Monday, December 15, 2008

More Gelatinous Cubage

So, my entrant in Bash Wars III, the mighty Gelatinous Cube, has defeated Megan Fox and eaten of her flesh. But round two looks to be more challenging, as he comes up against the Inanimate Carbon Rod. I would say that the Cube just rolls over the thing and absorbs it, but it appears as though the Rod has hidden reserves - because it's winning!

So if you've got a Livejournal account, please head over and vote for the Cube - the Cube needs your help!

EDIT: The Cube lost. The ultimate Bash Wars Champion was Count von Count.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vote for the Gelatinous Cube!

Bash Wars has come around for the third time, over at the Gore-Sports page. For those who don't know, every year this guy hosts a tournament where his Livejournal friendslist enters a character in a series of elimination fights to the death. People vote on the winner, the winner progresses, until there is one left to be crowned the Bash Wars champion.

In the first year, the winner was Brock Sampson from Venture Bros. I entered Unicron, who was inevitably defeated by Animal from the Muppets.

Last year I did not enter, and somehow lame doctor House won the whole thing.

This year I'm representing my D&D heritage by entering that most nonsensical, perfectly evolved dungeon predator - the Gelatinous Cube.

Due mostly to a lack of knowledge on the part of the guy running this show, the Cube has been seeded first. His round one opponent? Megan Fox.

Yeah, the hot chick from Transformers.

Things are looking good for the Cube at the moment - he's winning 37 votes to 27. But there's some stiff competition ahead. I don't like the Cube's prospects should he come up against Stephen Colbert, Count von Count, or The Inanimate Carbon Rod. But given the right match-ups, I think oldGelatinous can go far.

So if you've got a Livejournal account, please get along and vote for him! Represent for old-school D&D!

The link is here: BASH WARS III

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Twenty Iconic Monsters - Take 2

Ok, so I totally screwed up the list by forgetting to include any undead. Notre that I scribbled that list down in a couple of minutes without referencing the books - something was bound to slip through the cracks. But rather than edit the previous post to make myself look good, I'm going to have another go.

WHAT'S COMING OUT: The Chimera is out, leaving the Manticore as my sole representative of mythical beasts. I've reluctantly pulled the Wyvern as well - dragons fill that niche already. Black Pudding? Gone, since the Gelatinous Cube is way cooler (and more on him tomorrow). And sorry, Mr. Kuo-Toa - I love ya, but I need at least one demon.

ADDITIONS: The list needs some undead. In the interests of covering low, medium, and high levels, I wanted to put in Ghouls, Wraiths and Liches. I find Ghouls a lot more interesting than Zombies and Skeletons, and I needed Wraiths as the obligatory level-draining monster (with a cooler name than the Spectre). At the top it was a toss-up between Liches and Vampires, but Liches are much more of a D&D thing. But I can only fit two things here, so the Wraith is out.

I also need a Lycanthrope. In the interests of including the most D&D of the bunch, I went with the Wererat. It's not as iconic as the Werewolf, but it's another monster that you really only see in D&D and D&D-style fantasy.

Lastly, my token Demon or Devil. First I narrowed it down to a Demon, because I know them a lot better. Most people I know are also more familiar with them - they all know what a Balor or a Marilith or a Vrock is, but Cornugons, Gelugons, etc. they can't tell apart until you show them a picture. I'm going with the Balor, just for being the ultimate demon. If you want to have a bad guy summon one, it might as well be powerful.

So the updated list:





FIRE GIANT (Someone wanted to know why I picked this over the Frost Giant - I think that Fire Giants are a lot more versatile in terms of what terrains they can frequent.)















BALOR (or Type VI Demon if you prefer)

It's certainly a better list than the one I had jotted down previously. But if this experiment has taught me anything, it's that D&D has far too many cool monsters to condense down to a list of twenty.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Twenty Iconic Monsters

I got to thinking the other day about what I would do if I was ever asked to pare D&D's monster list down to twenty. No particular reason, I just thought it would be an interesting experiment. I didn't give it much thought, just banged out the first ones that came to mind. Here's the list.

ORC: Because D&D needs a 1 hit dice evil humanoid, and Orcs have more ties to fantasy literature than hobgoblins.

KOBOLD: They've become a D&D icon by now, and I do think that really weak monsters are useful.

GNOLL: Because I love them, and they're a D&D staple. And I just wanted a good range of humanoids in there.

OGRE: We need a big bruiser. It was a toss-up between this guy and the Hill Giant, but I went with the Ogre because I like the name better.

FIRE GIANT: I needed at least one type of giant on here, and I chose Fire Giants for coolness. I almost went with Cloud Giants for the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk factor, but in the end the Norse-inspired Fire Giants won out.

TROLL: How could D&D's rubbery, regenerating trolls not make the list? One of the first survival tips anyone will learn in D&D is this - use fire on Trolls.

DARK ELVES: Again, they're so intrinsically linked to D&D - they even have an entire series of classic modules centred around them! And probably D&D's most famous novel character is Drow as well.

MIND FLAYERS: Squid-headed brain-eaters? Check. One of Gary's finest creations, it's a shame he didn't do a great deal with them.

KUO-TOA: Because we need some amphibious/underwater foes. And which better than the Lovecraftian Kuo-Toa?

BEHOLDER: Is there a more iconic D&D monster? Any list that doesn't include these is wrong. Objectively.

PURPLE WORM: A gigantic worm that can swallow PCs whole, and an all-round fearsome monster.

DISPLACER BEAST: D&D classic "I'm hard to hit" monster.

RUST MONSTER: One of Gary's monsters specifically designed to screw with players, and the most recognisable - hey, it's been in Futurama!

CARRION CRAWLER: A great monster to use for a hard encounter for low-level PCs.

MANTICORE: I just think it looks cool, but it's a monster probably more famous through D&D than myth.

CHIMERA: Again, the same applies.

WYVERN: Dragons with scorpion tails are cool.

GELATINOUS CUBE: D&D's most iconic ooze - a square blob of jelly that is perfectly evolved to fit into dungeon corridors.

BLACK PUDDING: The other great ooze.

RED DRAGON: And last of all, but definitely not least, the most iconic of dragons. It was this guy or the green, but went with the fire breath.

So, did I miss anything? Let me know.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Come on... Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

In my many years of thinking about gaming (as opposed to actually gaming, but that's another rant) I have had a lot of ideas. Some good, some bad, some mind-bendingly awful. But several years ago, I had what may be the greatest idea in the history of man.

D&D - at the casino!

Okay, bear with me.

This is how it would work - the casino has its own sandbox setting, complete with wilderness and a megadungeon. Anyone who wants to play has to buy in - at, say, $100 an hour? It's hard to estimate how much to set this at without knowing how much gold the average PC is going to haul in.

So you pay your buy-in, and you send your character out to explore. Every gold piece you successfully bring back to town would be paid out as $1 in real life. And you can come back with the same character - starting out at 1st level your hauls might be meagre, and you might even lose money as you try to build up your guy. But as you get more powerful, you can take on stronger foes and haul in more loot - all at the increased risk of death, of course. And once that character is dead? It's gone unless you have a friend there who is willing to spend some of his winnings to raise you.

Of course the casino could fix such a game really easily - wandering encounter with Spectres on the first dungeon level! That's why this would have to be policed pretty strictly. Everything would have to be by the book, and all rolls would by necessity be in the open. Players would be able to call the DM on any ruling, and get a glimpse at the rules or notes to clarify what just happened. But as far as dungeon levels go, the official wandering monster charts would have to be adhered to, and set encounters would have to be reasonable to the dungeon level they are encountered on.

As for ruleset, it's tempting to go for 3rd Edition here, or even 4th - there's a lot to be said for the way they try to balance out monsters by Challenge Rating or experience point total. But this has to be a game that your average Joe Gambler might try out. So in the interests of simplicity and accessibility, it has to be Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert.

The only downside I see, besides bankrupting alegion of gamers, is that I would spend nearly all my time at the casino. But maybe, just maybe, I could then make a living out of playing D&D all day...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking Away the Numbers

It was high school lunch time, and as usual I showed up to the library's back room ready to game. We were starting new characters (AD&D 2nd Edition as we played at the time), so I figured most of the session would belong to character creation.

The DM was already there, so I sat down and got to rolling my stats.

"Don't worry about that," he said. "I've already done that for you."

Uh, pardon me? I thought. I'm all for DM authority, but surely if one part of the character creation process is sacrosanct, rolling your 3d6 for ability scores is it. Nevertheless, I sat there like a spineless jellyfish and accepted this violation, and the other guy playing did likewise.

"Just tell me what order you want them in, highest to lowest," he continued. I was all set on playing a ranger, so I went with Strength, Constitution, Wisdom, and whatever else those guys needed to qualify. The DM started assigning these numbers in secret, then he started talking. "Okay, you're really strong and healthy, and rather wise. Your intelligence is about average, as is your agility and hand-eye coordination. You don't have many friends, though - people don't like you for some reason."*

Okay. So I didn't know my stats. I knew I was a human ranger, and I was allowed to buy my own equipment, but as far as the concrete numbers and game mechanics went I had only vague descriptions to go on. Sort of like real life, I had a rough idea of how good I was at stuff.

So the other player and I ventured into the dungeon, and there was an actual genuine sense of fear and the unknown. We were pretty reckless hack-mongers in those days, as high-school students tend to be. So when the goblins showed up, we normally would have waded in and kicked ass. But a funny thing happened - without the security of knowing the math, we got cautious. My ranger refused to enter melee, and spent the entire battle keeping out of range and peppering the goblins with arrows. We treated combat like it was potentially deadly, not like a grand old bit of fun.

I can't remember the rest of the game (I'm betting that lunchtime ended and we never went back to it) but the experience has stayed with me. There was something really scary about not knowing the numbers. When you get hit by a spear and the DM tells you that you are "lightly wounded" what does that even mean? How many hit points do I have left? You don't know. You could have 1 hit point to begin with and feel as fit as a fiddle, and you'll never know that you'll be unconscious and dying the first time you get hit.

