Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Recaps & Roundups: Monster & Treasure Assortment Set Two - Levels Four-Six

Around this time in late 1977 the second Monster & Treasure Assortment was released.  (Note that this date is very approximate; I've used a number of sources to try to pinpoint release dates, but there are a bunch of products that just don't have that info out there.)  As with the first installment (which I covered here), it presents a number of pre-prepared encounters and treasures to help the DM stock their dungeons more quickly.

The instruction text at the beginning is exactly reproduced from Set One, including the example that uses introductory monsters from the first set.  As with the previous product, each dungeon level covered (in this case levels 4 to 6) has a list of 100 encounters and 100 treasures.  Most of them are standard fare, but there are a number of monsters that are appearing here for the first time ever.  I'll list them below.

  • Black Widow Spiders: These spiders have hit points in the teens, so I guess they'd be around the 3-4 Hit Die mark. All of the encounters with these spiders give them a poison attack, but only some of them list a web attack.
  • Crab Spiders: They average around 10 hp, so they probably have 2 or 3 HD. They're listed with a poison attack.
  • Giant Driver Ants: Giant ants are a D&D staple, but I haven't seen driver ants given stats before.  They're a species of ant native to central and east Africa, but there's nothing about them that different statistically from regular giant ants.
  • Giant Gecko Lizards: Giant lizards with no specific special abilities, and hit points in the high teens.
  • Tiger Beetles: Giant beetles with no special abilities, and hit points in the low 20s.
  • Living Statue, Crystal: Living statues were mentioned passing in the OD&D booklets, but this is the first time they are getting stats.  The crystal statue has hit points in the mid-low teens, and no special abilities.  They won't be brought forward into AD&D, but they will be included in the Basic D&D line.
  • Giant Draco Lizard: Giant lizards with around 20 hit points and no special abilities.
  • Giant Lizard, Horned Chameleon: Giant lizards with hit points between 20-30.  They have a "tongue" attack listed as a special ability, which I assume means they grapple opponents with their tongue and drag them into their mouth.
  • Tarantella: A type of giant spider with hit points ranging from the mid-teens up to 30. They also have a "dance fever" attack listed.  This monster will appear in the Basic D&D line, where its bite causes the victim to dance uncontrollably.
  • Living Statue, Rock: This statue has around 30 hit points, and may squirt magma on a hit, dealing 2-12 damage.
  • Giant Lizard, Tuatara: A giant lizard with around 40 hit points and no special abilities.
  • Caecilia: A type of giant worm that will swallow opponents whole on an attack roll of 19 or 20.
  • Oil Beetles: Giant beetles that can make a painful oil attack that blisters opponents, giving them a -2 attack penalty for 24 hours.

Most of that list above will go on to appear in the Basic and Expert boxed sets written by Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook, while being excluded from AD&D.  The Monster & Treasure Assortments were reportedly put together by Ernie Gygax, so it's possible he created these monsters or was inspired to include them based on earlier games.  Wherever they came from, it's odd that they never made the jump to AD&D.  The AD&D Monster Manual would have been written around the same time as this product, so perhaps these monsters hadn't been created by the time it was finished.

Also of note is that the Monster and Treasure Assortments include a line for each monster showing what saving throw they use.  OD&D is fairly nebulous on the matter, just telling you to use the appropriate class and level equivalent to the monster's Hit Dice.  This is, I believe, the first product that gives concrete information on monster saving throws.

Finally, I want to mention the entry for number appearing.  As with saving throws, OD&D doesn't really tell you how many monsters should be encountered in a dungeon; the Number Appearing entry in that version of the game is meant to apply to wilderness encounters.  The Monster & Treasure Assortment could be used as a guide to determine the proper number to be encountered.  Take Orcs, for instance.  In OD&D, they will be encountered by the hundreds, at least in the wilderness.  In the Assortment, they are encountered as follows: 2-5 on level 1; 3-12 on level 2; 4-24 on level 3; 10-40 on level 4; not encountered after that.  There's no pattern to follow, unfortunately, but it's the closest that the original game ever gets to providing guidance on the matter.

I also just noticed that the blurb on the back of the product mentions some products that were never released.  Apparently TSR planned a fourth set of dungeon geomorphs (ruins), another set of outdoor geomorphs (castle/fortress), and a set of geomorphs for use with miniature figures.  None of these ever saw the light of day.  I'd assume this is because the other geomorphs didn't sell all that well, but I honestly don't know.

I'll leave you with this image from Set Two, which shows some poor bastard being eaten by an Umber Hulk.  My favourite thing about early D&D art is its dedication to showing adventurers meeting grisly fates.  It's definitely something that the more modern art is lacking.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Recaps & Roundups: White Dwarf #3

Cover by Alan Hunter

White Dwarf #3 is cover-dated October/November 1977.  Whether that's an accurate guide to when it was released is a mystery to me, but without anything else to go on I'm covering it with other products from October.

"Solo Dungeon Mapping" by Roger Moores: This article gives a method for creating a map for solo D&D, which involves having a bunch of premade smaller maps and rolling dice randomly to determine where you end up when you transition from one map to another.  It looks workable, although I don't think it's all that well explained.  Perhaps it would be more efficient in play than rolling on random tables, but there's a lot of prep work involved before you can start.

"Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings: Last issue, Hemmings gave the tournament setup: the surviving descendants of the Underhill family have been summoned to compete for the treasure in the dungeons beneath the mansion of their deceased uncle.  This time around Hemmings details the first dungeon level of what is called Pandora's Maze. It's an almost entirely linear affair, with puzzles that very much rely on the player's knowledge of mythology and pop culture.

Take, for example, the following verse:

"Treading on across the floor,
Remember well the leading knave,
Of a band, two score, no more,
Strike the rock with a stave!"

The answer to this is to strike the floor with a staff while shouting "Open Sesame".  The lines about the "leading knave" and "a band, two score" refer to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which is the clue to the correct password, but what happens if your players don't know that story, or don't get the reference?  Getting this right is necessary to open a door in the first room of the dungeon, so the entire adventure hinges on it.  I could very easily see a party getting stuck at this first hurdle.

Another room has riddles that make reference to Sesame Street, Jesus, and the Wizard of Oz; there's no regard for verisimilitude here.  It's very much a dungeon to challenge the player rather than the character, but it does assume a cultural knowledge that may only be appropriate to a certain time and place.  There are references to things I have absolutely no idea about, such as a riddle requiring knowledge of the Condor cigar brand, or the poem "Come Into the Garden Maude" by Lord Tennyson.  (I had to Google these.)  Leaving aside the question of what these references are doing in a D&D world, you just can't expect players to know this stuff.  (Although maybe I'm wrong, and every kid in 1970s Britain would have all of this as common knowledge.  Regardless, it would be almost impossible to run as-written today.)

The reward at the heart of the dungeon level is a machine that can produce any magic item, at the price of having to fight a monster of commensurate power, and being transported to a lower dungeon level.  Talk about your potential game-breakers!  It would only take a few turns of that dial before a party would become strong enough to defeat just about any monster in the books, unless the DM decided to resort to gods and the like.  And being taken to a lower dungeon level would be meaningless when you could just turn the dial to some item with teleportation powers and use it to escape.

"News": There are rumblings about the D&D Basic Set (which I've already covered in this series), as well as the upcoming Monster Manual.  Of the other news, the publication of Traveller is probably the most significant to gaming.  In terms of the wider world, we get our first mention of Star Wars, and that's about as significant as it gets.

"The Monstermark System" by Don Turnbull: Turnbull's meticulous dissection of the relative deadliness of monsters continues.  The first two articles were used to rank the monsters, and this article puts that ranking to a practical use.

The first thing Turnbull does is provide a new table for determining the level of monster encountered by dungeon level.  In OD&D monsters were split into six levels of difficulty, whereas this system splits them into twelve.  I can't really comment on the effectiveness of what Turnbull's done, but it would be interesting to see which results in better play: Turnbull's rigorous yet flawed mathematical system, or Gygax's instincts based on years of play.  It's probably all subjective in the end.

Following that Turnbull goes on to talk about experience rewards, and providing a way to use the Monstermark System to calculate them. He's very much a proponent of the idea that XP should be relative; a 4th level PC fighting a level 1 monster should earn less XP than a 2nd level PC doing the same, at least according to him.  I'm ambivalent to the idea.  Sometimes I think it sounds great, but then I wonder what the point of it is when the amount of XP needed to level goes up significantly each time.  I guess it incentivizes the players to seek out genuine danger rather than playing it safe; I might be talking myself into liking the idea.

The third use Turnbull comes up with for his system is to determine the numbers in a group of wandering monsters.  He uses a ratio of the average hit points of the party over the Monstermark Rating.  Doing so, he calculates that a group of 7 Bugbears would slaughter a party of 10 PCs between 1st and 5th level.  This sounds patently wrong to me, and Turnbull acknowledges that his system doesn't factor in spells, magic items, and other special abilities of the PCs.  As I said above it's a flawed system, but I'm not sure I disagree with his findings that 3 Bugbears would be a reasonable random encounter.  I generally think wandering monsters should be a nuisance rather than a party killer, something that drains resources rather than threatening their existence (unless they're already weakened).  I also disagree with scaling encounter difficulty based on party strength; I can just about see doing it based on party size, with the idea that a larger party would make more noise and attract more monsters, but level and hit points are a much more intangible thing in the game world.  I get the desire to tailor the game to your players, but I prefer the game world to be more static than that; the players should be learning and reacting to the world, not the other way around.

"Open Box": Don Turnbull gives some fair but ultimately positive reviews to various Judges Guild products (the Ready Ref Sheets, Judges Shield, TAC Cards, Tegel Manor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, Thunderhold, Character Chronicle Cards and First Fantasy Campaign).  Mike Westhead reviews Citadel, a two-player game where one player controls heroes searching a dungeon for a talisman, and the other lays monsters and traps in their path.  Fred Hemmings reviews Fourth Dimension, which sounds kind of like a chess game where the players control warriors, rangers, guardians and Time Lords.  Martin Easterbrook reviews Battle of the Five Armies from TSR, the unlicensed wargame depicting the climactic battle from The Hobbit that drew the ire of the Tolkien Estate.  This is a game I've never seen, and am not likely to, but it seems to have most of the good and bad points of TSR products of the day: good production values, but poor rules clarity.

"D&D Campaigns: Part 1 - Philosophy (cont.)" by Lewis Pulsipher: This article kicks off with a quote that exactly sums up my approach to running a game: "the referee should not make up anything important after an adventure has begun".  Basically, the ref should have as much worked out beforehand as possible, and changes to the rules and the dungeon shouldn't be made during play.  Of course, adding unestablished details as required will always be necessary, but if my notes say something before I start playing, that's how I roll it.

