing the pdf and included material.

As always, anyone stealing the Hat of Many Spells, or harming or killing Presto to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of his remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.

13 May 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Eric the Cavalier




It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.


Eric the Cavalier

7th Lvl Cleric , Lawful
Str 16
Dex 12
Con 16
Int 13
Wis 15
Cha 12

AC -1
HP 48

Aside from his Platemail and the Griffon Shield, Eric carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a cleric type adventurer, except a standard holy symbol. His totem item, the Griffon Shield, grants him all the abilities of a 7th level cleric, and also serves as a holy symbol of the Mystaran Immortals of law and goodness. Note that Eric also carries no proper weapon.

Although he is a cleric while trapped in Mystara, Eric's spellcasting ability is somewhat limited by the fact that he was not raised and trained in a Mystaran church, like most members of his class are. He has the normal allotment of spells per day, but until he gains more knowledge of the churches he represents, and can comprehend and accept that religion in the "D&D World" is quite different than, and completely unrelated to or influenced by or impacting on his real world religion (which, to serve the most players, I have intentionally left open, in the context of Eric's adventures in Mystara, it just really doesn't matter), his selection of spells is limited essentially to those that directly protect him and his friends, or those that heal damage, cure poison or "status effects" like blindness or deafness. A PC cleric that can get passed Eric's attitude problem and teach him more about religion and divine magic in Mystara will earn a strong friend and ally.

As mentioned just now, Eric's got one heck of an attitude problem. He's basically a well meaning, good guy, but he's pretty intensely insecure, especially with a "cool kid" like Hank around, not to mention two pretty independent and strong willed young women. He tends to act arrogant, sarcastic and egotistical, always fearful of opening himself up and perhaps revealing his nice, weal side.

Despite the persona he projects, Eric is a nice guy deep down, and cares deeply about his friends. He's been slow to accept the reality of the situation the gang has found themselves in, and wishes dearly to return home to a normal life. As time goes on and he finds himself more comfortable in the D&D world, he may start to care about the events of the world at large, but for now, he just wants to get him and his friends home and forget that that cursed roller coaster ever existed.

The Griffon Shield (Totem of the "Cavalier" (Cleric); Minor Artifact)

The Griffon Shield is a large steel shield, plated with a thin veneer of gold and emblazoned with the image of a white griffon's head upon a black circular field. The shield may be used offensively in melee, with a bash attack dealing 1d6 points of damage.

The Griffon shield is a Shield +2, adding a total bonus of -3 to the wielder's armor class. In addition, if the weilder chooses to use the shield two handed, he is considered to be under the effects of the (1st level magic user) spell Shield with the normal protections from missile fire granted by that spell. This power as it available at will, as long as the shield is grasped with both hands, effectively preventing any other action than movement.

Three times per day, the Griffon Shield may be commanded to project a Protection of Evil aura, with a 10 foot radius, but otherwise manifesting as the 1st level Cleric spell of the same name.

Lastly, once per day upon command, the Griffon Shield may be used to invoke a group shield spell effect, acting as the 1st level magic user spell, but granting its protection to all allies of the shield's wielder within a 10 foot radius.

When carried by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class), the Griffon Shield imparts the HP, Saving Throws, Spellcasting and Combat Abilities of a 7th level Cleric. This boon does not apply to classed characters.

Anyone stealing the Griffon Shield, or harming or killing Eric to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of his remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.

Design Note: In the Advanced D&D, 1st edition, game, the cavalier is a subclass of the fighter, related to but neither as powerful or limited as the paladin. Since the heroes of the cartoon series are not high enough level to qualify for the "name level" subclasses, such as paladin. I chose to make Eric a cleric. This also remedies the fact that the gang has no actual cleric, giving them a little help in the healing department if they oppose a PC party, or join up with them to complete an adventure (which, by the nature of the gang's goals, would have to at least indirectly help them get home).

Also, I have a hunch that the lack of a proper cleric in the cartoon series, when the D&D and AD&D games both assume the presence of a cleric in any normal adventuring party, is probably due in some part to the "D&D Hysteria" created by some fringe religious groups at the time of the show's airing (the early to mid 1980s). As I hinted at in the note about Eric separating his real world religion from his D&D World cleric role, I find the idea of D&D supporting or leading to satanism or other crazy behavior, in otherwise stable and mentally healthy players, ridiculous. In this sense, I am bringing an iconic role in the traditional D&D adventuring party back to what was supposed to be the iconic D&D adventuring party.

Also, as noted in Eric's description, this article and my notes above are intended as role playing game material. I neither promote nor attempt to discredit any real world religion with my writing here.

12 May 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Diana the Acrobat

It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.