There's a lot to be said for this as a gaming experiment, but it's not going to work in all groups and all systems. I wouldn't want to try it with more than four players, and I certainly wouldn't want to apply it to rules heavy games like D&D 3e or 4e. 2e was about the right level of simplicity for the DM to manage it.

So if your players are getting a bit cocky, know everything in the Monster Manual, and don't treat their adventuring as a dangerous activity - try taking their character sheets away. There is security in knowing the math, and fear in uncertainty - take away the numbers and see what happens.

* My memory is vague, and I'm making this up. So if that description doesn't match the ability score requirements for a Ranger, it's only because I don't have a Player's Handbook in front of me.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On DM Notes, Character Death and Ad-Libbing

I've been listening to the Fear the Boot podcasts a lot lately, starting from the very beginning (because I always get into stuff late). They're entertaining and a lot of fun, but I find that I disagree with just about everything they have to say about role-playing games.

In one podcast they get into the topic of how many notes a DM ought to bring to the table. One guy (Chad) ad-libs everything with pretty much no notes at all, and another guy (Dan) has notes that are more like a brief outline. They also talk a lot about character death, and how it derails the 'story'. They even go so far as to fudge results so that characters don't die.

Now here's something I'll admit to straight up - my current campaign is story-driven. Since I started that game some four years ago I've re-examined many of my thoughts about RPGs and D&D especially. I think (at least on a theoretical level, because I haven't tested it in practice yet) that D&D is at its best when used as a sandbox game. That is to say, the DM creates a setting (be it dungeon, wilderness or city) with a wide scope for adventure, and the players drive that adventure in whatever way they see fit. The story is what happens during play, not what the DM comes up with in his head beforehand.

Needless to say, I'm not in favour of the DM fudging results so that characters can't die. For me, meaningful consequence are the primary reasons I prefer tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs and MMORPGs. When something happens to a PC or NPC in a game of D&D, it stays happened. If you die, you're dead, and there's no instant respawn or save game to fall back on. Sure you can be raised, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, and there are often consequences to that as well. Without the fear of death I find many RPGs quite fruitless, D&D chief among them.

And now to the question of DM notes, which is what I really wanted to write about. I am definitely not an ad-libber, though I can do it when the need arises. I show up to my games with a good ream of notes, and I'm even anal enough to type them out in a format that looks like an issue of Dungeon (R.I.P.). I'm not a fan of DM ad-libbing from either side of the screen, and here's why.

As a player, I've had a lot a lot of fun in ad-libbed games. Some DMs have a knack for it, and those who can do it invariably run a very good game. But here's the thing - whenever I find out that the DM ad-libbed a whole adventure I feel a bit cheated. Any triumphs I had were hollow, and any treasure I found without meaning, because everything that happened did so because the DM wanted it to. I feel like I didn't beat a tough dungeon, or survive a tough battle, because the DM could have had that fight go any way he wanted on a whim. Sure, I probably had fun, but it's tarnished. I feel like I didn't really earn that fun.

And now we come to my point.

When players show up to a game, they bring their character sheet (hopefully). Everything that is written on that sheet is a fact - it's either a concrete representation of what that character can do, or what he or she owns. The player can point to that, show it to the DM, and it's there. Needless to say there are players who totally cheat on this, but I can tolerate that within reason. It's usually more hassle than it's worth to call them on it, and it's a tangent. My point is that the player gets one guy to control, and everything about him is governed by what's written on an A4 sheet.

The DM, on the other hand, has a lot more power and control. Every single thing that isn't a player character is under their purview, so naturally they can exert much more influence on the game. I think that every gamer has played under an arsehole DM at some point or another, and that a lot of the trends in modern gaming are there to curb the influence of these guys.

So if the player is beholden to their character sheet, what is it that governs the DM? Not a lot, to be honest, but here are the three things I think the DM should adhere to - the game rules, the dice, and his notes.

The game rules are the baseline, they are the common understanding that player and DM have before they enter a game. The DM should follow them as much as is humanly possible, and when he changes them, it should be upfront and in consultation with the players. Of course, a fun game is paramount. If the DM spends half an hour looking up the Grapple rules, that's crap - make a ruling and move on. But make that ruling within the boundaries of the ruleset. Don't call for percentile rolls in a game of d20, or start having the PCs roll under their score for Ability Checks.

The dice come in here as well, because whatever they roll should be law. Otherwise, what's the point of playing a game? Some may accuse me of being a roll-player (and christ I hate that term) but I point to the very name of our hobby - role-playing game. If the dice don't matter, we might as well just sit around and tell each other what happens.

And now to DM notes. I'm a firm believer of the following - if it's in your notes, that's how it runs. A DM should run a game exactly as he set out beforehand, no fudging, no shaving encounters because things are going against the PCs, and conversely no beefing up of monsters because the PCs are winning too easily.

That's not to say that ad-libbing should be cut out entirely - there are always going to be details that you didn't prepare for. You probably won't have the barkeep's eye colour handy, but if a player asks for it, make it up. And if the players go off on a random wilderness expedition when you really want to get them into the Caves of Chaos? Then you have to make it up on the fly. But I only encourage that when there's no option available.

I'm also not saying that adventure modules should all be run as-is. Chop those babies to pieces all you like, it's your campaign after all. Just make all your changes before the game starts. Once the dice hit the table, the notes rule all.

But what to do when the PCs get stomped by monsters that are obviously too tough for them, and you can't change things in their favour? My general advice here is suck it up, and talk to your players about it after the game. But there are a couple of game-style considerations here. In a sandbox style campaign the above should be acceptable - the PCs drive the action and decide where to go, and as long as they are given a good indication of the most dangerous areas then all's fair in the dungeon. In a story-driven game, where certain encounters must be defeated for the game to progress? Yeah, that needs a rethink, and should probably have been toned down before the game started. But you know what? Sometimes the players just aren't in favour with The Dice Gods, and they should learn to deal with it.

One last thing I must mention is that I'm guilty of everything I've disparaged above. I've fudged dice, and I've changed my adventures on the fly. I won't be doing that any more. My players will have their character sheets, and I will have my campaign notes, and we will all be held to them. I'll report back after my next game to let you all know how it went.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

D&D Nth Edition: The Skill System

In thinking about Skills, I've come to realise that although I really like the basic framework of the skill system from 3e, I don't like the scale that it uses and encourages. What I'm talking about here is the way that it forever scales upwards - so long as characters keep gaining levels, there's no end to how good a character can get. It's fine if you want your game to get superheroic (and D&D 3e does that when you get to the upper levels) but superheroic isn't what I want from D&D. I prefer D&D to hew closer to its pulp fantasy roots, where the protagonists may have been highly skilled, but were generally human in their intrinsic capabilities. That is to say, if you want to do something outside the scope of human ability, you need a spell or a magic item, not more training.

I'm also really not fond of the many situational modifiers and subsystems, and I hate fiddling about with skill points. I want something much more loose and freeform.

So I need to rework the 3e system to work the way I want it to. Here's what I'm thinking:

First off, every skill is going to work off the same Difficulty Class chart. It should look something like this:

Easy Task = DC 10
Moderate Task = DC 15
Difficult Task = DC 20
Very Difficult Task = DC 25
Nearly Impossible Task = DC 30

I haven't actually crunched the numbers to work this out yet, but that's the gist. The DM can just assign a difficulty quickly at the table without going to the book. Sure, they can do that anyway, but I know that I like to follow the rules as much as possible. I'd rather change the rules to suit me than ignore them at the table.

The roll will be the same - 1d20, add your stat modifier, add your skill modifier, try to hit the DC. The stat modifier won't be changing much, except to say that it will be slightly lower than in 3e. But as I'm ditching skill points, the modifier there will be significantly different.

Without skill points, however, I need some other way to measure a character's ability. I'm going to base it off a character's class and background. Say you're a Fighter, and you were a sailor before you turned to adventuring. Looking at the 3e Skill list (and this is by no means the one I'll be using) you would get a flat bonus to the following skills:


Profession (sailor)
Survival (ocean)
Use Rope

So for all the skills above, the character would be rated as Trained and receive, say, a flat +3 bonus to all his checks. Characters can become Experts or Masters in any given skill, and receive a higher bonus. If a character has a skill on his class and profession lists, he'll begin as an Expert in that skill. So the system provides for advancement while still having a ceiling. A rubber ceiling to be certain, since I'm not having a cap on Ability Scores, but in practice I don't expect the numbers to get too high.

That leaves me with the question of Thieves (or Rogues if you prefer). Skills are their bread and butter, and they need to better at them than the other classes. One answer is to allow their bonuses to increase as they gain levels, but I don't like this - it falls into the same super-heroic trap that 3e did, and makes things worse by limiting such actions just to the Thief. The answer comes with the Thief's set of class abilities from old editions, and how they allow the character to do things that others can't

Let's take a look at those abilities now: Open Locks, Pick Pockets, Find/Remove Traps, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Climb Walls.

The trick here is to think of these abilities as extra things that Thieves are capable of, not just things they are better at than other characters. Take Move Silently, for example - other characters can move quietly and sneak up on monsters, but the Thief is the only class that can move while making absolutely no sound at all. Hide in Shadows is much the same - other characters can hide behind objects and out of sight, but the Thief can hide in a shadow and nothing more. Climb Walls allows the Thief to climb smooth surfaces with no hand holds.

Find Traps I'm tempted to allow as an automatic chance for the Thief, and Remove Traps as a chance to just intuitively know how to disable the thing. Any character can try actions that might disable a trap, but the Thief might just know how already.

Open Locks is a bit harder, but I'm toying with making the Thief the only guy who can jimmy locks with sticks and chicken bones and such. Anyone else needs tools.

Pick Pockets is the hardest one to apply this thought to. I may just leave it as is, and give the Thief a higher flat bonus.

So that's how Skills are going to work in my D&D Nth Edition. If you've got any feedback, let me know - the more people I have trying to dissect this thing the better.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

D&D: Nth Edition

With advent of 4th Edition, and my general unenthusiastic response to it, I have come to a conclusion: there's not a single edition of D&D in all its forms that suits me perfectly.

