Friday, August 20, 2010

Teaching the Game: August Blog Carnival

The new blog carnival for this month involves teaching the game to newcomers.

Joe, over at Greyhawk Grognard, advocates a set of quick start, introductory rules to teach new folks how to play the game. I can't say as I disagree entirely. I think there is a decided dearth of introductory type products in the world of RPG gaming, and it's a real shame that there aren't more, especially in an age when the most "modern" set of rules reads like a Sony manual and requires a great deal of player skill and comprehension to even function on a basic level. Even the introductory type rules WOTC handed out in their Keep on the Shadowfell product were not terribly well explained and were inadequate to explain the concepts that weere at play. Of course, it doesn't always have to be that way, especially since the original TSR D&D Basic set was, as I recall, something on the order of 50 pages of text and included just about everything you needed in order to play the game in perpetuity (yes, assuming you never advanced beyond level 3, but seriously now, give the book some credit) including a rather excellent module that further taught the designated victim . . . er, DM, how to run a campaign for his players. And it all started with character creation, after a very brief "what is role playing" schpiel that we jaded grognards skip over out of hand nowadays.

My quarell, though, is that this entire approach relies first upon there being enough interest in the person's mind to even pick the product off the shelf in the first place (or in the age when the Brick and Mortar Stores are slowly dying off in favor of and direct vendor buys, adding it to one's "shopping cart") and second, being willing to part with the cash to pay for it in the second. Granted, this entire topic is about how to teach somebody the game after they've expressed the interest, so those questions are somewhat moot. However, gaming society has become somewhat insular beyond even what it was originally and, let's face it, we can be rather off putting to the uninitiated.

Any way . . . I don't think a set of introductory rules is quite the right way to go here. Handing somebody a book and saying "here, read this and you're all set, and by the way maybe you should choose an edition now . . ." really isn't welcoming or inclusive. It's akin to handing somebody homework and then asking them to come back next week and speak Shibolleth.

Instead, I think that the best way to teach somebody how to play is, and will remain, handing them a character sheet (most groups I game in tend to have a collection of NPC's hanging around, or the sheet of a PC who's player isn't on hand just for this purpose) and pointing out the first few things they'll need to know immediately (character name and class, race, hit points, armor class, and weapons and gear) and then sit them next to a more experienced player and just have them follow along. Don't demand an action from them, ask them what they want the character to do, and then show them how to do it (pick up a D20 and tell them to roll it and see the result). Don't hand them a host of rules in advance, introduce them to the rules slowly as they are required. It breaks that learning curve and lets the new person participate immediately in the game rather than having to cram the arcana of a rules set into their brains. They came to play, not study, so help them play in a hands on manner.

Of course, this all relies upon the presence of a group willing to help them learn rather than somebody alone teaching themselves, but I'd be willing to bet that many, if not most, of us learned at the feet of a more experienced gamer to begin with, and still do from time to time.

H.P. Lovecraft's Birthday

It is, as noted, HP Lovecraft's Birthday.

While I'm certainly not the biggest Lovecraft fan, I've been on someting of a kick for the Cthulhu Mythos the last few weeks, and even went over to the HP Lovecraft Historical Society and picked up a sweatshirt for the Esoteric Order of Dagon and the boxed set of Dark Adventures Radio Theater and plan on enjoying them entirely tonight. As a little bit of celebration, take the time today to read through a story and ponder the horrors that lurk just beyond sight.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

New Monster: The Slender Man

Inspired by the "mythical myth" created here: Something Awful Forums, a new monster for AD&D 2e.

Climate/Terrain: Any forested or wilderness area, typically new growth forests where the creature's nature lends it a level of natural camouflage.