Diana the Acrobat

7th Lvl Thief, Lawful
Str 14
Dex 18
Con 16
Int 11
Wis 13
Cha 11

AC 4
HP 39

Aside from her golden +2 Armband of Protection (treat as the ring of the same name) and the Javelin Staff, Diana carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a thief type adventurer, except lockpicks. Although her totem item, the Javelin Staff, grants her all the abilities of a 7th level thief, she hasn't had the inclination to purchase these tools.

Diana is a confident, fairly self reliant girl, stemming mostly from the natural athletic abilities she has developed since she was able to walk, as she tells it. An accomplished gymnast with many awards and medals from the school teams, Diana was a natural for the Javelin Staff's emphasis on the more physical aspects of the thief class.

Diana loves her friends and will always help them and stick with them to find a way home, but she always tends to evaluate her own abilities and role in an encounter and not let the others put her in situation she either can't handle, or finds too easy to challenge her. She constantly pushes herself to improve and succeed at her abilities, though her fear of failure is a personal thing, she's not a show off or overly worried about anyone laughing at her.

Diana's confidence and courage, and the appreciation for teamwork she's learned throughout a sports focused childhood make her a natural to step up and lead the gang if Hank is unable to.

The Javelin Staff (Totem of the "Acrobat" (Thief); Minor Artifact)

When not activated, the Javelin Staff appears as a six inch long rod of golden hued metal, but with a thought, the wielder can command it to extend to one of its functional sizes; A 4 foot Javelin, 6 foot staff or 10 foot pole. All three of these alternate forms cause the Javelin Staff to appear as a staff of shimmering green light, almost weightless but as hard as steel.

In Javelin form, the weapon may be thrown (with the range and damage stats of a Spear) with a bonus of +1 to hit and damage. This attack form is always Diana's last choice.

In staff form, the Javelin Staff may be used as a standard quarterstaff, either to bludgeon or trip opponenets, with a bonus of +1 to hit and damage. Damage from a successful bashing attack is 1d8. Before the attack roll is made, the wielder may declare a trip attack instead, lowering potential damage to 1d4, but causing the target to fall prone if a Saving Throw vs. Paralysis is failed. The DM may assign bonuses to this Saving Throw in the event the target is significantly larger than man-sized, or has more than two legs.

The weapon's 10 foot pole form is not a weapon at all! Besides all the common (and creative) uses for this ubiqitous dungeoneering tool, in this form, the wielder is endowed with impressive acrobatic skills, listed below with their base chances of success, as well as Diana's modified chances, for ease of reference.

Tightrope Walking: (80+Dex)% Diana: 98%
By using the Javelin Staff as a balancing pole, the wielder can easily cross most tightropes and similar narrow edges.

Pole Vault: Dex Check Diana: 18
By making a 25 foot approach at full movement rate, the staff is used to aid in jumps for height, adding its length to the approximate height of the wielder to determine the total height of the jump, ie 13 feet for halflings, 14 feet for dwarves, 15 feet for elves, and 16 feet for humans. A successful dexterity ability check must be made, or the jumper fails to reach the full height, slamming into any obstacles (including walls, if trying to vault atop) and falling to the ground. Such a failed jump requires a Save vs Paralysis to avoid suffering 1d2 points of falling damage.

Attempting to retain hold of the Javelin Staff after a pole vault (successful or otherwise) is quite difficult, requiring a check against 1/2 of the character's dexterity score.

Parry Flurry: Dex Check Diana: 18
Last, but certainly not least, while wielding the Javelin Staff and attempting no movement or attack manuvers in the current combat round, a character may engage in a series of defensive spins and sweeps, greatly reducing the chances of being hit by any enemies in melee. This act must be declared at the start of the round, and is the only thing that can be accomplished during the round, but doing so provides a temporar +5 bonus to the wielder's Armor Class. This brings Diana's effective AC to -1 if she opts for the parry flurry in combat. Parry Flurry is effective against backstab attempts, but has no effect against missile fire attacks.


* The Javelin Staff is unique among the gang's Totem Items in that it is the only one designed, in part, for direct offensive damage against an opponent. Keep in mind however that while athletic and competetive, Diana is not violent. She will attempt to avoid combat if at all possible without endangering her friends, perhaps even going so far as to challenge would be opponents to non-lethal tests of athletics instead of going to blows.

When carried by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class), the Javelin imparts the HP, Saving Throws, "thieving skills" and Combat Abilities of a 7th level thief. This boon does not apply to classed characters. In addition, any wielder of the Javelin Staff is able to invoke its various combat and acrobatic powers, outlined above.

Anyone stealing the Javelin Staff, or harming or killing Diana to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of her remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.