I like the stream-lined core rules of 3rd Edition, but dislike all of the fiddly bits and the ridiculous prep-time for DMs. AD&D (both 1st and 2nd Edition) have my favourite flavour and rules effects (i.e. what the rules are trying to do), but are a bit too random in the implementation of those rules for my tastes. The various forms of Basic are great to play out of the box, but a bit lacking in complexity, especially for PCs. And OD&D is a great free-wheeling system, but it's a little too vague. 4e has a few nuggets I like bolted onto a system that's only barely recognisable as D&D. So what's a dedicated role-player who loves to kill orcs supposed to do in this situation?

There's only one thing to do: roll up my sleeves and write a version of D&D that perfectly fits my taste. I'll be calling it D&D Nth Edition - N for my first name, and N also for the mathematical representation of infinity, as I intend this to the be-all and end-all of D&D for me (apart from my Project of Insanity, which you can read about lower down).

The basic goal of my version of D&D will be this - take the way the rules work in older version of D&D, express them in ways more familiar to modern games, and sprinkle with touches of things that I like from all manner of D&D version and derivative games.

Here are some examples of my thinking on how to improve some of the major elements of the game:

ABILITY SCORES: I won't be changing much here, as the classic six abilities are about the only thing that have remained unchanged from edition to edition. I won't be using the Devil's Tool that is point buy, but I also won't be requiring players to roll 3d6 in order. I'm thinking that 4d6, drop the lowest roll and arrange to taste is where it's at, as that's how I've done things for many years.

As for the various modifiers, I'll be going for something that looks like the unified progression of 3e. I don't want the modifiers to scale quite so high, though, so the bonuses might begin at 14 instead of 12. I also have a problem with the way the modifiers scale downwards - it's easy to model very strong creatures, for instance, but very weak creatures can only go so far down.

RACES: I'll certainly be including the big four: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings/Hobbits. Half-Orcs I believe also have a niche. Gnomes I'm not so certain about - they're far too similar to Dwarves, and I don't believe that as written they're needed in the game. I need to give them some more thought.

CLASSES: For the moment I'm going to focus on the main four classes - Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief. Once these guys work, it's time to start thinking about the various sub-classes. But I expect that they'll look much like the classes from 2nd Edition, just with a rules set that looks more like 3e.

SKILLS: I do believe that D&D works better with a skill system in place, but I think the one in 3e is much too fiddly. I toying with the idea of including a list of common skill usages, and a universal chart that maps difficulty to a specific DC - so if something is easy, the DC will be 10 regardless of what skill you are using.

As for choosing skills, I'm tempted to make this function of class and background. Say your character is a Thief who grew up in the circus - he'll be good at all of the regular Thief-type skills, and he'll also know juggling and acrobatics and a bit of animal handling. I prefer it to be a bit more vague and loose. Also, skills won't be scaling up with level - characters will get their Ability bonus, another bonus if they have an aptitude with the skill, and that's that. I might also include a mechanic for training your skills up, but that's also something I need to think about a bit more.

FEATS: In more general terms, I think a degree of character customizability is desirable. Whether it's through a feat system similar to 3e, a power system like 4e, or even Skills and Powers from 2e I haven't decided yet. What I want to avoid is creating a system that discourages using certain tactics if you don't have the relevant feat.

COMBAT: Now, this is something I want to scale back in terms of complexity. 3e combat takes too long, and 4e doesn't look to me to be an improvement on that score. One thing I want to provide is a list of common combat maneuvers, such as a stunning attack or trip or disarm. Things like that are in 3e, but I want to simplify them massively. And feats will enhance these options rather than making them available, because anyone will be able to try this stuff.

MAGIC: Vancian magic stays, because it's part of the essence of D&D. I'm definitely going to rejig the spell levels so that they match with class level - for instance, Fireball will be a 5th level M-U spell rather than 3rd. This won't affect anything mechanically, but to me it seems a lot more intuitive to teach people.

Also, I want to take the spells back to how they worked in earlier editions. Sleep spells with no save, polymorph causing a chance of instant death, raise dead making you lose a point of Constitution, that sort of thing. Many of the problematic spells in 3e had drawbacks in earlier editions - 3e took them out and caused itself a lot of problems.

MONSTERS: Simplify! Simplify! If I can't get these things into two line stat block, I haven't done a good enough job. I plan to go through the various editions and try to boil each monster down to the most interesting and iconic abilities. I might also steal a bit from 4e in this regard, because it does do a lot to make the humanoid races a bit more mechanically interesting.

And that's a general look at my thoughts on this for the moment. I have a lot of other minor things I'm toying with, but I'll be talking about those in later updates, when I can zoom in more on the specifics.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Biggest Influence

My first encounter with D&D-style fantasy, and with role-playing games I guess, was not with D&D itself. No, the first time I encountered anything even remotely resembling an orc was in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks that followed it.

Lo it was, some 21 years ago, that I found three books in the library of my primary school - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos, and The Forest of Doom - the first three books in the Fighting Fantasy series. I was already fairly intrigued by monsters and swords and other such things, so I quickly snapped up the first of these and read it when I got home. It was a pretty mind-blowing experience.

My first adventure was far from auspicious. The set-up is that there's a warlock who lives inside the caves of Firetop Mountain, who has a whole lot of treasure that you intend to steal (presumably over his dead body). Of course he's guarded by all manner of traps and monsters... It's a classic old-school D&D scenario.

So my character went in, and very shortly encountered his first Orc asleep at the guard post. I'd never seen Orcs before in anything, but I quickly learned how to deal with them when the bugger woke up and attacked me - sword in the face! The adventure progressed, I fought a snake, found a key, and generally went the wrong way killing things as I progressed. After a harrowing section full of undead, with nightmare-inducing illustrations, I made it to the maze - and got hopelessly lost as teleport after teleport bamboozled me. I was unable to progress before bedtime claimed yet another adventurer.

From that night on I was hooked on fantasy, and D&D fantasy in particular. And even though the Fighting Fantasy tropes are obviously drawn from D&D, Ian Livingstone and especially Steve Jackson were always able to evoke a unique sense of the unknown. Perhaps it's the different medium at work, but magic in FF always seemed a bit more mysterious and arcane than in its RPG ancestor.

I'm still playing these things, and am currently engaged in an exhaustive exploration of book 2, The Citadel of Chaos. They're a godsend when a D&D group is unavailable, and those by Jackson and Livingstone are chock-full of old-school goodness.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Project of Insanity

I'm not playing any D&D at the moment due to family commitments, but I do have one of my patented Insane Projects currently underway. I'm gradually reading through every D&D product ever, and trying to fit every single thing I find into an ongoing campaign.

Here is a brief overview of how it is going to work. The campaign will start using the original rules from 1974. Piece by piece I will begin including additions and rules changes as the campaign progresses - for example, the Thief class will eventually be introduced, and variable weapon damage will replace the rule where everything does 1d6. As time progresses the game will move into 1st edition AD&D, then to 2nd edition, and so on.

The Basic D&D sets will be there as well should the PCs ever venture into the worlds that operate under those rules (such us the Known World) - because I'll also be incorporating every D&D setting via gates and portals and whatever other means takes my fancy. Even a few of the more significant unofficial settings will be there, such as the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. This is my attempt to build the ultimate sandbox campaign, with a wealth of information at my fingertips that will never run out.

As for adventures, I figure that the OD&D portion will mainly centre around Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor, with a few oldschool products thrown in for authenticity (i.e. Rob Kuntz's Bottle City, Isle of the Ape, the EX series). Once things progress to AD&D I'll try to include as many official modules as I can, and from there it will be pretty simple to figure out what modules go with what edition.

For anyone interested, I've been charting my progress in this thread. I've just finished dissecting the OD&D boxed set, and will sortly be posting a round-up of what the campaign currently looks like.

Oh, and my players? Don't click the link.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thus strikes the Thief of Fate!

After 20 years I have realised one my greatest goals in life - I have finally finished Bard's Tale III.

Let me paint the picture for you - it's 1988, a couple of days after Christmas in the Warrnambool Super K-Mart. I have a fistful of money, the princely sum of $30 - to my 10-year-old brain it's a fortune. My face is pressed up against the glass in the computer department, salivating over the various RPGs on offer. Pool of Radiance is beckoning me with it's AD&D-ish goodness (and it didn't hurt that I had recently enjoyed the novel in my youthful folly). But looking over I see another pack, with Bard's Tale I, Bard's Tale II, and Bard's Tale III inside. I'd never heard of them, but my rudimentary grasp of value-for-money informed me that I would be getting three games instead of one. And the graphics on the back looked awesome! (I was soon to discover they were for the Amiga 500 and not the Commodore 64 - a common ploy).

So I got these games home, read the highly amusing manuals, and booted up Bard's Tale I: Tales of the Unknown. Hmmm. The graphics were disappointing, and my painstakingly crafted party was decimated by Nomads before I could even make it to the Shoppe to buy equipment. Somewhat disheartened, I cranked up Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight. Killer intro sequence! But again the game was very difficult. I managed a foray into the starter dungeon this time, only to fall foul of sundry assorted monsters in short order.

I was desperate not to have spent my money incorrectly, and so I loaded up Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate. Again, awesome intro. And the graphics! Yes, it's the standard 80s RPG layout - characterstats in one window, messages in another, and what your characters see in another. The general scenery was nothing to write home about, but where the graphics of BTIII excel are the monster portraits. They have so much character, grinning and snarling and waving their swords about. From the moment that I put a posse of Black Hobbits to the sword, I was hooked.

Here's the plot: in Bard's Tale I you saved the town of Skara Brae from the evil wizard Mangar. Some time later, his boss the Mad God Tarjan has come back for revenge and blasted Skara Brae to ruins. So it's up to you to travel the dimensions until you finally get your vengeance on the Big Guy.

I spent a lot of time playing this game during Primary and High School - probably more than any other. It took me forever to get anywhere. I probably spent a good three years tooling around in the starter dungeon before piecing together the clues that allowed me access to the real starter dungeon. It was another year or so before I beat that dungeon and travelled to the first of the alternate worlds, and by the end of uni I was in the third world. It was a slow progress, and I was beginning to believe that beating Bard's Tale III would be one of the great unfulfilled dreams of my life.

