Monday, 1 June 2020

PREVIEW: The Grottoes of the Fallen Feyarchy (1st Edition Adventure for 1st-12th Levels)

What are the Grottoes of the Fallen Feyarchy? They are ten sea grottoes (including two underwater) arranged on a 20-mile sweep of a subtropical coast. A great city was built here – the capital of an empire ruled by an alliance of High and Aquatic Elves. That empire, and the city, fell. Eight of the Grottoes – the “urban centre” – were sealed off by a magical glamour that protected them from both sight and access from the outside world. Though in significant ruin, these Grottoes still largely retain the old structures of the Feyarchy. They are also still inhabited by some of the sentient peoples of the Old Feyarchy, as well as newer – more dangerous – incomers. The remaining two, the pleasant rural hinterland, were settled by other sentient beings over time, with nearly all trace of the Feyarchy covered by the sands and swamps.

But now, the Glamour has begun to fall, and the Grottoes are open to exploration and exploitation.

At a basic level, this is a location-based campaign. Players decide where to go and what to do, with curiosity about a fallen world and a desire for treasures typical motivators. However, there are a variety of subthemes which players can take or leave: many marvellous devices of the old Feyarchy are reparable if enough time and thought is put into them; there are still several Good or Neutral sentient tribes in the Grottoes, who are in grave need of help; there is the mystery of the Feyarchy’s fall to discover hints about; there are timeline-based events which represent the influx of adventurers and other effects of the Fallen Glamour; and there are dark machinations on the part of an Aboleth to combat (or aid).

I’ll be releasing the first three Grottoes in the next week or so, along with some of the campaign-framing material. These aren’t playtested – they’re raw materials for my own upcoming campaign. However, other eyes are much appreciated, and I think they are mostly usable as they are. Do get in touch with any feedback.

The Grottoes are:
v  Grotto I (1st Level, Base): Coconut Beach. No Glamour. A Human settlement of voyagers from across the seas. Over the course of the campaign, their relatively stable life will be upset by an influx of adventurers from the North, as well as dangers from the newly revealed Grottoes. This is a fully detailed settlement, including timeline mechanics for the Grottoes Goldrush. There are also several micro-adventure locations, and one small mid-level locale hidden in plain sight – the Torus Embassy (5th-7th Levels), the planar embassy where the Feyarchs met with their Marid allies.
v  Grotto II (1st-5th Levels): The Mangrove Swamp. No Glamour. A wilderness crawl with several locales. The most significant of these is the “nearby low-level dungeon” – the Lair of the Mangrove Bandits, a tree village of Tasloi who annoy the nearby Humans, their own swampy neighbours, and coastal traffic. There are also settlements of Muckdwellers (who worship a comatose Kuo-Toa) and Grippli, a thoroughly awful grove with great treasure but also a Hangman Tree, a Pilfer Vine, and  kamadan, and a Monk’s Cell with an annoying threefold lock which houses the last sane Feyarch.
v  Grotto III (2nd-4th Levels): The Flooded Gates. Fallen Glamour. A 28-room dungeon over three levels. The upper two levels are inhabited by a Sea Hag (who you can kill or seduce) and her Troglodyte lackeys, the lower levels by Lacedons, an Olive Slime and its offspring, and a Giant Crocodile. The Gate mechanism can be repaired, and the magical artillery in bunkers above turned to use.
v  Grotto IV (2nd-5th Levels): The Crystal Dock of Teril-Cora. Glamour Operational. Accessible from the Flooded Gates. There are ruined harbour buildings and a marina here for overland exploration, as well as some underwater locations beyond. There are a Sirine and a band of Selkies here, amongst other things.
v  Grotto V (3rd-5th Levels): The Cerulean Beach and Bay. Glamour Operational. The Triton warrior and entertainer castes of the Feyarchy still dwell here in the semi-ruined suburbs that bridge sea and land. There’s a patchwork Waterworld feel to their settlement. The centrepiece dungeon here is an abandoned monastery somehow implicated in the fall of the Feyarchy.
v  Grotto VI (4th-6th Levels): The Rose Reef of Old Kaizun. Glamour Operational. This coral reef is the home of the Aquatic Elves, now xenophobic and increasingly desperate, as their reef slowly bleaches and the local fauna mutate or die off from magical pollutants. They cannot reach the source of the pollution because of the powerful colony of Ixitxachitl beneath the Reef.
v  Grotto VII (5th-9th Levels): The Towers of the High Feyarchs. Glamour Operational. The Eightfold Plaza with the eight great towers of the High Feyarchs now stands in ruins, with only two of the towers fully intact, and one intact but leaning precariously. A maddened Feyarch controls the Grand Library of the Gossamer Sages, locked behind powerful magics and with many servitors. A Marid (the Shah of Cracking Ice) is trapped in the dysfunctioning Planar Concourse, and will be firm friends with any who free him.
v  Grotto VIII (5th-8th Levels): The Deep Farms. Glamour Fallen. The Locathah farmer caste of the Feyarchy still dwell out here, though with only partial control of the dysfunctional genetic labs and food-production facilities that fed the whole Grottoes. Since the Glamour has fallen, they have been raided by Sahuagin from further out in the ocean.
v  Grotto IX (7th-10th Levels): The Labyrinth of Ink. Glamour Fallen. The old catacombs of the Feyarchy are uneasy, with a Morkoth having drawn Aquatic Ogres under his sway. A Lawful Good Mummy seeks to protect the sanctity of the Catacombs, lest the ancient dead should rise and swarm the surface. At the concealed clifftop entrance to the Labyrinth is the locked Temple of Purity – still inhabited by the Unicorn Priest and Priestess of the old Feyarchy, and their daughter.
v  Grotto X (9th-12th Levels): The Dark Mere. The ancient magical forge of the Feyarchy was built on to this sunless lake. An Aboleth from Beneath now rules a small kingdom here which threatens the rest of the Grottoes and, indeed, beyond. The only resistance here to its reign is, of all things, those Troglodytes who did not join with the Sea Hag (Grotto II).

