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
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.

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!

05 February 2012

Spellcaster Options: Quick House Rules Overview

The next couple posts I'm working on present a few options for spellcasters, arcane and divine, in the classic D&D games. Before I start, I'll touch on a few points about the actual rules for spell casting and how I use them. Future posts will assume familiarity with my house rules, but should be easy enough to tweak to your own, or back to the rules as written.

Spell Memorization/Preparation:
According to the rules, Magic Users, Elves and Wiccas must study and select the spells they plan to cast before each day of adventuring. Clerics, Druids and Shamans, on the other hand, select their spells from those available when they want to cast them.

First off, I dislike the different treatment of arcane and divine magic. One system should apply to both types.

I tweak things to apply the same rules to all spell casting classes. Any spell caster has the following option:

1: Spells may be studied and selected as per the rules for MUs and Elves and then cast normally during play
2: Spells may be cast "on the fly" as needed during play, but an initiative penalty of 1 per level of the spell being cast is applied to reflect the added time needed to recall a spell that has not been thoroughly prepped.

The two options may also be mixed. A character with two first level spells allowed for the day may choose to fully memorize one, and save the other one for on the fly casting as needed.

Spell Selection:
Like MUs and Elves, I require Clerics (and druids and shamans) to learn and keep a record of spells available to them, generally in a prayerbook, but this is not required if the character comes from a culture or religion that has no written tradition. The player must keep a list of the spells the character "knows" either way though.

All spellcasters (excepting clerics, druids or shamans (and possibly wiccas, DM's discretion) from oral traditions, must keep a written record of the spells they know. Arcane casters call these spellbooks, Divine casters call them prayerbooks, though the term book is somewhat general, and the documents may actually consist of scrolls, loose sheets of parchment, etc.

Spellbooks cost 10 gp + 1gp per page. The 10gp base price is for binding and covers, and may be waived if the caster wants to use scrolls or loose, unbound sheets, DM's discretion. There is theoretically no limit to the number of pages in a book, but 50 to 100 pages is the norm for spellbooks that are portable enough for packing for an adventure.

Spellbook quality ink costs 1gp per vial, and each vial has enough ink for 10 pages of writing. Quills are available almost anywhere for 1cp.

Each spell takes up 1 page per spell level.

Learning New Spells:
Except for initial spells at level 1, a character must make an ability check on the relevant ability for his class (INT for MU, Elf, Wicca; WIS for Cleric, Druid, Shaman) to understand and learn a new spell he wants to add to his spellbook. If this check fails, the caster must wait until earning another experience level before attempting to learn the spell from that source again. This means that if Zoe the MU finds a scroll of ESP and wants to learn that spell, she must make an INT check before adding it to her spellbook. She fails the first attempt, and can't puzzle out the workings of the spell, although she could still use the scroll as normal. Instead she decides to hold onto it and try and learn it again after gaining her next level. If, on the other hand, she finds a different source of the ESP spell, from the spellbook of an NPC MU for example, she can attempt to learn the spell again immediately, studying the new source instead of the old.