In the meantime I had returned to the previous two games in the series and completed those - my initial thoughts of them had been a touch dismissive, and now I'm a huge fan.

But back to Bard's Tale III, I decided a month or so ago to really knuckle down and crack this baby. And, rather disappointingly, it only took me about two weeks. I'd built this game up in my mind sa the king of unbeatable RPGs, but in truth it's not that difficult - it's actually a significant step down from Bard's Tale II. But despite the slight disappointment there are some great moments in the game.

One of the ways that the Bard's Tale series emulates D&D really well is that, at its heart, Bard's Tale is a game of dungeon survival. You enter the dungeons, and you need to keep track of your resources - not just hit points, but spell points, light sources, bard songs, and so on. And you absolutely must make a map, or you'll be hopelessly lost. This game is responsible for reams of missing graph paper from my school's mathematics department, I can tell you.

There are some really fun and interesting worlds to explore in BTIII. Kinestia, with it's dwarven tunnels taken over by robots and the mysterious Urmech, was an unexpected change of pace. The Nazi Soldiers encountered in Tenebrosia were an awesome addition, and a neat bit of foreshadowing for the greatest part of the game - Tarmitia. Tarmitia is a realm of war, and it involves a lot of travelling through time to famous warzones - Hiroshima, Troy, Rome, etc. One minute your fighting Cossacks, then its Nazis, then its Mongols, and the list goes on. It's pretty wild stuff, with a puzzle that will have you going back and forth for a few hours.

The final world, Malefia, was a slight disappointment. I was expecting something balls-hard, but it barely scratched the surface of some of the irritating dungeons from Bard's Tale II. That game had dungeons packed full of teleporters and spinners and darkness zones and antimagic zones and many other things designed to make you rip your hair out. The hardest thing about the Malefia dungeon was mapping it, as there were a lot of portals up and down to navigate.

The final series of fights was quite a challenge, though. Too bad Tarjan himself was a bit weak - my rogue backstabbed him to death before he even got a shot in. I never even got to see his picture! And I objected slightly to the end sequence as well. I'm sure I was supposed to be pleased by the fate of my characters, but what IO really wanted was for them to continue their adventures!

Nevertheless, this is a bona fide classic, and now that I've finished it I feel a little empty. I don't think I'll find another game that I'll want to finish as desperately as I did this one, and a part of me wishes I'd never completed it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

4th Edition: The Penultimate Verdict

So 4e has been out for a couple of months now. As my regular readers (assuming any exist) will know, I've been ambivalent about it in the lead-up. Some news had me ecstatically proclaiming to the heavens, and other news had me sharpening an axe with the words "Aim Me at Mearls" engraved on it. So how did it pan out now that I've digested the books?

Let me just say that there is a long list of problems that I have with this edition. Most of these boil down to "It ain't like AD&D!", but I'm going to break it down point by point.

1. Lack of crazy shit: Some of the coolest things about D&D are the crazy powers that can send the game in unexpected directions, or change it with a single bad roll. Things like polymorph, teleport, all of the save or die effects, even the good old vorpal sword. The 4e designers went above and beyond the call of duty in carving all of these out of the game, in an effort to create something that can't be broken. The result is a bland game, D&D with all the interesting stuff taken out. Sure, the 4e Vorpal Sword has exploding damage dice that can potentially do infinite damage, but the old-school one CUTS PEOPLES' HEADS OFF!

2. Starting power: This isn't really a flaw in the design, but I despise the starting power level of PCs. I realise the monsters have been boosted to a comparable level, but to me it's just hacked out my favourite part of the game, which is levels 1-3. I love the uncertainty of delving the dungeon with a character who might die in a single hit - and when that character survives, the feeling of accomplishment is all the greater. I like a game where characters become heroes via gameplay, not ones who are heroes right off the bat.

3. Minions: I get the rationale behind these guys - use them when you want the players to mow through a horde of guys that all die in one hit. But I just can't wrap my head around them all having 1 hit point. I suppose that in the game world they really don't have 1 hit point, and it's just a rules construct, but it's still something I dislike vigorously.

4. All the classes are the same: It used to be that the classes all played very differently and had their own sub-systems. Fighters were your basic melee combatant, magic-users had spells, clerics had a combination of the two, and thieves had their skills to fall back on. Admittedly 3e blurred the lines here somewhat, but not so much that the game felt different. In 4e the classes are unrecognizable, and they all use the same system of daily, encounter and at-will powers. It would make the game far easier to balance, but I preferred the old diversity. And while we're on the subject of powers...

5. The powers are boring to read: A very large portion of the Player's Handbook is given to the class powers, and they are the most boring thing I have ever read in an RPG book. If they had written the things out sentence by sentence, like the old spell descriptions, I might have enjoyed them, but as it is they're a jumble of damage ranges and effects and other jargon that I can't keep straight in my head. The single sentence of flavour they get isn't enought to save them from blending into a homogenous blob. Is it just me, or does every single Cleric power boil down to "Hit an enemy, heal a friend"?

6. Flavourless art: The art is all pretty competent, and admittedly the Monster Manual has some way cool stuff in it, but overall there's just no atmosphere to it. It's all very safe - nothing too violent, nothing too sexy, and very little representation for classic fantasy tropes. D&D needs to regain a bit of its "Devil's Game" rep, I feel, and the art is the first place to get that across.

7. Boring Monster Manual: After I'd read and hated the PHB and DMG, I was still confident that I'd love the Monster Manual, because I love bestiaries. But no, they even made the Monster Manual boring. The friggin' Monster Manual!!! All of the monsters are just things to kill, with very little effort made to give them personality in the flavour text. Admittedly, a lot of effort has been made to differentiate them in the mechanics, but mechanics don't make me want to run them - and again, the way their powers are written now is so uninspiring.

8. Magic System is gutted: D&D's magic system was one of its defining features. Few other RPGs emulated it, and so it became one of the things that made D&D different from everything else. And there were so many cool ways you could describe the memorisation process flavourwise! I have trouble doing the same for Daily-Encounter-At-Will - but I'm open to people with ideas.

9. Roll to hit with a Magic Missile: A little piece of my soul died when I saw you had to roll for a Magic Missile. A little more of it went when I saw fireball no longer did 1d6 per level.

10. Specter?!? IT'S SPECTRE, GODDAMN IT!

And that's it, though I'm sure I could wrack my brains for more. But as the title says, this is the Penultimate Verdict - I haven't played it yet. I'm open to it, but a few of my players are highly opposed, and that's the way I lean as well. And if the new edition didn't make me want to play it, then I count that as a failure.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

4th Edition Ennui

In a few weeks time, the new edition of D&D will be out and about, and the face of the industry will undergo its periodical overhaul. And you know what? I can't be bothered, to be honest.

But the weird thing is, up until D&D Experience, where the core rules were mostly revealed, I was stoked. I checked ENWorld every day, I was on the boards every day, and I ate up every single tidbit that was given out to us.

But now I don't care, and I can't put my finger on why. It can't be that I haven't played in months, because I barely played in the time that I was looking forward to the new edition. It's certainly not that I'm a 3rd Edition purist - I've been waiting for an overhaul to that system for a few years now.

I think it's just that the excitement has gone out of it. Once Wizards of the Coast gave us the basics, I had nothing to look forward to. Especially since what they revealed was precisely not the game I was looking for. Instead of taking what worked from 3rd Edition and shifting the game back a bit closer to the AD&D paradigm, it's moving further and further away.

And therein lies my major problem, I think - I want to play old-school D&D again, but I can't. I have a couple of players who would probably play whatever I want, a couple who I know won't want to convert to a new system, and at least one who considers the old editions the equivalent of playing an old Colecovision when there's an X-Box 360 in the room. I'll never convince these guys to let me run old-school D&D, so I was hoping that 4e would solve my problem - because it's always easier to convince people that the new stuff is improved, whether it is or not.

And it's not just the new rules, but the new attitude. For example, beholders (and I assume medusae as well) don't turn you to stone instantly with a gaze - they slow you down gradually, gradually, until rounds later you're stoned. The rust monster is probably the same way, based on an older article by Mike Mearls. It seems to me like the potential for instant danger and surprise is lessened. Hey, look at my blog title - you think I'm going to enjoy casting Finger of Death from now on? For better or worse, the Tomb of Horrors as originally envisioned can't work with 4e. Some folks will jump for joy. I think it's a tragedy.

So yeah, I think Wizards gave us everything too quickly. If they hadn't revealed the rules back in February, I'd be there on the first day of release with cash in hand, and probably taking a day off work to read them in the bargain. As it is, I've known for months that 4e isn't the D&D I want. I was excited by the shiny newness of it all for a while, as some of my earlier blog entries indicate - but I waver on this point a lot. In a few weeks I might change my mind and fall in love with 4e again. But right now I've got little desire to buy the books, and even less desire to play the game. And I really, really wanted to like it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Talisman! Hero Quest! Marital Awesomeness!

Man, I love Talisman. It's probably my favourite boardgame of all time. Yeah, it's not particularly balanced, and a lot of it relies on the luck of the cards, but it's a heap of fun.

My wife expressed some interest in playing it, so who was I to say no? Easy pickings, thought I, but as we prepared to play my worst fear was realised - she drew the Prophetess as her character!

Now, there is one sure-fire method for winning Talisman - play as the Prophetess. It's almost impossible to lose. As far as I'm aware, about the only way to beat her is for all the other players to do their best to kill her at the beginning. Otherwise, she'll just merrily go on her way taking all of the good cards and avoiding the bad, and you will lose.

Nevertheless, I didn't want to go totally cut-throat on my wife for her first game. I would trust to my experience to see me through! I drew the Priest, and we got going.

I had a bad start. Turned into a toad three times! Raiders stole my stuff! Killed by Bandits! It was a while until I started to build myself up. My wife was steadily acquiring nearly everything, but eventually I got close to her and made a dash for the Crown of Command. I made it with one life to spare, but she was close behind and in no mood to surrender as I blasted her with my mighty crown. Alas, she got to the middle as well, and utterly killed me. My Talisman reputation was destroyed!

