Sunday, December 30, 2012

One Book to Rule Them All!

Despite the title of this entry, I don't believe in one specific set or edition of rules to define an entire game or genre. Hell, even Chess went through iterations before settling into the game we all know and love today.

The D&D game has gone through so many permutations and editions that I have stopped trying to keep up. In fact, I now insist upon B/X, 1E AD&D, or Pathfinder. I think I'm mostly done with the rest...time will, as always, tell. A lot of gamers complain about the rules-heavy later editions of D&D - basically anything after AD&D or 2nd Edition AD&D. They complain as if having so many rules and options is a personal affront. As if they are forced to use any of it - usually because it is the "currently supported edition and everyone wants to play it to the exclusion of all else."

Funny. I have always managed to find players willing to use ANY edition of the D&D rules, as long as the adventure is good. Maybe I'm spoiled - or picky. In the end, it often comes down to the amount of rules given.

To borrow from my own example, D&D is not (for example) Chess. There are no set moves and counter-moves. In fact, D&D is not even wargaming...though later editions try to pretend it is. That is far more like Chess. One hallmark of the D&D game has always been the idea of using what rules work for you and adjusting or trashing the rest. Admittedly, in later editions, this becomes nigh impossible, as every rule is intimately connected to every other rule in the overall system. It is difficult to adjust without breakage. Still, many gamers (especially DMs) seem to feel that their favorite edition is "the one."

It all seems to come down to one question: Do you want a game that leaves you free to imagine and adjudicate as you go, or do you want one that tells you what to do so you don't have to do so much pesky thinking? My poor wording aside, that is how I see it. That is how I have seen it in countless debates and outright arguments. I favor something in-between...I'm just that kind of guy. I love the editions I mentioned above. They all suit my ideal in one way or another.

I essentially jumped from B/X D&D to AD&D 1E - then to D20 3.0...and, reluctantly, 3.5...and then, to Pathfinder. Why? Because each successive edition I mentioned seemed to take my own house rules and incorporate them into an official edition - thus saving me a lot of work and headache. Few players wanted to join my game when they discovered I had a binder full of house rules, the page count of which rivaled the Player's Handbook itself.

You may note that I didn't even go from B/X to BECMI. I didn't really like the later sets. Maybe I'll blog about that in the future. The whole Immortals thing turned me off, I think.

For me, BECMI was too much rules - and yet, not enough. It is difficult to put my finger on exactly how this could be the case. I think it might lie somewhere in just WHAT rules were detailed and which were not. Possibly, I didn't like the way the previous rules were presented in such a way as to try to balance it all. I feel that D20 did it better.

I've been told that earlier editions of D&D aren't meant to be balanced. That is their particular flavor. I guess I prefer some kind of internal balance and at least a feeling of sense. No, I really don't like that demihumans have arbitrary level limits, simply because they would outshine humans. In a world where these demihumans have far more inborn advantages and enjoy such extended lifespans over humanity, they SHOULD dominate civilization. If we're going to pretend that all elves can only achieve half of what a human could, then you've lost me. You made elves greater from the start - don't pretend that they aren't, just because it doesn't suit the game. I am creating entire worlds here, and I need more than that. My world needs to make more sense.

And that's where D&D struggles with itself. Is it a cooperative storytelling experience? Is it a glorified wargame? Is it a detailed fantasy simulation? Something more? Something less? It is whatever you want it to be, and some rulesets seem to support one ideal over others. Still, it all comes down to the players. Most every player seems to have a personal preference when it comes to gaming style. With so many generations, types, and competencies of player, is it possible for a single edition to satisfy them all?


I say no, because players are about options. Some want it all. They want skills and feats and powers to cover every possible whim or situation. Others want the flexibility to imagine the best way to handle a given challenge, without having to rely upon countless tables and unreliable die rolls. There is no such edition.


I say yes, because the DM has the ability to control the game. Note, I say, "has the ability." This is important. Yes, the later editions of D&D strive to balance the levels of influence enjoyed by DM and player. They definitely feel more "player-friendly" to me. Of course, this also puts more responsibility onto the player - a responsibility many of them do not want, or cannot handle. If the game is more balanced in favor of the player, the player must invest more in the progress of the game. The player cannot rely upon the DM for every nuance of the adventure when the DM is no longer in complete control of every nuance - according to the rules. Because, in later editions, the idea swings heavily toward balance. Characters can affect their surroundings more directly. Characters are harder to kill - theoretically. It isn't so much a matter of escalation (though there is that), what we have now is an effort to ameliorate the situation for the players.

