The competition for my time and attention (and money) grows fierce as indie publishers and amateur authors continue to push out better books than the big names in RPGs. We are in the middle of an RPG golden age. I found it particularly challenging this year to narrow down the list of books I wanted to call out, and harder still to pick the three for that most special of distinctions.
This award exists in contrast to the Ennies, the RPG scene’s Teen Choice Awards. The Ennies are lovely, i’m sure, but they are very much a product of letting a bunch of randoms vote on what’s good. Sometimes they pick what you like and you think, “man, these awards are great.” Sometimes they pick something you’ve never heard of and you think, “what is even the point of this thing?”1
To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. So the books below are all from 2016. (Remember 2016? All the famous people died and Americans elected Trump for their president.) That’s basically the only rule.
Jeremy Duncan was tasked with finishing up the art for a book originally done by Gwar’s David Brokie. That’s no easy feat. Brokie’s cover is amazing, but Duncan’s interior art ratchets everything Brokie was doing up to 11. I had previously described the art as “bright, colourful, messy, detailed, crude, psychedelic, cartoonish, gory and intense,” and reviewing the book today I feel the same way. It’s so vibrant and unique. I just picked a random image from the book for this blog post. I could have grabbed any. They are all so totally nuts.
This felt like a quiet release for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It was stretch goal for another adventure James Raggi published, No Salvation for Witches. While I liked NSWF just fine, I loved World of the Lost more in every way. It seems a shame it hasn’t garnered more attention and praise. World of the Lost is such a well engineered hex crawl. The book is so well organized. The layout is fantastic. Everything about the book is in service of a really interesting and evocative setting. It’s full of useful random tables and generators. Running an adventure from this book is easy. This is such a solid release it’s a shame its print run was so small.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2016: Patrick Stuart & Zak Smith for Maze of the Blue Medusa
I thought picking Maze of the Blue Medusa for this award would be easier than it turned out to be. There were so many great books in 2016. World of the Lost and Towers Two were both out before Maze of the Blue Medusa and both captivating in their own way. By the end of the year there were several more books that stood out, most notably Broodmother Sky Fortress. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
I love Maze of the Blue Medusa. The writing from Patrick is excellent. Like his other works it feels like a mix of game text and post-modern fiction. You can read Maze of the Blue Medusa and enjoy it as a book full of lovely writing, or use the book as it was intended to run a crazy adventure. The layout of Maze of the Blue Medusa is stellar.2 Everything about how the book has been put together is designed to help orient the dungeon master in the dungeon. Zak’s map that brought the project to fruition is beautiful, and the art of the map is scattered throughout the book. Finally, the book itself feeds into my love of a well made book. Satyr Press made the nicest book I bought in 2016. Easily. Maze of the Blue Medusa is everything I love about RPGs in one place.
Wait—what’s the point of this thing? Patrick’s won something 3 years in a row now. (I actually made an off hand remark about this very situation occurring last year.) We’re half way though 2017 and Veins of the Earth has come and gone, which made picking this years awards tougher. I can see into this award’s future: I can’t imagine not Veins not making my short list next year. That made me second guess my picking Maze of the Blue Medusa for awards this year. There is likely something structurally problematic in how I construct my long list. I’m always going to buy Patrick’s new book: I love what he does. So, he’s always guaranteed a spot in my long list. (Well, until he starts writing dreck.) I pick up all of LotFP’s adventures for the same reason, so they are overrepresented in my long list and have a better chance of making it to my short list. Should I penalize people for making good books, though? As I said last year, every scene needs their Daniel Day Lewis. In 2016 I picked up a lot of games from people i’ve never heard of, for systems I would have never played, so it’s not like i’m knee deep in the same people’s work, but this is still something to keep in mind. At the end of the day this award will always simply be a reflection of what I like. I mean, I named them after myself. ↩
I still think the rooms are a bit too wordy, but you can’t praise someone for their prose and then complain there is too much of it. ↩
Ennies voting has come and gone. What are these books even? As is often the case I find their picks lacking—in other words I don’t recognize them. The Ennies are the Teen Choice awards of the RPG scene.
What follows are my favourite books of 2015. To qualify for contention your book must have been purchased by myself in 2015 (and ideally published in that year as well, but I honestly don’t give that many fucks about that). Winners were chosen all by myself, based on my feelings about gaming at this moment in time.1 As you read on you might say to yourself, “Ram: these categories are totally different than last years!” Yeah, they are. If you want consistent award categories the Ennies have you covered.
Yoon-Suin: The Purple Lands takes Vornheim’s approach to world building—copious random tables—to an extreme. Rather than describe Yoon-Suin David McGrogan shows the reader how to create their own version of his world. The setting itself is comprised of several regions, each interesting and unique in their own right. Yoon-Suin could have been 4 or 5 books, but instead it is a single epic tome. The scope and vision of the book is incredible, and is as unique as the world it describes.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Matthew Adams and the wonderful art he has provided for the book. One of the few complaints I have with the work is that there isn’t more art from Adams.)
The Perilous Wilds is Dungeon World crossed with all sorts of OSR inspiration. I love hex crawls and wilderness exploration in my D&D. This book is a nice focused look at the subject, coming at the topic from a completely different direction than i’m used to.
There is a fair bit of Basic / Expert D&D in the tone and feel of the book, and also in how the book has been laid out. B/X was very smart when it comes to presenting information, and was seemingly ignored as a design to copy. Well, people copy the trade dress while missing what actually makes it compelling. Perilous Journey’s isn’t so foolish. Almost everything in the book is a tidy spread. It’s a pleasure to flip through and use. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful in a fast improvisational game.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2015: Scrap Princess and Patrick Stuart for Fire on the Velvet Horizon
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is unlike any other D&D book I’ve read or seen. It is a monster book without stats, a coffee table book you can use in your D&D game, some sort of new-wave fiction. Stuart’s writing is captivating and thoroughly weird. Each of the pages in the book, produced by hand by Scrap, is a piece of art. There are some stand out examples of her “she’s just scribbling god damn it!” style. Seeing so much of her art in one place, and stuff in colour, it really nice. As I’ve said before, there is nothing else like her artwork.