Pulsipher goes on to give all sorts of good advice, touching on such topics as the logical determination of monster actions, morale, and maintaining a good relationship between the players and the DM.  He lays out the desirable attributes of a campaign as follows: "simplicity, rapidity of play whenever this doesn't reduce skill, participation by all the players, a sense of control by the players of their own fate, and believability".  It's a pretty hard list to argue with.  When Pulsipher refers to "skill", he's talking about whether the decisions of the players can affect their survival.  He has a long section on how much time to allow players to make decisions, and whether they should be able to change their mind after stating an action.  Pulsipher errs on the side of giving the players plenty of time, and letting them change their minds, and I agree with him.  His argument is that the players shouldn't be expected to display the rapid-fire decision-making of their characters, and that imposing strict time limits just leads to more player death.  Again, I find that it's all good advice (though I am inclined to hurry players along when their hesitation is holding up the game to a frustrating degree).

He has a section on the use of detection spells, which he says are vital to good play and vital to increasing the survivability of players.  I've honestly never had players that made extensive use of them, but then again I've never played the kind of exploration-centric dungeon-crawl that was prevalent at the time.

The article finishes with a section on alignment, and identifies Moorcock as the source of the OD&D alignment system.  His own system has a number of actions that are restricted by alignment, including which other alignments characters are allowed to attack. He finishes with a bit about the five-point system introduced by Gary Gygax in recent issues of The Dragon, and rather presciently declares that the introduction of such a system would require a complete overhaul of the game.

"Colouring Conan's Thews" by Eddie Jones: This is an introductory article about painting miniatures that gets into specifics about what paints and brushes to use.  I've never had the patience to get good at painting figures, so this isn't of much interest. Besides, most of the brands mentioned are probably defunct by now, and the prices are certainly no longer accurate.

"The Assassin" by John Rothwell: This article gives rules for using the Assassin class introduced in Supplement II: Blackmoor as a player character.  To be honest, a lot of this is just reproduced from Blackmoor, where the class was already intended for use as a PC, so I'm not sure what the purpose is here beyond adding some guidelines about using armour as part of a disguise, and the needless restriction that assassins can't be female.

"The Loremaster of Avallon: Part III" by Andy Holt: Holt continues with his own house rules, this time getting into combat.  I say house rules, but really it's an entirely new system that uses cards, with the attacker laying out cards to attack and the defender using their own cards to parry.  There are more details to come next issue, so it's impossible to evaluate at present (and pretty difficult to do so anyway, without actually seeing it in practice).  Regardless, I'm always leery of RPG combat systems that don't use dice.

"New Magic Rooms" by Ian Waugh: Waugh details two special rooms.  The first, a "cloning room", splits any neutral character in two, with one lawful clone and one chaotic clone. Both will fight to the death.  (I'm assuming he nicked this from the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within".) The second, a "clumsy room", reduces the Dexterity of any character inside by 75%.  It also contains a purse containing gold that makes the bearer similarly clumsy for as long as they carry it.

"Letters": Jennell Jaquays writes to praise the Monstermark System, and express her annoyance that her adventure "Merlin's Garden" was referenced in the "Competitive D&D" article without appropriate credit.  Lewis Pulsipher suggests some rules changes to the Lankhmar wargame.  Nigel Galletty provides Monstermark ratings for the Balrog, which he says Don Turnbull missed (not entirely accurate, as he covered the Type VI Demon).  And Patrick Martin complains that there aren't any miniatures portraying characters with backpacks, poles, lanterns, and other adventuring gear.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Plugging My Newest Blog

I should have a post on White Dwarf #3 ready to go tomorrow, but in the meantime I have another blog I've been working on with some regularity: Chronology X.  If you're into X-Men comics you might want to check it out, but be warned that this is extremely focused on deep-dive continuity issues and minutiae related to the passage of time.  I'm trying to construct a working X-Men timeline based on clues from within the comics, so we're talking extremely pedantic nerd bullshit here.  If that sounds like something you might enjoy, please head on over there and take a look.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Recaps & Roundups: The Dragon #10

I've been fairly inactive on the D&D front, aside from the mammoth task of wikifying D&D 3.5e.  I don't have anything specifically to post about, so I guess I'll return to my chronological journey through D&D history.  I've currently reached the products that were released circa October of 1977, and I'll kick things off with a brief look at The Dragon #10.

Cover by John Sullivan

I originally covered this issue over two posts, here and here.  Since I've already gone over it, I'll be skimming over things more quickly with this post.

The "Dragon Rumbles" editorial mentions that GenCon X just happened.  The magazine's page count has risen by 4 pages, and there's a concerted effort to organise things better so that unofficial rules are clearly labelled as variants.

Other non-D&D articles include 
  • "The Tactics of Diplomacy in Stellar Conquest" by Edward C. Cooper, which gives guidelines for mixing both of those games together.  I've never played either, so it's completely outside my frame of reference.
  • "Snit Smashing" by Tom Wham, a truly bizarre board game.  Wham's stuff is loaded with personality, and I'd love to try playing this one day.
  • "Wormy" and "Finieous Fingers" are doing their things in the comics.