Design Note: Since there is no Acrobat class in Classic D&D, I had to get a little creative. I chose to just make the acrobatic abilities part of the item's granted powers, instead of needlessly tweaking Diana's class. In addition, to further mimic the Thief-Acrobat class from AD&D 1st edition's Unearthed Arcana rule book, I would grant the wielder of the staff a +2 to any Str, Dex or Con check related to jumping, tumbling, balancing or other strictly athletic or acrobatic activities.

31 March 2012

The empty chair at the table

My game group lost a long time member and dear friend this week.

Maria Oliva Deltorre

8-8-73 to 3-28-12
A good friend and great mother
RIP Mar, we'll miss you.


22 March 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Uni the Unicorn

Well, ok, technically this is a creature write-up, not a character profile, but that's nit-picking. Uni is as much a part of the party as any henchman a PC might bring along on an adventure.


Uni the Unicorn

Unicorn Filly, Lawful
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 3 (21 HP)
Move: 90'
Attacks: 1 Horn Gore
Damage: 1d4
Save As: Fighter 7 (9)
Morale: 7

Uni was found, separated from her mother, shortly after the heroes came to Mystara. Unable to find the young unicorn's herd, they encouraged her to tag along with them for safety, and she quickly formed a strong bond to the only other true "kid" in the gang, Bobby (her attachment to another child-like creature has temporarily overcome her natural aversion to male humanoids).

Being rather young still, Uni has not developed her species' teleport ability, and her combat skills (AC, To Hit and Damage rolls) are inferior to those of an adult Unicorn. She fluently understands the spoken common and elven languages, but being an animal, even a magical one, is incapable of speaking either one without magical assistance (a speak with animals spell, for example). Uni does, however, share a minor empathic bond with Bobby. While not as strong as such a bond between an adult Unicorn and a human or elven maiden might be, it allows for the two to share very basic communications and ideas. The two are very attached to each other, and Uni's effective morale is 9 when Bobby is within 20 feet of her.

Anyone harming or killing Uni will instantly draw the enmity of her remaining companions, especially Bobby (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade).

09 March 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Bobby The Barbarian




It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.




Bobby The Barbarian

4th Lvl Fighter, Lawful
Str 13
Dex 13
Con 11
Int 11
Wis 8
Cha 10

AC 5
HP 19

Aside from his +2 Leather Armor and the Thunder Club, Bobby carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a fighter type adventurer.

Bobby's big day out with his big sister and her friends at the carnival has turned into one big, long nightmare. He's a typical kid, impatient and impetuous, getting bored and annoyed if he thinks the group is dallying around when they could be trying to find their way home.

Behind his bluster and posturing though, Bobby sometimes feels overshadowed by the bigger kids, especially Erik and Hank, and his bravado is often driven by a fear of his pals viewing him as a scared little kid.

Bobby has developed quite an attachment to the gang's young unicorn companion, Uni, and will go to any lengths to protect his friend.

The Thunder Club (Totem of the "Barbarian" (Fighter); Minor Artifact)

Carved from rather nondescript wood, this heavy, stout club appears much more impressive as a melee weapon than it actually is. Although the wielder is granted a +1 chance to hit in combat, Damage rolls are adjusted by -2, as the club is not truly intended as a tool for bludgeoning other creatures.

When used to attack doors, walls, and other inanimate objects, the club does full damage. In addition, once per day the Club may be struck on the ground as the wielder shouts out a suitable war cry, invoking an effect similar to that of a Horn of Blasting. Creatures caught in the resulting tremor (a 100 ft long cone, 20 ft wide at the far end) take no damage* but must save vs paralysis or be knocked down. Objects and structures caught in the tremor suffer the same damage described for the Horn of Blasting (in the Expert Rules).

Once per week, the club's ultimate power may be unleashed. The club is again struck hard against the ground, with a suitable war cry shouted by the wielder, invoking effects similar to the spell Earthquake (7th lvl Cleric spell, Companion Rules). The ground in a 60 ft radius around the wielder begins to tremor and shake violently, destroying any small, unfortified structures and causing significant damage (DM's discretion) to sturdier buildings. In cliff environments, there is a 2 in 6 chance of a rockslide or avalanche being triggered, with results decided by the DM. Although no direct damage is inflicted*, all creatures in the area of effect must save vs paralysis at a -2 penalty or be knocked down. Any creature thus knocked down must then roll a d20, with a result of natural 1 indicating falling into a crack opened by the tremor and suffering 3d6 points of damage.

* Although neither of the Club's special powers inflict direct damage, it is possible, at the DM's discretion, that creatures knocked down by either power may fall off a cliff, into a pit, etc, depending on the terrain. Normal falling damage would then apply.