But revenge, as always is sweet. The next night she drew the Wizard, and I drew the Warrior - both very viable characters. Without the precognitive powers of the Prophetess, the laws of the universe were righted! I had all the luck with the cards, and when she looked like she was getting a bit too powerful, I mugged her and stole her mule. In revenge she hunted me down for a little psychic combat, but my Warrior must be some kind of mental giant, because he even managed to win that. In the end I made it easily to the Crown, as my wife was killed by a Goblin.

After the foray into Talisman (which my wife is dead keen to try again) we tried Hero Quest - but more on that tomorrow!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Play Report: GaryCon I

As mentioned yesterday, my contribution to worldwide GaryCon was a trip through the Random Dungeon Generator tables in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide. As those tables are in a 1st Edition AD&D manual, I opted for the 1e rules, and went at it.

My character was Ravel Utharien, an elf fighter/magic-user of chaotic neutral bent. I decided to powergame it here with the elf f/mu combo, as any character adventuring alone is always in for some trouble. I also got totally lucky with my random spell selection - my offensive spell was the much-coveted sleep! So, donning studded leather, and wielding longsword and shortbow, Ravel ventured into the depthless dungeons!

The first foray was a success. Ravel encountered a skeleton in the second room, guarding a whole lot of gold and platinum coins. He took a couple of minor wounds, before destroying the foul thing (it had 1 hit point, luckily). Ravel took the coins and made a hasty retreat, some 600-odd gold pieces richer.

One week later, rested and refreshed, Ravel returned for a second go at it. While trying to force open a door in the first chamber, he copped a random encounter with an adventuring party - 9 of the bastards lead by an evil cleric! One lucky initiative roll and a sleep spell later, the whole lot were asleep. Ravel took the opportunity to get out of there, as there was no obvious treasure to be had.

At this point, I really should have bought Ravel some plate mail, or had him hire a few men-at-arms. But I was getting cocky, and figured I could take care of anything with the almighty sleep. Also, I wanted to stay with the studded leather so that I could take advantage of the elf's increased chance of surprise, which he wouldn't get in plate.

The next day, sleep spell restored, Ravel made his final journey into the underworld. After a brief exploration he came to a dead end - only to be cornered by a ravening pack of 14 giant rats! The sleep spell was deployed, but five of the rats were unaffected. Ravel fought bravely, killing one, but the rest bore him down and tore out his throat. And so Ravel died, and the rats feasted on his corpse.

I've never actually played with the 1st Edition rules before, and the first thing that struck me is that the rules are very poorly organised. Character creation took me forever. I was flicking from one end of the Player's Handbook to the other, and I even had to venture into the DM's Guide a few times. Item weights were in the DMG, which threw me for a loop.

Actual play was pretty smooth, but there was a lot of paging back and forth. Mostly that's because everything in 1e requires a chart. The Random Dungeon Generator did the job, but there were a few instances where it didn't quite make sense. Mainly, I wonder how often you're supposed to roll on the Periodic chart. And I couldn't find how often you're supposed to roll for Wandering Monsters, so I went with OD&D's 1-in-6 per turn.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Gary Gygax, RIP

Gary Gygax is dead.

I still can't wrap my head around that. Gary, father of the game, mentor to a generation of nerds, is gone. I've been feeling totally bummed out about it since Wednesday. My childhood neighbour passed on a week earlier, and it didn't affect me in the slightest. But the death of Gary, who I never met, has genuinely touched me.

Now, it would be wrong to say that it feels like I've lost a member of my family, or a close friend. That would be a complete disservice to what Gary's actual friends and family are going through right now. I was thinking about how I felt yesterday, and it struck me that what I'm experiencing is similar to what happens when one of my favourite characters dies in a story.

Because that's what Gary was to me - a character. (Bear with me here.) I didn't know him as a person, but through his works I knew him as GARY GYGAX, Dungeon Master supreme, foe of player characters and kindly mentor of beleaguered referees everywhere. This was the guy who designed the Tomb of Horrors - how could he be but a mere mortal? He was larger than life, he WAS D&D.

And not only that, but the influence that Gary had on popular culture is staggering. Just think about how many people right now are playing games based on his work. Everyone playing D&D, everyone playing Magic: The Gathering, every single person logged on to World of Warcraft. They're all playing Gary's game, in one form or another. Add it up over the years, and it must be millions, maybe even billions.

To put it in perspective, in comic book terms he's Stan Lee. In rock and roll terms, he's Elvis Presley. Everything in fantasy gaming draws from Gary's imagination on some level. Even in terms of fantasy fiction, there's a mere handful of authors who've impacted the genre as much as he has. Few people outside the hobby know his name, but I can guarantee they saw his influence at some point.

Although I never met Gary in the flesh, I was lucky enough to trade a few posts over the message boards with him. It's so cool that he made himself accessible, answering page after page after page of questions. And to him it was just conversing with fellow gamers. Gary placed himself among us, not above us, and that's a genuine rarity for celebrities (which Gary was, at least in gamer circles).

The influence he had on my life was strong. I had already made my foray into fantasy gaming before I found D&D - Fighting Fantasy gamebooks had taken over my life by that point. But D&D was a far more profound experience, and better yet a shared one. To this day I feel closer to the friends that I gamed with than I ever have to those I didn't. Coincidence? Probably, but the many fun afternoons (and frustrating rules arguments!) with my friends are some of my most treasured memories, and I have Gary to thank for that.

I desperately wanted to game this weekend, but none of my friends are available. So, my contribution to worldwide Garycon will be a solo expedition into the random dungeon generator in the back of the AD&D Dungeon Master Guide. It's a poor substitute for gaming with my buddies, but we must make do.

So goodbye Gary. I didn't know you, but I miss you. The game won't be the same with you gone.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

My First 4th Edition Character!

Over the Christmas period, Wizards of the Coast gifted us with the 4th Edition elf. Just yesterday, they gave is the 4th Edition rogue. Who am I to keep them apart? And so I present to you, with a sprinkling of fact and a dollop of speculation, my first 4th Edition character.

Name: Erdan
Race: Elf
Class: Thief
Level: 1
Alignment: Unaligned

Height: 6'0"
Weight: 130 lb.

Size: Medium

Speed: 7 squares

Vision: Low-light

Languages: Common, Elven

Strength: 13 (+1)
Dexterity: 18 (+4)
Constitution: 11 (--)
Intelligence: 11 (--)
Wisdom: 12 (+1)
Charisma: 13 (+1)

Hit Points: 23 (11 Bloodied)

Healing Surges: 6

Armor Class: 16 (+0 level bonus, +2 armor bonus, +4 Dex bonus)
(17 against opportunity attacks)
Reflex Defense: 16 (+0 level bonus, +2 class bonus, +4 Dex bonus)
Fortitude Defense: 10 (+0 level bonus)
Will Defense: 11 (+0 level bonus, +1 Wis bonus)

Initiative: +4

Trained Skills: Acrobatics (+9), Bluff (+6), Insight (+6), Perception (+10), Stealth (+9), Thievery (+9)
Other Skill Bonuses: +2 Nature

Feats: Alertness, Trapfinding (it's been mentioned that rogues get this for free)

Weapon Proficiencies: Dagger, hand crossbow, longbow, short sword, shortbow, shuriken, sling
Armor Training: Leather

Equipment: Leather Armor, Short Sword, Dagger


Elven Accuracy (Encounter/Free Action/Personal): Reroll an attack roll. Use the second roll, even if it is lower.

Wild Step: Ignore difficult terrain when you shift (even if you have a power that allows you to shift multiple squares.

Group Awareness: You grant non-elf allies within 5 squares a +1 racial bonus to Perception checks.


First Strike: At the start of an encounter, you have combat advantage against any creatures that have not yet acted in that encounter.

Rogue Tactics – Artful Dodger: You gain a bonus to AC equal to your Charisma modifier (+1) against opportunity attacks.

Rogue Weapon Talent: When you wield a shuriken, your weapon damage die increases by one size. When you wield a dagger, you gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls.

Sneak Attack: Once per round, when you have combat advantage against an enemy and are using a light blade, a crossbow, or a sling, your attacks against that enemy deal +2d6 extra damage.


Piercing Strike (At Will/Standard Action): When wielding a light blade you can slip your weapon past armor, making an attack with Dex vs. Reflex. You deal 1[W]+4 damage.

Deft Strike (At Will/Standard Action): When wielding a crossbow, light blade, or a sling, you can move 2 squares before the attack before making an attack with Dex vs. AC. You deal 1[W]+4 damage.

Tumble (Emcounter/Move Action/Personal): You can shift 3 squares (ignoring difficult terrain due to being an elf).

Crimson Edge (Daily/Standard Action): When wielding a light blade, you make an attack with Dex vs. Fortitude. On a hit you deal 2[W]+4 damage, and the target takes ongoing damage equal to 6 and grants combat advantage to you (save ends both). On a miss you deal half damage.

NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that my rogue cannot have the powers of Tumble or Crimson Edge due to level-based requirement. I'm leaving them in, though, because I don't have any known alternatives to swap them with.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Review: Original D&D Part 2 - Monsters & Treasure

by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson

The second booklet of the original D&D boxed set, entitled Monster & Treasure, serves the same purpose as the Monster Manual, with a dash of the treasure-related sections of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Let me say that this book certainly doesn't mess about. There's the cover and the title page, both featuring artwork of dubious quality, the index, and then it's straight into the tables with barely a word of explanation. It's Gygax all over.

The table in question runs for two pages, and summarises the stats of every monster in the game. Needless to say that it would be highly unintelligible to anyone unfamiliar with the game. But then again, Original D&D isn't the version of the game that you use to introduce people. It was written for a small audience of hardcore wargamers, and they'd probably know what's going on.

There are a refreshingly small number of stats. There's Number Appearing (which is always some absurdly high range that I always ignored), Armor Class, Move in Inches, Hit Dice, % in Lair, and Treasure Type. And really, in the middle of a game you probably only need three of those. It's great.

After the table the book moves on to the actual monster descriptions. The list is surprisingly comprehensive. There are very few monsters added to the game after this book that are essential. Just as surprising are some of the monsters that aren't present. You won't find most of the quintessential D&D monsters, the ones that are unique to the game. Stuff like beholders, mind flayers, rust monsters, owlbears, and the gelatinous cube didn't come until later (although the cube gets a mention).