And now the D&D articles:

"Orgies, Inc" by Jon Pickens: The article doesn't live up to it's attention-grabbing title, but it does give some interesting variant rules aimed at getting excess treasure out of your campaign.  The central idea - one that the OSR picked up on many years later - is to limit XP for gold only to gold spent.  Characters can sacrifice treasure to gods or demons, give it away to charity, use it for research, indulge in wine and women, etc., and it then converts to XP.  We're in the time before training costs became an official rule, so I've no doubt that lots of campaigns at the time were having a problem with excess loot. I think this is the best way of dealing with it that I've seen up to this point.

My major problem with it is that the amount of XP earned is divided by the character's level, which would definitely slow advancement.  Original D&D did have a ratio based on how dangerous it was to obtain the gold, but this one covers all treasure regardless of how difficult it was to get.  I feel like the amount of XP needed to attain higher levels is already enough of a barrier, and dividing it like this seems unnecessary.

For my own rules, I've been toying with tying this kind of thing into player upkeep, with players deciding how they've been living between adventures and that lifestyle manifesting as a bonus or negative to hit points.  Unfortunately I haven't had the chance to implement it, because our games keep ending with the players in the middle of an expedition, or with a time limit hanging over their heads to get certain things done.  One day, though.

"Designing for Unique Wilderness Encounters" by Daniel Clifton: This is a series of charts for determining the general terrain of a wilderness battlefield, which is not a bad idea for varying things up when running fights outdoors.  It has charts for five types of terrain (clear, rough, mountainous, wooded, and marshy), with sub-tables for things like the grade of hills and the direction rivers flow in.  It's not an overwhelming amount of charts to use, and I like it better than my current "make it up off the top of my head" system.  It's an idea I'd like to work on, although if I used the charts here I'd modify the whole system.

"Random Monsters" by Paul Montgomery Crabaugh: A series of charts for randomly coming up with new monsters, because even by 1977 players have already memorised everything.  I don't have a lot of use for this kind of thing: D&D already has hundreds and hundreds of monsters, and I've barely used a fraction of them.  There are some good ideas to mine for inspiration in here though, especially the undead with the power to turn clerics.

"Let There Be a Method to Your Madness" by Richard Gilbert: This article gives advice on dungeon design, suggesting that rather than a series of random monsters and traps, a dungeon should have some sort of purpose behind it.  It's the sort of basic stuff that DMs learn very early on these days, but it is good advice.

The author gives an example dungeon, a castle on a small hill that was taken over by a wizard called Nappo around 400 years ago.  Nappo has been dead for 275 years, but the dungeons he created with his orcs are still there.  Levels include living areas for several hundred orcs (with temples, an armory, maybe some sewers), cells and torture chambers, maybe an arena, guardrooms and traps to snare intruders, and below that Nappo's quarters, with laboratories, monster pens, and a treasury.  About 15 levels are suggested.  If I was to ever get around to the fabled Ultimate Sandbox this dungeon would go in somewhere.

"Weights & Measures: Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females in D&D" by P.M. Crabaugh:  What we have here are charts for determining a character's rough height and weight, a new system of encumbrance based on those scores, and some statistical differentiation between men and women.  Size (being equivalent to height) is rolled on 3d6, with a chart showing what that means for each race and sex.  Then Weight is rolled on1d6, with characters being light, medium, or heavy.  This determines carrying capacity, with heavier characters being able to carry more than lighter ones.

As for statistical differences between men and women (something not in official D&D at this point), the author does an unusual thing by making women statistically superior to men.  They are given bonuses to both dexterity and constitution, both scores of statistical relevance to every character class.  Their only downside is a reduced carrying capacity, due to their smaller size.  It's not enough to balance out the bonuses, I feel: of all the DMs I've played with, I'm the only one who has ever tried to properly track encumbrance, and I only started doing that last year.  Encumbrance-based penalties are more often than not a complete non-factor.

I also have a problem with the chart numbers, because the range isn't variable enough.  The tallest human possible is 6'4"; I went to high school with a guy who was 6'7" when he was 15.  I feel like there should be more scope for outliers at both ends.  The weights seem low as well.  215 pounds for a heavy guy at 6'4"?  Maybe that's accurate for normal people, but pretty much all my knowledge of how much people weigh comes from pro wrestling.  Those guys can be in the 250-300 lb. range, with some even heavier.  I know that body-building wasn't necessarily a thing in ye olden times, but who's to say someone wouldn't have gyms in their D&D campaign?  I've had the same problem with almost every random height/weight chart I've seen in D&D though.  Either they're too limited, or my expectations are out of whack.  I dunno, I like to have the possibility of rolling up a freak now and then.

"Gaining a New Experience Level" by Tom Holsinger: Now here's an idea I really like, and had completely forgotten about since I last read it.  The idea is this: instead of levelling up automatically, or through training, or by spending your gold on orgies, levels are bestowed by the gods.  It makes a lot of sense of D&D's power scale, to be honest, and the author has thought up all sorts of little ideas that tie in.  Why do high-level PCs have to build castles? Because the antics involved in getting the attention of the gods cause a lot of trouble for all those around.  Why do demi-humans have level limits? Because the state of mind necessary to commune with the gods involves alcohol and drugs, and demi-humans just can't get wasted like humans can.  There's a lot of fun, inventive stuff here.  The downside is that the wrong gods might take notice, with consequences as decided by the DM.  That's a little disappointing: I prefer DM fiat to be as rare an occurrence as possible.

I've been thinking about levelling up, and employing a system whereby training isn't required but does confer some bonuses if you're willing to pay for it.  I might add petitioning the gods as another option that is high risk/high reward.