This book is such a great example of two people following their own artistic vision without letting anyone else get in their way. Fire on the Velvet Horizon has the airs of something art-house, but once you dig in it is clear it was written with an eye to towards the gaming table. The book is thoroughly uncompromising in every way.2
This blog post has been a draft for months now. I knew fairly early on what books I wanted to call out, but it has been agonizing trying to pick one book over another for the big award. That said, in my heart I probably knew who the winners were the moment I read their book. One of the biggest reasons this was a hard choice was that Patrick won an award last year and I was worried these awards were just going to be “Ramanan’s annual blog post where he tells Patrick he’s awesome.” And now the mother fucker wrote Maze of the Blue Medusa so I am already stressed for 2017—pressure is on everyone else. Still, you should win if you are doing good work. Every scene needs their Daniel Day-Lewis. ↩
Including how small they were willing to typeset the text. ↩
I want to limit myself to calling out three books a year. Maybe that’s dumb, but I think focus is good. I hope people don’t think my Honourable Mentions are also rans. These are all really stand out books in my mind. ↩
Every year the Ennie’s come and go and I have no idea what half the games are about or how they even got nominated in the first please let alone win an award. Well no, I do know: these awards aren’t for me. The Ennies are a reflection of what people on EN World are into: stuff i’m not interested in. The Ennies feel like the Teen Choice awards of the RPG scene.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming on the other hand are the sort of recognition a game publishers should feel proud to put on their CV. To that end, here are my picks for the best books of 2014, a half year late because why not. Winners were picked by myself, based on my mood this summer day. To qualify for contention your book must have been purchased by myself in 2014—I don’t give a shit when it was published.
Deep Carbon Observatory was by far the most affecting game book I read in 2014. The writing is beautiful, poetic and thoroughly unrelenting its bleakness. The fact it also happens to be a D&D adventure is a nice bonus.
The water of the river is ripe with life, over-full with predators and fish of every kind. Pike and strange pale squid flit to and fro. Cuttlefish can barely be seen; camouflage flows across their pigmented skin like paint.
Upriver, in the distance, rises a column of smoke or grey cloud. The only other signs to mark the sky are carrion birds. Columns of their moving forms make black signals in the grey air, sketching spirals over the accumulated dead.
That’s how you paint a scene! And that’s just random text from a random page. The whole adventure is full of that.
This book feels new, different, and completely unique. It is so much more than a simple module.
That’s what i’m fucking talking about. That this book wasn’t up for a best art Ennie is why I am even writing this post.
Jez Gordon’s illustrations for Death Frost Doom are so completely on point, a perfect companion to the writing in the book. His stark high contrast black and white illustrations have been featured in a few books now, but the style really comes together in Death Frost Doom. The art capture the mood of the module perfectly.
I have written at length about A Red and Pleasant Land so I won’t repeat myself here. This book was several years in the making and it shows. No one involved half assed anything. This book is 100% whole-assing. This is how you do it, people. (Jez Gordon should get some more recognition for the fantastic layout work he did on the book.)
Everything about the book is on point: great writing, great art, great layout, and even the god damn book as a real live thing is great. It’s one of the nicest books I own period, never mind gaming books.
I’m curious to see if anything coming out in 2015 can knock this book of its throne. Your arm’s too short to box with God.
I’ve had to start making dungeons for my players to explore. Unsurprisingly, that’s something that comes up with some frequency in a game called Dungeons and Dragons. There is lots of advice on this topic from people much smarter than myself, which I now collect conveniently in one place for your edification as well as mine.
Dungeon Design and Stocking - with examples! — Gus from Dungeon of Signs has a very thorough post outlining how he makes dungeons in a “naturalistic” way. He tries to imagine how the dungeon might end up in the state it is in when the players show up. He isn’t a big fan of funhouse dungeons and an over reliance on randomly stocking things.
Map Design Thoughts — Gus, being the hardest working man in the OSR, also has a blog post taking a look at how he approaches creating maps for his games in the first place. The discussion about map size and complexity as a form of time management is interesting.
Nitty Gritty of Dungeon Design — Patrick Wentmore, author of ASE, has a very mechanical approach to dungeon design, that feels like an interesting contrast to Gus’s approach.
Random Dungeon Stocking — Related to the above, Delta provides a good overview of the random stocking rules from the various editions of D&D.
Megadungeon Practices - Dreams of the Lich house gives a good overview of the things to consider when building a megadungeon you expect to be the main source for adventure in your game.
I do things like Patrick Wentmore. I have a little program that spits out what should be in each room using the rules from the Moldvay basic book. I’ll then try and think up what each “monster”, “monster + treasure”, etc might be. I’ll sometimes shuffle things around, or place important monsters or treasure ignoring the suggestions from the random rolls. Oftentimes it is fun trying to figure out how things might fit together, what the unguarded treasure might be, etc.
No doubt there are countless more posts on this topic out there. What do you suggest someone look at for inspiration or ideas?
Rolling 3d6 to randomly determine a characters weight is probably a stupid idea. No doubt Gary Gygax included a realistic table to figure this stuff out in the 1e DMG, which I should have used instead. So it came to pass that my character in Nick’s Dungeon Moon game weighs 60 lbs. That’s pretty small. I figured my LotFP specialist would be a 10 year old chimney sweep turned adventurer. In the next session of our game the character hired a retainer. I wanted to hire a torchbearer so my character could carry a bow and arrow around, like a lost boy. I decided the person he hired would be his babysitter.
Tasked with taking care of their young stewards, babysitters are a strange breed of adventurer. Many a child has gone off in pursuit of treasure and danger, followed into the mythic underworld by their attentive babysitter. Often torchbearers and porters, the babysitter is the unsung hero of many an epic poem.
The prime requisite for a babysitter is Wisdom. They receive a 5% bonus to earned experience points if they have a wisdom score of 13-15, and a 10% bonus if they have a score of 16+.
