Saturday, February 27, 2010

This looks like fun! Read an RPG Book in Public!

So I read over on the Escapist about "Read an RPG Book in Public Week" - I think this is a grand idea.  I've been known to be reluctant to read my role-playing games in public, but that was because of unfinished-dissertation-guilt more than anything else.  I'm going to have to think about it, but I bet I will have lots of opportunities to try this out!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Race as Class

I'm having an epiphany of sorts.

For a very long time, I thought that the idea of "race as class" was just plain weird.  Why couldn't a dwarf be a fighter?  Why can't a hobbit be a thief?  It seemed very strange to me, reading about this in Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D.  "It's about the focus of the game" people would say to me.  Still, I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it.

When I got Advanced Edition Companion, I found myself thinking quite happily about all the different classes and races I wanted to have available for play in my new campaign.  I began to realize that - far from being an "either/or" choice - multi-classing and "race-as-class" were both acceptable, and depending on what I wanted, highly appropriate for my campaign.

I'm going through some of my thinking about this over on the ODD74 message board.  Feel free to stop over and add a comment or two.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The "New" Campaign: Trouble on Second Level

So in the latest session, our band of hardy adventurers had gotten split up:

  • Eric - a human cleric of Styphon the Healer-god
  • Reacher - a human "locksmith"
  • Fram - a human priest of Galzar Wolfhead
...had all gone through a teleportal that caused them to appear about 20 feet above ground level, near the entrance to the dungeon.  Meanwhile, the rest of the party:

  • Grollan - the dwarven fighter
  • Kyle - the halfling "locksmith"
  • Garric - the wildly courageous magic-user
...had all gone through the same teleportal, but using a different command word, were transported deeper into the dungeon.

Group A went back to Kingsbridge, the nearby village, and recruited help.  With two warriors and a bard, they went back into the dungeon in search of their friends.  Going through the teleportal, they were reunited with their comrades, and began to make their way out.

On the way out, they found themselves on the second level of the dungeon.  In a particular portion of said level, they had encountered a guard post manned by hobgoblins.  In previous expeditions, they had tried to take out the hobgoblins, to little effect.  The hobgoblins had initially asked for a toll of a silver piece per party member, but this was refused by stingy player-characters ("what, put money back into the dungeon?  What are you thinking??").  Each expedition had seen an escalation in tactics: caltrops, molotov cocktails, tripwires, combined arms tactics etc. So on their way out, the player-characters decided it would be a good idea to take out the hobgoblins once and for all - BUT!  The doors leading to the guard post had been spiked shut, leaving one long corridor leading to the actual guard room.

As the player-characters peered cautiously around the corner to see what was there, I told them, "it's hard to see all the way to the guardroom, as the corridor has been keep purposely dark - there are some darker shapes in the shadows though, and something is clearly moving.  All you can hear from down the corridor is an ominous krick-krick-krick-KRICK sound (not unlike the pawl on a rachet).  Oh, and right there, hanging on the wall around the corner is a wooden plaque."

The players, being properly curious, asked, "what does the plaque say?"

So I handed them this:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part Two

Alternate World Forms:  Several alternatives to the traditional spherical world form are possible. Most occur when a civilization wishes to trap and use energy from its central star, and needs great land surface to do so.  In addition, population pressure (especially on a civilization unable to develop interstellar travel on a large scale) may be a contributing factor.  Alternate world forms are not included in the world creation sequence, but may be provided on a sparing basis by the referee.  They are ideal for large population worlds, but may also be populated by smaller numbers, as in degenerate or decimated worlds.
Worlds and Adventures, pp. 8-9
Traveller, 1977 Edition

The above paragraph is an example of something found in the 1977 edition that doesn't show up in the later, revised edition of the game.  The different kinds of alternative world form were mentioned, but the rationale for including them was not.  This may seem like a minor editorial decision, but it indicates in a subtle way how much more open the 1977 edition was to different ideas and ways of doing things.

Not unlike the idea of a "Saturday Night Special" from Empire of the Petal Throne, alternate world forms were intended to be rare.  Not too surprisingly, such "rarities" became significant points of interest in campaigns developed and played in the Twin Cities in 1977 onwards.   A Dyson Sphere (see left) was part of several adventures in several campaigns.