Monday, 18 May 2020

Gygax Time Machine, Part 3: Player Skill and Character Death

Let me summarise what happened over the first few (amalgamated) sessions-worth of play. We’re playing T1-4. The characters mentioned in the previous post - Prince Perithil of the Amber Wood (High Elf Thief), Kurgan Ironbreath (Dwarf Cleric), Gilayra (Half-Elf Druid), Gragnak (Half-Orc Fighter), Throli (Dwarf Fighter), Eldarion (Half-Elf Magic-User), and Timtom (Human Thief) – arrived in Hommlet and looked for leads on the rumours of bandits. They picked up that they might be at Lance Rock (to the north; a location taken from the 5e ToEE-remake) or somewhere near Nulb, but no-one really knew.

So my wife decided to head to Nulb. After a quiet journey (using the T1 and T1-4 rough stated distances, rather than the bizarrely discrepant map), they arrived, and nosed around different buildings – the Waterside Hostel, the Smithy, and the Docks. At the Smithy, Otis the Smith (one of Luke Gygax’s characters, I believe) worked out they were a well-intentioned party, and without tipping his hand, received them courteously and advised them to offer their service to Burne or Jaroo back in Hommlet. They also were asked by the fisherman Doozle at the Docks to hunt down a Giant Gar and give it to him so he could pretend to have caught it. In return, he’d give them a Ring of Water Walking. (My wife wisely got him to demonstrate that it worked.)

Enchanted by the idea of hunting down a big fish, my wife chose to stay long enough to hunt the Giant Gar, and then have the party head back to Hommlet.

EXCURSUS ONE: I added “Side Trek” material to both Hommlet and Nulb – the most palpable lack in T1-4 is not, to me, the incomplete and messy Nodes, but material that will actually level characters up to, say, 3rd level before they really storm the Temple depths. I drew this material chiefly from the ToEE video game, plus one location from 5e’s Princes of the Apocalypse, and one idea from a Dragonsfoot post.

EXCURSUS TWO: Though I have “my” character sheets in front of me for admin, my wife is making all the decisions; in that sense it’s a solo campaign, but with the admin of a normal-sized party split between us. I also took the liberty here of advising on a pre-combat plan.

The plan was this: take a day to rest to swap spells (well, 4 hours were needed, but it was early evening already), and then hire some boats to row down the Imryds Run. When approaching the wide side channel where the Giant Gar lived, the Druid would ping up Locate Animals and the Cleric would start casting Bless. Once the Gar was identified, the Druid would Faerie Fire the Gar and the Magic-User would cast Reduce, with the fighters protecting the casters. Then missile fire would begin.

It was a good plan, and it so nearly worked. The Gar had 40hp and did 5d4 damage, but losing 20% of that meant it had 32hp and did 4d4 damage (which is still horrendous vs 1st Level characters, but theoretically a tough fighter can survive a median hit). The Faerie Fire and Bless meant the core damage-dealers were running at +3 to hit.

What got in the way was a comparatively predictable perfect storm of luck in the first combat round: Initiative was tied, the Gar got a hit in on the Half-Orc Fighter straight up and took him down – the PCs were waiting for Faerie Fire - and basically nobody did much damage (I think there was 1 out of 6 hits; the Gar is AC3, functionally AC6 from bonuses, so not unhittable, but the PCs hit the rear slope of the bell curve Round 1). Next round the Gar won initiative. I think the Magic-User went down, killed outright (counting a hit taking someone beyond -3 as instadeath, though there’s debate on the interpretation of that bit in the DMG). There was some more damage dealt, and the decision was made to stick in one more round. This time the PCs won initiative, a bit more damage was done, the Cleric was killed, and the retreat was sounded – the Thieves returned to rowing, guarded by the Dwarf Fighter and the Druid. In the final round, as the boat sought to get out of the channel, the Gar won the Initiative, took down the Dwarf Fighter (unconscious), but was reduced to 4hp.

Of course the PCs didn’t know that – they knew they had done 28hp of damage and the Gar looked weak, but also knew 2 of their cohort had died and another 2 were dying (at -1hp per round, dying at -10), so they reluctantly got out of Dodge.

