Monday, December 31, 2007

The Best DMG Table. Fact.

I have just finished reading the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, and man is that thing chock full of stuff. So, for the benefit of those who may not have seen it (and given the organisation of that book that's probably all of you) I present the legendary AD&D Random Harlot Table!

01-10 Slovenly trull
11-25 Brazen strumpet
26-35 Cheap trollop
36-50 Typical streetwalker
51-65 Saucy tart
66-75 Wanton wench
76-85 Expensive doxy
86-90 Haughty courtesan
91-92 Aged madam
93-94 Wealthy procuress
95-98 Sly pimp
99-00 Rich panderer

N.B. All pimps are sly. There is no such thing as a non-sly pimp.

And remember - a harlot is 30% likely to know valuable information, 15% likely to make something up for money, and 20% likely to be a thief (or work with one). You've been warned!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Elves Go Crunch

After months upon months of 4th Edition teasers and cryptic half-truths, not to mention possibly outdated reveals from the new Races and Classes book, we finally have something concrete. As a kind of Christmas present, the Wizards website has posted up the Elf writeup from the 4e Player's Handbook - right here!

Elves have had a lot of subraces over the years, as an attempt to shoehorn all of their fantasy archetypes in. The new edition's solution to this is to have two elf races - the standard elf, which is your forest-dwelling archer, and the eladrin, which is the cultured master of arcane magic. It's the wood elf type that this write-up is about.

There is much about them that is still the same. Elves are still Medium-sized, they have low-light vision, they speak Elven and Common, and they are still pansy tree-huggers. Things have changed, too. For those who can't get past the inexplicable Arcane Lock that seems to surround the D&D Insider website, here are the relevant highlights:

* Elves now have an average height of 5'7" to 6'. This I like - elves in fantasy are most often derived from Tolkien, and this brings them much more in line with that vision. The short D&D elf isn't something I've ever seen played, and doesn't even factor into most of the official novels I've read.

* +2 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom. Presumably this means that races no longer suffer an ability score penalty. Boo - PCs can't be good at everything you know! The abilities chosen here are the correct ones, though. The new elf is a quick, alert dweller of the forest, which Dex and Wis complements nicely.

* Speed: 7 squares. They've dropped the movement in feet, which is fine if you're using miniatures, but it might be mildly problematic for those games that don't. Note that the standard movement for Medium characters in 3e is 6 squares - either the standard has gone up or elves are a little bit quicker than everyone else. I'm hoping for the latter.

* Skill Bonuses: +2 Nature, +2 Perception. Aha, so we get two skills confirmed. It looks as though Spot and Listen have been rolled together into Perception, which is nice. Some might miss being able to stat out a character with good eyesight and bad hearing, but a single Perception stat is better for game purposes, as it provides a mechanic for smell, touch and taste as well. The only thing I don't like is the skill name Nature. It could be the old Knowledge (nature), maybe with some Survival added in. Doesn't really grab me though.

* Automatic proficiency in shortbow and longbow. In 3e the elf also got longsword and rapier, but I like the change - it focuses the elf more on his archetypal role as an archer. I could easily see the sword proficiencies going to the eladrin.

* Wild Step: the ability to ignore difficult terrain when you shift. Ok, shift is new terminology. Current logic says that it's the new name for the 5-foot step. This will make elves a little more mobile in combat, but I can't see it coming into play a great deal. Still, judgment withheld until I see what the actual rules for a shift are.

* Elves grant non-elf allies within 5 squares a +1 Perception bonus. OK, this one I don't like. It's a totally gamist ability (unless PC parties now have some kind of a hive mind thing going on), and it's going to be repeatedly forgotten by myself and my group.

* SIDEBURNS! Yes, elves now grow sideburns. This is totally left-field, unless they mean those anime sideburns that hang down past a character's chin. Those I can see on an elf.