Another interesting omission from the later editions of the game was the Jump Route Determination Table.  This table existed to help the referee map out "the charted space lanes, which mark the regular routes travelled by commercial starships."  It might be possible to think of the resulting "space lanes" as corridors connecting the different "rooms" as represented by the star systems - I don't want to overextend the dungeon metaphor, but it was the prevalent way of thinking back in the mid-70's.  The 1982 edition included a much more vague section, sans table, which assumed that the referee had already figured out the larger political picture.  Again, perhaps a subtle distinction, but one which I believe reflects changes in thinking between 1977  and 1982.  I recall there being some debate about the utility of the table at the time, but looking at it now, it provides a straightforward way of determining a lot about the relationships between star systems without making assumptions about a larger "Imperium."  In a fairly real way, a thoughtful referee could randomly generate a sub-sector or two, and then figure out what the larger interstellar community looked like.  

Something missing from the 1977 edition is the concept of "travel zones" - the now-familiar Amber and Red Zones.  I was surprised by this - I could've sworn they were there, but they apparently were added in either the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society or possibly Adventure 1: The Kinunir.  I remember that there were other in-game systems for dealing with "restricted worlds" but I don't recall any specifics - save that there were usually well-armed interdiction satellites that referees would put in place to deter trespassing player-characters.  It would be interesting to come up with an alternative interdiction system, but I must admit that the entire idea of Amber and Red Zones is now a part of what I think of as "Traveller" so I suspect I will continue to use them.

It's difficult to convey just how much of a difference these seemingly minor subtractions and additions actually made in world creation, but it was significant.  It also shows how the various assumptions and details of the GDW-in-house campaign, the Third Imperium, emerged rather slowly, allowing for nearly two years of campaign play in a myriad different universes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Update on the "new" campaign

In the three weeks and two sessions since I last reported on my "new" D&D campaign, we've added not just one player, but two - I'm up to three players at my local FLGS, and other gamers are beginning to notice.  It's fun, but I must admit I'm continuing to run into some issues in running Somebody Else's Dungeon aka Xylarthen's Tower, courtesy of Jeff Rients. The biggest issue is that I've discovered that designing a "mega-dungeon" is an intensely personal creative effort.  Don't get me wrong, there's some awesome goodness (badness?) in Jeff's design - but I have a growing sense of I want to draw my own dungeon, dammit.

Besides that creative itch waiting to be scratched, I'm finding some more minor issues that keep cropping up that I will eventually want to house-rule:

  • The d6 roll for opening doors - does everybody get a chance?  Once for the entire party?  What about multiple people helping out?  I'm finding I might want to have some sort of door resistance amount, and then add or subtract that to the roll.  We'll see.
  • What about chopping down doors?  This also implicitly asks, what are dungeon doors made of?  I'm not necessarily into various different types of doors, with different hit points - that way lies a particular kind of minutiae-laden madness.
  • Tactics.  My background with miniatures has led me to think more about the tactics usable during melee.  Don't want 3e levels of unnecessary detail, but I also don't like having to remind players that their characters might know something about how to fight.
  • Wandering monsters.  Designing ever-longer lists of monsters and encounter tables to match sounded tiresome and neverending.  However, there is a solution!  Taking a page from James Ward's article "The Wandering Monster" in The Dragon #15, I've started to use 3x5 cards for each wandering monster encounter.  This ought to be interesting.
What's good about all of this is that I'm having a grand time re-learning how to properly run a campaign.  At some point, I am likely to either modify this one into what I really want, or start over from scratch (sound like any fixer-upper home to anybody?).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part One

The referee has the responsibility for mapping the universe before actual game play begins.  The entire universe is not necessary immediately, however, as only a small portion can be used at any one time.  In unsupervised play, one of the players can generate worlds and perform mapping on a turn by turn or adventure by adventure basis....
Worlds and Adventures, page 1
Traveller, 1977 Edition

One of the daunting tasks faced by the creators of Traveller was how to deal with mapping out space.  Being good wargamers, they realized that attempting to map out space in three dimensions was going to be difficult (though not impossible) for the average wargamer/roleplayer.  So they settled on an abstract representation which was referred to as a subsector.  The map of the subsector represented an 8x10 section of space, with each hex being one parsec across.  For anybody familiar with astronomy, this two-dimensional representation was completely artificial and unrealistic, but that was unimportant from a role-playing perspective. I've included a scan of the original subsector map from page 3 of Worlds and Adventure; the only thing that could've improved the original game would have been a sample planet and a sample subsector.  However, those would've taken up more space than GDW apparently felt was available for the game.  For whatever reason, the subsector hex grid was left as a tabula rasa upon which referees were invited to create their own settings.  Not everyone thought this mapping paradigm worked the best, however.