Next: I'm not sure, but October of 1977 has the following options.  From TSR there's Monster and Treasure Assortment Set Two and the Outdoor Geomorphs.  Judges Guild's offering for this month is Installment O, which featured the second part of Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  And finally, there's White Dwarf #3. We'll see what takes my fancy when I get around to writing something up.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Literally Rewriting the Rules

It's been over a month since my last post, but I haven't been working on my campaign much. Instead my D&D efforts have been focused on creating a comprehensive wiki of the 3rd edition rules.  It's not the most interesting thing to blog about, but it's all I've got right now, so I'll gamely pound out a few paragraphs about it.

I decided to take on this mammoth task after a few months of working on my 3rd edition campaign, and getting frustrated with the rulebooks.  I know that there's the d20 SRD, but that has its own deficiencies: it doesn't include a lot of the classic IP, and it's still written out as blocks of text.

Those blocks of text are one of the main reasons I took this project on.  Trying to find a relevant rule in the books is much harder when it's buried in a column of words, many of which are superfluous to the game.  I'm converting them to point form as I fill in the wiki entries, which I find much more concise and easier to navigate.

The other frustration, and honestly the bigger one, is the way that 3rd edition constantly refers back to other sections of the book.  Take, for instance, the spell acid fog, a not particularly complex spell by 3e standards.  To get its full effects, you need to refer back to solid fog.  Then when you go back to solid fog, it refers back to fog cloud.  A complete description of acid fog requires looking up three different spells and parsing them all, which isn't going to happen during play without stopping the game for a bit.  So while I write the wiki, I'm making sure that all the info I need is right there on a single page. Here's what acid fog looks like:

It's not the most aesthetically pleasing effort, but unfortunately WikidPad doesn't offer much in the way of formatting.  I think it's going to help me a lot in terms of getting the rules right though.  3rd edition is full of stuff like this, particularly in the spell descriptions, and I'm hoping all of this effort will help things run a bit more smoothly when unfamiliar spells pop up.  (That's going to more frequent now, as one of my players is hitting the mid-levels as a wizard.)

Another reason I wanted to create this wiki is that I'm slowly house-ruling 3e until it plays more to my liking.  Rather than having a sheet of house rules, I'd rather be able to edit the rules directly in a place that everyone can access.  It a bit unfortunate that step one of that process is typing up hundreds of pages of rules, but I honestly enjoy this kind of busywork. I'm weird like that.

Currently I'm a bit over 200 pages into the Player's Handbook, in the spells starting with C.  There's a lot of work ahead, though I suspect that the Dungeon Master's Guide won't take as long.  No doubt my progress will slow down when I start playing again, but for now I'm plugging away at it whenever I get the chance.

Monday, April 05, 2021


During a recent game session, my players' characters had a lengthy wilderness journey with some NPCs.  Among the many things that might happen along the way, one of the possibilities I considered was a romantic entanglement.

Romance is not something I've ever really tackled seriously as part of D&D.  Yes, there was juvenile sex stuff going on in the game when my friends and I were teenagers, but that's an aspect of those days I'd rather forget.  Nowadays my interest is in running D&D as a simulation, and let's be real here, sex and romance are a huge part of our everyday lives. It feels a little odd that the game puts so much effort into different possibilities and aspects of life, but gives zero guidance in that area.

I mean, I get it.  It can be a touchy subject, and one that a lot of players probably just don't want to deal with at the table.  Leaving out the potential trouble that can come from being socially entwined with certain NPCs (and DMs who want to use those connections to screw the players), there's also the possible awkward situations that can come when you have to roleplay a sexual encounter with one of your mates, or even worse, with someone you only know on a casual basis.  All of this could wreck the tone of the looting and monster-killing fun times that D&D reliably provides.

With those reservations in mind, I decided to take a crack at it anyway.  My first resolution was to take myself out of it as much as possible.  I might decide as a DM when an NPC falls in love with a player character, but I've been trying to avoid that kind of thing.  My current style as a DM is to leave as much to random chance as possible, so I had to set about writing up some rules.

The first thing I determined was that these rules don't apply to the players in any way.  I'm against any rules that take choices away from the players, or dictate their behaviour in any way (magical influence excepted, of course).  I don't even enforce alignment, unless someone is playing a paladin or a cleric with a strict alignment code.  So these rules below are for determining how NPCs feel. Players get to decide who they're attracted to, and who they might want to pursue a relationship with.

One thing to consider with these rules is that we're not just talking about characters falling in love.  We also have to figure out whether there's an attraction in the first place.  And the starting place for that is to determine their - oh boy, I know I'm stepping into a minefield here - sexual preference.

To figure this out, I did some statistical research.  As far as I can tell, about 4% of the population identifies as gay.  I suspect that number is low, but it came up in a number of surveys, so I'm going with it.  So I begin with a percentage roll for each NPC that could be a potential romantic partner to determine their sexuality: 95% heterosexual, 4% homosexual, and 1% bisexual.  If the preference matches the sex/gender of the PC in question, we can move on to the next step.

Now we determine if the NPC is attracted to that character. There are three factors in play here: the PC's Charisma score, the race of the two characters in question, and their respective alignments.