I find many "old-school" DMs prefer pre-D20 editions of D&D. Sometimes, I count myself among them...but not always. I like options, too. I like having everyone on a level playing field - or, at least to present the illusion of such. The D20 rules say I am supposed to tailor every encounter to the levels and abilities of the PCs. They can forget that. No matter what edition of the game, I am an "old-school" DM. I tell my players this up front. They know this. They are aware that they may need to occasionally practice the better part of valor if they want to survive. They are adventurers in my world - not the other way around. Is the campaign still essentially about the heroes? Yes, it is. But, not by the book. I am not running a book - and neither should you.

The rules are a foundation - a means whereby everyone can operate on common ground. I like balance. I like verisimilitude. It frees me to run my game the way I want. It frees me to present three-dimensional challenges for my players. It frees me to give them an interactive milieu in which to play. It frees me to relinquish a little of my control so that we can all have a hand in shaping the future of this world I've presented.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

NPC Adventurers

I don't know about everyone else, but I love using NPC adventuring parties in my campaigns. The idea of other heroes (or even "antiheroes") running around in possible competition with our PC adventuring group just invites new twists and flavors of drama.

I've had PC adventurers stumble into battles-in-progress between foes they could not otherwise defeat and a party of NPC adventurers that have worn the enemy down a bit. I've had pseudo-friendly competition between PCs and NPCs over the same prize. I've had PCs stumble across the remains of NPC adventurers that they know were higher level, just to throw a bit of a scare into them as they explored the same dungeon that claimed the lives of these "greater heroes."

NPCs in my games are often used as a way for the DM to have a direct hand in the adventure, when needed. Otherwise, they tend to assume the roles of indirect opposition. Yes, there are NPC villains - but I refer to them as villains. It is fun for me to present uncertain antagonists during the course of an adventure. I like to challenge the players and present the occasional moral dilemma.

True heroes cannot simply slay fellow adventurers out of hand - but they also cannot let these interlopers run off with their XP and treasure. What to do? How to salvage their reputations when a rival party succeeds where they have failed? Partner up, or waste valuable resources in senseless conflict? Another dimension is added to the game.

What follows is an NPC adventuring party I intend to use as the default example group in my own campaign-specific B/X rulebook. Some backgrounds should be recognizable from one or more "classic" tropes. Others...hopefully, not so much.

The Flamebearers

·         Adventuring group sponsored by the Circle of the Silver Flame - a cabal dedicated to knowledge and the advancement of magic.

·         Madis of the Silver Flame: Journeyman magic user in service to the Circle. Her father was a member of the Circle, before he was lost during a mission. Madis adventures in the hope of learning his fate, and someday joining the Circle.

·         Brother Brown is a cleric in plain brown robes with a deep cowl and brown leather mask covering his entire face. His eyes are brown and one is always bloodshot. Nearly killed by wights during an early adventure, Brother Brown has spent the better part of a year in meditation and recovery. Which deity he serves is unknown.

·         Cestus Bulwark is a massive human fighter with a shaven head and red goatee. He often wears a pair of cesti which he uses like bucklers in combat. He is a brutal man, fond of singing, and loyal to his friends. In his youth, he trained to be a singer, but a number of growth spurts in his adolescence and teens left him more suited for battle. He retains a fine singing voice.

·         Dagger Norane was a mugger and low-rent assassin who found himself in and out of a few thieves' guilds. When trying to mug a man in an alley, he found himself vastly outmatched. Brutally beaten, horribly tortured, and finally slain - he was surprised to awaken nearly a week later in his own ratty cot in a fleabag hostel. The last thing he recalls is the man's hand, with a gold-and-silver ring set with a large fire opal and a golden phoenix within, slitting his throat with a knife. Shaken to his core, Dagger seeks honor and redemption as a professional adventurer - hoping to become a hero someday. His given name is Daglan.

·         Brevan Stout chose his adventuring name from the side of a keg in a faraway pub. What his given name and his past may be are none of your damn business.

·         Arlenn Winterbrand is an elf maid who favors sword and shield over wand and scroll. Long white hair and ice-blue eyes. Very pale skin. Her mother supposedly died in childbirth, but was said to have been some kind of winter faerie that left the newborn infant with her father, then departed for parts unknown. Wields a frost blade in battle, supposedly left to her by her lost mother.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Creature catalysts - the rest

For the sake of completion, here are the rest of my personal notes for certain monsters in my own setting.

Nightshade: These will be unique creatures of great power, forming a kind of Umbral pantheon of dread demigods.
Nightcrawler: Resembles a hooded serpent and is called Erebus.
Nightrunner: Resembles a great hound and is called Tolfand.
Nightstalker: Resembles a tall, but not giant, hooded and cloaked human and is called Malvikar. Beneath the cloak is the swarm of beetles that is Khefra.
Nightswarm: Disguised as the nightstalker, Khefra manifests as a swarm of black scarab beetles that normally shapes itself into a humanoid form. Khefra represents an entire lost pantheon of gods, of which the other nightshades are revived examples - but Khefra may re-absorb any of them at will. May act as a cohesive figure, a disparate swarm, or some of both.
Nightwalker: Resembles a bearded titan and is called Chernobog.
Nightwing: Resembles an enormous bat and is called Camazotz.