When carried by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class), the club imparts the HP, Saving Throws, and Combat Abilities of a 4th level fighter, as well as a +4 bonus to the owner's Strength score as long as the club is carried or worn. This boon does not apply to classed characters.

Anyone stealing the club, or harming or killing Bobby to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of her remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.

Design Note: Bobby is an example of where I had to deviate from the model given in the Animated Series Handbook. He's a little kid, the physical stats and 7th level of experience they gave him are ridiculous and don't at all reflect the fact he is much younger, smaller and weaker than the rest of the gang. I adjusted things to compensate. Note that Bobby's strength score already includes the bonus mentioned in the Thunder Club's description. Don't add it again.

07 March 2012

Lethality in the game addendum: "Video Gamism"

I overlooked one component of the shift toward "invincible" PCs in the game. The impact of video games on the hobby.

In most video games, there are save points, reloads, respawns, or some other mechanics to allow you to return to where you left off, or close to it, in the event that your character dies. To me, the need to import this mechanic into a table top rpg is based on flawed thinking.

In a video game, at least early on, and somewhat still in single player console games, the whole venture is a solo quest. While you may have a party of a handful of characters, there is generally only one player. If the game never lets you die, it quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, if you have to start over every time, the game becomes tedious to the point of frustration and quitting, considering that some modern games have hundreds of hours of play time.

Even in newer, multiplayer games, such as the World of Warcraft mmorpg, having to start over at level 1 every time your "guy" dies would ruin the fun, since you're part of a guild of players who will continue on if they didn't die. The game simply can't adapt to having a low level character running around with a bunch of high level characters without killing the new guy every time a monster shows up.

D&D and table top rpgs in general have a unique feature that all video games lack. A DM. The DM can tweak things to fit a replacement character back into the action. Or variant rules such as Hackmaster RPG's mentor/protege system can be used to make the replacement character something more than a 1st level whelp. An existing henchman or NPC ally can be promoted to full PC'hood. etc. The flexibility of the rules means that one, or even all of the characters dying does not mean that the entire story has to end and reboot from the start.

Even when we suffered a TPK delving the Caves of Chaos, the overall story continued. We found the bodies of our doomed predecessors. We heard tales of their fate from bards and travelers, etc. The story moved along, and we stepped back into it.

What Classic D&D can learn from "5e": Lethality in the game

I've decided to start a sporadic series of posts commenting on the little bits of propaganda coming out of WotC regarding D&D Next (or D&D 5th edition, if you will). The only catch is, I have no intention of actually playing whatever rules system they've settled on(1) for the new game. Instead, I'm going to apply the ideas, concepts and commentary they're bringing up to the Classic D&D game, exploring the ways that the views of the "new school" can possibly help those of us who prefer a more traditional style of game.



This week on WotC's site, the topics of discussion are Save or Die traps/monster abilities and Deadly Dice (the lethality of the game mechanics in general and whether character death is a good or bad thing). We'll start with the first topic, raised by Mike Mearls.

First, a bit of context (Following quotes are from Mike Mearls):



      First, to give you some insight into where I'm coming from, I take the idea of approaching the entirety of D&D's history very seriously. I'm about to start a new D&D campaign at the office, and I'm using the 1981 basic D&D rules as a starting point. As I plan the campaign and (eventually) run adventures, I plan on making house rules, adopting rules from other editions, and shifting the rules to match how the game moves along. In some ways, it's a reality check against the ideas I see proposed for the next iteration. Would I want them in my campaign? Do they work for my group?
He takes the task of understanding old school D&D so seriously that he intends to house rule and "frankenstein" the rules from day one, to create something that works for his group? That's fine and dandy for tailoring the game to your group, but it does almost nothing to advance an understanding of the old school game and what makes it special and unique. To me this is just more rulebook dropping to try and appeal to old school gamers who've abandoned more recent versions of the game, but anyway...
     If you came to D&D with 4th Edition, you might not have heard someone say "save or die." It dates back to the earliest days of the game, where some traps, monster attacks, and spells required a successful saving throw or the hapless target was instantly killed, turned to stone, reduced to a pile of dust, and so forth.
     The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
     On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
 I think this description of Save or Die (SoD) effects in the game is fairly simplistic, and overlooks one major component of a successful game; a good DM. While yes, the rules as written do provide for the scenarios that Mike mentions, I think a big assumption on the part of the designers was that a) players were playing their characters cautiously, with an almost paranoid approach to exploring, searching for traps, engaging new and mysterious monsters, etc. A good DM will reward this type of play and allow the careful player to usually avoid having to make that dreaded SoD die roll in the first place.

