17 July 2014

The Differences in Adventure Design Philosophy in Old and New School D&D

It occurred to me tonight, while going over some old Judges Guild stuff (Druids of Doom in particular caused the muse to get her act together and turn a vague idea into something concrete) that I have seen the biggest difference in design approach between Old School and New School/Modern adventure design for RPGs, D&D to be specific. TSR modules had some of the same qualities, but the stuff by 3rd parties like Judges Guild, Mayfair Games and the non-TSR magazines and fanzines really showcase it. 

There's two aspects to the difference:

1. The adventure module works with the game's rules, but is not a slave to them. Old school adventures constantly introduced new, wacky and unique monsters, traps, treasures and encounter ideas in general that had not been done before and really had no precedent in the rules. Sometimes the writer explained how to adjudicate the situation, other times the DM was left to figure out a resolution on her own, but either way, the writer was not afraid to test the limits of the rules, and go beyond them when it made for a fun adventure.

2. The old school adventure writers expected you, the DM, to change their adventure! Many of the scenarios were location based, or "sand box" as the guys in the OSR crowd say today, with a bare bones assumed plot or theme to get the party started and keep them moving in the right direction. A few of the published adventures even came 'un-stocked', ostensibly to teach the fledgling DM how to create and run an adventure, but also allowing the experienced DM to make the scenario her own, tailored to the campaign and party. Many of the adventure booklets, especially the ones by Judges Guild, even have copious space throughout them that is set aside for the DM's notes! No current modern adventure product I know of, except maybe some of the OSR retroclone support products, dare do this.

So, while it doesn't answer the whole question, I now have an answer when people ask me what I consider Old School gaming to be.

Gary and Dave, and the early industry they created, were more than welcoming of house rules, variants and "DM fiat", outside of tournament play, which is one of the primary reasons we got D&D and AD&D. AD&D was the fleshed out, official tournament version, D&D was the barebones 'tweak it to your heart's content' version.

Modern designers, whether of rules or adventures, feel the need to account for every possibility and railroad play into a defined set of rules that can handle anything. A recent rant I commented on lamented the "breaking" of a game by house ruling it, or pushing it to the limits of min/max powergaming.

To an old school player, that is not a problem at all, but rather it's half the fun!

10 April 2014

Expedition to the Borderlands?

A discussion on the Dragonsfoot Classic D&D forum about turning B2's Caves of Chaos into a proper megadungeon entry got me looking at the Caves of Chaos maps, and to my amusement, I noticed that the rubble filled "expand here as you wish" tunnelon the map is labelled "Area 51".  What if the author was trying to subtly suggest a link to another famous module he wrote? Area 51...Crashed Alien Ships...

I doubt it, but it was a fun idea I threw together real quick.

If I was going to do anything with it, I'd probably get out the old DA series Blackmoor modules for on the fly conversion of the space opera tech stuff. City of the Gods in particular had a ton of it.

Click for fullsize image.

Classic D&D Class Options List

Over the years, one of the common topics of discussion among BECMI, and those of the other Classic D&D editions, players has been the "limited" class options in the game. It's always tempting to write up a bunch of homebrew classes, or try and split up the races and classes like AD&D did, but it occurs to me that if we take a look at what's really there for the game, some of that temptation. Let's flip through the various books and review, then we can decide what, if anything, is missing.

 One thing about NPC classes: Sometimes, a class presented in Dragon magazine is quite obviously better suited to use with an NPC. This is simply because the character type is ill suited to adventuring life, combat, etc. We do not hold to the idea that a player should be barred from using a class, however ill suited  it is, just because TSR said it was for NPCs only. If we ban a class from PC use, like the Samurai from Dragon Magazine, they are not going to meet any NPC Samurais either. Goose and gander, fair is fair. NPC classes are included in this list with that in mind.

"Core" Classic Rulebooks:
Magic User

OD&D Supplement I: Greyhawk
Dwarf Fighter
Dwarf Cleric (technically presented as an NPC option, but I won't tell TSR if you let your players use it)
Dwarf Thief
Dwarf Fighter/Thief
Elf Fighter
Elf Cleric
Elf Thief
Elf Fighter/Magic-User/Thief
Half-Elf (Treat as the standard Elf class, but note the level limits vary)
Half-Elf Fighter/Magic-User/Cleric (with lofty ability score requirements)
Hobbit (Halfling) Fighter
Hobbit Thief
Paladin (1st level start, different than the standard Companion Rules "prestige class")

OD&D Supplement II: Blackmoor

OD&D Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry
EW is also the source of the Classic D&D rules for PC psionics, If you care to adopt them.