Mostly the entries focus on monsters from mythology and fantasy novels. The order of the creatures is seemingly random. It doesn't follow an alphabetical pattern, but rather a series of groupings by type. It makes some creatures hard to find until you learn your way around the book. So what are the groupings and monsters?

Humans: The first few "monsters" shown are the commonly encountered human-types, such as bandits, pirates, berserkers, etc. I'm a big fan of these. This is the sort of thing that was really missing from 3rd Edition, and I'm hoping it makes a comeback for 4th. Ready-made NPC stats are always a god-send. Extra points for the inclusion of Cavemen!

Humanoids: Original D&D has humanoids covered. Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, Ogres, Trolls, and Giants. Back in the days before monsters could get class levels, you didn't battle 2nd-level Orc Fighters, you moved up to Hobgoblins or Gnolls. The only thing missing here is the Bugbear, and that came along soon enough to fill the 3 Hit Dice niche.

There are five types of Giants detailed here: Hill, Stone, Frost, Fire, and Cloud. That's all of the classic varieties except for Storm Giants. Don't fret, they come along soon enough.

Undead: The undead scale upwards in power much like humanoids. Skeletons (1/2), Zombies (1), Ghouls (2), Wights (3), Wraiths (4), Mummies (5), Spectres (6), and Vampires (7+). They've got all the HD filled out, and nearly all the classic types as well. And yes, level drain abounds. Level drain seems like a much more usable mechanic in this form of the game, because there are far fewer things to remember about your character. It was always a pain in AD&D to recall just how many things on your character sheet tied to level, and in 3e it's an utter nightmare. Here, it's the perfect way to instill the proper fear of the undead in your players, without grinding your game to a halt.

Shit That Turns You To Stone: I'm pretty sure that this hits all of the mythical creatures in this category - the Cockatrice, the Basilisk, the Medusa, and the probably-superfluous metallic bull Gorgon. The Gorgon as a metallic bull was always a strange one, but by all reports Gygax got it from a medieval bestiary. And honestly, it's just such an awesome monster that it demands to be included.

Mythological Made From Bits Of Other Creatures: This is a short category, which includes the Manticore (here called a Manticora), the Chimera, and the Hydra. The D&D Hydra doesn't have the typical snake's body, but is instead like a dinosaur with multiple heads. A twelve-headed Hydra in this game is just about the baddest thing going around.

Dragons: The Wyvern gets in first, followed by a three page entry on Dragons proper. This is a lot of space in a 40 page book, but when the game is called Dungeons & Dragons you can't call it excessive. The five classic Chaotic types are included (White, Black, Green, Blue and Red) with the Golden Dragon the sole representative of Law. There are six age categories of Dragon, and this determines how many hit points they get. It's amusing to see that a Very Old Dragon is one that's been alive for 100 years - D&D would later posit much longer lifespans for its draconic beasts. There are rules for attacking sleeping dragons, and for subduing them as well. I've always found it strange that dragons are the only monsters seemingly subject to this rule, but then again I've never seen it used in a game anyway. The rules for selling Dragons on the open market are D&D in its purest form.

Really Strange Humanoids: Yeah, I'm stretching here. Gargoyles and Lycanthropes are up next. The Lycanthrope entry includes Werewolves, boars, tigers, and bears. The Wererat is sadly absent.

Really Big Bastards: The Purple Worm! This guy is a party-killer, and even in these earliest of days he can swallow you whole. Sea Monsters are given a cursory treatment, but it seems like Gygax deemed them beyond the scope of the game to handle. Their stats are very sketchy.

Human-Animal Hybrids: The two classics of mythology - the Minotaur and the Centaur. No surprises here, apart from the humourous dig at rules lawyers that Gygax throws into the Minotaur entry.

Forest-Dwellers and Fairy-Tale Creatures: Ah, the beginning of a long tradition of monsters that are seldom used. This is the domain of the Unicorn, and all those fairy-types that I've never seen in a game - Nixies, Pixies, and Dryads. Actually, Dryads got used a lot in games when I was a teenager, for some reason...

Gnomes, Dwarves, and Elves continue this group, and it's weird to see that Hobbits don't get mentioned. Just more of that Gygax-brand mild contempt for the little folk, methinks!

Ents are next, although my book calls them Treants. They were Ents in the original printings. Then we get more staples of myth: the Pegasus, Hippogriff, Roc, and Griffon.

Other-Planar Beings: The Invisible Stalker gets an entry, as do all four types of Elemental, Djinni, and Efreet. The Efreet entry has a mention of the fabled City of Brass, which is one of the very first mentions of a specific setting in D&D.

Oozes: There is a surprisingly comprehensive spread of oozes - Ochre Jelly, Black Pudding, Green Slime, Gray Ooze, Yellow Mold. Green Slime and Yellow Mold are lethal bastards, and I'm surprised that I've never seen them used much - I guess they got passed over because they never had cool illustrations. I must also laugh at Gygax's description of the Black Pudding as a "nuisance monster". It's got 10 Hit Dice and deals 3d6 damage per hit, which is well hard by the standards of the day.

Animals: And finally, a category for horses, and a general guide for creating animals and insects of all sizes.

That's it for the proper monster entries, except that the list is rounded out with some suggested monsters at the end - Titans, the Cyclops, Living Statues (including the legendary Iron Golem of Maure Castle), Salamanders, Gelatinous Cubes, and even robots.

From there we go into the Treasure Tables, which use the old system of alphabetical categories. I think I prefer this as a way of randomising treasure to the Challenge Rating system of 3rd Edition - it keeps things reasonably balanced while still providing the chance for that occasional big haul. Treasures were much too standardised for my liking in 3e.

The rest of the book is taken up by magical item descriptions, and there are some interesting differences here from later editions. The first is that every magical sword is intelligent. This may be hard to process for AD&D players, because those things were rare in that game. But here, 20% of all magical items will be swords, and all of those are going to have a personality. It sounds like a lot of work to me, and I can see why the idea fell out of favour later on. It should also be noted that while all magical swords get a bonus to hit, only those with a bonus against specific creatures add to damage. It's another strange disconnect from the later game. Other weapon types aren't intelligent, but they all get their bonuses to damage. I'm guessing that players got this "confused" all the time, because it all got simplified eventually.

The rest is a the usual assortment of potions, rings, scrolls, wands, staves, and miscellanous stuff. You'd be hard pressed to find an item from the later core rules that's not here, other than the "named" ones like Heward's Handy Haversack, et al.

What we have with this book is the foundation of the AD&D Monster Manual, and also the core list of magical items that would see the game through for years. I think it's telling that nearly all of these monsters appeared statistically unchanged in AD&D, some 5 years later - Gygax got a lot of this stuff right the first time. It's fascinating as a historical artifact, but it's also a masterclass on cramming as many useful and evocative monsters and items into one book as is possible. It's probably the most important D&D book ever in terms of establishing the game's internal mythology.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Review: Original D&D Part 1 - Men & Magic

I promised I'd start doing this long ago, so I suppose it's about time that I got to it. This is the first installment in what is hopefully going to be a long series of D&D product reviews, starting from the beginning and moving through them chronologically. The first product is naturally going to be the original D&D boxed set, and the first review will be of the first book in that set - Men & Monsters.

I don't actually have a hard copy of this book. I'm working from a PDF of the Original Collector's Edition re-release, so if anything I say doesn't jibe with your own copy, that could be the where the discrepancy lies. And now, onward!

by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson

The original D&D boxed set is comprised of three booklets, each about 30 pages long. The first book, Men & Magic, is essentially what would later become the Player's Handbook. It contains everything you need to create a character, as well as a list of spells.

The initial impression that these books give is that of being gloriously unpolished. The cover is tan, with a servicable yet uncoloured picture of a warrior. And you have got to love the tag-line under the heading - "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures" It's a mouthful, and it's also something that would be anathema to a lot of gamers that I have met. But I love that in the olden days D&D wasn't trying to hide its war-gaming roots.

The book begins with an uh... 'Forward' that goes into a little of the history behind the game's development. It's a fascinating snippet that has kept would-be D&D historians chasing their tales for years. The gist of it is that a bunch of wargamers known as The Castle & Crusade Society (of which Gygax and Arneson were members) published their rules for medieval fantasy wargames as a supplement to the game Chainmail. Dave Arneson used the Chainmail rules to run a game where the players controlled one character instead of an army, and this became an ongoing campaign known as Blackmoor. Gary Gygax heard about the game, and from that he developed D&D.

This is followed by an introduction, which vaguely details what the game is about and what is involved. The requirements are pretty alien to me, it has to be said. Age level is given as 12 and up, which is probably fair enough - my friends and I started at 10 or so. The number of players is insane, though: "At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign..." Gygax ran a campaign where a lot of players were filtering through, forming various disparate groups all with him as the referee. I've never seen this type of game before, as every campaign I've ever been in has involved a solid group of 5 or 6 people that doesn't change much.

The recommended equipment is also important, as apparently you need a copy of Outdoor Survival (a game by Avalon Hill) and Chainmail, a medieval wargame designed by Gygax that was a sort of precursor to D&D. This is something of a fallacy - Chainmail is only necessary if you want more detailed combat rules, and Outdoor Survival is only needed for the game board, which can be used for ad hoc forays into the wilderness. I'll be covering both products in brief in the future, but for the moment they can be ignored.

And then we get to the important part: the rules. Even long-time D&D players will be surprised by what's here; or more accurately, what isn't here. For instance, there are only three classes: Fighting Man (no, not Fighter), Cleric and Magic-User. The Thief, normally considered to be one of the game's four essential classes, is nowhere to be seen.

The three classes are much the same as they were presented in later editions. Fighting Men have the pick of the crop when it comes to magic weapons, but use no spells. Magic-Users have a lot of spells, but can't use magic weapons or armour. Clerics fall sort of half-way, and use a different spell list then Magic-Users, more focused on healing. They can turn undead as well, with much the same rules as later editions. These classes run on strong archetypes, and they haven't changed much at all over the years.