A thief who meticulously checks for traps before opening doors and chests, charging brazenly down a hallway or prying dust covered treasures from their resting places will have a very good chance of avoiding the SoD situation. A fair DM might even grant a small bonus to the save if it ends up being required if the PC has taken proper or extraordinary precautions.

Likewise, a party that carefully approaches impending combat can often pick up clues to the nature of deadly attack forms. Take the medusa as an example, her gaze means certain "death" for a low level party unequipped to reverse petrification. However, in almost all medusa encounters I've seen published in adventures, she doesn't charge out to attack without warning. The party gets a brief chance to observe her lair, noting the "exquisitely carved" statues of humans, demihumans and humanoids with looks of abject fear on their faces. Medusa lore isn't all that obscure, and observant players should expect something nasty. If the DM follows up with a first glimpse of the medusa herself in the form of a shadow or reflection she casts that is visible by the PCs, even better. Perseus knew the legend, we can assume similar folklore exists in a fantasy world regarding such a terrible beast and give the PCs a chance to know and act on what they've heard as bedtime tales as kids.

Mike goes on to comment in a generic sense on the pros and cons of SoD mechanics, and offer a "fix", where PCs with high hit point totals can avoid instand death and, I assume, just take some damage. Sounds good, except that it punishes low low characters and fixes nothing. High level PCs have access to Stone to Flesh, Remove Paralysis, and even Raise Dead type magics. They do not need protection from instant death mechanics. If you're opposed to instant death, SoD type situations, just remove them, don't reinforce the problem with a well intention but ineffective band aid.

Monte Cook's column on Deadly Dice, the lethality of the game, segues from Mike's discussion into a more general discussion of how deadly the game should be, or whether PC death should factor into the game at all.
      The play-by-the-rules level of lethality in the game has changed a lot over the years. The general trend has been to make the game less lethal overall, although an argument could be made that the game has become slightly more lethal at the higher levels since it was more common to end up with an unkillable (unchallengeable) character at the upper levels in older editions.
 This is really a non-point. Most, if not all lamentations of the lethality of the game are focused on low level characters. 1st to 3rd level characters in Classic D&D or AD&D 1st edition can be, as Monte goes on to note, a dime a dozen. Death waits around every corner, and making it to middle and high levels is an accomplishment.
     I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.
Exactly! It does feel great. In the first campaign I played in, a typical dungeon crawl in the Caves of Chaos, the minotaur and owlbear caves vexed us. Our party of 4 players, no henchmen, went through a total of 14 characters before we bested both foes, with my thief PC being the sole survivor when the minotaur finally fell! I'll remember that win for as long as I play the game! When death is not only possible, but fairly likely, surviving and conquering the challenges is a big deal.

Of course, one could argue that the D&D game isn’t about feelings of accomplishment. It’s about creating characters and developing fantasy stories. Characters perhaps shouldn’t die unless circumstances dictate it, rather than when the dice go against them.
I don't buy this argument one bit. I love story and role playing as much as anyone. Heck, I probably put a lot more value in it that most other old school and "OSR" players do. But, here's the BIG POINT, the story evolves as the game unfolds. The game does not get twisted and bent out of shape to cater to whatever amateur novella I'm trying to pass off on my players as the new campaign.

Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory. Death snatched Thorin Oakenshield from the seat of victory. Boromir fell, giving his companions more focus and motivation. Sirius Black and Obi Wan Kenobi died, inspiring their proteges to buck up, face their fates and conquer evil. If there is no death, or at least no real chance of death, you aren't playing a game, you're not even really telling a story, you're just mentally masturbating about how cool and powerful and untouchable your pet character is. Put the dice down and start a D&D fanfic blog!


Footnote:
(1) They've been demo'ing and playtesting the new game since at least December. I refuse to buy into the idea that they are still at the "tossing ideas around, nothing to see yet" phase of game design. It's been part of their ruse to hook disgruntled players into thinking they have a voice at the design table since they first announced the new edition. I didn't buy it then. I don't now.

Sites worth reading: Kobold Quarterly

I love Kobold Quarterly magazine! Although the magazine itself is heavily focused on the Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition games, the material is high quality and worth converting to Classic D&D. The website contents though, free for the taking, are often 'rules light' and easy to use in any game. The "Your Whispering Homunculus" column is especially fun and interesting.

Here's a couple links to the latest column entries, A Plethora of D12 Tables (parts 1-4):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Completely random, but that's the whole idea, right? Stop over and have a look when you get a chance, and check out the magazine too!

01 March 2012

NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Sheila the Thief

Ok loyal readers, my apologies for the recent drama and subsequent hiatus, but things are getting back to normal here in the dungeon. So, as promised, here's another NPC from the cast of the animated series!
It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.