Companion:Druid (high level Cleric subclass)
Knight (high level Fighter subclass)
Paladin (high level Fighter subclass)
Avenger (high level Fighter subclass)
Magist (high level Magic User "subclass", more of a role than a class, no real unique abilities)
Magus (high level Magic User "subclass", more of a role than a class, no real unique abilities)
Guildmaster  (high level Thief "subclass", more of a role than a class, no real unique abilities)
Rogue  (high level Thief "subclass", more of a role than a class, no real unique abilities)

Mystic (sort of a cloistered monk class)
Guidelines for non-human (and non-elf) spellcasters, handy if you use one of the spellcasting add ons for shaman types found in the books below.

This set obviously introduces a bunch of new options for ultra-high level PCs, but these are beyond the scope of basic class options.

Gazetteer 2, The Emireates of Ylaruam
Dervish (a desert themed druid variant)

Gazetteer 3, The Principalities of Glantri
Magic Crafts: (variant "specialty" class options for magic users)

Gazetteer 5, The Elves of Alfheim
Special rules for "splitting" the elf class to focus on either fighting or magic use

Gazetteer 6, The Dwarves of Rockhome
Dwarf Cleric

Gazetteer 8, The Five Shires
Halfling Master (Spellcasting class for Halflings)

Gazetteer 9, The Minrothad Guilds
Merchant Prince (seafaring spellcaster with a pirate flavor)

Gazetteer 10, The Orcs of Thar
These are all basically fighter type classes for the various humanoid races.
Shaman (this is an add on to the race based classes above, giving them minor cleric spellcasting)
Wicca (this is an add on to the race based classes above, giving them minor magic user spellcasting)

Gazetteer 11, The Republic of Darokin
Merchant (a travelling trader with minor spellcasting)

Gazetteer 12, The Golden Khan of Ethengar
Horse Warrior (a fighter subclass for the mounted warrior)
Bratak (a thief subclass with a penchant for spying, diplomacy and riding)
Hakomon (a magic user variant)
Shaman (a cleric variant for the less civilized)

Gazetter 13, The Shadow Elves
Shadow Elf (a minor variation on standard elves)

Gazetteer 14, The Atruaghin Clans
Shamani (another totemic cleric variant)

Dawn of the Emperors Gazetteer (Boxed Set)
Forester (a human version of the magic using fighter elf class)
Rake (a thief variant geared toward burglary and adventuring instead of backstabbing and muggings)

Creature Crucible 1 - Tall Tales of the Wee Folk
Wood Imp
These are, with a couple exceptions, just the typical "fighter" versions of these races, but as with the Orcs of Thar, rules are included for adding on to the class to grant some spellcasting abilities as well.

Creature Crucible 2 - Top Ballista
These are, with a couple exceptions, just the typical "fighter" versions of these races, but as with the Orcs of Thar, rules are included for adding on to the class to grant some spellcasting abilities as well.

Creature Crucible 3 - The Sea Folk
Aquatic Elf
Sea Giant
Shark Kin

Creature Crucible 4 - Night Howlers
Devil Swine

Hollow World Campaign Setting
Warrior Elf (an elf variant with no magical ability)
Krugel Orc
Kubitt (actually just a variant human "race", they use the normal human classes but have racial modifiers and abilities)
Malpheggi Lizardman
Once again, rules are included for adding on to the class to grant some spellcasting abilities as well.

Hollow World, Kingdom of Nithia Sourcebook
These are all just variant fighters, with specific bonuses offset by reduced general abilities
War Cleric
This is just a variant cleric, with specific bonuses offset by reduced general abilities
Mage Scribe
These are all just variant magic users, with specific bonuses offset by reduced general abilities
Royal Seal Bearer
These are all just variant thieves, with specific bonuses offset by reduced general abilities

Hollow World, Milenian Empire Sourcebook
Cleric of Halav
Cleric of Matera
Cleric of Petra
Cleric of Protius
These are all just variant clerics, with specific bonuses offset by reduced general abilities
Griffon Rider (A variant fighter class)

TSR Magazines
Strategic Review Magazine #2

Strategic Review Magazine #4

Strategic Review Magazine #6

(The) Dragon Magazine #2

(The) Dragon Magazine #3
Woman Fighter
Woman Magic-User
Woman Thief
Woman Cleric
Apparently Len Lakofka's campaign setting has no female Elves, Dwarves or Halflings ... harumph! All kidding aside, I included these for completeness, I doubt anyone would actually use them in 2014 :)
Dwarf Fighter
Dwarf Thief
Dwarf Cleric

(The) Dragon Magazine #12

(The) Dragon Magazine #16

(The) Dragon Magazine #20

(The) Dragon Magazine #26
Mugger (A class for a D&D variant based in "inner city 1979")

Dragon Magazine #158
N'djatwa - Magic-User(A weird half elf/half ogre hybrid race)
N'djatwa - Druid