I found running the combat fine, though realized I actually really wanted to run it on grid paper. I’ve since had some combat training from Anthony Huso (of The Blue Bard blog and Night Wolf Inn), which has made the timing issue clearer. Timing is plainly the fiddliest thing in 1e combat; most of the actions are simple enough, and even time *costs* aren’t too complicated in any situation, but administering the timing of a round, and identifying where potential “bonus” actions can come up, is more of a stretch.

I thought the combat told a good story – a very good plan nearly took down a beast much too powerful for the PCs, and with a tiny bit more luck (what if the Gar had done 4 damage vs Gragnak and the big Half-Orc had done 4 damage that first round?) they would have won a famous early victory. Alas, they have lost two friends and had to leave another two with Otis and his friend Mother Screng in Nulb, whilst they returned to Hommlet fairly chastened. 1e rewards good play, but it is ruthless. The result was not unfair, with the good planning merely mitigating the poor strategic decision made.

The PCs are going to need a bigger boat.

EXCURSUS THREE: I wasn’t overly gentle with the Gar, but I did decide to forego calculating if anyone fell out of the boat etc, for the sake of convenience whilst I was also learning rules. I also wasn’t sure if the Reduction (or indeed the Bless) would end when its caster went down – they’re not Concentration spells, to use a 5e term, where Chant is, so it seemed to me like they would continue, but it’s a niggle. Any errata appreciated.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Gary Gygax: Lost Talent?

It’s strange to talk of Gary Gygax as a “lost talent” of roleplaying games. Indeed, looked at from one direction, it’s absurd. This is because there are two Gary Gygaxes to consider when it comes to writing for roleplaying games: there is Gary The Systems Wizard, and Gary The Module Designer. In the former role Gygax is the most important game designer in any format in the modern era; in the latter, he is the original and in many ways the best, but still, somehow, frustratingly elusive.

In terms of systems design – both in terms of mechanics but also theme – Gary is unsurpassed in roleplaying games. OD&D and 1st Edition are not outdated experiments, improved by experience; they are a vision of the game. Though Dave Arneson is (quite properly) credited on the front of the OD&D little books, it doesn’t take a consulting detective to see the particular thread of genius that runs from Chainmail, through OD&D, culminating in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. When one hears Dave’s players talk of his campaign (with enormous affection), one can hear a different, alternative vision of D&D – that never quite was. Dave’s 3-4 published modules for OD&D and AD&D are interesting, quixotic, and often fun, but they are not the peak of the mountain – and though we have him to thank for the Illusionist and Assassin, we shouldn’t look to him for a coherent mechanical execution of them.

No – it was Gary who loved the eponymous Dungeon. It was Gary who mashed together the influences that determined the classes and races of the Player’s Handbook, and of the array of beasties in the various Monster Manuals – not just his two, but also the Fiend Folio and Deities and Demigods. The legally troublesome inclusion of the Cthulhu Mythos in the latter book fits a game with the Elder Elemental Eye spreading its tentacles across multiple series of modules. It was Gary who created the “dense and deep” mechanics of 1e – where, as Anthony Huso of the Blue Bard puts it, rolls often determine in one number both the QUALITY but also the QUANTITY of the result; where detailed information about hiring small armies is given; where seemingly absurd subchapters on aerial and waterborne combat are provided – absurd until those situations inevitably arise! There is a scope of vision and deep gaming wisdom on show in the 1st Edition books by Gary, especially, of course, the DMG. And I need say nothing of the scope of his cultural influence – in many ways sparring with Lord of the Rings as the key Western fantasy influence, whether conscious or not, of our times.

But it is as module designer that I want to lament something lost. My basic contention is this: though Gary’s module designing career (for D&D – see postscript) needs no justification or defence, it is reasonable for the fan to identify the pattern of drama and partial failure in his “prestige” modules, and wonder what happened.

The point I make about “no justification or defence” being required is salient: Gary designed B2 and T1 (for starting parties), WG4 and S4 (for mid-level parties), S3, G1-3, and D1-3 (for high level parties), and S1 (for the very crème de la crème). That is a catalogue of modules which brooks no comparison. There were some other early designers with multiple real successes under their belt (Zeb Cook, Douglas Niles, Tom Moldvay, and even Tracy Hickman come to mind, as does the UK team), but I’ve just listed 12 modules of the highest quality, and I can think of at least 8 other modules (by one calculation) bearing his name that came out during 1st Edition. So what’s the problem? He designed the key modules at every party level, and is by any measure the most prolific great designer in D&D history. (On top of those previously mentioned, I might add Jaquays, Smedman, Wetmore, Huso, Lux, Kutalik, and others...but none are as prolific as Gygax was in a single decade of work.)