Ogre: Often ruled by oni (ogre magi) or by hags. Ogres are also known for hurling live giant beetles in combat. Ogre with horned helm that gains gore attack as minotaur.
Ogre, Rime: Slightly more massive ogre with frost giant blood.
Ogre, Salt: Not actually an ogre at all, but a kind of cursed elemental of water and mineral trapped in a form about the size and shape of an ogre. Inflicts Constitution damage by absorbing moisture from living creatures.

Ooze: Sometimes used as siege missiles.

Otyugh: When slain, this foul monster deliquesces into some form of ooze - possibly chosen at random.

Owl, Bandit: An otherwise ordinary bird with dark raccoon-like markings across the face and a penchant for filching small valuables. Known to work in pairs or small groups.

Pegasus: Give the creature an air elemental quality and the ability to assume Gaseous Form (with a rider).

Red Putty: A type of ooze that resembles red clay. Drains blood on a successful hit.

Rust Monster: Have some kind of primitive race or society wearing armor made from the hides of rust monsters that affect metal items striking the armor as a living rust monster. The primitives have no metal items themselves.

Salamander, Storm: Violet and silver, with a serpentine body and four legs. Flies. Crackles with electricity. Very fast when striking, Immune to damage from electrical attacks.

Snake, Singing: An otherwise ordinary reptile that can imitate most forms of singing, from birds to people. Uses this ability to attract prey - typically birds.
Snake, Snapping: This large serpent has scales similar to the shell of a turtle and powerful jaws that deliver a crushing bite. It is very aggressive and also poisonous.

Sphinx: Respected keepers of knowledge and ancient wisdom, sphinxes were once coveted by great rulers as viziers and advisors. Monsters categorized as sphinxes include: Lamia (fallen sphinx - without wings), Lammasu (greater sphinx), Manticore (degenerate), and Shedu (high sphinx).

Spider, Tarantella: Venom may be collected and used as poison.

Thoul: Posing as a hobgoblin king and rises as a ghoul lord if slain. Possibly a personal guard of slightly weaker thouls posing as hobgoblins.

Toad, Javelin: This giant toad has a piercing bone spike at the end of its long tongue that it uses to impale prey.

Treant, Baobab: Ancient and enormous specimens possessed of incredible strength and near-infinite patience.
Treant, Tainted: A treant that has absorbed some sort of poison through its roots and become almost diseased in the process. This creature is twisted and evil, seeking to pass the taint on to any living creature it encounters.

Troglodyte, Primordial: A gigantic, barely intelligent specimen of troglodyte intended as a singular monster to be found in a "lost world" area in much the same role as King Kong.

Troll, Black: Bred by a black dragon for use as minions, this type of troll is shorter and broader than the standard troll and is immune to acid. AC: 3, HD: 5, Dam: 1d4/1d4/1d8, Save: F5. Regenerate 2 HP/round after 2 rounds. Excellent swimmers.

Unicorn: Unique specimen or group that are vampire hunters and slayers - impaling their victims with their horns.
Unithorn: Plant-based unicorn-like creature.

Voraile: Like a giant wasp built on the same lines as a cheetah, this fast and agile creature possesses powerful jaws and a long tail tipped with a vicious stinger. The spotted carapace is hairless and small insect wings allow incredible leaps, but not true flight. The creature's six legs are each tipped with vicious retractable claws.

Wasp, Ordinary: Certain kinds of humanoids will hurl or drop wasp nests in combat.

Weredead: Undead lycanthropes, including ghoul wererats and wight werewolves.

Wereogre: An ogre lycanthrope with a cave bear wereform.

Wraith, Marsh: Has poisonous marsh vapors in its makeup. Often accompanied by a will o' wisp.

Wyrwurm: A giant draconic snake with wings - and no legs. Venomous bite and spitting breath weapon where the poison is also imbued with the properties of the breath weapon. Less intelligent than dragons and no spellcasting. 

Yellow Mold: Can be found on mindless undead or constructs - offering a double threat. Sometimes growing on the back of a stuck door or the inside of a chest lid. Also on the walls and floor of a pit. Some creatures even cover missiles with yellow mold to fire at enemies. Will often ignore disturbance from non-living creatures and is encouraged to grow within crypts and tombs for this reason. Any site with "Golden" in the name might actually refer to a profusion of yellow mold. "The walls, floor, and ceiling of the great central chamber are completely covered in gold!" *snicker*

Zombie: Excellent means of carrying growths of yellow mold, green slime, or other hazard. Some necromancers create their zombies specifically for this purpose.