Frequency: Very Rare (possibly unique)

Organization: Solitary (possibly unique)

Activity Cycle: Any

Diet: Carnivorous

Intelligence: Exceptionally - Genius

Treasure: Unknown

Alignment: Chaotic Evil

No. Appearing: 1

Armor Class: 3

Movement: 18, 18 (braciation), 12 (climb)

Hit Dice: 7

THAC0: 13

No. of Attacks: 2 claw or 1 bite (see below)

Damage per Attack: 1d8/1d8 (claw/claw), 1d10 (bite)

Special Attacks: Grapple, Bite/Chew, Surprise

Special Defenses: See below

Magic Resistance: 25%

Size: L (approx. 8')

Morale: Champion 16

The Slender Man is very rarely encountered, at least by those who live to repeat the tale, and is believed by some sages to be a unique and malignant entity lurking in the birch and aspen forests of Thylia. It appears as an impossibly thin and wasted humanoid figure standing approximately eight feet tall. When encountered within the forests (its preferred haunt), the creature imposes a -5 penalty to opponents' surprise rolls as from a distance, it is nearly impossible to distinguish from the trees around it. Once it has attacked, though, this benefit is lost as its victims know what to look for.

When combat is joined, most resemblance to humanoid beings is lost as it is revealed that the Slender Man has many tentacles (2-3' long) along the back of its arms and legs permitting it to climb even vertical, virtually smooth surfaces and allows the creature to swing from branch to branch as if it were a mockery of some great ape.

It strikes using two great hands that are, like its frame, impossibly elongated and terrifying and end in sharp, hooked talons. If both claws successfully strike against an opponent in one round, that opponent will be grappled and drawn close to the Slender Man immediately for a bite attack. Once grappled, a victim can only escape by rolling a successfull bend bars/lift gates roll and only has a 50% chance of having and arm free to utilize small weapons against the Slender Man (no medium or large weapons can be used when grappled). While grappling, the Slender Man will continue to chew and drain the blood from his victim for normal bite damage each round and will attempt to flee simultaneously with his victim. It is considered to have STR 19 with regards to encumbrance.

The Slender Man takes only 1 point of damage from piercing type attacks because its thin frame is so difficult to target. Likewise, bludgeoning weapons inflict only half damage. Slashing weapons inflict normal damage while swords of sharpness and vorpal type weaons inflict double damage in addition to all other effects of such weapons. The Slender Man will immediately flee from these types of weapons, but will attempt to slay their bearers by stealth, bearing a specific hatred for them.

Furthermore, the Slender Man is strongly resistant to magic.

It is unclear if there is only one of these creatures, or if there are many, but they have been a part of folklore and terror stories for many years in rural areas and are frequent bogeymen used to frighten children and keep them from wandering into the woods. They are never seen in more heavily urbanized regions and tend to stay towards the fringes of civilization. It is unknown if any of them collect treasure or valuables.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Guaging Interest in North NJ for AD&D 2nd Edition

I'm posting here to see what interest there is in getting together a new 2nd edition AD&D game in North New Jersey (along the I80 corridor mostly).

Currently, I'm pondering weekly play, probably on a weeknight, starting at Mighty Titan Games on Rt 10, and possibly moving to my house in the spare room.

Game would either take place in the Kingdoms of Kalamar or within my own homebrew Thylia (yes, I know I've not posted much about it here, but that's mostly because of long work hours and it having recently undergone a fundamental redesign).

Let me know either in comments here, or in email.

The Thylian Ranger

*note: image presneted here without permission from Serrated Soul.

The Ranger underwent some odd, and annoying, changes between incarnations, not just between the AD&D and D20 versions, but between AD&D 1ed and 2ed. I suppose if I were unkind, I could attribute the change between AD&D editions to that execrable character Drizz't and legions upon legions of fanboys who wanted a character just like him, but that's probably more than a little unkind and out of order. Still, hard to deny.

In the Gary's PHB, rangers were stout men and women who went into the wild "kicking ass and taking names" to be blunt, and were particularly effective in clearing out humanoids and giants, pushing the wilderness back from civilization and protecting civilians from Nature. Essentially, the Chuck Norris of the AD&D world. If you crossed him, the ranger would hunt you down no matter where you went using his awesome tracking abilities and take you apart piece by piece. On top of that, when he reached higher levels, he developed a following of contacts throughout the wilderness and world (for that is what they were originally, contacts not just hangers on).