The problem is, of course, what should have been the crowning glories of his career are, to lesser or greater degree, failures. T2(-4), the megadungeon promised by the iconic T1, is clearly actually keyed and planned by Gary, but the finish is Mentzer – workmanlike, respectable, but pedestrian. Q1, the great planar adventure to finished off the G and D series, was written by Gary’s favourite artist (?!) in lieu of him, with the Dungeon Master himself only carrying a co-credit – and it’s not a well-loved module. Castle Greyhawk, Gary’s own campaign-in-a-box city-and-megadungeon, never truly came out in D&D colours – with a bizarre parody released not longer after he left TSR, and then a later, more respectable tribute act by some of his friends. So his two megadungeons, his campaign-in-a-box, and his planar adventure – the things that really sum up his table and/or his aspirations – never came out in adequate form. He put in stellar performances on the minor forms of the art, from starting modules to weird diversions with aliens to base assaults on the mighty, but never quite stuck the landing on the big moves.

Why? Well, some think it’s more or less the yips – Gary didn’t want to finish them. They were beyond his creative capacity. The same people often think nothing could have been (or could now be) released that would satisfy, given the legend attached to Castle Greyhawk, particularly. I disagree syrongly on both points. The reason those modules weren’t finished to his usual standards was simple busyness (as often reported). With so few people at the company in the early days, and Gary prone to getting involved in just about everything – including a bizarre, lengthy essay in Dragon ranting about how he hated Origins – he didn’t discipline himself to the task of completing those big, rambling modules. The co-authorships give the game away: T2 and Q1 became white whales for Gary not because of artistic angst (I find no trace of that in any of his work, even as he experienced professional angst) but because he was too busy and so dumped the work on other people.

I also disagree that, at this point, nothing could possibly satisfy. I don’t think anyone could honestly read any of the great Gygax modules and think that if – somehow – a fully polished, signed in his own hand, 1980-vintage Castle Greyhawk came out, that it wouldn’t instantly be one of the best modules ever written. Sometimes, things do live up to expectation - the reputation of S1 or G1-3 does not stop them being magnificent. Even minor flaws cannot take the lustre off B2 or T1. CG1-10, a true T2-4, a Gygax Planar Adventure to replace Q1 – these would all be about as good as ever wanted them to be. That is not to be, of course, but there’s no use pretending.

And on that basis, we can look at the highest mountain of them all in module design – Mount Gygax, of the killer slopes and hidden caves – and see that the peak is missing. The other mountains still tremble in their millennia-long movements, though, as they go under the shadow of the giant.

POSTSCRIPT: A strange complexity of Gary’s module-writing career is that it did not end in 1985. His later works are still essentially written for D&D – very obviously when written for Swords & Sorcery, or Castles & Crusades, but just as much when written for Dangerous Journeys or Lejendary Adventures, his own successor games. And his later works are not solely edits or slight expansions of his early hits (as is mostly the case with his co-DM Rob Kuntz). Necropolis was published in the early 90s and published for DJ; his LA adventures come out as new cloth in the early 00s; and though Castle Zagyg is plainly a new take on Castle Greyhawk (with a tragicomic note, its publication never got beyond the Upper Works due to Gary’s death) and is indeed a co-written project, that was something Gary was working on in the last couple of years of his life.

I think I may spend some time on reviewing these later works, dressed up for different games, representing the changes in Gary’s own philosophy, but nonetheless recognizably the work of the author of that iconic introduction to B2: “...your fate is in your hands, for better or worse.”

Monday, 4 May 2020

Gygax Time Machine, Part 2: Character Creation and Class Distinctiveness

The first couple of weeks of “sessions” – in fact, multiple 30-60 minute sessions each week, in the evening after putting the kids to bed, sorting any extra food, and doing some household jobs – saw my wife and I create 1st Edition characters and throw them into the World of Greyhawk. What I’ll try to discuss herein is our experience of character creation, and next time I’ll look at the module I picked and the first adventures.

So, character creation. Helen created three PCs, I created four – hers to command, but I’d do the admin and run them. Of course the very oldest-school answer here would have been to make her gather some henchmen and hirelings, but in a duet game, ensuring the player has loyal allies to rely upon – at least in a team game like D&D – is valuable. I actually ended up not using any of the official Ability-generating methods in the DMG or UA, but rather 4d6 in order, keeping the highest 3 dice. I rolled a number of arrays – 10 or so, I think, for the first seven characters we created, with the lamest of those sheets being dropped into the void.

My wife created a Druid (because the stat requirements were reached!), a Fighter, and a Thief, and I added a Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, and Thief to that. I wrote up the character sheets, and custom-formatted them in Word as we went, which may seem insanely inefficient, but is a way I’ve always found useful in learning game rules. When you’re forced to churn through everything a character has or does, you get a much better impression of what the game consists of – though you don’t necessarily get a complete grasp on “what’s good”, which depends on how adventures or whatever are designed.

Things that struck me in character creation: (1) how it rewarded a systematic approach; (2) how it suffered, as everything in 1e does, from the disorganised nature of the rulebooks – less bad than their worst detractors claim, but bad enough at points; and (3) how enjoyable it was.

The first point only really applies to me learning the character creation system, and the derived stats – a player using a automated sheet wouldn’t need to be as systematic as I was, and if given an Idiot’s Guide would, I think, get through it all fairly quickly (as quickly, if not quicker, than a 5e character, though in general terms it’s simpler to make a 5e character).