RESTRICTIONS: Babysitters use six-sided dice (d6) to determine their hit points. They may wear nothing more protective than leather armour, and may not use a shield. They may use blunt weapons only. Saving Throws and XP progression as a Thief.
SPECIAL ABILITIES: Babysitters are hard to surprise, and so begin the game with a +1 bonus to avoid being surprised. Babysitters have a +2 to all reaction rolls. This value increases by +1 every 3 levels versus humanoids, to a maximum of +4. They ignore any penalties they may have for having a low Charisma score when making reaction rolls. Babysitters have a 2 in 6 chance of finding hidden doors and passages and in picking locks. These values increases by +1 every 4 levels.
Just another attempt for a very minimalist D&D set of rules. Please playtest and critize. — snorri, Aug 23, 2009
Searchers of the Unknown is a role-playing game whose rules fit on a single piece of paper. I’m not really sure what the pedigree of such minimalist rule sets is, but Searchers of the Unknown probably wasn’t the first of this breed of game based on its tag line: “Another minimal way to play D&D”. That said, it seems to be the most popular. It has spawned its own sub-genre of “Searchers” minimal D&D games. The original announcement thread on ODD74 collects some of them, such as MUTANT SCAVENGERS of the RUINED EARTH, Witches of N’Kai, Re-Searchers of the Unknown, etc. What’s interesting is that the thread has chugged along for the last 4 years. Though most of the activity came in the months following the initial posting, every so often someone would jump in to share some new mini-D&D development. This week someone posted Call to Adventure, which looks to be another interesting take on a minimalist D&D game. If you find most versions of D&D too overwhelming, these minimal games might be your cup of tea.
Update 2013-09-19: Shortly after posting this I was tipped off to Lurkers of Carcosa, which are minimalist rules for play a game set in Carcosa. That Carcosa setting book basically suggests you through away lots of the basic rules to D&D, so it lends itself well to this sort of minimalist game.
Random Wizard has written a couple interesting posts about player choice in Dungeons and Dragons that are well worth a read: Shades of the Quantum Ogre, Two-headed Quantum Ogre, and Shaving the Quantum Ogre. The Quantum Ogre was a term I had never encountered till I started reading gaming blogs. People who think very hard about games—and why shouldn’t they!—use the term to describe the following scenario, more or less: players are presented a fork in the road; they can go left or right; regardless of which path they take they’re going to fight an ogre. In this situation the agency of the players is an illusion: why even bother with the fork in the road? For a lot of people the appeal of D&D comes from the open ended nature of the game. It’s quite easy to make the argument that the Quantum Ogre is bad (and such arguments have been made quite well countless times). At the very least, it seems like a waste of time to pretend to offer up choice when there is none.
Ultimately, one needs to optimize for fun when it comes to playing games. Increased player agency might be one way to do so, but it’s not the only way. Does it matter if this ogre battle was predetermined if it was awesome? I’m not so sure.
Updated 2013-06-25: Random Wizard wrote an additional post on this topic.
I printed out and bound the Vancian Magic supplement from Gorgonsmilk. I find all the folding and sewing relaxing. The book seems like it is actually a little bit too big to work as a saddle-stitched booklet. Maybe i’m just not good at making them. At 90-odd pages its a pretty meaty supplement. The book collects 2 stories by Jack Vance, 4 articles about magic in D&D by Gary Gygax, and a re-imagined Vancian spell list for D&D.
I had never read anything by Jack Vance before. I found the two short stories presented here really quite good. Vance produces a very evocative world in just a few pages. Both stories contain plenty of examples of the bizarre version of magic one finds in D&D: wizards can memorize a handful of spells, which they can cast just once before they are forgotten until they are memorized again. The stories definitely increased my appreciation of the magic system used in D&D.1 Previously it felt both arbitrary and not particularly fantastical.
The articles by Gygax are all great picks. Gygax explains why he went with Jack Vance as his source for magic in D&D. Briefly, Vancian Magic lends itself well to balanced and fun game play. One of the articles is from 1980 and discusses magic in AD&D. It’s full on Gygax raging against people doing it wrong DMG style and its fantastic.
Finally we get to the re-imagined D&D spell lists by Shadrac MQ. The spells have great names and really imaginative effects.
This supplement is free, features art from Moebius, and collects some great writing: why haven’t you grabbed it already?
The stories both contain footnotes with commentary about how the fiction relates back to D&D: a good idea poorly executed. Most of the footnotes offer up obvious insight or simply repeat what you just read. Anyway, it’s a small gripe: the footnotes are small. ↩
I’ve updated my Random Character Generator to spit out a table of characters in one go: Random NPCs. My assumption is that a list of random NPCs with stats and basic descriptions could come in handy. If anything, you can use it to quickly generate a bar fight.
A quick tip: you can add a number to the end of the npcs URL to generate that many NPCs. (It currently caps out at 1000.)
I’m thinking of running a Dark Sun game using the Original Dungeons and Dragons rules at some point. As such, I wanted to figure out a simpler set of rules of psionics. I thought a good first step would be to settle on rules for wild talents–people who have some small psychic ability. I wanted about half the population to have a wild talent. It turns out that if you ask a random character to roll under their random wisdom score, they’ll succeed about half the time. I wanted a set of powers that weren’t overly powerful, but still interesting enough to be used in a game. I’m curious to hear what people think.
Player’s should roll under their Wisdom score to determine if their character has a wild psionic talent. If they fail the roll the character has no wild talent; if they succeed, the amount they succeed by determines their wild talent as follows:
Know Direction - The character knows which way is North.
Far Hearing - For one turn the character hears all sounds within 50’ as if they were being whispered directly into their ear. The character may choose what sounds to focus on.
Far Seeing - For one turn the character may view a scene up to 50’ away as if they were right there. They may see through walls and other obstacles, but not through lead.
Thought Projection - The character may communicate a brief message mentally with a creature up to 50’ away. The target understands the character, even if they share no common language.
Object Projection - The character may teleport a small object in their possession up to 50’ away.
Telekinetic Grasp - For one turn the character may manipulate small objects from up to 50’ away.
