Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Different Lens - 4E Alternate History Fantasy World War I

So apparently Edition Wars are still happening, which makes me very glad that all the blogs that I follow are full of creative and positive people who don't really truck with the whole "My Edition is better than yours and you should feel bad for liking the things you like" bull honkey. I just can't understand that kind of mentality.

What I can understand is "this edition of the game doesn't really fit my playstyle or what I imagine D&D to be like." One of the common sentiments around the blogosphere is that people's personal backlash against current editions of D&D would be lessened if the game was called something else or had a different focus other than dungeon bashing and exploration. So why not shift the focus, genre or style of games to offer a potentially more enjoyable alternative?

A Different Lens - 4E Alternate History Fantasy World War I

I've been reading a pretty fantastic young adult novel called Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, the author of the Uglies and Midnighters series. It's a rollicking adventure story set on the outbreak of World War I, where the war is not only fought between the Central and Allied powers, but between diesel-powered war machines and genetically modified beasts of war. The titular Leviathan refers to a British airship created from the genes of over 100 animals, built in the 'chassis' of a sperm whale. Keep in mind that all of these fantastic creations are illustrated by Keith Thompson, whose art you've probably seen if you like awesome gaming inspired work.


The interesting thing about World War I as a potential adventure setting is its comparative ambiguity when compared with gaming in its sister conflict, where you can't really have a whole lot of PC sympathy for the Nazi war machine. Saying that Germany and Austria-Hungary are the "bad guys" of the piece isn't really a nuanced view of the war as a whole either? So who can serve as the antagonists for a ragtag player group of potentially mixed nationalities?

There's another World War I based fantasy RPG that I'm fairly fond of, but a console rather than pen-and-paper game. The Shadow Hearts series are Playstation 2 RPGs set in the early part of the 20th century that play fast, loose and goofy with actual history: Al Capone can be allied with a gangster cat who knows drunken boxing and your adventuring party in Revolutionary Russia can consist of a puppeteer who fights with a marionette of his dead daughter, a flamboyant vampire pro wrestler and a magical camera-wielding Anastasia Romanov. The combat system of Shadow Hearts - Covenant actually reminded me of 4E's area effects and strategic maneuvering, which put the game in my mind when I was reading Leviathan.

Regardless, the villains of the Shadow Hearts games are generally ruthless or driven individuals who want to take advantage of the misery and malice that the Great War generated and use it towards their own dark purposes, generally world-destroying chaos. As Chaosium has noticed before me, World War I is a great setting for investigating and battling mind-destroying horrors, both human and extraplanar, and the Shadow Hearts games feature plenty of Cthonic monstrosities and creatures brought into being from physical and spiritual trauma.

Cthonic monstrosities and creatures brought into being from physical and spiritual trauma that you are supposed to PUNCH IN THE GODDAMNED FACE. Though there may be doubts and introspective dread, none of that should prevent you from giving them a sound ass-kicking.

So yeah, that's my framework for a reimagining of 4E to take it out of the dungeon and into left field. Next time, I'll be working on character creation and how to make classes your own with the magic of reskinning.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I have invented a maneuver...

When I haven't been doing schoolwork or playing in Scott's Tunnels and Trolls game, I've been playing some old favorite Legend of Zelda games. Not only do games like Link's Awakening, A Link to the Past and the other Zelda games have a great adventure framework, they've also gotten me thinking about how elements of these games could be integrated into Basic D&D.

Link can generally do a few things with his sword, mostly slashing and stabbing, but also the charged Spin Slash maneuver which attacks all enemies around him. In later editions of D&D, something like this would be covered by an Encounter or Daily power that you could use in a combat encounter. But as much as I like the Power framework, I don't just want to graft it wholesale onto the Basic rules. If I wanted to use them, I would honestly be better served by playing 4th Edition. So how do you make things like special maneuvers work for Basic fighters without 4th Edition style powers?

