Friday, August 26, 2011

What rules do you play, and why?

If you don't care about other referee's naval gazing about rule sets, skip this lengthy and somewhat rambling post. Fair warning....

For the last couple of months, I've played ad hoc rules while trying to decide between totally custom house rules (based on Torch and Sword), pure 1974 LBB OD&D, pure Labyrinth Lord, OEC Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Core Swords & Wizardry, or Whitebox Swords & Wizardry. I know that the choice of rule system matters surprisingly little during actual play, but for some reason it's something I think about a lot. I established these criteria:

  • A living rule set relatively free of intellectual property entanglements, which unfortunately rules-out OD&D
  • Something that looks more like LBB OD&D than any other edition, which eliminates OSRIC (with which I've been increasingly impressed), Labyrinth Lord, and (to some extent) Core S&W
  • Something I can tell people I play by name, without having to qualify with a million house rules

I'm looking forward to Delving Deeper and Champions of ZED, but for the time being the above criteria directed me to Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. Labyrinth Lord Original Edition Characters was also in the running at that point, but I chose Whitebox because I like many of the new rules like AAC, and Whitebox leaves more room for referee rulings (compare the spell descriptions, for example). The only problems I have with Whitebox:

  • The 6x9" format of the PDF is great for Lulu, but makes it hard to print a quick copy on 8.5x11" (or 4.25x5.5")
  • Marv's prose style is slightly too conversational and verbose to suit my idiosyncratic minimalist preferences. That's nothing against his great work, it's just my Strunk-n-White-ish bias.

I took the Whitebox RTF and created a LaTeX document that gives me tremendous flexibility in output format—I can easily output an 8.5x11", half-page booklet, or whatever other format I want. It also lets me split the rules into as many booklets as I want; I decided on a player booklet and a referee booklet. I made some minor edits that satisfy my stylistic leanings without modifying any rules.

I still want to make a lot of house rules, but I've decided that I'll isolate those changes to the referee book. Amazingly, I only felt compelled to make a couple of minor changes to the player booklet.

"Languages: For campaigns that give each race its own dialect, Dwarves should be able to speak with gnomes, goblins, orcs, and kobolds."

I changed to:

"Dwarves speak the dwarf, gnome, goblin, and kobold languages."

"Languages: For campaigns that give each race its own dialect, Elves should be able to speak with gnolls, goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins."

I changed to:

"Elves speak the elf, gnoll, hobgoblin, and orc languages."

Those are the only actual rules changes to the player rules. The next most dramatic change was to the wording for alignment.

"Alignments in the game are described as Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. In general, Law also corresponds to being “good,” Chaos corresponds to being “evil,” and Neutrality simply means that the character is indifferent between the two moral polarities. It is quite possible for the Referee to make the alignment system more complex: perhaps Lawful only means that you are in favor of centralized hierarchies in society, in which case you could actually be Lawful Evil as well as Lawful Good. It is a matter of preference if you want to make the alignment system more complex."


"Choose an Alignments: Law, Chaos, or Neutrality. Law promotes the order of human civilization, while Chaos favors a world beyond human reason."

Everything else in the player rules is very minor grammar/style stuff. The changes to the referee booklet will be more dramatic.

In short, you could sit down and play with me using the stock S&W Whitebox rule book without any problem, and I can publish stuff without having to explain or standardize a bunch of house rules.

The only thing that would be better would be if I could distribute my house rules with art (although I understand why Matt put that stipulation in the license). I'd love to commission or license a few pieces from Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag, and John Larrey.

If anyone wants the LaTeX files or PDF sans art, just let me know. Most likely, I'll publish the referee stuff that deviates from stock Whitebook here in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: Here's a ZIP file of the PDF and LaTeX files for my house rules player booklet.

Monday, August 22, 2011

GM merit badges

Stuart made GM merit badges. I awarded myself PC Death Is Likely, "Rule Zero" Is in Effect, I Mirror Back Player Ideas, Focus on Exploration & Mystery, Prepare to Run!, Rules Tinker, and Player Skill badges.

I'd like to earn the Roll in the Open, Tactics, and Gonzo badges.

I almost never fudge results these days, but I still roll behind a screen—mainly because it's a convenient place to hang my reference charts, and rolling in front of it would mean standing up. Maybe I need a smaller screen or some way to do without one.

I appreciate the importance of tactics, but I don't feel like they figure significantly enough in my games to justify the badge. That's partially me and partially my players. I need to include more affordances for tactical play, particularly exploitable environments.