Spark - The character may ignite any flammable object within 50’ of them. (The “heat” this power generates is no greater than that of a candle.)
Levitate - For 1 turn, the character can float above the ground (up to 10’).
Minor ESP: For 1 turn the character may read the mind of another creature. (The character understand the creature even if they share no common language.)
Cell Adjustment - The character regains up to 1d3 lost hit points. (This increases to 1d6 at level 3, 1d8 at level 6, 1d10 at level 9 and 1d12 at level 12.) The character may make a Save vs. Poison to cure themselves of any non-magical disease.
“Invisiblity”: For 1 turn the character can completely hide his presence from up to one sentient creature per level. The target may make a Save vs. Magic to resist the character’s power.
Id Insituation: All sentient characters, friend or foe, within 25’ of the character feel an uncontrollable urge to eat, murder or fornicate.
Psychic Distress: All sentient characters, friend or foe, within 25’ of the character are immobilized for 1 turn.
Minor Mind Control: For 1 turn, the character may manipulate the target into doing whatever the character wants. The target will have no memory of any events that transpire while under this mind control. The target my make a Save vs. Magic to resist the mind control.
Minor Precognition: The character may re-roll any saving throw.
Psionic Defence - Once per day per level, the character may make a Save vs. Magic to avoid the effects of any psionic power that targets them. (This is in addition to any saving throws the power may allow for.)
Psionic Immunity: The character can not be the target of any psionic power.
The Haitian: no character within 10’ of the character, friend or foe, may use their psionic powers. The character also gains Psionic Immunity.
A character may use their psionic power once per day. (Psionic Immunity and The Haitian are exceptions here: they are always active.)
If you feel like you aren’t getting enough Final Fantasy in your D&D, Hack & Slash has you covered with this new class for your D&D games, the Blue Mage. Now you can play Gau from FF VI along side Celes.
I was thinking the next little web application I was going to build would be something for managing notes for a hex crawl.
One problem with the way they are published now is that you need to flip all over the place because hexes are usually listed in columns. If your players are in Hex 0101 information about Hex 0201 is going to be further away than information about Hex 0116, which seems silly. With a website you could view your hex crawl as a series of 3 x 3 grids, the hex you are on being the centre. Clicking on one of the adjacent hexes would bring up a new 3 x 3 grid with information about the new hexes the players could now move into. This would probably give you a better sense of what’s happening around a hex than the way most books present things. With a web page you could even display a big grid of all the hexes and information about each one. You could scroll around on the page to see what’s up.
The PDF version of Carcosa does a pretty good job of linking to anything and everything it can within its hex descriptions. This is something you can do quite easily with a web page. More so, you could have this cross reference information be generated automatically based on the description the user types in.
As players move around they’re going to effect the world they are wandering around in. You could track these notes and changes, updating your hex crawl as you go. You could track what the players have done, and what your NPCs are doing as well. You could see a history of what’s happened in any hex, which could be handy.
I’m curious if anyone else has thought about this stuff? Is there other stuff about running a hex crawl that could benefit from the power of modern computing?
Continuing my series of great D&D blogs, may I suggest the consistently good Dungeon of Signs by Gustie1. It’s hard to pick any one thing to highlight, so I’ll point out the most recent post about his demon infested ocean liner megadungeon the HMS APOLLYON. The post is a good mix of great writing, art, and creativity that is more or less the staple of each and every post on his site. Why are you still reading this? Go!
I now play D&D with him weekly, so this review isn’t completely unbiased: though I thought the blog was pretty great before we had ever met. ↩
Last June I emailed my cousin, asking him if he could draw me a banner for this website. He can draw, and I can’t. And so I patiently waited. The old banner for this site was an image by Earl Norem. I love He-Man more than most anything, but it was very much a place holder for an image I new was on the way. Yesterday night I got an email saying he had finished drawing my banner. Now it’s time to write some blog posts.
The first module for Geoffrey McKinney’s new imprint Psychedelic Fantasies is Beneath the Ruins by Alex Fotinakes. The module describes the first level of the vast ruins of Kihago. One might describe the dungeon as “gonzo”: there are laser pistols and weird science, mutant men, and yeast monsters.
The dungeon is divided into three main zones. Two of the zones are controlled by warring factions: the Luminites, who worship ancient alien technology and believe nothing exists outside of the dungeon, and the Tribe of Yrtuk, mutant men who have lived in Kihago for centuries. The third zone of the dungeon is a no man’s land, both tribes considering it too dangerous to explore. There are two optional sub-levels that can be used if you want to run the module as a self-contained unit. The author also recommends using the dungeons as the first level of a large complex. The booklet concludes with a handful of new monsters and stats for lasers guns.
The module is 16 pages long, printed as a long skinny booklet. This is a really great format for an adventure. (Though, I think it would have worked well as a two-column digest sized booklet as well.) The cover contains the map and is detachable. Each page holds a fair amount of information. Room descriptions are short enough I could imagine running the adventure with almost no prep. The type is a bit small, but I don’t think its hard to read. Some thought has clearly gone into the layout of the booklet. Room descriptions rarely cross pages–I found one exception, and here the break is clear as it happens mid-sentence. When a monster appears in a room its stat blocks is separated from the room description making it easy to pick out which rooms have monsters. All in all its clear this module is meant for your gaming table.
Beneath the Ruins is probably one of the better modules I’ve purchased recently. It’s also incredibly cheap. You should check it out.
Since starting this blog the amount of D&D I’ve been playing has increased greatly. I continue to participate in the Encounters games held at Dueling Grounds. In addition to those games I’ve been playing a fair amount of old-school D&D: a weekly game run by Brendan of Untimately and occasional games run by James M of Grognardia and Reynaldo of Baroviania fame. After playing so much D&D recently I find the differences between the modern incarnation of D&D and its older editions are quite stark.