Sheila the Thief
7th Lvl Thief, Lawful
Str 10
Dex 18
Con 17
Int 14
Wis 13
Cha 15
AC 2
HP 39
Aside from her +2 Leather Armor and the Cloak of Undetectability, Sheila carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a thief type adventurer.

Sheila is perhaps the least likely among the "gang" to choose a life of crime, which may be the exact reason the DM chose her to bear the Cloak of Undetectability, seeing that she was least apt to abuse its power for greed or evil. Sheila's an honest, caring girl, more than a little frightened by the living nightmare her life has become, and always afraid of losing her friends and being alone.

She makes great efforts to hide her fears and protect and be a good role model to Bobby, who is her little brother. She's non-confrontational by nature, and eager to fit into social groups and be liked, so she tends to go along with her friends rather than figure out her own path, but she isn't quite as gullible as she seems. Her insecurity, not any lack of brains, is her biggest weakness.

The Cloak of Undetectability (Totem of the Thief; Minor Artifact)
Woven from an unknown, shimmering purple fabric, the cloak appears well constructed, but shows no signs, even to a Detect Magic spell, of being enchanted. This applies to mortal magics like Analyze and the Slate of Identification as well, these will never reveal any information on the cloak. 

When the hood is put up and the cloak pulled around the body, the wearer becomes Invisible (as the Magic User spell). The wearer may move and make sounds normally without interfering with the cloak's magic, but if she engages in combat (other than to dodge and flee), including being "accidentally" hit by stray fire in combat, the wearer becomes visible and may not activate the cloak again for 1d4 rounds.

In addition, once per day the wearer may invoke the cloak's real power, becoming not only invisible, but also Silent (as the Magic User spell Silence 15' Radius, but applying only to the wearer, no radius effect) and undetectable by any mortal sense other than touch, and any mortal scrying magic. This lasts for 1d6 turns, subject to the same caveats for combat participation as the normal invisibility power is. The wearer may of course also discontinue the power at any time by taking the hood off.

When worn by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class), the cloak imparts the HP, Saving Throws, "Thieving Skills" and Combat Abilities of a 7th level thief. This boon does not apply to classed characters.

Anyone stealing the cloak, or harming or killing Sheila to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of her remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.

12 February 2012

My thoughts on RPGs and "Story Games"

There's been a lot of discussion recently around the blogosphere about "story games", and how they do or don't differ from normal role playing games. It seems to me that there are two "ideal" play styles among role players:
  1. Gamists - This playstyle emphasizes the mechanics of the game over everything else. Your character is a collection of rules stats that improve over time, allowing you to overcome more and more difficult challenges the game master presents. Character and setting backstory and plot are minimal.
  2. Storytellers - On the other hand, this style of play focuses on the story of the heroes' exploits, which rich, detailed backstory and setting development. Whether the story is crafted primarily by the game masters and the PCs are along for the ride, or the group as a whole collectively constructs the story as it develops, story is king and rules and dice results that get in the way can be overlooked.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either style of play. Whatever your group enjoys, the game can accommodate it. The early incarnations of OD&D, Basic D&D and AD&D 1e definitely lean, as written, toward gamism, but Gygax stated that he felt the story and plot could be handled by the DM and players as needed or desired. TSR included Appendix N and the suggested reading lists in some of the Basic sets to give you ideas for story, but you were basically on your own. "Modern" editions of the game claim to embrace story above all else, but honestly the focus is still on the rules of combat, traps, etc. To be totally fair, AD&D 2e has the most claim, among versions of D&D, to being a story telling game, as it had a good selection of materials dedicated to creating long term campaigns, detailing villains, and other very "rules light" things. 

Here's the point though, the two styles of play are not mutually exclusive! I think, in fact, that most of us play the game somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I personally enjoy the story aspect. As a DM, I'll come up with some interesting scenarios and see how the PCs react, and enjoy watching things unfold, and having something more interesting than just "remember that time I did 25 points of damage in one attack!" to talk about when reminiscing about the game. As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea. Heck, a failed dice roll, or even the death of a beloved PC or NPC can add just as much to the evolving story as letting the heroes win all the time.

I've enjoyed the discussion, but I really fail to see how people get hard feelings about it. I play the game a little different than someone else, so what?


NPC Profiles: The D&D Animated Series: Hank the Ranger

It is important to bear in mind that magical forces that brought the "gang" to Mystara, along with the extremely potent incantations of their "totem" items give the heroes their abilities. Class and level are assigned to make sense of saving throws, hit points, and so on, but in some ways, these guys just don't fit into the game as proper examples of their class. It's best to just treat them as unique creatures and not worry too much about tweaking them to adhere completely to the rules.

Welcome to a land  like none other; where heroic fantasies clash their their opposite number in evil. It's like no world you've ever seen...