The second is exemplified by the need to discover encumbrance. You might as well do it at character creation, as that’s where you discover your Strength bonus to your carry limit, and where you buy equipment. But where do you find out item weights? Well, page 37 of the Player’s Handbook, after the equipment price list (which is perfectly well-presented), has “Weight and Damage By Type” for melee weapons and for ammunition, with weight in Gold Pieces; page 27 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has the weights of armour, in Pounds; the weight of common items such as flasks, grapnels etc is on page 225 of the DMG, with weight in Gold Pieces...oh, and missile weapons are listed on that mundane items list in the DMG, too. Three pages across two books, two of the references being in a book the players shouldn’t have access to. This is, obviously, terrible organisation, and wait – we’ve got two different measurement systems, and we haven’t even learned how Encumbrance works or affects anything, which is all explained on pp101-102 of the PHB. And carry capacity for containers is in none of the corebooks, but instead, apparently, on the Character Record Sheets (I got capacities from a useful website).

Encumbrance is actually a brilliant and worthwhile mechanic in 1e, where Gold=XP (hence gold pieces weight as one of the two measurements – with 10gp=1#). Far from being pointless maths, it informs not only movement rates, but a far wider strategic part of the game – what do you take to the dungeon, knowing you need stuff to solve problems, whilst still having space to carry back all-important loot. (Hmm, this 5gp weight gem worth 500gp is much lighter than 500gp in coins...and 500gp in gold coins is much lighter than the equivalent in silver, which is 10,000sp.) And I have to say having to search through the books has familiarised me with a lot of the rules in greater depth than before. But it’s not a way to encourage players to persevere with the system!

But my third point was how enjoyable character creation was. There’s not much heavy customization at 1st Level aside from equipment purchases – Fighters choose Weapon Specialisation (per UA, and my sense from researching people’s very mixed views is that it’s nowhere near as unbalancing as is claimed, at least over the course of a campaign), and that’s more or less it. Obviously you pick Ancestry and Class, but beyond that a lot of the stats-side of things is automatic – Thief Skills are generated by Ancestry and Abilities, Magic-User and Illusionist spells are randomly generated (the DMG method is plainly better, and I defend the use of randomization here; we played BTB rather than letting the M-U pick), and so forth. Partly, the lack of customization was part of the fun; seeing the character take form emergently was interesting. It also wasn’t all that painful, once I’d done it a couple of times – as I say above, the process itself isn’t super-complicated, if explained concisely.

The differences between Ancestries and between Classes begin to really come out at character creation – in one sense, in many of the same ways that Classes are differentiated in some later editions, most obviously 3rd or 5th (2nd, obviously, is vastly more similar to 1st anyway). However, when I look at 5th, and at the relative robustness of every class (max HP per starting HD, 1st HD is d6 for Wizards/Sorcerers), at the cross-over between every class (Eldritch Knight Fighter, Hexblade Warlocks, and Arcane Trickster Rogue are a good trio to compare), at the universal set of skills all character share, which are modified generously by Abilities...there is much less differentiation in 5e than in 1e. Yes, lots of people could have told you that, but I’m telling you. And differentiation is fun. Characters needing each other is fun.

You actually see this when browsing through spells – 1e spells are often, meta-to-meta, better than their 5e equivalents, and are much more sharply distinguished by class. This sounds surprising. Surely 5e is the Generous Old-School-Feel Edition; PCs, especially from 3rd level, seem invincible, everyone gets a prize, etc. But just compare parallel spells:

(a)    5e’s Protection from Energy - 3rd level Druid spell, casting time 1 action (main component of a 6-second round), 1 target, duration 1 hour, requires caster Concentration (which can be broken), damage of the chosen elemental type is halved.

(b)   1e’s Protection from Fire (3rd level), Protection from Lightning (4th level) – Both Druid spells, casting time 5 segments (30 seconds of a 60-second round), 1 target, no Concentration required. Duration differs – for the Druid, it’s infinite until magical damage breaks it. For other targets, it’s (10 minutes x Druid level). The effect, for the Druid, is that they are immune to all normal damage from that element, and can soak up to (12 damage x Druid level) of magical damage before the spell is broken. For other targets, they gain immunity to normal element damage, gain +4 to Saves vs magical attacks requiring saves, and magical damage is halved for the duration.

Sure, in 5th Edition, there’s much less opportunity cost for memorizing Protection from Energy, but it’s also really not very good. Its casting time is fine, it covers more damage types than the 1e equivalents, and halving said damage type is good, but it requires Concentration, thereby sucking up the Druid’s ability to cast other big spells, and halving damage – in 5th – is not a massive effect for a 3rd level spell slot. It has a very niche use if buffing a big guy for a one-on-one battle with a dragon or something. I have never seen it used in my experience of 5th, over several campaigns involving Druids.