My idea has been to base it on weapons used. In the Basic and Expert books that I own, there's not much mechanical difference between using a staff or a sword other than the damage dealt. If wielding a warhammer gave you the ability to knock enemies prone or a spear giving you a bonus to AC when used two-handed, it could add a little bit of mechanical variation to things. Hell, it might encourage the use of weird weapons like bolas or whips if they had cool little bonus effects alongside the standard damage.

Is this how Weapon Mastery works in the Companion or Master set? I don't have either of those, but I've heard that they add a bit of proficiency boost to the Fighter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A non-gaming related endorsement

Some friends of mine are attempting to break our college radio station's record for longest continuous broadcast. They've been at it for about 9 hours at this point and will continue on in the studios of WOBC until tomorrow afternoon at 5pm EST. Mike and I worked together on the same detective radio play in college and he's been in just about every RPG session I've run over the past three years. They've been doing a great job of finding good nerdy topics to discuss so that they don't get bored over the next 20 hours or so, so if you'd like to hear some sweet music and discussions about the Star Wars Extended Universe or summer blockbusters, tune in at WOBC's webcast and click Listen.

Now I'm off to play some Tunnels & Trolls.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some magical weapons that I cooked up at the library yesterday

Solar Knife - A dazzling wide bladed golden dagger (+1, +3 when exposed to sunlight). At night, the blade of the Solar Knife emits light as a Light spell. Double damage against the undead.

Aegis Hand - A massive giant-sized gauntlet traced in gold and embedded with a glowing emerald. Functions as a Gauntlet of Ogre Power that does 1d10 damage when used in combat and cannot wield any other weapon. Blows from the Aegis Hand can knock down normal doors with a single blow. Larger reinforced doors may take longer to sunder.

Black Bastion - A stout jet black shield (+2) with the unsettling outline of a face and a pair of fangs at its base. Once per day, the Black Bastion can be struck against the ground to create a Wall of whatever material covers the ground (default is a Wall of Stone)

Mosquito Blade - A thin rapier with a scintillating insect wing hilt. Counts as a +1 magic weapon for the purpose of immunities. Always hits, regardless of armor class, but deals 1 damage plus or minus Strength modifiers for each blow (Thanks to Telecanter for the idea on this one.)

Wingthief Boomerang - A boomerang (+1, +2 vs. flying creatures) made of an unknown bright green wood and inlaid with bronze. Flying creatures hit by the Wingthief Boomerang lose the ability to fly for 1d6 turns.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Man, I hope that post comes back

And we're back to the world of the blogging. Unfortunately, my most recent post on the Mentzer box sets and my younger influences was also swallowed up by the catastrophe. I am a bit miffed, as I'd gotten some great comments on it, but I can hope that the post will return once the repairs to Blogger have been finished.

On the other hand, I've really been inspired by this whole campaign idea, coupled with a few other cool posts I've been reading (Telecanter's unbelievably cool Five Swords post and Zak's Sandbox ideas, which are now unfortunately missing). Thinking about this confluence of old influences and current ideas has been really fun for me. When I was reading old sword and sorcery pulps in an attempt to understand older D&D editions, it was a good experience but not exactly nostalgic for me. My roleplaying origins definitely lie with Lone Wolf and Legend of Zelda as opposed to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and that's neither a good nor a bad thing. It has more to do with what my generation really identifies as fantasy than levels of literary quality or inspirational source material. The fantasy of the 1990s was very heroic and probably more inspired by the Mentzer and AD&D 2nd Editions than the older, pulpier games. Is it any wonder that saving the kingdom or defeating the dragon is ingrained in many of us? Even when playing a roguish character, I'm all about doing what's right.

Expect more material in the near future. I'm on a roll here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


This week, I finally bit the bullet and cracked open my Mentzer Red Box to check out the goodies inside. Though I did notice some of the rules differences between it and my older Moldvay box set (Thieves knocked down again! Why?), I really liked the organization and especially the introduction. It reminded me of the old Lone Wolf books that I used to borrow from my best friend Conor when I was in middle school. I'd always loved Choose Your Own Adventure books ever since I was small and the addition of combat and roleplaying elements to the standard "if you want to go east, turn to page 26" formula gave them a lot of re-read value.