Probably the most jarring change here is that every class rolls a d6 for hit points. The Fighting Man still gets the most, and the Magic-User the least, because the rate of progression is different for each class. It's a bit confusing, actually. At 1st level, the Fighting Man has 1+1 hit dice - he rolls a d6, and adds 1 to get his total. Then at 2nd level, the chart says he has 2 hit dice. Where does the extra +1 go? The chart is full of discrepancies like that. If I ever get to run this version of the game I'll be going with the interpretation that most favours the players. It's a deadly enough game as it is.

A lot of the class write-ups are dedicated to what happens when you build a stronghold and the like. I've never seen players get too involved with this stuff. There are also guidelines for Magic-Users to create magic items that are pretty useful in that they make simple items viable to create and powerful items not worth the time. It's exactly how I like my item creation rules.

It's interesting that at no point is there a list of what mundane weapons and armour the classes can use. We are told that Fighting Men can use all magical weapons, that Magic-Users can't use magic weapons and armour, and that Clerics can use magic armour but only non-edged magic weapons. By the book, the only restriction on normal weapons and armour is that Magic-Users can only use daggers. Otherwise, Magic-User in plate-mail? Done. Cleric with longsword? Go ahead. Presumably Gygax intended the restrictions on magic arms to include normal ones as well, but it's never explicitly spelled out.

The list of races available is similarly short compared to later editions, limited to Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Hobbit. Humans are the baseline, with no bonuses or limitations, but the other races get various abilities to set them apart. My PDF copy of the books has Halflings, but they were Hobbits in the earliest printings. Eventually the Tolkien Estate got wind of this, and the name was changed. Balrogs got excised from the game as well, and Ents became Treants.

Dwarves can only be Fighting-Men, may only progress to 6th level, and have a couple of other simple abilities related to finding stone traps and slanting passages. Hobbits are also limited to Fighting Man, and only 4th level at that! There's a certain level of veiled contempt in Gygax's writing whenever he refers to these little guys that I find amusing. He's on record as being no great fan of Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit race was included apparently to attract Tolkien's many fans to the game.

Elves in D&D are a story all by themselves. They are Fighting Men and Magic-Users, but can only operate as one at a time in any adventure. How this is supposed to work is left as a mystery, explained in only the most vague and contradictory fashion. The best thing to do is probably to check the next version of the rules (the Holmes-edited Basic Set) and see how they did it. I would certainly be interested to know just how groups back then handled the elf, and how those interpretations differed from group to group.

Alignment is also much simpler than it later became. Your character can be Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. That's it, no mention of Good or Evil is made. Alignment seems less like a measure of your character's internal qualities, and more of an indicator of what side you are on in the cosmic struggle between Law and Chaos. That's not explicit, though. The idea of alignment is just thrown out there and abandoned, and it's up to the referee to decide what is done with it.

Finally we get to Ability Scores, and it's the classic array of six: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma. Determination of these is brutal - you roll 3d6 in order - that is, first you roll for Strength, then for Intelligence, and so on down the line. But that's ok, because Ability Scores are nowhere near as important as they would later become. High Dexterity might give you a +1 to hit with missile weapons, and high Constitution gives you +1 hit points per level. Strength gives you no combat bonuses at all. Having a high score in the ability that's most important for your class lets you gain experience points faster. It's a refreshing change from the reliance on stats fostered by later editions. Besides, there are limited rules for raising scores by lowering others, so you can probably get the scores you need without a lot of difficulty.

Following a couple of pages on hiring NPCs and forcing monsters into service, there's a great section of PC relatives and rules for leaving them your stuff when you die. Not only that, but there are guidelines for what happens if the original character returns from the dead to claim his stuff! I can't wait to introduce this into a campaign.

Equipment is really basic, as you'd expect in a 36 page book. Nothing out of the ordinary in the list, and encumbrance gets only a cursory treatment. That's good - I've never paid too much attention to it anyway. Experience points also get the once-over, and it's interesting to see that XP gained is commensurate with the risks undertaken - a high level character on the first level of the dungeon gets very little. And in true bastard Gygax fashion, you can't get XP above a 1-for-1 basis, so if your 1st level Fighting Man somehow knocks over a dragon you're outta luck.

The combat system is the familiar one - you find your level on the chart, cross-index it with the target's AC, and find the number you need to hit on 1d20. That's how it worked until THAC0 came along, and even that was just a different expression of the same system. What you don't get is the details - there are no rules for initiative, or anything else. For that you need Chainmail. The biggest difference in combat is that every weapon deals 1d6 damage. A dagger does 1d6, a sword does 1d6, an axe does 1d6. It's great. I love the fact that any weapon attack can be deadly to a 1st level character. It would be hard for modern players to accept, though. They love their d12s. Also, death comes at 0 hit points. There's no hovering at death's door, you get pushed inside by a burly man with a pointed stick. PC fatalities must have been obscenely common.

The rest of the book is taken up by spells, and it's a damn good list. You won't find any of the named spells like Bigby's Crushing Hand, but you will find pretty much all the classics. Sleep, Charm Person, Fire Ball, Lightning Bolt. Cure Light Wounds. The only absolute D&D staple that is absent is Magic Missile. The Magic-User list only goes to level 6, and the Cleric list to level 5, but you could seriously run campaigns for years without ever expanding it. The loose spell descriptions are great as well. There are a lot of ways that a smart player could use them to his advantage, and I always like to see that.

Intriguingly, all spell-casters require spellbooks. That includes Clerics!

The art in these books, by George Bell, is infamous. To be honest, it's all bad, but there are some interesting pieces in Men & Magic. The bearded man standing next to a tree that comes up to his knee is nice, except that it is clearly labelled 'DWARF'. And what's wrong with the following picture?


But you know, some things can earn you forgiveness for any misdeed. Case in point:

Ah, it was the 70s alright. God bless you, George Bell!

So that's Men & Magic. It's vague in places, and confusing in others, but it crams the entirety of character creation into under 40 pages. The rules are so open-ended and just begging for DM interpretation that I want to play it - it's exactly the antidote I need for 3e's heavily structured and codified style. More than a historical curio, Men & Magic is the Player's Handbook in it's most compact form, and everything that made the game awesome was here from the start.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Deconstructing the Pit Fiend

The Wizards of the Coast web-site has kindly provided us with another genuine 4th Edition preview. Last time it was the elf, and this time it's the Monster Manual entry for the Pit Fiend. I'm going to go through this sucker section by section, and extract as much game-systemy goodness as I'm able to.


Nobles of the Nine Hells, pit fiends form an elite ruling class that oversees vast numbers of lesser devils. Only the archdevils known as the Lords of the Nine stand higher than the pit fiends.

Each pit fiend is lord of a large domain within one of the layers of the Nine Hells and is vassal to the archdevil who rules that layer. A pit fiend might govern a city, command a fortress, lead a great legion, or serve as a seneschal or counselor for an archdevil. With the exception of Asmodeus, each Lord of the Nine commands no more than a dozen or so pit fiends.

As the lords, barons, viziers, and generals of the Nine Hells, pit fiends rarely confront adventurers in person. They are the progenitors of devilish schemes, and they step in only when important plans go awry or when great plots reach fruition. In the Nine Hells proper, pit fiends command vast numbers of lesser devils. Penetrating the defenses of a pit fiend's castle and destroying the mighty devil in its own demesne is a deed of truly epic proportions.

This hulking devil stands 12 feet tall and has red scales, leathery wings, and a long whiplike tail. It carries a massive mace and wears an ornate breastplate decorated with evil runes and symbols.

Alright, this is all pretty sound, and has the Pit Fiend playing much the same role that it did in earlier editions. My only niggling complaint is the assertion that only the Archdevils stand higher than them - it's a constraint on future designers that seems unecessary. But, a minor one, so no big deal.

Now, on to the stats!

Pit Fiend Level 26 Elite Soldier (Leader)
Large immortal humanoid (devil) XP 18,000

The top line defines the role that the monster is supposed to play in a combat. It's level 26, which normally means that it is an appropriate match for one 26th level PC. But a Pit Fiend is Elite, meaning that it is a match for two PCs. Monsters in 4e are apparently designed so that there will be one monster of equivalent level per PC. If a Pit Fiend is there, it counts for two, so ideally you'd face him and three other non-Elite 26th level guys.

The Pit Fiend's role is defined as a Soldier. This is the role that the monster is most effective in - other roles include Brute, Skirmisher, and Lurker. At my best guess, a soldier is most effective as a melee fighter with mostly defensive capabilities. But honestly, I don't know squat. The (Leader) after that is a mystery to me, although there is a Leader role defined for PCs that is for Clerics, and mostly about buffing other party members.

The Pit Fiend is Large, which probably means much the same as it did in 3e. It's type is defined as Immortal Humanoid (devil). This is a huge difference from what in 3e would have been an Outsider. I can only guess at what it means and what game effects it has.

And lastly there is XP, good old Experience Points. It wouldn't be D&D without 'em, and it warms my monster-killing heart to see the number right there in the stat-block.

Initiative +22 Senses Perception +23; darkvision

Wow, by 3e standards the guy is fast with a +22 to Initiative. It can only be assumed that, in addition to Dexterity bonus, monsters get some sort of bonus tied to their level. The same is true of the Perception skill, the new combination of Spot and Listen. The formula seems to be half of the monster's level (+13) plus Wisdom modifier (+5) plus another 5 for being trained in the skill. At a guess. Plus, darkvision is still in. Sweet.

Aura of Fear (Fear) aura 5; enemies in the aura take a –2 penalty on attack rolls.
Aura of Fire (Fire) aura 5; enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 15 fire damage.

Auras! The aura 5 written first up seems to be range - ranges and distances in 4e are expressed in number of squares on the battlemat, which is something of a throwback to 1e giving them all in inches. Then we get a no-nonsense write-up of what the aura does. They're both nice, useful, and quite easy to remember. I'm not a big fan of the fixed damage on the fire aura, but if it speeds things up at the game table it's all good.