By the time 2nd edition rolled around and Drizzlemania was in full swing and the Forgotten Realms became the all purpose dumping ground and universal setting for all TSR product, the ranger, if you'll excuse my cynicism, was a sissified and hippified version of himself. Gone was the damage bonus against giant class monsters and in its place we have . . . favored enemy? Ok, I get the concept that gives us the option of a ranger choosing his foe based on what happens to be plaguing the region he hails form, but seriously, the ability is effectively useless by about 4th level. Fifth if we're being generous. So our ranger has been castrated, and it seems that the designers realized this, so they handed him the ability to fight with two weapons at once without penalty. I have yet, after all my years of gaming, to figure out what dual wielding weapons has to do at all with being a ranger other than hopping onto the fan wave of immitating the aforementioned drow. An army of them, in fact.

It doesn't end there, though. The followers list was torn apart and they were turned into tagalongs and pets. It also seems that the focus of the class shifted from a man protecting civilization from nature and the horrors of the wild, to a man who just didn't like cities and so took up a life in the forest to be left alone. Now, rather than gaining some proficiency in magical and druidic spells as added survival tools, the ranger is confined to plant based clerical spells. A tree hugging hippie. Ugh

It's not all bad, really. I do like that the tracking ability was changed to a non-weapon proficiency in which the class is the only one not taking a massive penalty. That, to me, is a significant enough improvement to not entirely discount the class whole cloth.

The less said about what happened to the ranger in third edition the better. Suffice to say I'm still confused by the idiocy that went into the willful misinterpretation of the word "Ranger" to mean "he who attacks with a ranged weapon" and yet still somehow manages to dual wield scimitars pointlessly.

Instead, for my game (assuming I can generate the time and players interested), I plan on merging Gary Gygax's ranger with the 2nd edition ranger. The 2nd edition ranger will serve as the platform, the architecture so to speak. Dual wielding weapons and "favored enemy" will be chicked out summarily and replaced with the damage bonus form the 1st edition ranger. Moving silently and hiding in shadows will be handled per 2nd edition PHB, or perhaps mocking up a system similar to how thieves function (assigning percentage boosts each level).

The followers list in the 2nd edition PHB will be chucked in favor of the 1st edition followers list, and instead of having followers show up at 9th level in a lump, followers will be spread out across levels, showing up periodically according to their abilities. A wolf follower might show up early on at 2nd or 3rd level, while human followers would show up a little after that, and a dragon or other powerful fantastic creatures might not appear until well after. And further, the ranger would have to "earn" his followers. They aren't added class benefits, they're as much NPC's as the mayor of the local village and need to be treated as such.

I want the ranger, in Thylia, to be taken back to its roots with a little mechanical update for the AD&D 2nd edition and to toss out the foolishness that seems to be inbred into the class in later generations.

Wierd Roleplaying Lands in New Jersey!

Late on Wednesday night, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Wierd Role Playing boxed set arrived on my doorstep. I proceeded to spend most of the night reading through it and much regretted having to go to the office the next day. I must say that I'm impressed by this game. Raggi continues to improve his craft and set a high bar for the OSR in general: showing us all "how it's done" so to speak.

At first glance, the boxed set is just a bit overwhelming. The artwork is, simply put, astonishing. We're all familiar with the box cover and I'm sure that every single one of us will look at it and agree that it is a spectacular bit of work. But I'd like to take the time to put in a good word for the interior art as well: evocative, inspiring, and, if I may say so, not just a little fundamentally unsettling in some places (a certain bearded and distorted faced warrior image comes to mind here). On top of all of that, the books have terrific "hand feel." In my hands, they feel of equal quality with my old copy of the White Box sitting nearby, perhaps even superior in some aspects. The box and books are built to withstand the rigors of play.

We all know the contents of the box by now. Come on, let's all say it together. First out of the box is an introductory slip with something that every game should have, a very quick, concise definition of the contents and style of the game, though for the record, I would like to see that on the back cover, too, since the box presumably comes to the store sealed. It's also a bit of a quick instruction manual on how to proceed through the remainder of the contents and the now somewhat infamous disclaimer about male pronoun exclusivity. I find the warning about occult activity, mental abberation, and deviant behavior amusing and if I ever can get my act together, I'd ask James permission to copy it into any product I can put together myself. Perhaps it can become another in joke of the OSR, which I think desperately needs one.