In my online searches for Lone Wolf books, I came across a website called Project Aon, where you can read and play all of the Lone Wolf books for free, legally and with the expressed permission of Joe Dever, the original author. Naturally, I started into the first one, which got me thinking: what would it have been like if I'd gotten this box set when I was 12? My influences at the time were the Lone Wolf books, Magic: the Gathering cards, games like the Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past and emulated copies of Chrono Trigger and Shining Force. Reading the Mentzer Red Box made me want to revisit all of those old sources and see if I could put together a whimsical kind of D&D campaign with them in mind.

I'm still a heroic kind of guy at heart. Saving an imaginary village from rampaging ogres is definitely more satisfying for me than acquiring imaginary loot. So whatever this campaign would be like, it would have plenty of danger, monsters and potential good to be done on top of the normal loads of treasure and magic items. I think 12 year old me would be satisfied.

(Note: Looking through my old Magic cards, I had no idea that Liz Danforth and Tony DiTerlizzi did so many illustrations for them. It's cool thinking back on how the worlds of RPG and CCG art intersected before Magic really took off.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Has this happened to anyone else?

Have you ever dreamed a phenomenal dungeon?

It's been a day of registering for classes and the like, but I'm still remembering parts of the dream that I had last night and how they would make a great D&D dungeon. The start of the adventure was fairly mundane: I can recall giving the signal to my sister and a couple of my friends on the edge of a baseball field, where we all got into black burglar clothes and started making our way towards something.

Here's where it got pretty crazy. Apparently, the heist that we were meant to pull off was in this crazy dungeonesque castle which was really just a massive manned tank around a gigantic octopus. Like the size of a skyscraper. A series of rope bridges connected different parts of the castle aquarium, including some that went directly over the octopus. I was trying to get into the structure through one of these bridges, but the weight of me and my gear made it sway in the high air, so I had to crawl the rest of the bridge's length on my belly until I reached a small portal where I could enter. Inside, the stone walls were damp and had algae growing on them like the inside of a fish tank.

I really want to expand on this whole idea for a dungeon and hopefully I've gotten enough written down to remember the inspirational aspects of the dream. The thing that really stayed with me was "what happens if that octopus gets mad? Utter chaos, that's what."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

But look on the bright side...

Last week, I went to my local library's Friends group book sale in search of some cheap mystery novels or YA books that I wanted to read. Imagine my surprise when I came across a pair of Mentzer-era D&D box sets, still sealed in shrink-wrap and basically perfect, apart from a triangular-shaped box dent on the back of the Basic set. Total cost: $2 each.

Thank you, old ladies from the Friends of the Library group. You didn't quite know what you had. Now should I open them or leave them in their pristine sealed condition for a rainy day?

A Crisis of Confidence

I think I've lost my game mastering touch. Or rather, I've been trying to run things in a way that I really can't run them.

On Thursday, my friends, girlfriend and I got together to play some pistol-packing, wild West Savage Worlds. We had a group of great characters, including a half-Mexican drifter with a buffalo rifle, a two-gun wanted outlaw and a delusional rancher out to see the world with his unlucky cowhand. Using the phenomenal Adventure Generator from The Day After Ragnarok, I whipped up a cool adventure idea involving a group of bank robbers recruiting ex-Confederate soldiers to "retake the South" while fattening their wallets. It was a good adventure seed and I was using a system that I'm intimately familiar with, one that I've said I know like the back of my hand. So what went wrong?

I have this misplaced notion that I can run a game purely on improvisation. Given that I'm a repetitious mess making unplanned speeches and a fairly crappy jam session bassist, I have no idea how I made this assumption. To be fair, some of my best gaming moments have been spur of the moment ideas, but generally there is some sort of exterior structure to them. The only preparation that I had done was writing up some stats for the New Confederacy army and brief descriptions of the town of Hogan's Bluff, Arkansas. As my friends continued to ask questions that I didn't have the answers for, I found myself feeling more nervous than excited about the continuing adventures of my friends.