I figure I'm stepping into another minefield with the race thing, but "race" in D&D terms is a very different thing than in the real world.  I'm not suggesting at all that humans of different ethnicities would be less attracted to each other, but when it comes to D&D I like to maintain some of the stereotypes. So yes, I am suggesting that elves are less likely to be attracted to half-orcs, or dwarves. Take that as you will.  The chance is still there, and I would definitely try to play it out if the dice came up.  And we all know how the dice work in D&D: assign a chance to something, no matter how small, and it's going to come up.  Anyway, here are the racial modifiers I came up with:

NPC Race: PC Race = Dwarf Elf Gnome Half-Elf Half-Orc Halfling Human
Dwarf   +5 -5 +2 -2 -5 -2 -2
Elf   -5 +5 -2 +2 -5 -2 +0
Gnome   +2 +0 +5 +0 -5 +2 -2
Half-Elf   -2 +2 -2 +5 -2 -2 +2
Half-Orc   -5 +5 -2 +2 +5 -2 +2
Halfling   +0 +2 +2 +2 -2 +5 -2
Human   -2 +5 -2 +5 +0 -2 +5

For alignment, a modifier is determines based on the relative alignments of the character in question.  For the Law/Chaos axis, there's a +6 modifier if the characters have the same alignment, and a -6 modifier if their alignments are opposite.  If the alignments are only one away from each other, there's no modifier.  The same applies for the Good/Evil axis.  So if one character is lawful good and the other is chaotic evil, that's a -12 modifier.  If both characters were lawful good, that would be a +12 modifier.  This is the closest I could come up with for whether character like each others' personalities.  Alignment is pretty much the only concrete part of the game that defines a character's personality, so I'm using it here.

Both of the above modifiers are added to the Charisma score of the PC in question.  Then the whole lot is doubled, and that gives a percentage chance to see if there's an attraction.

As an example, say that Morf the Dwarf (a PC) is spending a lot of time with Barvork the Half-Orc (an NPC).  As the PC is a dwarf and the NPC is a half-orc, that gives us a -5 modifier to the roll.  Morf's alignment is neutral good, and Barvork is lawful evil.  Lawful and neutral are only one step away, so there's no modifier there, but good and evil are opposites, so that makes for a -6 alignment modifier.  Finally, Morf has a Charisma of 13.  The percentage chance is 13 (Charisma) + 6 (alignment modifier) -5 (race modifier), with the total being doubled.  That gives a 14% chance that Barvork will be attracted to Morf.  Not a huge chance, but large enough that it could definitely come up.

That's just attraction, though, and doesn't factor in whether an NPC might fall in love.  Having gone fairly in-depth with the modifiers above, I decided to go simple for this roll: it's simply another percentage roll, with the chance being 1/4 of the chance for being attracted.  In the case of Morf and Barvork, that's a 3% chance.

Finally, I came up with a chart to figure out the intensity of love/attraction.  I didn't come up with any rules beyond what's here, but I figured I'd use the chart below as a guide for role-playing.  I've considered implementing saving throws for each category below, for when a PC tries to use love or attraction to coerce an NPC into something they might not otherwise want to do, but I haven't figured those numbers out yet.

  • 01-50 - Mild attraction/love
  • 51-70 - Moderate attraction/love
  • 71-85 - Strong attraction/love
  • 86-95 - Intense attraction/love
  • 96-99 - Irresistible attraction/love
  • 00 - Dangerously obsessive attraction/love

In play, I rolled on the charts above for every NPC that would be travelling with the PCs.  There were six NPC, and two PCs.  Of twelve romantic possibilities, I got a hit on three: the half-elf Noble Nightbreeze had a strong attraction to the half-orc PC, and the NPC leader - an elf named Erian Silverbough - had a mild attraction to both PCs.

One thing I didn't want to do was force these kinds of interactions  on my players, so I simply told them (after some Wisdom checks) that they were picking up on signals that there was an attraction there.  Alas, neither of my players tried to take things further.  The player of the elf PC said that he considers his character asexual, so he's obviously not into exploring this kind of thing with this character.  The half-orc PC made some jokes about it, but didn't bother to pursue things; he's fairly goal-oriented in the game anyway, so I figured he wouldn't be all that into it.

With the lack of interest from my players, I left it there, and that's how I intend to use these rules.  I'll roll this stuff in secret and let the players know the possibility is there for romance, but if they don't bite I'm not going to push it onto them.  I didn't get much interest with this group, and if I'm being honest I'm not sure that this is an avenue I want to go down too deeply, but I'm happy enough to have rules for this kind of thing in my game.  Like I said, I'm into simulation, and romance is part of life.  I'll keep using theses rules, and I might report back here if they ever come up in my game in any significant fashion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

On the Benefits of Randomisation

In recent games I've been trying to run things a little more sandbox-style, going off-the cuff moreso than relying on pre-planned adventures.  It's resulted in some more dynamic and surprising games, and also in some that have kind of petered out without much of a sense of a climax, but I'm liking the results so far.  Events in the game are flowing more organically and naturally, based much more on what the PCs want and how the various NPCs are reacting to their actions.

That said, I am a planner by nature (not so much in real life, but definitely where D&D is concerned). I like to plan ahead, especially if I know where the game is likely to go in the next session.  One of my recent games involved a week-long wilderness journey where the PCs had to take the inert body of my setting's god of light to a rendezvous point, and hand it over for safekeeping.  They had members of the local resistance movement with them to act as guides, so I was about as certain as a DM can ever be about where the game was going.