Gonzo. I have pretty strong gonzo tendencies, but don't give them much play in my current game. That's largely because I'm running Stonehell for the first time, and want to see what it's like before drastically altering its tone. The campaign I'm writing myself has a significantly higher quotient of gorilla kings, robots, and masked aliens. When I get around to running that, I'll feel better about earning the Gonzo Badge.

Thanks, Stuart. The GM badges provide a good vehicle for self evaluation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Building a better GM

On Hill Cantons, ckutalik asked GM's to list their three best practices, techniques, or tricks used at the table.

I don't claim to be an exemplary referee. After all, it was only a year ago that I started playing again and discovered the OSR. However, I've found the following techniques help me at the table:

  • Always say "yes" to players.
  • If the players, in their deliberations at the table, theorize about something more interesting than what you actually planned, drop your plans and use the more interesting idea.
  • Never keep the players waiting—not even for 30 seconds—while you look up something in a rule book. Just make a plausible ruling and move on. You can check the rulebook after the session.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Death or dismemberment

This is a house rule I recently created to replace critical hits. If a character would be killed or rendered unconscious by an attack, the player can instead opt for the character to survive with one hit point and roll on the following table.

Elective Dismemberment (2d6)

2. Arm severed at shoulder
3. Arm severed at elbow
4. Hand severed
5. Eye plucked out
6. Ear lopped off
7. Lost a finger
8. Ear chopped off
9. Nose cut off
10. Foot severed
11. Leg severed at knee
12. Leg severed at hip

Re-roll if the character can not be further dismembered in the way described (e.g.—both legs already lost).

One of the characters in my game is already down a hand. The blacksmith made him a little something for his stump.

Friday, August 19, 2011

First Fantasy Campaign on incentivizing carousing

From page 50 of Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign:

"Many characters wonder what they should spend their money on and what it will get for them in exchange. [...] Wealth: Merely the stockpiling of Gold, Silver and similar items of value by the player. If these items are stolen, the player loses full value immediately upon discovery and may lose levels as a result."

That will only happen once or twice before reluctant players take advantage of the carousing rules!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trimming the spell lists

Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls asked what the magic-user spell list should include if limited to six first level spells and three spells of higher levels. I made my picks, and I think you could have an interesting game within these constraints.

1st Level:
1. Charm Person
2. Detect Magic
3. Hold Portal
4. Light
5. Shield
6. Sleep

2nd Level:
1. ESP
2. Invisibility
3. Knock

3rd Level:
1. Dispel Magic
2. Fireball
3. Fly

4th Level:
1. Charm Monster
2. Polymorph Other
3. Remove Curse

5th Level:
1. Animate Dead
2. Contact Other Plane
3. Teleport

6th Level:
1. Geas
2. Enchant Item
2. Reincarnation or Stone to Flesh

7th Level
1. Cacodemon
2. Limited Wish
3. Simulacrum

8th Level
1. Mass Charm
2. Permanency
3. Symbol

9th Level
1. Prismatic Sphere
2. Shape Change
3. Time Stop

Friday, August 12, 2011

Speculation about Gary's Greyhawk

I think all of us who have seen this picture of Gary Gygax running Greyhawk have spent a few minutes speculating about it.

Since Evan at In Places Deep asked about the map key...

A cursory count puts the number of rooms in the neighborhood of 120. Gary's key has 18 numbered lines. Additionally, there are two color codings (pink and green).

At least some keys correspond to multiple rooms. It looks like seven or more rooms are labelled "2".

If we imagine that each key corresponds to seven rooms, that accounts for every room on the map. (I doubt that's actually the case, and clearly some rooms are unkeyed.)

Even if only one key corresponds to one room, that would be about one in six rooms keyed. If each key corresponds to 2-3 rooms with non-keyed rooms empty, that's close to U&WA ratio of empty to non-empty rooms.

Cyclopeatron's observations about running Arneson's Blackmoor Dungeons may be instructive:

"[...] the keys have virtually no information beyond what treasure and/or monsters might be in a given room [...] the generally empty nature of the dungeon causes an interesting tension to build. Empty... Empty... Empty... Empty... Screaming, confusion, blood, fire."

I don't see anything to make me think the page in the picture is not the complete key for the facing map, particularly if checks for wandering monsters happen every turn.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Appendix N electronic book availability

I got a new Kindle, so.... Of those books and writers mentioned in the DMG appendix N, the following are available electronically—many for free.

Most of the above works also appear in Moldvay's Basic reading list, but the following are in addition to those listed in the DMG.

UPDATE: I don't know how I overlooked William Hope Hodgson, but thanks to Scott for noticing.