Dragon Magazine #176
Robrenn Druid (A first level druid variant)
Druidic Knight (A druid-fighter hybrid Companion-rules style "prestige class")

Dragon Magazine #178
Elven Cleric
Elven Paladin (A Companion-rules style "prestige class")
Elven Avenger (A Companion-rules style "prestige class")
Elven Knight  (A Companion-rules style "prestige class")
Half-Elf (A template of sorts, applied to the human classes to reflect the racial differences)

Dragon Magazine #181
Lupin (A template of sorts, applied to the human classes to reflect the racial differences)
Rakasta (A template of sorts, applied to the human classes to reflect the racial differences)

Dragon Magazine #183

Dragon Magazine #185
These are all the fighter type class for their respective race. The article also includes notes on using the Shaman or Wicca (At this point renamed Wokani) options for spellcasting individuals, as in the Orcs of Thar Gazetteer.

Dragon Magazine #186 
Chameleon-Man Medicine Man

Dragon Magazine #187
Phanaton Shaman

Imagine Magazine #27
Freeman/Freewoman (A class for commoners)

Imagine Magazine #28
Lycanthrope (Dual stats for D&D and AD&D)

Wow! That's a ton of options. It has never really made a lot of sense to me why people complain that the options are limited. I understand that some players want totally customized, unique characters, but BECMI, and other early editions of D&D assume that characters will fit into some genre archetype.

If you expand the optional rules for humanoid shamans and wiccas (that allow them to take spellcasting abilities in addition to their normal class abilities in exchange for an increased experience cost to gain levels) to allow any of the non-human classes to purchase minor cleric or magic user spellcasting, a huge bunch of new options opens up, probably satisfying most players. Remember though, as soon as a character adopts the methods of a cleric or magic user, he should be bound by the same armor and weapon restrictions that those classes are, he may still use barred weapons and armor without penalty, but can't cast spells while doing so.

White Dwarf and other magazines, and products from early 3rd party publishers like Judges Guild, Games Workshop, Mayfair Games and others may also present new options, but I haven't went through them and checked.

If you don't have access to the OD&D books and other sources I bring up here, I'd recommend checking into some of the OSR 'clone' games. Swords & Wizardry and Mazes & Perils in particular are very OD&D friendly and revisit a lot of the same material via the Open Game License.

The OSR stuff can be an excellent source of new options and material too! Again, I dont have a detailed list yet, but things like Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dark Dungeons and the supplements for those and other games offer some new choices not available in published form 30 years ago.

05 January 2014

What's in it for Me? The D&D 4th ed. Starter Set

If you're like me, despite being diehard player of an out of print edition of DnD (or compatible 'clone' game), now and then you find yourself in the RPG section of your local game, book or toy store looking at the shiny new products for the current editions of DnD, or whatever other games are on the shelves these days. I believe that almost any product can be adapted to be useful in any game system, and using a fairly simple, barebones system like BECMI makes the process of bringing in new material really easy. In general you can just tweak the new rules you like to fit the game and ignore the rest. Sometimes that might seem to be easier said than done.

So, here begins an irregular series of discussions of new(er) products, with specific tips and advice on how to make use of them in your BECMI (or ODnD, Holmes, BX, RC, OSR, etc) game.

I'll kick things off with the DnD 4e Starter Set. Why? Simple. Look at the box! There's not an old schooler out there who wasn't curious on seeing this blatant homage to the 1983 Basic set, Frank Mentzer edited edition.

So, what's in the box?

64 Page DM's book
32 Page Player's Book102 PC and Monster tokens
10 "Action Point" tokens
63 Power & Item cards
1 small poster size outdoor battle map
1 small poster size dungeon battle map (printed on back of the outdoor map)
Blank Character Sheets 1 Set of Dice

Ok, battle maps are always cool. If you have an existing minis collection, this double sided poster map, depicting a woodland glade with monster lair on one side, and a random assortment of dungeon rooms on the other, will make a nice addition to your 'grab and go' scenery. Just add minis!

If you don't have minis, or don't want to get them out for every single encounter, the PC and Monster tokens are handy. A nice assortment of iconic PC types and standard monsters is provided, as well as 10 cards with no illustration, labeled "Action Point". We're not here to learn how to play DnD 4e, so we can either put those ten back in the box for storage, or use them as generic tokens for some monster not included in the assortment.

Dice. Well, duh. The dice required to play DnD haven't changed over the years. Another spare set is never a bad thing.

The Power and Item cards. Put them back in the box. Some have pretty art, but they are basically playing card sized stat block summaries of spells, "powers" and magic items that are found in the books. Useless outside a 4e game, in other words.

The Player's Book is setup as a "choose your own adventure (CYOA)" style affair, where the player's choices help build a PC from the basic selection of races and classes DnD4e offers. I found this to be an interesting approach, very evocative of the saga of 'strong fighter', the introductory CYOA style chapter of Frank's original DnD Basic Set, but in the end, it's heavy with DnD4e game mechanics, and sadly useless for our purposes here. Put it back in the box.