Over to the right, you can see one of the variations on mapping for Traveller that was devised back in 1977.  The idea was to take a sheet of hex paper, draw in a larger grid of hexagons, and then enter the Universal Planetary Profile.  Starting in the center hex, write in starport type, and then clockwise around from the hex immediately above, planetary diameter, atmosphere, hydrographics, population and law level.  Tech level went to the bottom left; presence of gas giant to the bottom right.  Notation of naval base and scout base in upper left and right, respectively.  The two side hexes may have been used for additional stats, but the memory has faded over time.  However, the systems shown here are as follows:

  • The planet listed in the upper left is the one generated (and left unnamed) by Don Turnbull in his review in White Dwarf #6, from 1978.  The UPP is 0201 C81378B-5 S G.
  • The planet on the lower right is "Grendal" from The Dragon #18, September 1978.  The UPP is 0303 A212221-E G.
  • The planet further to the right and a little up is one I generated for this post.  The UPP is 0402 A656462-9 G.
Star system creation therefore was not terribly "realistic" at all.  However, what it did do was provide a template to follow for mapping out adventure, in much the same way as dungeon and wilderness maps did for Original D&D.  This was, I think, a significant part of the success of Traveller when it initially appeared - the maps did not need to be hard science for the game to work; a structure suggesting a science fiction setting was sufficient and relatively elegant to implement.

But mapping was not the only set of assumptions embedded in the rules for stellar mapping and world generation.  In a follow-on post, I will take some time to examine some of the social assumptions in the original game involving world building, and what they meant for referees at the time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Advanced Edition Companion: Initial Review and Reflection

I just got my copy of Advanced Edition Companion  in the mail from Lulu.  Man oh man oh man....I've only had the briefest chance to look through it, but it looks really, really good.  Did I mention really good?  I think Dan's got my number with this product - almost like he was reading my mind.

James Maliszewski had provided an excellent review of Advanced Edition Companion on Grognardia, so I was very much looking forward to getting my own copy.  I think what I've really appreciated about Advanced Edition Companion in my initial perusal is that the entire book is essentially optional rules, rather than an "approved way to play."  I've mentioned before that I've never gone along with the idea that OD&D with all its supplements is the same as AD&D, primarily because of this fundamental difference in philosophy.  OD&D resonates with the Afterword of Volume Three, in which Gary advises "...the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" while AD&D ended up being the TSR "official set" - which meant that every referee and every campaign had to align themselves a greater or lesser distance from the Pattern of Lake Geneva.

Advanced Edition Companion avoids this by bringing lots of crunchiness from AD&D or OD&D with everything, and doing so in a way that makes it easier - not harder - for referees to use.  And it seems that Jamie Mal likes this, too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Experience

"As characters travel through the universe, they already know their basic physical and mental parameters: their basic education and physical development have already occurred, and further improvement can happen only by dedicated endeavor.  The experience which is gained as the individual character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he has assumed..."
Starships, page 40
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This section, much-maligned since Traveller's first appearance, is perhaps the biggest difference between Traveller and Original D&D.  My original title for this post was "Experience - the Anti-D&D" simply to illustrate this very real divide.  Instead of the bildungsroman aspect of D&D, in which player-characters are completely inexperienced and then develop over time, Traveller's designers assumed that characters would be capable and competent before the start of play.  It's a natural result of the character creation system, but we did not fully understand that back in 1977, and judging by commentary on various Traveller-related forums and mailing list, still not properly understood to this day.  Kenneth Bearden, however, has done some excellent work exploring this issue on the Citizens of the Imperium message boards.