* Elves now age at the same rate as humans, stop aging at adulthood, and live a couple of centuries. A good change really, as it stops those debates about why the 100 year old elf only knows as much as the 20 year old human, and why there aren't any level 10,000 elves out there if they live so long. There'll be some campaigns majorly impacted by this one, but not mine - I house-ruled elves back to living for 500 years ages ago.

* The penultimate reveal is the starting racial power, Elven Accuracy. I'll paste the whole thing in full below:

Elf Racial Power

With an instant of focus, you take careful aim at your foe and strike with the legendary accuracy of the elves.
Free Action
Effect: Reroll an attack roll. Use the second roll, even if it's lower.

Nice. One thing I'm liking about 4e is that the power write-ups are dead simple. The power isn't all that strong, either, though it seems like it will be useful at all levels. I like it.

* Finally, we get to see a racial feat, which I'll quote below:

Elven Precision [Elf]

Prerequisites: Elf, elven accuracy racial power, heroic tier
Benefit: When you use the elven accuracy power, you gain a +2 bonus to the new attack roll.

Ah, that's a thing of beauty that is. Simple and useful, which is exactly how I like my feats.

So what's missing? What does the new elf lack that the old elf had? Well there's the immunity to sleep and resistance to charm that's been a staple since the very first days, but I suspect those abilities might get shifted to the eladrin, or provided as a racial feat. Favored class appears to have gone as well, but that was a given with the rumoured overhaul that multiclassing is getting. That's pretty much it!

Overall, I really like the new writeup. This the first 4e reveal in quite some time that has raised my optimism. I don't like everything, but I can see the sense behind all of these changes. And I love the simplicity of the abilities. 3e spent so much time trying to account for every possibility that it sometimes got very convoluted in the reading. Not so here! So chalk this up as a positive for the 4th Edition - it might just win me over yet.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Play Report: Treasure of the Shrouded One

My group played a decent session on Sunday, fraught with some unexpected twists and events, not all of them pleasant!

The first of these involved the real world, and the laptop on which I transport all of my game notes. It's about ten years old, and runs on Windows 95, but it has been serving my D&D needs well for the last year. So of course it chose the worst moment, about 5 minutes before we were due to game, to irrevocably die. My adventure notes were trapped within, and I was left with the prospect of winging a 3rd Edition game from memory.

I used to make sessions up on the fly occasionally, but I'd never done it with 3e before - quite frankly the complexity of the system made such an endeavour quite frightening to me. Luckily I had my maps on hand, and I'd studied the relevant notes the night before, so things went surprisingly well. It was something of a revelation for me - 3e is as easy to play on the fly as the previous editions. I'd been scared off by all the numbers, but I know now more than ever that most of them (especially those in the statblocks) are utterly extraneous. If an orc shows up, you just need an Attack Bonus, hit points, Armor Class and saving throws. The rest is window-dressing (unless you play a far less hack-and-slash campaign than myself).

Before I start talking about the game's specifics, I should give a basic run-down of my campaign world, The Darkened Land. The setup is that a few hundred years ago the forces of evil won, and the resident sun god was killed and dismembered. So the land is stuck in an eternal night, prowled by dark and dangerous creatures, and peopled by scattered settlements that struggle to survive. The PCs operate out of Bastion, an ancient fort that sits atop a tall pillar some hundred feet in the air. Bastion is under threat by an approaching army of orcs, and the PCs are hunting around for ways to stop them. They've had quite a few adventures, some of them official (notably the Sunless Citadel module and Gorgoldand's Gauntlet from Dungeon Magazine) but mostly my own stuff, and they've managed to obtain a piece of the scattered sun god - The Hand of the Light. Their current goal is to finish exploring the caverns below Bastion, as well as investigate a temple a few hours to the southeast.