D&D Encounters is very much the pathological case of a 4th Edition game. Each session is distilled down to the core of 4th Edition: mostly combat with a tiny bit of role playing. For many people D&D Encounters is their first introduction to D&D. After playing in these games for several months now my feeling is that they teach bad gaming habits. Killing things is more or less the only option open to players to resolve conflicts. You might be able to avoid a fight, but there is a disincentive to do so because then you would probably end up with a very short game. Because each Encounters session needs to transition into the next there is also no room for exploration or change. You can’t take a session in a wild new direction. This isn’t true of 4th Edition, obviously, but is of D&D Encounters. I think a good DM can do a lot to keep the game interesting, but the structure of the adventures hinders a lot of creativity.
The Dwimmermount sessions I’ve participated in are actually similar in scope to the Encounters sessions. Dwimmermount offers a good alternative to running a pick up game. Each session is more or less a self contained unit of adventure: you begin on some level of the dungeon and end things back outside. There isn’t some overarching story that ties the Dwimmermount games together. The story is the exploration of the dungeon; the story is what you and the other players choose to make it. Each session can end in all sorts of strange ways because there is no need to lead into the next chapter of a particular adventure.
I’d love to see a D&D Encounters game that was just a dungeon crawl, but i’m not sure that will ever happen. The current structure lets people discuss the game they played in like they might a TV show. Everyone doing their own thing doesn’t facilitate that sort of conversation.
Combat is fast in the older editions of D&D. This is because it’s very abstract. My old-school D&D sessions often feel like they are full of accomplishment. In a few hours you can do a lot: lots of exploring, lots of fighting, lots of puzzles. 4th Edition is much more tactical and meticulous in its presentation of combat. An Encounters session is usually an hour and a half, give or take, and the bulk of that time is spent on a single fight.
I think most people would agree that faster combat is better, but the way 4th Edition handles combat is not without its merit. Because 4th Edition combat is far less abstract you can talk about that fight in a level of detail you don’t often get with older editions of D&D. Dungeon’s Master’s recaps of his Encounter’s sessions are usually quite long, despite the fact they are primarily a description of a fight, because the pieces that make up combat are quite expressive. You really feel the ups and downs of a fight in 4th Edition. In the last game I played we had a round where almost everyone was down, we were on the verge of a total party kill, only to manage a big come back big the next round. It was amazing.
I’m curious to see if the structure of the public play events Wizards of the Coast runs will change with the release of D&D Next. Combat in D&D next is much faster so adventures wouldn’t need to be modeled as a series of fights. They would presumably still be quite linear, but I suspect you could accomplish more per session than you do in the current Encounters program. There are rumours that the next Encounters game will be more varied in what happens week to week. We will have to wait and see.
I bought a copy of Isle of Dread from Dueling Grounds several weeks ago. (They have a good selection of overpriced beat up old modules and books.) My main reason for buying the book was to support the store, since they host the Encounters game I participate in. That said, I had been thinking about picking up this module for some time. Isle of Dread was the first Expert Edition D&D module put out by TSR–the infamous X1.
Isle of Dread is less an adventure in the traditional sense and more of a mini-campaign setting. There isn’t anything in particular the adventurers are tasked to do on the island. There is no real beginning or end to the module. The book simply describes a small island (full of dread). X1 opens with an overview of a small campaign world, featuring said island. This is then followed by a hex map of the Isle of Dread with keyed areas to aid a DM in running adventures on the island–what people refer to has a hex crawl.
The book is a good introduction to structuring and creating wilderness adventures. It was originally packaged with the expert edition box sets, which introduced these rules, so this makes sense.
The module describes a few hexes on the island, but much of them are left for the DM to populate–either through their own prep work or via random encounters. A small village exists for the PCs to set up shop within. The center of the island is detailed with another hex map. This area also features a more traditional dungeon, Taboo Island, which the PCs can explore in the hopes of treasure and glory. Even this set piece has been designed so it can be easily extended by a DM.
X1 is well worth getting if you are looking for a mini-campaign setting. There is enough stuff in the module that you could play games on the island for a good while. Modules can be instructive: they help teach by example, and provide insight into what sorts of adventures and experiences the game designers expect their customers to have. As a template for designing your own hex crawls X1 succeeds quite well. X1 shows that you don’t need an overwhelming amount of information to create a rich world for your players to destroy: all you need are some random tables and a little imagination.
When I started playing role-playing games 2nd Edition was the current iteration of D&D. Modules from this time could best be described as little novels your players could walk through. In many ways modules were an extension of the actual novels TSR was published to go along with their D&D campaign settings. At the time I wasn’t particularly interested in reading adventure modules, but my feelings have since changed. I’ve been reading lots of modules recently, sometimes with an eye to running a game, but more often than not simply to enjoy reading something about RPGs.
A month or so ago I wrote a small Python script to generate D&D characters. Making a character for the older editions of the game is fairly straightforward, the only part most people find slow is picking equipment. In D&D you start the game with 3d6 x 10 gold. With that starting gold you have to decide what to buy. For new players I think this can be intimidating. Brendan of Untimately posted a pretty great table for picking equipment randomly: he basically did the work of buying equipment for each possible starting gold value and class. Using that table you can spit out reasonable random characters that are good to go quite quickly. Over the weekend I took my basic script and turned it into a little web application.
Right now it only picks from the 4 human classes, but should otherwise work quite well. It can also generate characters using the 1974 “Little Brown Book” rules, or the rules taking Greyhawk into account. I would describe that support as “preliminary”. (If there are any obvious mistakes, please let me know.) When I have a bit more time, I plan to add support for letting you pick the class you want to play.
If you have any feedback about the applicaiton, please get in touch. Otherwise, enjoy.
I rolled up Maria, a Rune Knight from the Dark Capital, for Reynaldo’s Baroviania game a few days ago. Yesterday she got drafted for her first game, the 7th session of the campaign. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It seems like most sessions of Baroviania thus far have been kind of zany.
Things began, as they often do, in a tavern. Maria started the game with 80gp and I spent most of that on a sword and plate mail. Buying the plate was probably a poor decision, since my character doesn’t even own rations or rope or any of the tools of the adventuring trade. I just can’t help myself: the AC bonus for plate mail is insane. Wearing shiny new armour from the Dark Capital I figured she’d be sitting alone. Being so thoroughly broke I figured she’d just be nursing an almost empty drink or eating the fantasy equivalent of bar peanuts. Scattered around the bar was a frogling from the HMS Apollyon, a little gnome, and a battle princess. The gnome approached and offered my hobo of a character some food. And so an adventuring party was born.