Conceptually, it is fairly simple.  The life-course development model, using terms of service, was an elegant way of encouraging players to roll up characters who were not too young and not too old.  Too young and they would lack the skills necessary to adventure and travel.  Too old, and they would be infirm and too fragile to adventure.  But the deeper implication was that in-game development of skills and ability was very limited - and coming from D&D, that seemed a little strange to many Traveller players.  However, there were options for improving Education as a stat, weapons expertise, skill improvement, and physical fitness.

I recall some attempts to use the Traveller experience system back in the late '70's, but most of the time it was taken as a cross between "on-the-job training" and "I wanna better character."  I think this ended up skewing our understanding of the assumptions underlying Traveller, and made it more difficult to see how the system worked.  In other words, the deeper assumptions implicit in the rules were more of a control than any stated background (e.g. educational institutions in the Third Imperium).

The above is the only ordinary method of self-improvement available to characters.  Highly scientific or esoteric methods of improving personal skills and characteristics are logically, provided the characters search hard enough for them.  Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems.  Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.
 Starships, page 41
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This quote from the end of the Experience section, taken with the one above, reveal just how different Traveller was in the beginning from what has developed since then.  The idea that experience developed during game play improves player ability runs in parallel with more recent ideas about Old School game play. Additionally, the absence of a defined background setting for Traveller meant that referees had to come up with their own settings and universes - and the experience rules actually suggest ways in which a referee might develop something different.  In this sense, Classic Traveller provided a blank canvas - and encouraged referees to make it their own - and the experience rules were no different than the rest of the game.

Next Tuesday: Worlds

Editorial note: something odd happened with my attempt to post this last night.  It obviously wasn't there or went away.  I've restored it, but let me know if you actually see this post - comments, as usual, are always welcome.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Auction Announcements

As I've mentioned with items up for auction!

TARGA Announces Pledge-An-Auction Drive

TARGA is organizing the 2010 Pledge-An-Auction drive in support of GaryCon 2 and the Gygax Family Fund for use in funding a memorial statue in honor of Gary. Come join our virtual auction and help us to present a great donation to Luke Gygax at GaryCon 2 this year! Starts on January 25th!

So I've put up a copy of The Dungeoneer #2 for auction, and that will be followed by a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.  More after that, I am sure - so keep your eyes open for interesting stuff to bid on!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Digging Around...

So it turns out that I have a bunch of back issues of Great Plains Game Player and its successor, Gamelog, both of them published by Jim Lurvey.  Jim's a great guy - I can say that, having known him off and on for nearly 30 years now.

It just so happens that in an early issue of GP2, there's an article by one Gary Gygax, about the relationship between strength and weapons damage and other abilities.  Looks like the prototype for the strength tables in Greyhawk.  (I understand from a conversation with Jim a couple of years ago that GP2 was where the Thief character class first appeared, too.)

And then there's The Ryth Chronicle - John Van De Graaf's 'zine of campaigns along the Ryth River, "published as a public service by the Yggrdasill papermill" with the first issue appearing in the 4th week of March, 1975, if I've got it correctly.  Interesting thing about John's campaign is that he started keeping records from the 3rd week in November of 1974, so his campaign started with the original three booklets sans Greyhawk.  As a historical record, this is an amazing snapshot of what gaming was like Way Back Then.

Details to follow.... :)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Five links to make refereeing easier

Something I like about technology is that it helps us do things that would otherwise be a lot more work.  Without further ado, here are five different online tools that ought to make refereeing a bunch easier:

If anybody knows more about the origin and provenance of these links, I'd love to know.  Thanks!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Starships

"Worlds orbiting the same star are accessible by inteplanetary travel, including by scheduled liners and by ship's boats, pinnaces, cutters and even by lifeboats.  Generally, however, interplanetary travel takes long periods of time.  Since most stellar systems have only one major world, interplanetary travel is infrequently used....Worlds orbiting different stars are reached by interstellar travel, which uses the jump drive.  Once a starship moves to more than 100 planetary diameters from all worlds, it may activate its jump drive and move to another star system.  Jump drives transfer ships from one star system to another in about one week per jump."
Starships, page 1
Traveller, 1977 Edition