The party for this game was Jah (a human rogue 4), Elrohir (an elf fighter/wizard 2/2), Gordred (a human ranger 5) and Qwan (a human fighter 4). The caverns below were their first destination, as they had almost cleared them out in the last session - drow were the main enemies there, as well as some forward scouts for the orc army. The orcs were now gone, but the PCs found the main encampment of drow - some 50 to 100 in all. The leader, Azanoth, they had met before as a lone scout investigating rumours of the sun being gone. Now they spoke with him again at a severe disadvantage, though they did learn his goal - to find the Hand of the Light. The PCs had it in their possession, but a few Bluff checks made sure that Azanoth didn't figure that out. Even so, he wasn't about to let them go without payment of some kind, and he called up one of his wizards to detect magic on the party. The elf took this the wrong way and uttered the immortal words that can ruin any campaign - "Arrow to the face!" The drow wizard got his detect off first, but it didn't help his 1st-level self survive the arrow. Then it was a mad scramble back to the surface, the PCs pursued by a mass of really pissed off drow. Everyone had the same base speed, so I fudged a system based on Fortitude saves to simulate fatigue - not advantageous to the drow with their elven stamina, and they only got off a single crossbow shot at a straggling character. One thing D&D has never had is a good mechanic to simulate chases, and I really hope that one gets included with 4th Edition.

Having riled up the drow elves below, the guys pretty much wrote off those caves and decided to explore the temple. They had some minor interaction with their nemesis in Bastion before leaving, a hunter named Elmyr. I had to create this guy on the fly during the campaign's first session, and for some reason the PCs took an instant dislike to him, even going so far as to poison him with mushrooms. Naturally, I've set him up as a chief antagonist ever since, and this was the session where he was finally going to do something.

So the PCs took off to the Temple, and found it to be consecrated to The Void, my campaign's god of death and entropy. Before they could enter they were ambushed by a bear (Elmyr's animal companion of course!) and a winged figure firing flaming arrows from above. Much to my surprise they made very short work of the bear - it had a lot of hit points, but these characters have a surprising capacity for dealing out damage. The mystery archer flew away after that, causing much consternation and confusion, and the belief that maybe the drow were after them already! (I love PC paranoia.)

The temple was pretty standard stuff on my part - a few monsters (gargoyles), and some things that would prove nasty if the party investigated them, such as a vacuous grimoire. The gargoyles were made short work of, and the grimoire was the only thing the PCs really bothered to check - the elf ended up 1 Intelligence and 2 Wisdom points lower, wracked with the belief that minions of the Void were constantly stalking him just out of the corner of his vision. Not only that, but the poor guy had been carrying around a cursed sword since the last session, and it chose the fight with the gargoyles to make him start using it. The poor guy couldn't catch a break for the whole game, though he probably brought it upon himself by almost causing a TPK with the drow.

The gargoyle fight also saw the appearance of a masked figure, who stood watching the fight for a few rounds before firing a crossbow bolt at a PC then running away. Who could it be? (No prizes for the correct guess...)

The caves below were a bit more interesting. A fight with some ghouls and a ghast left the elf paralysed (and before you say anything, elves aren't immune to a ghast's touch), and about one round from being thrown into an iron maiden. He was saved, but as I said, that guy copped the brunt of all the bad stuff in the game. Maybe it's just because I hate elves? Anyway, the paralyzation was a blessing in disguise - the other PCs grabbed his cursed sword and threw it into a patch of green slime on the first level, and it melted into oblivion. (I have no idea what the correct ruling was here, so I reverted to my Golden Rule - when in doubt, favour the PCs. Unless they're being stupid.)

Further into the caves was a series of twisty, turny passageways, all alike. I took a leaf from Keep on the Borderlands, and gave the tunnels a disorienting effect - the party leader had to make a Will save, or the party would take a random direction without realising it. Needless to say that caused a lot of consternation to the party mapper, and his frustration was a joy to behold. The party were lost, until they eventually stumbled across an ochre jelly. During the fight the thief tried to flee, and the others all saw him try to go one way then strangely veer off another. At this point I relented and let them overcome the effect - I'd already confused them enough, and the potential for having them wander around blindly for hours didn't sound like much fun.