On the other hand, Protection from Fire and Lightning are both good spells. Fire is hardly uncommon! As a self-targeted spell, it’s an incredible defence for the Druid – immunity to normal instances of the damage type in perpetuity, at least until such time as the Druid takes sufficient magical damage. At lower levels, that will range from 36 points at 3rd Level, to 72 at, say, 6th Level. By 5th or 6th level, the Druid will regularly be able to soak the full brunt of a dragon’s breath attack, one of the most reliable killers in 1st Edition. And remember – though the duration is shorter for the Druid casting the spell on someone else, it has the same mundane fire protection, and some healthy assistance on magical damage. A 54-damage breath attack could be halved once via a successful Save vs Breath Weapon (at +4 due to the spell), and then halved again by the soak element of the spell. 14 damage is often survivable for a 4th-6th level character. There’s a reason these spells often poll highly in “best Druid spells” lists for 1st Edition.

There are two significant balancing factors, demonstrative of the 1st Edition mindset: you memorize individual spells for use, not a spell list for fungible use, so if the spell is poorly chosen, that’s a slot wasted for the period (12 hours including rest needed to memorize a new 3rd level spell, if my memory serves). And casting times make casters more vulnerable to interruption and wasted spell slots in 1st Edition – 5 segments means there’s time for opponents to hit the Druid, cause the spell to fail, with the spell slot lost.

The 5th Edition player cannot mitigate how lame Protection from Energy is. Concentration is very vulnerable to interruption, and the typical 5e battlefield means the Druid is unlikely to hide in the corner or be protected by others for the hour of casting! But in 1st Edition, what mitigates the costs is player skill. Cast it before you enter the Blue Dragon’s lair. If an emergency cast is required, set the Fighters to intercept any attacks. You learn when to use the spells by playing the game; you learn their specific but very powerful use through experience. 5th Edition cushions the capacity for failure due to poor decisions, but also reduces the scope for great skill in play; 1st Edition stays Safety Off on both.

And only the Druid has those spells. 5th Edition subclasses press down a lot of this distinctiveness; 1st Edition presses into them. These differences are all over the place, from the way only the Fighter gains a proficiency bonus to weapon use (rather than simply avoiding a penalty for non-proficiency), to only the Thief having specialist stealth and legerdemain skills. Now, much of this is similar in B/X, but there are more specialised variables in AD&D (such as Ancestry-specific class restrictions and special abilities), and the mechanics provided are never bland, even if they are abstruse. They are all opportunities for player skill in the simulation provided by Gary. 

So Prince Perithil of the Amber Wood (High Elf Thief), Kurgan Ironbreath (Dwarf Cleric), Gilayra (Half-Elf Druid), Gragnak (Half-Orc Fighter), Throli (Dwarf Fighter), Eldarion (Half-Elf Magic-User), and Timtom (Human Thief) set forth, seeking glory, justice, and wealth, or some mixture thereof. Oh, and two of them managed to roll to have Psionics! We’ll talk about that another time.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Gygax Time Machine, Part 1: Why 1st Edition?

 “If the player characters are not of the same stamp as Conan, they also appreciate that they are in effect writing their own adventures and creating their own legends, not merely reliving those of someone else’s creation.” – E. Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master’s Guide p80

Why play 1st Edition D&D? Aren’t there more editions because the 1st wasn’t good enough? And hey, I’ve looked at the books – they’re sooo confusingly organised. And some of the rules are pointless – who would bother with Weapon Speed Factor?

Inspired by Anthony Huso (, writer of various excellent modules, I’m running a 1st Edition AD&D campaign by the book (BTB) during the Lockdown. I’m usually a fairly relaxed DM, rules-wise – happy to make rulings on the fly to ensure the world is more coherent. Rules are tools. And for D&D, I usually run 5th Edition or some version of the classic Basic set. So why 1st Edition? And why BTB?

Partly, it’s just Tony’s infectious enthusiasm, his quest to understand Gary Gygax’s vision of the first fantasy roleplaying game. What would happen if we just trusted the rules, and assumed there was some reason for them, and gave them the good old college try? If they are really so archaic or bad, it’s hard to understand how they coincided with the real glory years of D&D’s creativity and growth (say 1978-1985).

In part there’s a taste issue – what sort of RPG do you want to play? What sort of RPG is 1st Edition?

1st Edition has particular assumptions that begin to be rejected even before the end of its own decade in publication. 1st Edition doesn’t encourage big structured narratives where the players participate in a pre-existing “legendary story”, rather aiming for such narratives to emerge through play; it assumes emergent gameplay, randomization, and a relatively serious adherence to rules and procedure will produce the best expression of the game; dice-rolling is actually, surprisingly, fairly circumscribed in its efficacy compared to pure player skill, with “Non-Weapon Proficiencies” (basically, dice-based skills to use outside of the dungeon environment) only appearing late in its run and in association with a setting that has a very different feel. These were all assumptions or models that were, in large part, undercut by the mid 80s. Narrative modules like the Dragonlance series became very popular; heavy scripting of environments and a diminution of emergence therefore becomes more prevalent; and dice-rolling, rather than player decision or skill, becomes more important.