And yet, so much of it is hauntingly familiar. All our lives, we've heard tales of knighthood and heroism and sinister magic and epic adventure. And all of it, ever bit of it, in fact, is here. Someone took all these concept and combined them into an instant classic of a game, one played the world over by young and old alike as they live out this elusive dream of adventure.

But for six kids, misplaced in reality, this is no dream. At times, in fact, it is a full fledged nightmare. They are in this land, trapped with no conceivable way back to their safer, saner reality. There is no way, not unless it's served up by the maddening and mysterious game in which they find themselves trapped like pawns on a cosmic cheesboard. And spanning a seemingly infinite playing field is a land rife with eternal challenege; monsters, demons, swordsmen, blackguards, pirates, unknown civilizations, strange plants, impossible animals and, as a shroud hanging over their every step, the spell of unadorned evil, personified by one known as Venger.

An impossible place? Most assuredly. And you're the lucky one, for you can visit for one half hour, every saturday morning. You're not like the six young adventurers who find themselves swallowed up, perhaps forever, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons!

 - Mark Evanier, Dungeons & Dragons: An incredible adventure for saturday morning based on the game "Dungeons & Dragons" (Animated series development "bible") March, 1983

With those words, we're introduced to the heroes of the D&D Animated Series, and given a rough idea of their plight. As explained in the previous post about the Dungeon Master character, for the purpose of this series of blog posts, "the world of D&D" is assumed to be Mystara, and for cryptic reasons known only to himself, the Dungeon Master is responsible for bringing the heroes into the world from their own, and keeps an eye on them, ensuring their adventures never lead to any real harm.

This time, we'll meet the unofficial leader of the gang, Hank. As the Dungeon Master's magic transforms a fun roller coaster ride into a mystical portal to the world of Mystara, Hank, the handsome, likable kid everyone wants to hang around with, finds a bow crafted of glowing energy. Picking up this arcane totem, he is instantly transformed into the Ranger!


Hank the Ranger
7th Lvl Fighter, Lawful
Str 14
Dex17
Con 15
Int 10
Wis 15
Cha 18
AC 2
HP 49
Aside from his +3 Leather Armor and the Longbow of Gleaming Energy, Hank carries the usual rations, supplies and gear for a fighter type adventurer.

Hank's only 15, but he's developed early into a easy going, level headed sort of guy that becomes the natural leader of any group he's part of. He doesn't actively seek such a role or attention, but his realistic ego, understanding and admission of his limitations, and willingness to seek advice and help from others means that his friends are willing to put their trust in him.

Hank knows that the situation he and his friends are in is unfair and difficult, but rather than whine about, he tries to suck it up and trudge on, making the best of circumstances as they arise and hoping beyond hope that all this challenge and adversity will be rewarded with a path hope before too long.

Hank's a selfless type, always willing to help the needy and helpless, and unafraid to stand up to a bully picking on weaker people. He never thinks twice about putting himself in harm's way to help a friend, or a potential friend. While his armor and bow are gifts from the Dungeon Master to see him through this ordeal, Hank's bravery and his athletic skill are all his own.

The Longbow of Gleaming Energy (Totem of the Ranger; Minor Artifact)

While constructed of fine wood in the manner usual for a longbow, this item is no ordinary bow, and any attempt to string it will fail. When held in the hands of a worthy bearer, a "string" of glowing energy, accompanied by an arrow shaped form of the same energy form, and these energy arrows may be fired by mocking the motions of an archer. When one arrow is fired, the bow reloads itself with another immediately.

The arrows of this longbow are incapable of direct damage to an opponent, but they are capable of just about anything else the owner wishes. A line of arrows may be fired into a wall to create a makeshift ladder, the arrows may snag or scoop up a creature or item and then "boomerang" it back to the bow's position, ropes, ladders, bridges and other objects may be damaged to impede an enemy, etc. The owner's imagination is the only limitation.

When held by a normal human or demi-human (0 level, no class) of stout heart and lawful alignment, the bow imparts the HP, Saving Throws and Combat Abilities of a 7th level fighter. This boon does not apply to classed characters or those of non-lawful alignment.

Anyone stealing the bow, or killing Hank to possess it will instantly draw the enmity of his remaining companions (and the Dungeon Master, who will indirectly aid them in avenging their comrade) as well as the ire of Venger (who will be detailed in a separate post here soon). It's not apparent to the heroes, but Venger fears the totems, not necessarily their owners, as a threat to his and Tiamat's power. New owners, potentially much more aware of their world and more of a threat to Venger and his evil mistress, will only alarm him more.