* As these works may still be under protection in parts of the world with copyright terms as insane as those of the United States, it would be naughty of you to read them for free in such a jurisdiction. I couldn't possibly recommend it.

** I suspect many of C.A. Smith's works are now in the public domain, though Smith's estate and Arkham House claim otherwise.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Observations about Judges Guild map 1 from JG17

In 1976, Judges Guild released a pack of four dungeon level maps (JG17). I believe the maps were originally from the Thunderhold installment. I spent a few minutes last night making notes about the characteristics of the first map, with an eye to producing original maps with similar features.

  • No closed doors near starting area
  • Early & obvious descent to level 2
  • Access to various deeper levels
  • A couple of very large rooms
  • Environment hazards (slippery bank)
  • Notes written directly on map
  • Dimensions noted on map (no counting squares)
  • Blank lines for color key (used how?)
  • Sounds noted on map (buzz, grunt, etc.)
  • Smells (stinky) noted
  • Curved & diagonal passages
  • Multiple pit traps
  • Peanty of odd shaped rooms—almost a third
  • A couple of dead ends
  • Blank lines for revisions (used how?)
  • What goes on the first set of broken lines/labels? A dungeon complex and level number?
  • Water feature
  • Statue
  • Mix of rough (cave?) & regular/constructed rooms
  • Some dimension not evenly divisible by 5 or 10—especially the rough/cave areas (108', 62', etc.)
  • 34 rooms total

A PDF of the four maps is available from RPGnow.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stone coins

I know some of you like to play with currency in your milieux—silver standard rather than gold, etc.—so you might find something of interest in this history of what happened when an outsider expoited the giant stone coin based economy of the island Yap.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Stonehell session report 1

Slim Charles the Medium, Rabbi Spellberg, and MacDougal the Veteran arrived in the town of Halesnug. At the Wayward Slough Tavern, they hired the men-at-arms Gilgrim (a black market dealer), Colwin (with a vendetta against orcs), Durdoon (a peasant), and the linkboy Darric. After bargain hunting for rumors (you get what you pay for!) from the bartender Martin Knockteeth, they set off for their first foray into Stonehell.

Across the Fathomless Nerb River, they guided their mule to the canyon mouth, and paused to read graffiti before hurrying past the gatehouse. They explored several small cave systems opening onto the canyon. They put to rest several animated skeletons, narrowly avoided an evil magical trap, and discovered an unusual piece of sparkly chalk-like material. (The wall of cave 4 may or may not bear the magical or invisible message "Slim Charles is a badass"). Darric the linkboy was wounded in the melee with the skeletons, but was later cheered to find a pack of playing cards with naked ladies printed on them.

Descending down, down, down to the prison proper, the party met a group of unusual beings.

These short, round, furry ewok-like creatures have scaly yellow noses, huge yellow pointy ears, tiny red eyes, and row upon row of serrated shark-like teeth. They wear too small Errol-Flynn-Robin-Hood-style hats and boots and belts (but no pants).

Despite their strange appearance, the creatures claimed they were "just collectin' da guano, boss" and left the party in peace.

After their efforts to explore an old well proved inconclusive because the too short rope left linkboy Darric dangling, the party pushed somewhat recklessly though a series of increasingly deadly encounters.

Giant centipedes took MacDougal's life—a fitting end for the amateur entomologist. Slim Charles cast sleep on creepy crawlies, and dispatched one in a such a manner as to leave it suitable for mounting. The magic-user plans to honor the fighting-man's memory by sending the specimen to the MacDougal clan along with his body.

Rabbi Spellberg was crushed by a giant stone block. His body could not be recovered. As Slim Charles crawled around the floor collecting those silver pieces not crushed with the cleric, a pair of brigands attacked.

Slim Charles and the henchmen defeated the brigands, but it was such a near thing that Slim Charles declared an end to this first expedition.

Climbing up, up, up from the bowels of the vast stony Hell, they discovered the mule—left tied-up in the canyon—had disappeared, only its halter remaining. Slim Charles stowed the halter in his backpack with care, and led the wounded hirelings back to Halesnug in silence.

The dice favored the party—particularly in the sparseness of wandering monsters. Even so, they cleared a lot of rooms for one delve. I don't feel bad about killing two of the three PC's. MacDougal was a little unlucky with the centipedes, but Rabbi Spellberg would still be alive if he'd taken a few minutes to scrutinize his environment. That all the henchmen survived is remarkable. It was a good session. Stonehell is fun to run, and I'm looking forward to next time.