So why am I saying 1st Edition is to my taste? I’ve long enjoyed emergent gameplay via randomization and an emphasis on player skill, but some would argue these are as well if not better served by simpler descendants of D&D – essentially, spin-offs of Basic/Expert, not Advanced. To quote a very talented designer of one of these hacks in his latest book: “This is a game to be played, not a textbook to be studied. It’s designed for the game table, not the library. Rules are false idols, numbers are rarely the answer, and plain speech always beats specialist terminology.” How could one disagree? Especially paired with the inclusive view of the game table that immediately follows this – wanting to welcome those who “don’t want to learn complex rules” – how could one be so churlish as to say: (1) no, rules may be bad gods but they are good governments; (2) numbers are often the answer; and (3) specialist terminology has a great deal of utility. Isn’t that all very exclusive?

Well, I want everyone to enjoy the games they enjoy. I’m not interested in a Bad Wrong Fun War. But aside from the archaeological and artistic aspects of playing 1st Edition, it is also the version of D&D best set up, in my judgement, to produce exactly the kind of epic-but-player-generated stories Gary envisioned the game as concerning. How do all the complex rules help this? Well, tellingly, the quote I opened with is from the section in the DMG on Saving Throws. It is by way of justifying Gary’s assertion that “because the player character is all-important, he or she must always – or nearly always – have a chance”, no matter how impossible the Saving Throw situation seems. The player characters are the subject of the story, not whatever the DM creates; the dense rules, from how to generate animal populations of an area to the lengthy tables of different types of gems, are all there to provide for that end. We’ll get back to that.

Another telling point is how often, explicitly or implicitly, the mechanics of the game are supposed to be hidden from the players. The combat tables and the rules for magic items are in the DMG, and players are told not to read that book. The game is significantly playable – as in some of the earliest D&D games – with the DM rolling virtually all of the dice, whilst the players simply make decisions. There is meant to be a vast substructure of rules beneath what the players need to learn from the Player’s Handbook – which, aside from character creation and spell rules, has really only an overview of the rules, plus some very good advice on how to play. Isn’t this strange? There are meant to be a great many rules to facilitate player-driven stories, but by default the players aren’t allowed to know most of them.

There is an interesting answer to our talented critic’s concern about rules and numbers here, isn’t there? To play 1st Edition, players are *not* expected to know a great number of rules, especially if they are playing non-spellcasters. Once character creation is over (which is at times a dense process, I grant), Fighters only really need to know their Attacks Per Round and the advantages and disadvantages their weapons have vs different ACs and monster sizes. Thieves have a single list of percentage specialist skills, for which they do not roll the dice to check success. Of course, the good player will learn their character sheet inside out, and squeeze every advantage from their skillset – but that is not a requirement to begin play. 1st Edition AD&D is an inductive game, where one learns by playing.

But why, then, is the DM expected to learn three rulebooks worth of material? Surely you could have the above situation of how many rules a player needs to know, and then add a couple more rules the DM needs to know, and that could be enough for a good game.

But what if I said – and I am not the first to say so – that 1st Edition AD&D is not a game in the usual sense? What if I told you it was really a simulation of being a fantasy adventurer? Boardgame wargamers have the specialist term “consim” – conflict simulation. Those who delve into this most arcane and abstruse version of D&D need, perhaps, a term of their own. Fansim? Herosim? Dunsim?

There are assumptions in this Fansim that may jar with our own sense of “fantasy reality”. Gold = XP and Saving Throws in seemingly impossible situations are both rules Gary takes the time to justify because of this. However, they fit the paradigm of the simulation Gary is offering. The detailed information about stocking environments is so that the DM knows whether Conjure Animals works, and what are likely random encounters, and so forth. The lists of gems are important because gems weigh much less than gold pieces, and are much more valuable – and so having a variety helps both as monetary denominators (because Gold = XP AND is indispensable for building strongholds, paying hirelings, and affording training to level up), and for flavour. Why are there 12 Ornamental Stones, 13 Semi-Precious, 14 Fancy, and 14 Gem Stones? So that your players aren’t bored by the loot they accumulate. “Star Sapphire: transluscent sapphire with white ‘star’ center”.

All those tables enrich the world. They are DM-facing because of course they are – the DM’s job is to create a rich, absorbing world in which the players lose themselves as they create their legend. And all of the crunchy rules exist for the same purpose – often out of player sight, but like the complex code behind rich fantasy RPG video game, they enable it all to happen and feel real. The very granular To Hit and Saving Throw tables allow real variance in how situations unfold; the Potion Miscibility Table lets you check whether drinking all those powerful magical drugs together goes bad; the organizational charts for groups of hirelings and henchmen ensure that your employment decisions don’t challenge belief in the world; and the *17* Appendices in the DMG, covering everything from Traps to Herbs to Describing Magical Substances, and most famously Appendix N, on “Inspirational and Educational Reading”, all serve the make the world deep.

That’s why “By The Book” also matters – not that the Book won’t sometimes fail and need interpretation or correction, but that the Book is the World, and to inhabit the World offered by 1st Edition, by Gary Gygax, means inhabiting the Book rather than (in this situation) writing your own.