So eventually the PCs navigated the tunnels and came to the final room - the treasure room of course! Inside a glass case was a magnificent jewelled statue of The Void. Money isn't of much use in the Darkened Land, to be honest, but there are civilized lands to the north that the PCs can buy their way into, and that's where I'm hoping the campaign eventually leads. Besides the treasure there was a Shadow Mastiff bound in a circle of salt. So the PCs broke the glass, releasing a gust of wind that blew the salt away and released the hound.

I wasn't expecting this to be a tough fight, but it was actually pretty surprising. The Mastiff used its bay, and the PCs rolled really badly on their saves - three of the four ended up panicked, fleeing for their lives into the tunnels. This left the rogue (a glaive-wielding rogue mind you!) alone, though he did manage to kill the beast. There was some consternation when the masked man reappeared though. The thief thought he would be killed, but instead the man absconded with the statue - though not before dramatically lowering his mask to reveal who had bested the PCs: Elmyr! To be honest, the players were not surprised all that much. The Mastiff was done away with, Elmyr escaped (with the aid of his bat-winged, flame-arrow shooting mistress) and the PCs made their way back to Bastion hoping to expose their antagonist!

It was a good session, and we had some fun. I tried a few new things out, such as making the PCs map things themselves. I like the extra frustrations that this can throw into the PCs plans, but I'm not sure it's worth the effort - it slows things down, and I felt like I was focusing too much on room dimensions as opposed to descriptions. I also paid a lot more attention to light sources, and what the characters could actually see - this I liked a lot. I've always described the entire room regardless of size, but describing just what's within torchlight gives a real sense of the unknown and uncertainty, and I'll be trying to keep it going in future dungeon adventures.

I also discovered that I hate the way concealment works in 3rd Edition. The miss chance is annoying for PCs, especially when they roll a natural 20 and yet still don't hit. I'm hoping that 4th Edition radically retools this mechanic.

Lastly, the lack of healing in this party is truly irritating. After the gargoyle fight the ranger was low on hit points, so the party decided to return to Bastion to get healed - half a day's journey each way to heal one PC! I tried to jog their adventurous spirit with a volley of flaming arrows from above, but it didn't deter them from heading back to base. I initially hated the purported 4th Edition ability that gives every class some healing abilities, but I'm coming around to the idea.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Edition War

Come on, you knew it was coming eventually. Since this blog is still in its initial stages, I'm getting all of the old chestnuts out of the way. This way you'll know where I'm coming from when I hit some more obscure topics.

D&D has had a lot of different editions. I haven't played them all, and I haven't even read them all, but that doesn't stop me having an opinion on them all. And so, onward, in no particular order.


The current incarnation of the rules. What began as a love affair with these rules has slowly but surely turned into a kind of struggle to the death. It's the same story that I've heard from many gamers. When the previews started trickling out in Dragon Magazine, I was getting more and more stoked. Every single change that was being announced sounded logical and exciting, and let's face it - D&D at the time really needed a new edition. Once I bought the books it was even better - it felt like exactly the game that I had always wanted. And so we started playing, and so we had fun. We still are, to be honest. But it's seven years on, and I still can't get the hang of DMing this game - it's far too rules-intensive, and the prep-time is staggering if you don't want to take short-cuts. I think the main problem is that my group only plays once every few months. 3rd Edition is absolutely THE WORST version of D&D for casual gamers. There's far too much stuff on the character sheet for guys who don't want to memorise a rulebook, and there are far too many irrelevant statistics for me to DM the thing as well as I would like. If you enjoy creating characters whose abilities and rules reflect your character concept, 3e is awesome. If you want a game that plays fast and is simple to learn, it's a nightmare.


I've actually never played this edition of the game, but I'm reading the core rulebooks at the moment. The first thing that strikes me is that they are really poorly organised. It's no wonder that so many groups house-ruled this game to within an inch of its life - it's easier to make a rule up than actually find it in the books. I'm not really sold on the writing style, either. I love the way Gary Gygax writes modules, but when it comes to rules he needs to tone things down a bit. They ought to be clear, concise, and easily understood, but with Gygax's florid prose they are overly convoluted and obscured. And yet... There's a certain indefinable something about them. Perhaps it's the authoritarian tone that permeates the whole thing, but it really does feel like D&D As It Was Meant To Be Played. It's lively, and a bit dangerous, more daring than any edition since. I'm planning on running a by-the-book AD&D campaign at some point, though see below - I have other fish to fry before that!