Also, my 'cinematic' Savage Worlds distances rule? Totally didn't work for me. While thinking about keeping the action fluid and improvisational, I'd forgotten how much I really do enjoy my vinyl gaming mat and miniatures for RPG combat. It's something concrete that can be focused on, something visual that helps shift that burden of constant improvisation on my part. Sorry, Robin Laws, but right now, I could care less if it takes away from the immersion as long as it helps me feel like I'm not having a panic attack.

My new game plan is as follows:
  • Plan out goddamned everything before running a game: My game notes are going to have to be detailed enough that I can give people the answers to their questions about game stuff without having to clearly make something up. Let the improvisation flow over a rock solid, well planned backbone, like all good printed modules or fellow blogger's entries. I need maps, I need names and I really need events and their logical consequences.
  • Don't be afraid to be comfortable with the way you run games: I like how SW works with minis, so I'm not really sure why I decided to throw all of that stuff out. From now on, I'm going with my gut on these things.
  • Separate things out: For the Bullets and Tequila game, I was simultaneously trying to help people make their characters while planning the adventure. Never again. Separate session for character creation, separate gaming sessions for everything. Not only will that give me more time for prep, it will help me tailor the game more towards the players.
So that's my current state of mind right now. I think I really need to take a little time and think about how to proceed with this whole thing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Aaaaand I'm done

As I noted before I embarked on the whole April A to Z challenge, it wasn't an extremely well thought out decision. I just wanted to see if I could update For A Fistful of Coppers 26 times that month. I enjoyed reading my fellow bloggers posts and hacking some cool ideas together (especially that Convict Planets idea!), but I am super glad that its over and that I can return to a regular blogging schedule of posting cool stuff that I've been thinking about instead of trying to find a topic that began with the letter Q (seriously, hard work).

Expect a bunch more stuff on my potential Bullets and Tequila game, as well as my first experiences with Tunnels and Trolls. I've got a few more days off, so I'd like to spend a little time getting reacquainted with all of you.

T is for Tunnels and Trolls

The other interesting thing that's happened over the course of this finals week was joining up with Scott from Huge Ruined Pile's online Tunnels and Trolls game. I was following the increasingly awesome Idrizoob posts and when the call for players came out, I couldn't resist.

Cue my first experiences with Tunnels and Trolls. I had heard about its more simple and lighthearted approach to dungeon crawling fantasy from bloggers like Scott and Tenkar, but I'd never encountered the game at all. By the time I started searching for RPGs in game stores in 1998 or 1999, Tunnels and Trolls was a fairly obscure and presumably out-of-print game. However, I think I probably would have liked it a whole lot at that age.

First of all, it's definitely a simple system, but not as bare bones as I thought it was going to be. I spent a whole lot of time outfitting my three characters (Rogue, Warrior and Wizard, respectively) with effective equipment, which was fairly hard to do with limited attributes and funds. I was engrossed in the equipment list, with its pages of oddly named knives and polearms (even more than 1st ed AD&D!) and separate pieces of armor and equipment. I also seriously appreciated the inclusion of Delver's Packs, a grab bag of useful dungeon items all bundled together with a single weight and cost like D&D Gamma World's Explorer's Kits. I haven't seen anything of what the game is like in play, but I really enjoyed making my characters.

Bonus! Here they are for all you T&Ters. Let me know if I did anything wrong.

Dax Coitus
Level 1 Rogue

ST 9 IQ 17 LK 11 CON 13 DEX: 7 CHA: 16
Adds -2 Encumbrance 304 /900
Armor: Leather Armor (6 Hits taken, 200u)
Weapon: Misericorde (2d6+1, 14u),
Gear: Clothing and Pack (10u), Delver’s Package (20u), Provisions for 1 day (20u), 10 ft. of hempen rope (50u)
Wealth: 0gp

For every gem stolen, secret uncovered or princess bedded, there must always be a responsible party. Dax Coitus may not be that party in all cases, but chances are he’ll tell you that he was. An inveterate liar, boaster and con-man, Coitus is generally regarded as a decent thief and a great talker. Surprisingly enough, he also conceals sizable magical potential, though he still hasn’t gotten the hang of the gestures.