The Dungeon Master's Book is likewise fairly heavy on DnD4e mechanics, as is to be expected, but there are some bits we can use. Things start off with a simple description of the DM's "job" during a game, including some "Dungeon Mastering as a fine art" style advice, summed up as follows:
  • When in doubt, make it up
  • Use skill or ability checks
  • It's not a competition
  • It's not your story
  • Be consistent
  • Don't play favorites
  • Let players help
  • Be fair
  • Pay attention
  • Have fun.
The book expands each point with a little discussion, and while none of it is really new or game changing, they are handy points to keep in mind, especially for someone making their first leap into the DM's chair.

The book then jumps right to the point with a series of introductory encounters for 2nd or 3rd (the introductory CYOA adventure in the Player's Book takes the PCs through 1st level and ends with them advancing to 2nd level, to demonstrate the leveling process) level PCs. You might be thinking, as my co-blogger Darva did, "what use could encounters written in 4e stats be to my BECMI game?". Well, that's the whole point of this discussion, right?

It's different for every DM, but eventually, you're going to want to stock your own dungeon (thus this blog's name, Dungeon Stocking). Whether you have a published module like B1 or the original "banned" edition of B3 (which was, for the most part, unstocked like B1, left for the DM to customize. The revised edition most people have seen changed this and provided encounters and treasures for most of the map locations), or you're starting from scratch with a handdrawn map or a set of geomorphs, you're going to want to come up with some interesting encounters to make things fun and memorable. "You see another 20 by 20 room with 4 orcs waiting to fight you" gets old after a while.

I pretty much detest WotC's recent transition to the encounter by encounter tactical dungeon crawl format, where the big picture "plot" of the adventure and often, even the master map of the whole dungeon is ignored in favor of location by location encounters with little connecting material. I must say though, the encounters themselves are sometimes creative and interesting, so I propose melding the two formats, creating a "sandbox" style dungeon where the PCs are free to wander and explore as they see fit, but adding in some interesting encounters (monsters, tactical situations, traps, etc). Sandbox doesn't need to be 100% random, and planned doesn't have to mean throwing the players on the adventure script railroad with no control over things.

So let's look at the encounters provided, I'll include some thoughts on adapting them to BECMI DnD, including which monsters I'd choose to "drag and drop" in to replace those that are new to DnD4e. In most instances, this is my preferred method for adapting an adventure. Instead of reinventing the wheel for every creature you find, take a minute to browse your rule books and Creature Catalog(s) to see if a monster that already exists would be a good fit. The plethora of OSR blogs and games readily compatible with Classic DnD add a ton more monsters too, so in most cases, a bit of looking around for a good replacement will be quicker and easier than a painstaking conversion of the creature. Keep it simple, stupid! Only the coolest and most unique and interesting creatures should justify the time and energy of a full conversion!

The Starter Set adventure format

The encounters are presented using the following general format:

Encounter Name - if you decide to use this encounter somewhere, you'd probably make a note about it's location on your map here.
Encounter Level (Experience Point Reward) - You can use the EL as a very loose guideline to what level party of PCs the encounter is intended for, but EL, as with DnD3e's Challenge Rating before it is, IMO, a flawed mechanic. 3e and 4e have way too many variables in PC building to be able to scientifically decide which monster will provide the ideal challenge for the PCs. Use this number as a ballpark guideline, then use your experience and your knowledge of the PCs you are actually DMing for to fine tune things. Since we'll be replacing the traps and monsters in the encounters with those from Classic DnD, I'd ignore the XP reward notes and just tally things up using the rules from your edition of choice.
Set Up - This section tells you which portion of the battle mats to use, what monsters, traps, magic, etc will be in play, and any other information needed to stage the encounter. Any "boxed text" intended to be read to the players as they begin the encounter is here as well.
Tactics - Here the authors provide some examples, turn by turn, of how to direct the monsters in order to more effectively challenge the PCs. Just remember that these are guidelines, feel free to tweak or ignore them as the encounter progresses.
Monster Statistics - These are the DnD4e "statblocks" for the monsters and traps used in the encounter. This will be our main focus in this discussion, as I suggest what Classic DnD monsters to replace them with.
Features of the Area - Where appropriate, information is included on the environment, terrain and other factors of the encounter location that might affect how the encounter progresses. Poor footing, opportunities for cover or hiding, conditions that slow or block movement and other issues are noted and explained. Not every dungeon room is a perfectly square, perfectly flat and level stone room, using the quirks of an encounter area can do just as much as the choice of monsters and magic to make the encounter memorable.

Encounter 1:
Your First Encounter
Encounter Level 1