Ah, the great temptation of my misspent youth! 2e was my D&D, and in many ways it always will be. Note that I never got sucked into the really bad parts of this edition - the endless torrent of splatbooks and settings passed me by, mainly because I was in my early teens and had no money, and no nearby hobby shop stocking them even if I had. We stuck to the core books, and the game stayed fun. There's a lot of hate out there for 2e, and I can understand why - the character is gone. So many of the little touches that made 1e feel a bit eerie and weird were gone. It's like the life had been sucked out of it. I think a big part of this is seen in where the two editions drew their influences. 1e was drawn from Tolkien and Conan, from Fritz Leiber, from Michael Moorcock and HP Lovecraft and a ton of others. Looking over the 2e books now, the main influences seem to come from D&D itself - notably the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels. The game was basically the same, but without the devils and demons, the half-orcs and assassins, it really wasn't. Not that I knew this at the time, of course. And even so, the edition has its merits. It's far more playable than 1e, for instance - the organization is a major improvement. The rule are clearer and more concise. But you know what? It's just plain cooler to have your paladin smite a devil than a baatezu.

Dungeons & Dragons - Moldvay/Cook version

D&D's alternate game line, far more simple and streamlined than its advanced counterpart. This is another version of the game that I've never played, but it looks like a cracker. I have a growing appreciation for non-Advanced D&D - it's a great game that boils D&D down to its purest essence, cutting away the rules dross so that you can focus on whacking orcs in the face with your axe. This version feels like AD&D's quirkier cousin. It still has that weird vibe, but without the authoritarian writing style it comes across as much more of an anything-goes romp of a game. It just looks like a hell of a lot of fun, to be honest, but I don't know if I could convince my 3e-loving players to play a game with so few options in character creation. It's a shame, really.

Dungeons & Dragons - Mentzer version

This was my introduction to the game, and role-playing in general, and let me reiterate - there's nothing better out there for this purpose. It's the same material as the Moldvay version, but specifically designed to walk the reader through things step by step, as simply as possible. Admittedly the baby-steps style could turn off older gamers, but as a 10-year-old it really got the hooks in me. In many ways it's like 2e AD&D was to 1e - a safer version of the previous edition. It's hard to pinpoint why, but I think it could be the switch in art from Erol Otus to Larry Elmore. I love them both, but Otus lives and breathes Weird Fantasy, while Elmore is the epitome of Dragonlance style 'D&D Fantasy'. They're worlds apart.
At this point I ought to mention the Rules Cyclopedia, which I've never played and only briefly paged through. It looks to me like a wrong turn for the D&D line, adding in too many complications. D&D was supposed to be the simplified alternative to AD&D - it loses that when you start piling more rules in.

Dungeons & Dragons - Gygax version

This is the original version of the game, three pamphlets in a woodgrain box. It's obscure, it's contradictory, it's incomplete, and dear god I love it. Everything that makes D&D what it is is already here, in a rough and unfocused form so lacking in professional design that it can only have been a labour of love. I'll be talking about this version of the game in more detail soon, but suffice it to say that I want to run it ASAP.


In brief - not the game I want D&D to become. A lot of the changes sound great from a gameplay perspective, and I will give it a chance when it comes out, but as far as I'm concerned 3e took things as far away from the original game as you could without making it something else entirely. I was looking for a game that took those same rules and refocussed them into a faster game, especially on the DMing side of things. Sadly, 4e won't be that game - but more on that as things progress!