This merry scene was disrupted when a person entered the tavern through the window. On the other side of some broken glass were three maids. My character decided the prudent course of action was to munch down as much food as she could before a fight got underway. There was no fight.
A sleep spell later and we had knocked out the person who went through the window, but none of his assailants. This wasn’t what we were going for. Somehow we managed to convince the maids the prudent course of action was to negotiate what to do with our prisoner, who we decided we had captured fair and square. In the end we agreed to hand the fellow over if they agreed to pay the bar for the broken window. (I think they might have been better negotiators than us.) We learned they worked for Sasha, a mover and shaker in Baroviania. We also figured out that they were probably some sort of golem because they were kind of creepy and robotic.1
We followed them as they left with the prisoner, who it turned out looked an awful lot like Wolverine.2 It became clear they were also being followed by another person. We met him when we both ended up outside Sasha’s giant tower. He was working for Sasha’s rival, Azalin, as was the person the dolls had captured. He had decided busting into the tower was too risky, and left to let his master know what was up.3 We were strongly considering busting into the tower, but cooler heads prevailed. You may be asking yourself why we trekked all the way here only to not go in: good question. Due diligence I suppose.
We ventured North to the Eyevalis woods. It was dark when we arrived and pretty spooky. We were about light some more torches and charge in, but decided exploring during the day would probably be smarter. Adventuring in the forest during the day was uneventful. We did find a stump of a tree that opened up into a dungeon of sorts, and that’s where we ventured next.
Our first encounter was with a group of small monsters. Rather than fight we once more tried to negotiate, and once more dice rolls were in our favour. We left the room they were guarding, which contained a statue what was clearly a petrified person, with no one worse for wear.4 Our second encounter involved freeing a prisoner we stumbled upon. His name was Cody, and he looked like he could fight a street fight. He may have thanked us. He definitely ran away very quickly.5 His jailer arrived shortly after, annoyed at the escape. We somehow managed to convince him we weren’t involved. We all exited the dungeon together. Above ground he ran off after the mystery prisoner. We were left to decide what to do next.
D&D is ostensibly a game about break and enters and ultra violence. The game incentivizes two tasks: killing monsters and getting gold. Later iterations of the game got rid of the second incentive, so they are much more combat centric, and still don’t really reward acting nice. This session was funny because we some how managed to avoid every opportunity for adventure and destruction. We didn’t fight the maids, nor the strange little gremlin creatures, despite both of them clearly acting like assholes. We didn’t venture into the dangerous tower or the dangerous forest at night because we decided that would stupid. Our gnome was the group’s pacifist, the battle princess our groups pragmatist. I don’t know if there would have been more violence or looting if we had one player, but not the other. The groups make up seemed perfectly suited for the sort of session we had.
All in all it was a fun time. I need to play again so I get a chance to use my plate mail.
I’ve revised the Rune Knight I wrote about earlier this month after getting some feedback on Google+ about the new class. Briefly, the goal here was to recreate the character Celes from Final Fantasy VI for use in Reynaldo’s D&D campaign world Baroviania. Whether by design or by accident, making your own class for his game seems to be the thing to do. The rune knight is a slightly re-skinned B/X D&D elf.
Rune knights are genetically enhanced warriors from the Dark Capital. They are artificially infused with magic, which grants them some magical ability. Their ties to the dark forces of the world leads others to regard them with suspicion and mistrust. Rune knights are often introverts and loners.
The prime requisites for a rune knight are Strength and Intelligence. They receive a 5% bonus to earned experience points if they have a 13 or more in both skills. They receive a 10% bonus to earned experience points if they have at least a 13 Strength and an Intelligence score of at least 16.
Rune knights progress in levels at the same rate as Elves. (In other words, slowly.) They share the same saving throws.
RESTRICTIONS: Rune knights gain 1D6 hit points per level. Rune knights gain all the advantages of fighters. They may use shields, can wear any type of armour, and may fight with any kind of weapon. A character must have an intelligence score of at least 9 to be a rune knight, and must have a charisma score of no more than 9.
SPECIAL ABILITIES: Rune Knights can cast spells using Rune Magic. A Rune Knight gains spells per level as an elf, and this is the exact number of spells the character knows. The character gains these spells as soon as they level-up, and may choose from any magic-user spell of the appropriate spell level. Rune Knights do not require spell components to cast any of their spells. The spells are a part of the character, infused into their very DNA. Rune Knights can not research new spells, create scrolls, or otherwise act as magic-users.
Rune Knights can dispel any magic cast in their vicinity using the Runic ability. After a magical spell or ability is used the player may declare they are using their Runic ability. They may only do so if they have not yet acted in the round. The Runic ability will replace the action the character had declared they would make. (So the character may only nullify one spell per round.) The character makes a Save vs. Magic: on success the spell or magical ability has no effect whatsoever, and the character gains 1 hit point for each level of the spell; on a fail the spell or ability proceeds as usual. Note: this ability is not a dispel magic spell. The character can’t disenchant a wand, but they could try and prevent the spell a wand casts from working; they can’t dispel a magical trap, but could try and stop any magic the trap itself casts; they can’t unlock a magically sealed door.
I wasn’t completely sure what my schedule this past weekend would be like: I knew I was quite busy. When I discovered OSRCon was a thing happening in Toronto I bought tickets anyway. Even if I couldn’t go it felt like a worthwhile event to support. I was hoping I’d be able to participate a little bit, at the very least. As it turns out I managed to do much more than I thought I would over the two days the event ran.