11 February 2012

NPC Profiles: The Cast of the D&D Animated Series

A lot of old school gamers have fond memories of waking up each saturday morning to catch the latest adventures of Hank, Eric, Bobby, Sheila, Presto and Diana in their epic quest to thwart the forces of Venger and Tiamat and ultimately find their way back to the "real" world from the "world of Dungeons & Dragons" they had been magically transported to.

In that spirit of nostalgia, and as a tribute to the light hearted heroic adventures of that era, I present a short series of posts detailing the characters, magic and adventure locales from the Animated Series, adapted loosely to a Mystara campaign mindset. Hopefully something here will find its way into a Classic D&D game somewhere.

First off, we take a look at the mentor and guide to our heroes, an enigmatic being known only as the Dungeon Master.

Game Mechanics:
The Dungeon Master is essentially an all powerful, invincible Immortal. He avoids direct conflicts, but cannot be harmed by any known means. Through some personal code or perhaps a pact with the other powers of the multiverse, he also avoids most direct intervention in the affairs of mortals, choosing instead to aid them through gifts of potent magical items and sometimes cryptic hints and advice.

History:
The details of the Dungeon Master's prior doings in the Known World are a bit sketchy, but here are the basics:

Historians in Karameikos know the Dungeon Master by his mortal name, Gygar. As a mortal wizard, Gygar peacefully ruled a small realm around Lake Windrush in northeastern Karameikos, just north of the town of Threshold, from which the ruins of his old keep, Mistamere, can be seen. After a lengthy reign, Gygar vanished from Mistamere and Karameikos, and eventually his servants and the other folk of the keep abandoned it, claiming the dungeons beneath were haunted by evils emboldened by their master's "death".

Gygar didn't die though, during the final years of his reign, he had withdrawn to his keep to experiment with new magical items and train a small coven of apprentices; all part of his pursuit of the Paragon Path to Immortality (as described in the D&D Master's Set, DM's Book). Once he achieved Immortality, Gygar became obsessed with travelling the myriad planes of the multiverse and quickly lost interest in the mundane affairs of his realm in Karameikos.

Of particular interest to Gygar is the seemingly infinite alternate manifestations of the prime material plane, of which Mystara is but one example. The old wizard and his circle of apprentices, who began calling themselves The Game Wizards, based on a theory of Gygar's that all the prime worlds and their mortal inhabitants are simply pawns in the games some eldritch group of elder Immortals or Gods play and the rationale that by achieving Immortality themselves, the group could become part of this mysterious pantheon of masters of the multiversal game, have explored dozens of worlds, linking them together through both lore and actual planar gates.

As his knowledge of the workings of the different prime material planes increased, Gygar, who worried some dark Immortals or Fiends would learn of his true identity and thus gain some power over him, took to calling himself the Dungeon Master, and only the highest members of his circle of wizards now recall his true name.

As it happens, the Dungeon Master discovered and became fascinated by a world whose inhabitants called it simply "earth". A rather mundane world, free of monsters and magic and overseen by aloof Immortals who rarely manipulated things in the world, preferring to watch from on high as the mortal humans "found their way", the Dungeon Master reveled in revealing the wonders of the other primes to these silly, naive humans. After sharing as much lore of magic and monsters (or, as he is apt to say "Dungeons & Dragons) to the people of earth as he felt possible, he came up with a mischievous plan: He would take a group of average young people from earth and transport them to Mystara, to see how people from such a mundane realm would react to the wonders of a magical place such as Karameikos!

He chose a group of teenagers; Eric, Hank, Diana, Sheila and Albert (who is teasingly known as Presto due to his obsession with real world stage magic), who were riding a fantasy themed roller coaster at a carnival, along with Sheila's little brother Bobby, and magically transported them to Mystara, where he keeps them out of serious trouble while watching how they adapt to life in a world full of magic and monsters.

Using the Dungeon Master in a Classic D&D campaign:
PC parties who interact with the teens and pose a threat to them for whatever reason are apt to run afoul of the Dungeon Master, but his interference on behalf of the kids is usually harmless, just enough to get them out of danger without harming those threatening them too much.

On the other hand, if the DM (the real one, the game referee) wants to send the PCs on a little world hopping adventure, to another campaign setting or even to the "real" world of earth, the Dungeon Master makes for an interesting tool to do so. Perhaps a situation on the other world has piqued his interest and he needs a party of brave heroes to step in and act on his behalf?

On the other hand, the entire idea of the teenagers and the Dungeon Master and magical roller coasters may be a bit too silly for a more serious D&D campaign. That's fine, but I at least hope this made for an interesting read.

This article is (quite obviously) dedicated to Gary Gygax and the rest of the Game Wizards at TSR and WotC who've helped an entire generation of us unlock the magic, wonder and Dungeons and Dragons of our imagination. We're forever in your debt!