So that's it - the many faces of D&D, and how I love them (or not, as the case may be). The plan for this blog for the moment involves a few things. Firstly I'll be reacting to 4e news whenever that beast rears its head. I'm also planning to delve back into the game's beginnings, reading TSR's D&D releases in order and commenting upon them - that promises to be fun! I'll also be reporting on my own play experiences, because everyone loves to spout off about their own games. Until next time, then!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Save or Die: An Introduction

Welcome to the first installment of Save or Die!, a blog devoted to Dungeons and Dragons in all of its myriad permutations and incarnations. My name is Nathan, and quite obviously I'm the man who'll be writing this thing every few days or so.

Over the next few weeks I have a lot of topics lined up, and with the semi-recent announcement of a new edition of the game I have plenty of content fodder. Aside from that I'll be talking about what I liked about the older editions, what I hated about them, and pretty much anything else related to the Great Game.

I suppose the first thing I ought to do is talk about my D&D background. I started playing in 1989 at the age of 10, after receiving the Basic D&D Boxed Set in all of its glory. You know the one - red box, Larry Elmore art, solo adventure where Bargle kills The Hot Cleric. My Nanna bought it for my birthday, and I must say she seemed a bit miffed that it only had a couple of books and some dice inside - I think she was expecting some kind of lavish board or something. Personally I was spellbound: it was just like the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks I loved so much, only you could play it in a group! Finally, my friends and I could stop whacking each other with sticks while we pretended to be orcs. (We didn't stop, but that's another story entirely.)

I have to stop for a moment to sing the praises of the Basic D&D Boxed Set, as written by Frank Mentzer. It is without a doubt the best product for introducing youngsters to the game. I taught myself how to play, and I'd be pretty impressed if a ten-year-old could do that with the current rules.

Anyway, fast-forward to the beginning of school, and I'd managed to rope my three friends into playing through my dungeon. One of them had played a fair bit already with his older brothers, and we were all obsessed with Fighting Fantasy and the Forgotten Realms, so the basic D&D tropes were all pretty embedded in our minds. I was the Dungeon Master, but I was itching to play as well, so I created a Dwarf named Duergar. (I'd read Streams of Silver by this point, and I filched the name. My sole moment of creativity with this character was to have him wield a sword instead of the stereotypically required axe or a hammer.) I can't remember what characters my friends had, but I do remember that they gamely ventured into my dungeon, and made a good show of slaughtering their way through Level One (of Three).

As for the dungeon itself, I remember few details. There was a goblin city on Level One, and the king wielded a sword that could fire lightning bolts. Even at that early stage I had my Rat Bastard DM hat on, because I had the sense to make the weapon melt after the King was killed. I remember the trap on Level 2, where the floor of an empty room would ascend to crush anyone still inside against the ceiling. I remember it well, because it claimed my first ever character! The first of many Save or Dies... And then on Level 3 was the White Dragon, which quickly used its breath weapon to blast the intrepid 1st level party into oblivion.

Despite our unsuccessful first adventure, we had a great time, and D&D quickly became an obsession. We graduated from D&D to Advanced D&D, just shortly after 2nd Edition was released. Our group remained steady for a good 8 years, and we all managed to get characters in the vicinity of 20th level. To tell the truth, though, we weren't really playing AD&D at all - we were playing a mix of D&D rules with AD&D races, classes and spells; the version of D&D that just about every group I met at the time had developed. Sometimes I was DM, but most of the time it was one of the others, and we never had what could accurately be titled a compaign. Most importantly, we always had a good time, except when we didn't.

After high school ended that group stopped gaming together, but I pulled together a new bunch of guys with myself as the regular DM in a full-blown homebrew campaign world. We started with 2nd Edition, and migrated to 3rd when those rules came out. I'm still playing with that group, though not as regularly as I would like, and I'm still the DM, even though I'm burning out on the current edition. But more on that in later installments.

So that's me, and a small taste of my experiences with the game. It's been nearly 19 years, and I still love the game in all its forms. Hopefully I can convey that in my blog, and provide an entertaining reading experience. Feel free to comment, whether it's to praise me, to suggest topics, to praise me, to offer money, or to tell me I completely suck (but please don't do that on Mondays).

Welcome to SAVE OR DIE!