I arrived a bit late on the first day hoping to watch Ken St. Andre running a game of Tunnels and Trolls. I wasn’t signed up for any games, and I knew Ken’s game was full, so I didn’t feel like waking up early on my day off. I arrived a half hour after his game was set to start, but managed to avoid missing any of the action. As I settled into a chair away from the gaming table I realized Ken was still discussing the finer points of Tunnels and Trolls. He spoke at length about his game. He’s clearly very passionate about T&T, and happy to proselytize about it when given the chance. Brendan from Untimately had a similar idea as myself, showing up shortly after me planning to watch the game. Ken saw both of us just sitting there and offered to let us join in. Brendan took him up on his offer and picked a troll to play. When he had to duck out for lunch–which was more or less when the game got going–I took over the character. The adventure was interesting, even though we didn’t get too far into the “Dungeon of the Bear”. Our party had a series of misadventures trying to venture down into the dungeon itself. Failing is often as much fun as succeeding with role playing games. Ken is definitely an old-school DM, out to kill his players. (Or as he put it, out to create situations where the players kill themselves.) He is a certainly character, and I’m glad I got to meet him. It was an experience.1
In the afternoon I played a game of Labyrinth Lord run by a Carter Soles of The Lands of Ara, who had made the trip to Toronto from Rochester. I had to duck out early (the reason I hadn’t signed up for anything in the afternoon), but I did get to do a fair amount of adventuring before my departure. Our party was off to investigate a presumably haunted keep, and investigate we did. The thief I rolled up had 2 hit points, so he was a little bit of a coward. Sometimes 3d6 in order works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t. This character was all kinds of meek. You have to love basic D&D characters: they are the true everyman. I suppose that is part of the charm of playing basic D&D. Our first encounter was against some undead rats. When rats are a scary threat you know you’re playing old-school D&D.
My second day at OSRCon began with the only game I had actually signed up to play. James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame was running an Original D&D game, taking players through his megadungeon Dwimmermount. We actually managed to get through a fair amount of dungeon in a small amount of time. There was a lot of exploring and the occasional fight. I plan on doing a play report shortly. Suffice it to say I had a lot of fun.2
There was a panel discussion in the afternoon, featuring Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms fame, Ken St-Andre, Lawrence Whitaker from Runequest, and James from Grognardia. It was interesting hearing how these guys all ended up where they are today and their thoughts on writing and gaming. Ed Greenwood is particularly engaging. He explained that his professional writing career began by writing letters to Penthouse for $25 a pop. Apparently Dragon magazine paid $20 a pop for monsters and was more prompt in paying him. The rest is history. The talk probably would have worked better with a moderator leading the discussion and keeping people on point. The talk went a half hour or so longer than it was supposed to, and it felt like no one really knew when it was supposed to stop. Ed Greenwood and Ken St-Andre sitting next to each other discussing the game was definitely quite the scene, so I suppose we shouldn’t complain too much.
The day concluded with another round of games. Like the day before I had to leave early, so I elected to watch Ed Greenwood run a Forgotten Realms game. That guy is amazing. He puts the role in role-playing. I don’t think I’ve seen a DM quite so animated. He would literally act out the part of every NPC the players encountered–even the monsters that can’t actually talk. It was great to watch. I’m not sure how well i’d handle having to actually play in a game like that. He clearly approaches the game as shared story telling. Often I find I just want to kick in doors and kill goblins.
These last two days were the first time I had played basic D&D in a very long time, at least 15 odd years. I was surprised at just how much of the rules I had forgotten. Say what you will about 3rd and 4th edition, but they did a great job at rationalizing the game system. One success of those games is that you can more or less guess the mechanic needed to resolve any action. With basic D&D some situations call for a d6 roll, others 2d6, others a d20; sometimes you need to roll high, other times low. The game is simpler, but at the same time maybe not as simple as it could be. Of course, old-school D&D is simple in ways that that 3rd and 4th Edition don’t come close to competing in. I rolled up characters a few minutes before both the games I played in. If my characters died and I had to start again, I feel like I could have rolled up a character in a few minutes tops. These early games feel light and easy to get in to. 4th Edition feels needlessly complex with all its classes and options.
OSRCon was a lot of fun. I got to meet a bunch of fellow table top gaming enthusiasts and play a bunch of games. I don’t get to play that much D&D, so it was a nice change of pace.
I had backed the project to get them printed on Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’d ever want to run Dwimmermount myself, but I supported the project anyway as a thank you for writing such a great blog. I actually have copies of the levels of the dungeon we traveled through. I had avoided reading any of this material in the hope I would get a chance to actually go through the dungeon as a player. ↩
My favourite character from the game Final Fantasy 6 was Celes. The character was a warrior crossed with a magic user. Her special ability was called Runic: when used as an action it would negate the effect of the next spell cast in combat; Celes would gain hit points equal to the magic points the spell cost to cast. I could write pages and pages about how FF6 is the greatest game ever, and even more about the fact Celes is the best character in that game, but I won’t. You’ll just have to trust me.
I wanted to make a Rune Knight class for Reynaldo’s D&D campaign world Baroviania so I could play some variation of Celes in his game. I was originally thinking a Rune Knight would be some sort of cleric, but Reynaldo suggested I look at the elf from D&D. I always forget about the demi-humans in D&D. Elves are actually a pretty good fit for the class: a plate wearing magic user does sound like Celes.
Rune knights are genetically enhanced warriors from the Dark Capital. They are artificially infused with magic. This grants them the ability to cast spells like a wizard. Their ties to the dark forces of the world leads others to regard them with suspicion and mistrust. Rune knights are often introverts and loners.
The prime requisites for a rune knight are Strength and Intelligence. They receive a 5% bonus to earned experience points if they have a 13 or more in both skills. They receive a 10% bonus to earned experience points if they have at least a 13 Strength and an Intelligence score of at least 16.
Rune knights progress in levels at the same rate as Elves. (In other words, slowly.)
RESTRICTIONS: Rune knights gain 1D6 hit points per level. Rune knights gain all the advantages of both fighters and magic-users. They may use shields, can wear any type of armour, and may fight with any kind of weapon. They can also cast spells like a magic-user, and use the same spell list. A character must have an intelligence score of at least 9 to be a rune knight.
SPECIAL ABILITIES: Rune Knights can dispel any magic cast in their vicinity using the Runic ability.