Next out of the box is the Tutorial book. Disclaimer: this is the only bit of art in the box that I actually don't care for. The three figures across the top are just a little intrusive and don't strike the right vibe for me as I get it from the game. THey look more like the BECMI style ADVENTURE! type figures than the strange and wierd that the rest of the game gives off, though that little monster on the left is flat out odd. If it were me, and it wasn't, I'd have felt that the bottom image of the mob of peasants marching, pitchforks and torches in hand, to the castle gates was more than sufficient and evocative of the great Hammer Horror flicks of their day.

Anyway, I give the inclusion of a tutorial high marks, especially in a boxed set that purports to be a complete game. It's a mistake on our collective part to assume that anybody picking up the product is already a gamer and knows what it's all about if not the specific rules in play. It fosters a type of cliquism and continuity lockout that is problematic and obnoxious and discourages new adopters from attempting the game on their own. This tutorial artfully averts that tendancy that neckbeards have and takes the part of a kindly and patient referee walking a new player step by step through their first game (in this case, a haunted house) with quick instructions "on the ground" of how the basics work. The only issue I have with the tutorial is that it does go on longer than it should, but that seems to be because of the inclusion of an introductory, single person module there and an extended play example. This is fine, and I honestly don't see a way that it could have been done without compromising the step by step nature of the tutorial, I feel that some of the material there could have been pulled out into another booklet. One last note about the tutorial, I'm pleased to see a nice little glossary of important terms on the back in easy reach.

Next up is the Rules book with the titular Flame Princess I presume on the cover. Here we have what one would expect to find in the player's handbook. Character classes, in the style of the Basic game so long ago, the Cleric, Magic User, Fighter, Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf, and a Specialist (a renamed Thief). The classes are described completely with a refreshing brevity that is utterly lacking in today's published gaming supplements. It's excellent to find a comprehensive description of, well, anything that clocks in at under a full page of block text nowadays. The fact that the majority of character creation is completed within the first 17 pages of the book is no mean feat. Moving further, I find a surprisingly comprehensive equiment list containing in addition to classics such as the 50' rope, chalk, and shovel, some oddities like soap and manacles. What adventurer before has worried about his hygene? Or, for that matter, a pair of manacles? It speaks volumes in only to line items in a list in my opinion. There are, in addition, lists for weapons and armor, animals, vehicles, and basic services and an encumbrance system based rather than on weight like most others, on items. I find that last an interesting choice that shifts focus away from micromanaging weight distributions in the party to a systemized exercise in common sense. Rather than jiggering around with pounds to cram one more thing into the pack, it's simply a matter of counting items and moving on.

The rest of the Rules book contains, naturally, most of the rules a player would be expected to need to play the game. Swimming, climging, mapping, getting lost, healing, languages, movement, maritime adventure rules, rules for hiring retainers, rules for property and finance, and, finally on page 40, rules for combat. It's fascinating to me that the combat rules, which oftentimes are the first rules discussed after character creation, are quite literally the last rules presented in this game. It's obvious that combat, while important, is not the central focus of the game like certain other alliterative games out there. What's even better in my mind, is that the combat "chapter" is only six full pages, one of which is a full page illustration, and it covers as much as the AD&D books covered in significantly more page realestate. Again, that long lost art of brevity and concise writing coming to the fore again.

Digging further into the box, I come across the magic book. This is majorly, as one could divine from the title, a list of spells for both Magic Users and Clerics including the Turn Undead spell which is no longer an innate power of the cleric and a quick rundown of the rules on memorizing spells and research that most experienced players and referees will find themselves comfortable with. In fact, very little needs to be said about it since most of us will be able to walk through this book quickly and understand the vast majority of it.