Level 1 Warrior

ST 14 IQ 14 LK 8 CON 10 DEX 10 CHA 16
Adds +1 Encumbrance 510/1400
Armor: Full Helm (3 Hits taken, 50u), Gauntlets (2 Hits taken, 25u), Greaves (2 Hits taken, 40u), Target Shield (4 Hits taken, 300u)
Weapon: Trident (4d6+3, 75u)
Gear: Provisions for 1 day (20u)
Wealth: 0gp

Dax paid for Umanzor’s freedom after witnessing his talents in the arena. When the gladiator school refused to release him even after accepting Dax’s ill-gotten gains, the con-man had to find another solution. After the judicious application of two blowgun darts, a vial of acid and the best lockpick in the city, Umanzor was free to go as he pleased. He’s been by Dax’s side ever since. In the taverns of Idrizoob, he is well-known as a kind and soft-spoken individual. But his sweet talk dries up when he dons his full-face gladiatorial helmet, replaced with steely resolve.

Elisara Valiasto
Level 1 Wizard

ST 10 IQ 15 LK 8 CON 8 DEX 11 CHA 7
Adds -1 Encumbrance 125/1000
Armor: Arming Doublet (3 Hits taken, 75u)
Weapon: Baton (2d6, 20u)
Gear: Clothing and Pack (10u), Provisions for 1 day (20u)
Wealth: 5gp

Accused of perverse witchcraft in her puritanical home city, Elisara escaped a horrific death in the Umber Pits and began traveling with a caravan as a fortune teller. Of course, her predictions were all made up on the spot, but when you can create your own glowing crystal ball, people tend to believe you. Once she reached Idrizoob, her fortune telling opportunities dried up, as its residents were both more cynical and magically adept than her previous clientele. Her current position is as magical tutor to Dax, which pays the bills and that’s all she would like to say on the subject.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

S is for Saloon

"You know, a good, smelly saloon... is my favorite place in the world."
Paden, Silverado

One would think that the saloon in a western RPG could easily work in the same way as a tavern in a fantasy RPG. After all, their genre trappings are pretty similar: food, drink and pleasurable company, perhaps a game of dice or a hastily started fistfight. But apart from that, the two don't really serve the same thematic purpose. The standard fantasy tavern is a location to acquire information that leads to an external adventure: a guy in a cloak gives you a map to mysterious treasure or the local guard captain tells you about a series of toad attacks. As a gamemaster, you think more about the interactions that the PCs can have in a tavern, rather than the space itself. Other than the ubiquitous tavern brawl, there aren't really that many important gaming moments happening in the tavern.

Saloons are a different story. There are tons of climactic western moments that take place in the center of a saloon: the two opening gunfights in Desperado, the introduction of Clint Eastwood's Manco in For A Few Dollars More and the first sparks of righteous anger out of Robert Mitchum's JP Harrah in El Dorado all come to mind. But what sticks in my mind the most is probably this scene from Silverado of Paden retrieving his hat from one of the outlaws who left him for dead in the desert. It's been one of my favorite films since I watched it with my mom at about age 5, an unabashedly archetypal western with the man who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back behind the director's chair. It distills everything that I like about the heroic Hollywood Wild West into an incredibly quotable package.

The saloon question has gotten me thinking about Robin Laws' section of Feng Shui entitled "The Map Is Not Your Friend." As Feng Shui is a high-kicking Hong Kong-style action movie, setting everything up in a 2-dimensional map space causes the players to "stop focusing on the action scene in their heads and instead directing them to a dead, lifeless piece of paper." Something tells me that I should definitely be considering something similar for my Bullets and Tequila game, even though Savage Worlds runs really well with miniatures. My previous cinematic combat rules, inspired by the combat rules for Gregor Hutton's 3:16, cut all of the different ranges down into five categories (Melee, Close, Short, Medium and Long) that can easily be qualified on the fly to players. If someone's got a sawed-off shotgun and is told that there are three enemies in Close range, it works well both for the game master (you don't need to make up absolute ranges on the fly) and the player (you always know who's in range). Still, I've never tried them out in practice yet, so we'll see how it goes.