As mentioned above, in FF6 Celes’ Runic ability dispels the next spell cast after it has been activated, regardless of its strength. An anti-magic ability like this in D&D seems quite powerful, though this is in some ways balanced out by the fact the ability must be used before a spell is cast (it’s preventative) and that most low-level D&D monsters don’t actually cast a lot of magic.
Option 1: One take on the Runic ability is to use the exact same mechanics from FF6, more or less. On a character’s turn they may declare they are using their Runic ability. Any magical spell or ability that is used before the characters next turn is immediately dispelled and has no effect whatsoever. The character gains 1 hit point for each level of the spell. The ability may only nullify one spell per round. The character may activate the ability again on their next turn.
Option 2: An alternative take would be to make the ability more useful in combat by making it reactive, at the cost of making it less reliable. After a magical spell or ability is used the player may declare they are using their Runic ability. They may only do so if they have not yet acted in the round. The Runic ability will replace the action the character had declared they would make. (So the character may only nullify one spell per round.) The character makes a Save vs. Magic: on success the spell or magical ability has no effect whatsoever, and the character gains 1 hit point for each level of the spell; on a fail the spell or ability proceeds as usual.
Another idea would be to make the player and the monster do some sort of opposed roll, rather than a save. You could also add critical success and failure results: on a critical fail (a roll of 1) the character takes 1 damage for each level of the spell, on a critical hit (a roll of 20) the spell is reflected back at the caster.
One thing I was thinking of doing was requiring a rune knights have charisma scores lower than 9, so they always have a negative reaction roll. That seems inline with how Celes is treated in FF6. I don’t think I’ve seen classes with maximum requirements on their ability scores, though. I also need to figure out how the character would fit in the actual game world.
If you have any thoughts about the class, let me know.
There are so many old D&D modules out there that sound a little bit interesting. I decided to write out exactly what older D&D modules and books I want. The goal here was to stop myself from spending money like an idiot on anything and everything I might stumble upon, but also have enough books to buy that I can spend money like an idiot. I don’t consider myself a collector of D&D books, but there is certainly some aspect of collecting at play in my behaviour. I also have a (bad) habit of buying more books than I could possibly hope to read in a reasonable amount of time. I wanted to pick a small set of old books and then forget any others exist.
In the end I decided to look for the following books:
D&D Basic Edition
D&D Expert Edition
B1 - In Search of the Unknown
B2 - Keep on the Borderlands
B4 - The Lost City
T1 - Village of Hommlet
I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City
D1,2 - Descent into the Depths of the Earth
D3 - Vault of the Drow
X1 - Isle of Dread
X2 - Castle Amber
I’ve picked up a few of these books already, finding them used on eBay and Amazon. I have a question for you: have I missed any obviously amazing D&D or AD&D 1e books?1
I have no interest whatsoever in anything from 3rd Edition. There is a part of me that wants to buy up all the 2nd Edition Dark Sun books, but for now that’s not something I plan to do. ↩
I have mixed feelings about the Dragonfoot forums. They are a pretty great resource for all things old-school D&D. On the other hand they are also filled with all the horribleness one finds in a forum of reasonable size. Still, I don’t think there is a better source for stuff like this: the “B1 - In Search of Unknown” index thread is full resources and reviews of the D&D module In Search of the Unknown. It’s probably got a link to anything of interest about that module.
I woke up the morning following the death of Osrik, my dwarf paladin, realizing the character had a power that would let him re-roll a missed hit when bloody. I’m not sure this would have turned the fight that cost the character his life, but it certainly would have helped. This got me thinking about 4th Edition and its pantheon of classes and powers a little bit more.
Playing–and killing–a few characters in 4th Edition will teach you that the combat mechanics of the game are important to grasp.1 With the Encounters game I participate in I had been playing characters whose abilities the official character builder picked for me. I found I spent the down time between my turns in a battle scanning my list of abilities, trying to pick the one that seemed most appropriate for the situation at hand. This is a sure fire recipe for death and destruction. It can also be kind of boring.
Looking around the table I could see that I was not the only one suffering from this problem. D&D is ostensibly a game where you can do anything you can imagine. That’s what makes it so much greater than a video game: the possibilities are endless. The way 4th Edition has been designed really discourages that sort of play. This is probably the biggest weakness with 4th Edition. When playing my Warlock in my regular 4th Edition game, I spend most of my turns in combat doing some permutation of: moving at least three squares to gain concealment; cursing my nearest enemy; casting an eldritch blast. No matter what the situation may be this is almost always my best choice of action.
The flip side to this is that the enumeration of all these classes and powers is 4th Edition’s biggest strength. You can quantify the challenge of a battle in a way you really can’t with any accuracy in earlier editions of the game. If you’re interested in tactical combat 4th Edition is really unrivalled when it comes to simulating a battle. I don’t think you could do something like Forth Core Death Matches with any of the older versions of D&D. I’m not getting the most enjoyment out of 4th Edition because I haven’t invested the time in learning what options my character has, and how they best work with those of my fellow adventurers. The question for any 4th Edition gamer is whether this is something they even want to do.2
People often compare 4th Edition D&D to a video game. Certainly Wizards of the Coast used a lot of modern video game language when describing character classes and the mechanics of the game, but I suspect that’s because that language is going to be most familiar to new D&D players. I think 4th Edition has more in common with Magic: The Gathering.3 You and your fellow adventures are working together to produce a winning mix of classes and powers–this seems analogous to deck building in Magic. The focus on game balance is a natural extension of this. Magic is a successful collectable card game because there is no one deck to rule them all. Wizards of the Coast seem to have taken what they learned making Magic and tried to apply that to D&D, with mixed results.
I’m curious to see if Wizards of the Coast, or the wider D&D community, do interesting things with 4th Edition once the 5th Edition of D&D has been released. I feel like there is a lot to 4th Edition, if you can get past the fact it’s not exactly the same as every version of D&D that proceeded it.
Some might say they are the only thing to grasp in 4th Edition. ↩
Wizards of the Coast even sell the various powers available for the various classes as packs of cards! ↩