With that knowledge, I set about figuring out what would happen along the journey.  Normally I'd have placed set encounters that fit the adventure and tried to lead it along a certain plot path, but right now I'm trying to take the "plot" out of D&D as much as I can while still planning ahead. So rather than pick the encounters myself, I decided to do the whole thing using random charts.  Below I'll detail how I put the adventure together, and how I also drew quite a bit of setting inspiration from the results I rolled up randomly.

The first step was to work out how long the journey would take at the party's optimal speed. They were travelling light (aside from the big old crystalline god torso they're lugging about), and the journey to the rendezvous point and back to the city of Port Bracken came to about five days.

Next, I started rolling for random encounters using the tables I'd made when I drafted up my maps.  (I really should put up an image of the wilderness region, but I only have it as a hand-drawn map. I need to scan it at some point.)  The 3rd edition rules call for a random encounter check for every hour of travel, but that's way too often.  I can't be rolling twenty-four dice per game day, especially on the fly.  Instead, I've split the day into four time periods: morning (6am to 12pm), afternoon (12pm to 6pm), early night (6pm to 12am) and late night (12am to 6am).  I make one check for each of those periods, then roll a d6 to determine the hour in which the encounter happens.

Another wrinkle I've added to random encounters is the idea that sometimes you'll see signs of a creature rather than the creature itself (the howling of wolves, an old campsite, an animal that's been killed by the creature, etc.).  Whenever an encounter is indicated, I give it a 1-in-4 chance that the encounter will be signs of a creature.  The next time an encounter comes up, there's a 3-in-4 chance that the encounter will be with the creature indicated.  This allows a little more foreshadowing to be added to random encounters, and gives the PCs more of a chance to plan ahead.

For the journey I rolled the following:
  • Seven dwarves around midday on the first day
  • Signs of wights at the end of the second day
  • A wight encounter on the morning of the fourth day
  • An encounter with bombardier beetles around midnight of the fourth day
  • An encounter with an escaped refugee on the final day
  • A mixed encounter a few hours later, with Priests of Malak (the god of darkness) and hippogriffs
The dwarf encounter was easy to figure out (although I had to resist the urge to do a Snow White riff).  The timing had it happening at a bridge, so I set them up as cutthroat bandits making travellers pay them to use the crossing.  I threw in a little bit of background about them being a troupe of jesters who've had trouble finding work, and also made a note that they'd be extra-curious about the body of the light god if they caught a glimpse of it.

For the wights, I figured a destroyed camp would be the best way to foreshadow them; I didn't want anything too immediate, because there was going to be a pretty big gap between the sign and the encounter.  So I placed a camp with some abandoned tents and bedrolls, along with the corpses of some dogs that had suffered an energy draining.

The wight encounter I just placed as a simple ambush/attack, noting that the head wight was being served by lesser wights who were the former inhabitants of the ruined camp.

The encounter with the beetles was a trickier one, as I was struggling with ways to make it interesting.  It was set to happen around midnight, and I find encounters can be a little trickier to realistically set up when the PCs are camped, especially when the monsters aren't all that intelligent or mobile. I resigned myself to making it a straight-up predatory ambush, but I was saved when I got around to rolling for random weather.  A thunderstorm came up at pretty much the exact time the PCs were set to encounter the beetles, so what was going to be a boring slugfest became much more potentially interesting, as the beetles would be stirred out of their nest by the lightning and thunder and stampede into the PC camp.  (Well, I thought it was going to be awesome, but the PCs ran away from the wights and turned that encounter into an overland chase. They ended up a few miles away from where the beetle encounter was set to happen, and I didn't want to railroad them back into it, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it go. I still think it would have ruled, though.)

The refugee encounter and the one with the priests of Malak and the hippogriffs were set to happen within an hour of each other, so it made sense to connect them. After all, the priests are pretty much in charge of Port Bracken, and they're definitely the sort of folks that someone would be trying to escape from.  So I made this refugee a member of the Resistance, and gave him a minor connection to one of the NPCs the party was travelling with. (As an added call-back, I made him a member of the Hucrele family from The Sunless Citadel, which I'd run very early on in this campaign.)  The priests of Malak would be in pursuit, and would no doubt stop to question the PCs, who would have to decide whether to risk their necks for someone they hardly knew.

That just left the question of the hippogriffs.  One thing I've done to spice up my random encounter tables is include a result that calls for rolling on the table twice, with both groups being encountered simultaneously.  The idea was that it would be up to me to make sense of the combination, and that the results would make for some more dynamic encounters.  The evil priests of Malak being combined with generally good or neutral hippogriffs seemed on the face of it like the PCs should stumble into a fight between the two groups, but with this encounter being so close to Port Bracken it didn't feel quite right.  Hippogriffs are often used as mounts, and with the priests being a hunting party it made sense to go that way.  I tweaked it a little by making the hippogriffs into zombies, as use of undead slaves is a big part of how the priests of Malak operate.  Yeah, I'm not sure zombie hippogriffs would be able to fly either, but the 3rd edition rules say they can, so I went with it.

That final encounter added a lot of detail to my setting: a new NPC, more information about the Resistance and the NPCs travelling with the party, a mention of the "labyrinth cells" below the Temple of Malak, and the idea that the temple's hunting parties use zombie hippogriffs as steeds. None of this existed before I rolled on the random tables.

Because I had some extra time to plan, I decided to roll up a different set of random encounters just in case the PCs happened to make the journey while slowed due to encumbrance.  I don't remember the results as well, because they weren't used in the game, but what was effectively pointless busywork still gave me some setting details.  After the thunderstorm (because I was still using the same weather results), I rolled for an encounter with giant centipedes.  Then, I rolled for an encounter with dire wolves and giant centipedes together. Then, I rolled for an encounter with ogres and dire wolves together.