HP 350; Bloodied 175

It looks as though Hit Dice are gone in favour of a flat hit point total. Blah. I liked having a defined upper and lower limit. The Bloodied condition is something that applies to creatures and characters when they hit half hit points. Some abilities only work on Bloodied creatures, and some monsters get abilities that only function once it is bloodied. I like it - it gives just a touch of realism to the abstract hit point system without losing the abstraction that is its greatest strength.

AC 44; Fortitude 42, Reflex 38, Will 40

And here we have the mechanic that replaces saving throws. First we have Armor Class, which means exactly what it always has. Fortitude, Reflex and Will were formerly saving throws, shown as a bonus that was added to a d20 roll. Now they work like Armor Class - the opponent makes an attack roll against a static number. So, for example, if a dragon breathes fire at you it makes an attack against your Reflex defense.

I'm having a hard time coming around to this one, as the saving throw mechanic is deeply ingrained into my subconscious (just take a look at the blog title!). It's a good mechanic, and it will probably work very well with the much-vaunted new math that's underlying the system. It'll just take some getting used to. Kinda like how I missed telling players to Save vs. Death when 3e first appeared.

Resist 30 fire, 15 poison
Saving Throws +2

And yet, here are Saving Throws! Some detective work has revealed to me that there is a saving throw mechanic for ongoing effects in the D&D Miniatures game, used against ongoing effects like being set on fire. You roll 1d20, and if you get 11 or over, the effect ends. In that context, a +2 is pretty good.

The resistances to fire and poison show how much damage a round of the given type is ignored by the creature (unless there has been a big change from 3e). The interesting thing is that apparently there will be very few flat immunities in 4e. The example given was that a Fire Elemental can still be destroyed by a dragon's breath. Sounds weird to me, but I suppose I can go with it. For the Pit fiend these immunities are good ones.

Speed 12, fly 12 (clumsy), teleport 10

Heh. That's about twice as fast as the average PC. Fleeing from this guy is going to be tough. I really like having the teleport ability, along with its range, right there.

Action Points 1

Ah, Action Points. These pop up in a lot of other RPGs, and are generally used by characters to accomplish things that would be otherwise impossible. It's strange to see them in the hands of a monster.

I don't mind Action Points in the context of other RPGs, but to my mind they are the antithesis of D&D. I won't houserule them out, but I'll be paying a lot of attention to their effect on the game.

Melee Flametouched Mace (standard; at-will) • Fire, WeaponReach 2; +31 vs. AC; 1d12+11 fire damage plus ongoing 5 fire damage (save ends).
Melee Tail Sting (standard; at-will) • Poison+31 vs. AC; 1d6+11 damage, and the pit fiend may make a free followup attack. Followup: +29 vs. Fortitude; ongoing 15 poison damage, and the target is weakened (save ends both effects).

These are the two regular melee attacks that the Pit Fiend has. We start with the attack type (in this case melee), followed by the actual attack (flametouched mace and tail sting, respectively). In brackets we see what action type they are - both are Standard actions, which means you can move and use one of these in a round (though this could be different in 4e).

Both attacks are at-will, which references the new mechanic that 4e uses for attacks, spells and powers. Spells have undergone the biggest change here, with wizards no longer preparing a bunch of spells that can be cast once a day. Instead they get a host of powers, some usable at-will, some once per encounter, and some once per day. It's going to be one of the most jarring transitions, but if it stops parties from wanting to rest every couple of hours I'm all for it.

Both attacks then have their attack bonus, and the defense that they target, in this case AC. Hopefully this means that AC will be the default defense for melee attacks. Damage is next, and it really seems very low for such a high-level creature. Hopefully the Pit Fiend will make up for this with its special auras and abilities.

Then we get ongoing damage, and the indication that a successful save negates it. This backs up the saving throw mechanic I mentioned earlier. I like it - having to track a lot of durations could become a pain in the arse. And anything that keeps a downed player involved is good - the chance to shake of paralysis every round, for instance.

The tail sting gets a follow-up attack, and this is the replacement for the Saving Throw. It targets Fortitude, deals poison damage, and weakens the target. The poison damage is the interesting part. It presumably comes of regular hit points, and not ability scores like 3e. That's good - tracking ability score changes in-game is also a pain in the arse. It also seems that Wizards were dead serious about getting rid of save or die effects. That's good for players, but I'll miss having a PCs fate hinge on a single dice roll.

It should also be noted that the Flametouched Mace has a Reach of 2 squares, while the tail does not. This is good; hopefully it will curtail idiocy such as trolls biting characters from ten feet away.

Melee Pit Fiend Frenzy (standard; at-will)
The pit fiend makes a flametouched mace attack and a tail sting attack.

This is bizarre. It's an ability which lets the Pit Fiend make its mace and tail attacks in a single action. Useful, but I'm mystified as to why it's listed separately from the other attacks.

Ranged Point of Terror (minor; at-will) • Fear
Range 5; +30 vs. Will; the target takes a –5 penalty to all defenses until the end of the pit fiend's next turn.

Now we get a ranged attack, one that seriously knocks the target's defenses down for a short time. The major difference here to the other attacks is that it is a Minor Action. I'm not sure how this will work, but it's probable that they take up less time than a Standard Action. Perhaps it's one Standard, one Minor, and one Move per round?

Ranged Irresistible Command (minor 1/round; at-will) • Charm, Fire
Range 10; affects one allied devil of lower level than the pit fiend; the target immediately slides up to 5 squares and explodes, dealing 2d10+5 fire damage to all creatures in a close burst 2. The exploding devil is destroyed.

Ahahaha! That's hilarious. My players will freak out when I bust this one on them. It seems especially effective when combined with...

Infernal Summons (standard; encounter) • ConjurationThe pit fiend summons a group of devil allies. Summoned devils roll initiative to determine when they act in the initiative order and gain a +4 bonus to attack rolls as long as the pit fiend is alive. They remain until they are killed, dismissed by the pit fiend (free action), or the encounter ends. PCs do not earn experience points for killing these summoned creatures. The pit fiend chooses to summon one of the following groups of devils:

8 legion devil legionnaires (level 21), or
2 war devils (level 22), or
1 war devil (level 22) and 4 legion devil legionnaires (level 21)

Nice. Gating in other devils was always the iconic feature of a devil encounter, and it had to stay in. And now, if those devils are too weak to properly challenge the party, their boss can just blow 'em up. Note that this is an Encounter power - that means it can be done once per combat.

Tactical Teleport (standard; recharge 4 5 6) • Teleportation
The pit fiend can teleport up to 2 allies within 10 squares of it. The targets appear in any other unoccupied squares within 10 squares of the pit fiend.

This is a good ability for a mastermind-type baddie. If the Pit Fiend is ever cornered by the PCs, it has instant backup. I'm not sure what recharge 456 means - possibly you roll 1d6, and the ability returns on those numbers?

Alignment Evil
Languages Supernal

Alignment is getting a major overhaul. Creatures can now be unaligned, for one thing. Devils used to be Lawful Evil, now they're just Evil. It's hard to say what this means without seeing the whole system, but it looks like the two-axis system is gone, and monsters have just one alignment. If it destroys alignment arguments, that is great.

Supernal is a new language. Devils used to speak Infernal. Supernal doesn't sound nearly as cool. I'd lay money that it can be understood by anyone.

Skills Bluff +27, Intimidate +27, Religion +24

Surprisingly, Bluff and Intimidate have survived unscathed. They're good skills for a master of devilish deception, for sure. Religion is the renamed Knowledge (religion), and it looks like they've folded it together with Knowledge (the planes). Good move - gods and the planes are pretty synonymous in D&D.

Str 32 (+24) Dex 24 (+20) Wis 20 (+18)
Con 27 (+21) Int 22 (+19) Cha 28 (+22)

Stats and their bonuses. Fear not, those aren't ridiculously high stat modifiers - those are the numbers for when a Pit Fiend attempts a skill untrained. If it wants to Jump a pit, it gets a +24 bonus. If the formula used is half of the monster's level plus the stat modifier, then the mods haven't changed since 3e. Huzzah!

Equipment flametouched mace, noble signet ring

I love the signet ring. It adds a lot of character to the devils and their hierarchy. But where is that breastplate mentioned above?

Pit Fiend Tactics
A pit fiend fights close to its enemies, catching them in its aura of fear and aura of fire. On the first round of combat, it spends an action point to use infernal summons. It then uses point of terror against a tough-looking foe and tactical teleport to place two allies in flanking positions around that foe. With its remaining minor action, the pit fiend uses irresistible command on an ally within range.

So on the first round we've got one Standard Action, one Minor Action, another Standard Action, and another Minor Action. Presumably that Action Point is used to make the first action count for free, which leaves us with one Standard and two Minor. That sounds reasonable.

A pit fiend alternates between point of terror and irresistible command, sometimes using both if it has a spare move action it can replace with a minor action. Otherwise, the pit fiend uses pit fiend frenzy, teleporting as needed to gain a better position.

A pit fiend does not sacrifice its life needlessly and makes a tactical retreat if death is imminent.

I like that it is spelled out that the devil isn't there to fight to the death. It's often really easy to forget that monsters have their own lives, and aren't just there to fight the PCs.

Pit Fiend Lore
A character knows the following information with a successful Religion check:

DC 25: Pit fiends are the nobles of the Nine Hells. Each pit fiend serves as a vassal to one of the nine archdevils and commands a fortress, city, or army in its master's domain.

DC 30: Once every 99 years, a pit fiend can grant a mortal's wish by performing a terrible ritual. Only the most powerful and promising of mortals are offered such a temptation.

DC 35: Well-known pit fiends include Baalzephon, one of the powerful circle of pit fiends known as the Dark Eight; Gazra, who governs the city of Abriymoch in Phlegethos, the Fourth Hell; and Baalberith, the major-domo of the palace of Asmodeus.

Brilliant. These were provided late in 3e development, and they are highly welcome. Deciding what the PCs actually know about certain monsters is always difficult. Having a numerical guide right there is really helpful.

So that is it, the new Pit Fiend. It certainly looks a lot easier to run than the 3e version. That one has a whole lot of spell-like abilities. They give thew creature a greater tactical range, but to be honest they're never going to see use in the average game. The new version is streamlined, flavourful, and looks like a challenging fight. Chalk up another win for 4e - I'm really coming round here!