And that, actually, is all one needs to play the game. All the rules (excepting monsters) have been covered and you're ready to start rolling characters and get moving if you're a player. But there's still a number of other books to pull out here. Next up is the Referee book with the serpent lady demon, a marilith without her swords. This, I make no qualms about it, is my absolute favorite book in the set. Without a doubt. Inside, you'll find no rules excepting for a few guidlines in the monster section, only frank and straightforward talk about how to run a game. Themes that run through the wierd role playing "world" such as science versus magic and mystery, horror versus the wierd. But better still are the meditations on how to construct an interesting adventure that captures the attention and imaginations of your players, treasure placement, maps, and how to build a larger environment and world than just the current explorations, how to build connections to the outside world. I'm immensly impressed by this tiny little booklet and how it manages to equal Gygax's own DMG in content and, in somme way, exceed it since it rises above merely a section of the rules intended for the referee. This is, very simply, the act of taking new referee's under your wing in text format. Kudos Mr. Raggi.

Next up, two adventures, one introductory and one exploratory. The "Tower of the Stargazer" is an excellent little introductory adventure based on the titular location and the players' explorations thereof. Classic and comforting and full of explanatory notes on not just how things function, but why they are there, it's as much an adventure as it is a tutorial for the referee in adventure structure. An excellent quality detachable cover with maps, a feature sorely lacking in most of the old school world, is a nice addition.

Where "Tower of the Stargazer" is a tutorial on adventure building, "Wierd New World" is the excercise portion of a referee's training. As is noted in the introduction, there is a lot of work to be done here to make the module work, and it's up to the local referee to do it. Expand the brief descriptions into a living and breating experience for his players and draw the links here that will draw them further into the wilderness and, eventually, to the pirates cave. This modules is a graduation ceremony for both sides of the screen. On the one side, the referee is ready to start building his own world and the campaign, and on the other, the players are ready to graduate beyond confined and comfortable little dungeon crawls and start making names for themselves.

The last booklet in the box is titled "Recommended Reading" and it's Raggi's own personal Appendix N. If anything, it is a great list of inspirations from which James himself has drawn, and which individual referee's can garner ideas as well. It's also a nice touch that the individual authors are not just listed, but extensively commented upon and guidance given to the uninitiated.

The rest of the box contents include a few character sheets and some graph paper for mapping, a tiny little pencil and an adorably tiny bag of dice that, while to any experience gamer are virtually superfluous, to a new player would be indispensible and certainly go a long way to creating a complete game in a box.

I only have two small issues here. First, I want the box to be slightly larger. I have this strange urge to fit all of my LOtFP books into it, and they just won't fit without overly stressing the box. Yes, it's nice to open up the box and find it surprisingly full, but I would like to have the option to store all of these products together in a single container to carry with me to games. This is a minor and, likely, nonsensicle complaint as it would be easy enough for me to just grab a larger box to put them all in, but still.

My second problem, and slightly more serious, is with the magic book. All the spells are, on the one hand, completely familiar to experienced gamers, and that's a plus on some level. However, it is siumtaneously a problem for me. They're all familiar and workmanlike and none of them, in my estimation, really earns the title of "wierd." In the description of magic users back in the rules book, we're told that they taint their souls bit by bit for power, but I'm just not seeing that here. Yes, I understand that there are the alignment restrictions, but that's just one thing. I know, I should be making that rule up myself if I want it here, but this is something that could have been a spectacular addition to the vancian magic system to complement the themes of the game.

Overall, I think that Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Wierd Fantasy Role Playing is, as a product, a spectacular success and I honestly hope that the first printing sells out entirely and a new printing is worked. I wish all the success that the author has earned. There will be a love hate relationship with this game, though. New school gamers (those inducted into the hobby with D20 versions of the game) will love the themes and ideas here, but will gnash their teeth and tear their shirts because it's not "intuitive" or "complete" or whatever it is these youngin's complain about today.

The oldest and crustiest of grognards, on the other hand, will wail and shout about how its not just like the old boxed sets and that it's bait and switch and that they were tricked by its presentation as a boxed set.

Meanwhile, if you take the box on its own terms, you'll see it for what it is: a truly excellent example of minimalist game design and a wonderful exercise in atmosphere and creation.

Full marks and my sincerest congratulations and thanks to Mr. Raggi. Most excellent, sir.