The giant centipedes coming out after the storm was a really nice bit of serendipity that mimics how certain creepy-crawlies pop out after the rain in the real world.  The dire wolf/centipede combination was an odd one, but the subsequent ogres/dire wolves combo made sense of it all.  Obviously, these ogres prize like to eat giant centipedes, and they're out hunting after the thunderstorm using their pet dire wolves to track them.  This is the kind of thing I'd probably never come up with on my own, but came to me almost right away when I was forced to make sense of the whole thing.

So at the moment I'm enjoying this way of creating adventures, with my own design biases being guided by random tables moreso than by my own whims.  It's forcing me to think outside of my usual box, and I'm liking the results.  No doubt it will be harder to do effectively when I have to roll these things on the fly, but hell, everything in D&D is harder when you have to do it on the fly. Practice will hopefully make these things come more naturally. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Returns & Resets

Well, it's been a while. Looking at the blog I see that I haven't posted since August. I haven't had any particular health problems, and no mental issues aside from the usual amount of pervading existential despair, but I have had a bunch of other stuff going on and a very odd family situation that's recently resolved itself (I hope).  So I'm ready to return to blogging, even though I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to blog about in regards to D&D.

I should probably start by mentioning that I've been running games again.  Over the last few months I found myself living with a couple of my players, so we decided to make Saturday nights the time to revive my 3rd edition campaign.  That campaign started way back circa 2002, and has been going on and off since then (mostly off since my son was born in 2008).  The initial portion was set in a lone fort in a savage wilderness, and culminated in the fort being besieged by an army of barbaric orcs.  That wrapped up pretty satisfyingly (I wrote it up here if you feel like reading about it), and I was fairly happy to end it at that. The main thrust of the campaign was done and the major plot threads had been dealt with, and my playing group were all getting married and having children, which was making things harder to schedule. I was just glad we'd gotten to go out on a climactic high note.

I have one player, though, who pretty vocally wanted to continue. The thing with this campaign is that it's a continuation of a 2nd edition campaign I ran in the late 90s. I set up a lot of threads in that game that never got resolved due to an unfortunate TPK. Most of threads involved the main four PCs being heroes of prophecy, which is a dumb idea when you're playing a game that can turn on a die roll.  What can I say, I'm wiser about that now.  So when I was designing my 3e campaign, I just said screw it, why throw away the work I've already done? The set-up was that a few centuries passed, and the forces of evil won because the heroes of prophecy failed. I didn't make that clear at the campaign's beginning, but the player I mentioned earlier figured out pretty quickly that this was the same world.

This player is still dead keen to find out the answers to plot threads I set up over two decades ago, and it didn't take me much convincing to start running again. My intention was to bring in a completely different style though. Whereas before I've been running discrete adventures set up with obvious plot hooks, this time I was planning on running more of a player-driven sandbox. And since the 3e adventures before that had been in a fort surrounded by hostile wilderness, I wanted the game to transition to more of a city-based game.

To set up the sandbox, I had to do some heavy rail-roading. It's a contradiction, but I wanted the campaign to move to a new area and I politely asked my players to go along with it. I would have preferred to do it a bit more organically, but the plan was that once I'd gotten done with that transition adventure I'd let the players drive things  completely.

It hasn't exactly worked out that way, due to events set up earlier in the campaign. As I've mentioned in earlier posts on the campaign, I went a little buck-wild with magic items, and among the things the PCs brought with them were the torso and left hand of the god of light, who had been dismembered by the god of darkness a few hundred years ago. Given that the PCs have entered a city ostensibly run by the priests of that god of darkness, with a resistance operating from the catacombs, things had to unfold in certain ways so they wouldn't end up thrown in a dungeon or killed on a sacrificial altar. I've given the players complete freedom to act within that framework and take charge as much as possible, but they've been led around by NPCs a lot more than I'd have liked. That scenario's been dealt with for now, with the god's body parts having been taken away to a safe place by the resistance, and I think things are finally ready to open up into a truly player-driven game.

What has worked really well is the transition to a city-based game. The fortress they'd previously lived in didn't provide a lot of opportunities, but the city of Port Bracken really opens things up: major cities give the players a lot more things to do and a lot more tactical options (as well as more ways to get themselves into trouble).  The game's shifted into one with a lot more factions and intrigue, and it's a positive change.  When the first session back culminated in the players ambushing a pirate captain outside of a brothel, I knew that the tone of the game had shifted considerably.

So I'm in new territory for the blog, which has mostly been me ruminating about a game that I've barely played since 2008.  I made a conscious decision a while ago to shift my D&D efforts to focus more on actively playing, which is part of why my Recaps & Roundups series stalled out back in August.  As such, I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to be doing here.  I'll definitely post about my current gaming activities, and any observations I have about running that campaign.  I'll try to make those posts general, but given that I'm running 3e it's going to a bit more new-school than the blog's focus has been so far.  As for what else I'll be doing, I don't know.  The Ultimate Sandbox has always been more of a pie-in-the-sky mental exercise, although I'd like to make it my standard game after I finish with the current campaign.  Recaps & Roundups will probably return, because I do enjoy that sort of historical/chronological analysis. For now though, I'm just going to ease myself back in, and post on whatever D&D-related stuff takes my fancy.