It was in Book Two: Starships that Traveller departed the most from Original D&D in its formatting.  That was understandable, since spaceships and interstellar travel were the thematic core of the rules.  But here, GDW took advantage of not only existing science fiction literature, but also its own previously published spaceship rules, Triplanetary.  Published in 1973, Triplanetary was notable for Newtonian mechanics, grease pencils, and being a lot of fun to play.  Designed by Marc Miller, it had a set of ships including Corvettes, Corsairs, Frigates, Dreadnaughts (see cover of the rules booklet), Torches, and Orbital Bases. Non-combat ships included Transports, Packets (armed transport), Tankers (fuel carrier), and Liners.  These would provided inspiration for the sorts of ships that appeared later in Traveller - the "dreadnaught" would morph into the Broadsword-class mercenary cruiser.

As far as any of us could tell, back in 1977, the science fiction inspirations for Traveller clearly included Space Viking by H. Beam Piper, as well as Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson, and others.  But one author - E.C. Tubb - whose work I had not read at the time, had also provided a great deal of direct inspiration for Traveller's designers.  High, Middle, and Low Passage, Fast and Slow drug, all came from the Dumarest of Terra series, along with the seemingly-odd emphasis on blades and blade combat.  Keep in mind - we didn't have a dedicated background setting, merely assumptions about how interstellar travel worked and its various hazards, including hijacking, skipping, and piracy.  I've always found it strange just how much effort has been put to interpret Traveller's rules as an internally consistent worldview, when it was clear to us back in 1977 that the game was inspired by many sources and encompassed many different possibilities.

And so it was with Starship Economics that we found lots of assumptions about how things worked, naturally enough, but curiously very little embedded background (at least by today's standards).  A quick comparison between Mongoose's Traveller Pocket Rulebook and the original edition reveals a great deal of the Official Traveller Universe in the later version.  In both the Starship Economics and Starship Construction section, there are two "mini-games" that attracted attention.  In the former, finding cargo, passengers, paying fees, maintenance costs, and crew salaries - combined with the Trade and Commerce rules at the end of Book Two - formed the basis for a trading game that could probably have been ported right back into Original D&D.  In the latter, starship construction was the game itself.

After generating characters, starship construction was something of an obsession back in 1977.  Trying to figure out the best combination of weapons, drives, interior spaces, cargo and everything else was something that consumed hours of time.  Making modifications to the rules was also something of a cottage industry:
  • Halving fuel consumption from 10% of ship's mass per jump number to 5% became a "club standard" at the Golden Brigade.
  • Various kinds of defensive energy screens were attempted.  These were somewhat controversial, since they smacked of "handwavium" and Star Trek.
  • ECM, counter-missiles, and other augmentations to the ordinance section were also attempted.  These were rooted in the wargaming interests of many gamers at the time - but playing Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame in space was also something more than most of us wanted to do.
  • Building bigger ships was also a major area of endeavor.  Since Star Wars had just come out there was naturally interest in building really BIG ships (like Star Destroyer or Death Star-sized).  But Traveller's ships topped out at 5000 tons, so devising rules for bigger ships was hotly debated.
As for starship combat, I don't recall a lot of games where the actual combat was run as a miniatures game, as suggested in second half of Book Two.  We tended to run ship combat as an abstracted game, with descriptions of distances and hazards substituting for actually moving counters around on a game table.  (I have to admit to wanting to try out the ship combat rules again, if only for their own sake, and to see how they would've worked.  That may form the basis for another Traveller Tuesday.)

Next Tuesday: Experience - the Anti-D&D

Previous: 1977 Edition Combat 
Previous: 1977 Edition Characters
Previous: Our original inspiration 
Previous: The influence of OD&D 
Previous: The other "three little booklets" 
Next Tuesday: 

Monday, February 1, 2010

I think I'm busy

Doing some data analysis today, related to a query on this post on Grognardia.  I am currently...
  • Running a weekly OD&D game, using Labyrinth Lord as a base set with variants, missing one Tuesday a month
  • Running a twice a month Chivalry & Sorcery (1st Ed.) game
  • Participating in a monthly gaming meetup, usually running something like Classic Traveller, Empire of the Petal Throne, or maybe Mutant Future.
  • Playing in a monthly C&S (4th Ed.) game.
...which works out to gaming about 1.5 to 2 times a week.  Adding another regular game at this point is unlikely.  How much do you game?