Rules are the coding of a world. When executed faithfully in depth, they create a world of unsurpassed verisimilitude – because a world is engaging for players not because they have read the hefty background tomes sold at substantial cost by the RPG company, but because they have explored and inhabited and changed the world. Numbers are the fine details. When randomized, they prevent the DM from forcing a story upon his players.  Specialist terminology is necessary when describing a wide and deep array of rules; computer programmers don’t tend to call parts of their work “thingummies”.

Yes, it’s mathsy. Yes, it demands a lot of DM. Yes, it’s a hard ride for players who don’t want to learn. It’s not for everyone. It is for me.

Friday, 14 February 2020

ADVENTURE: Barrow of the Woad Chief (Levels 1-3) (and "Ancestries of the Borderlands")

Another Borderlands adventure, this time one which has been fairly well-tested - The Barrow of the Woad Chief, a low-level dungeon near the "starting town" of Gosswold. The Barrow has a small (3-4 room) tomb area with low-level learning exercises inspired by Skerples, and then two hidden areas - the Den of the Woad Archon, who runs a sacred cave-farm staffed by Sentient Cabbages and bees, and the Water Shrine, the last active Shrine to the Old Water God in Loam Country, with traps, tricks, and treasure. The hidden areas include large roleplay/negotiation opportunities - the "lead" NPCs in those areas, the Woad Archon and Dissurath the Water Elemental, are both open to friendly advances (but there's a lot of money available if you're not friendly!). Click here for the public Drive folder with my Borderlands material.

As a "bonus", find below a list of Ancestries in the Borderlands, most of which I'd like to make into Race-Classes:

The Kind Masters – Lords of dream and nightmare, in flowing cloaks of autumn leaves, iceshard dresses, flowerpetal masks. Even their kindness may seem cruelty to us. Once, they ruled every deep place in our world; now, they cannot even stay long in the Borderlands, and their great home realm is half-palace, half-prison for them. They intend to rectify that, though, never you worry.

The Book People – Living humanoid books. Their body flows with moving word in inks and fonts unique to the individual, and their skin is like a writing material to the touch; this forms their caste group (e.g. papyrus, vellum). Each one is an expert on topics written upon them in the process of birth. Often find employment as museum curators, antiquarians, or booksellers. The Establishment Book People don't care what is written in a book, and happily accept competing claims as equal truth, given that keeps the peace; their objection is to interlocution or debate. Upstarts believe in a meaningful development of knowledge and enquiry into what is true, but cannot agree on a framework to do so.

The Arbiters of Necessity, aka the Tumour-Men – Magically created by a Kind Master of great power. Corpulent tumour-slug-people. They recognize the only way to cure the Borderlands of its ills is via its destruction and dissolution into pure chaos. However, they also recognize that may take time – and they are free to enjoy its benefits in the meantimes. They are often puissant warriors or wizards.

Fungal Artisans - The Artisans are in fact only one group within a wider race of technicoloured mushroom-people, but outsiders name the whole Ancestry for them. They are usually nomads, seeking sustenance from decay as they travel. Sometimes these bands go wild and seek to create new dead matter from whatever is nearby. The Artisans make startling art out of dead matter, transforming it into bizarre, innovative sculptures and paintings - their most skilled members can even create animate constructs.

Flower Paladins - A strange species of sentient and mobile plant, who communicate entirely via scent and changing the colour of their petals. In winter they hibernate, their petals shrivelling and their disseminate minds slowing. In spring, they ride out under their great rose-bud banner to right what they perceive to be wrongs. The basis on which they identify these is unclear, and sometimes their actions can seem quite destructive to those in their path. Bizarrely, a few exhibit powers similar to those of divinely-supported adventurers. Some have made close alliances with Brocks.

Brocks – Badgerfolk, the Brocks are savage warriors and pensive philosophers. They were not originally from Faery, but from another place; they have retained their ancient ways in the Borderlands.

Brownies – Tinkering fae, known for their experiments in clockwork and gunpowder. A whole ancestry of obsessives, little known for their empathy, though greatly respectful of the effort and craft of others. Their technology is the most “advanced” the Borderlands will permit to function.

Pixies – Arrogant, magically talented, artistic, inquisitive, flight capable, born to rule, tiny. No-one can explain why the Kind Masters let the Pixies survive, especially given the fact that every recorded rebellion against the rule of the Kind Masters has been led by Pixies. Nor can anyone explain how the Pixies proliferate, given the fact that all known members are (apparently) female.

Gitsies – Like pixies, but gits. Their awkwardness and mischievousness is unbounded. They enjoy being pranked if it's done well, though, and will negotiate. Sometimes get it into their head to form bandit gangs, more for banter than for wealth or sustenance.

Dervishes – An Ancestry from a distant corner of the Borderlands, Dervishes are living man-sized tornados of wind and sand. Their ability to apparently dissolve themselves makes them cunning thieves, and their speed is famous.

Merrow – Marine fae, resembling both fish and humans in a disturbingly compelling way, able to breathe both in air and water. They are emotionally unexpressive, except in their underwater architecture – each head of a Merfolk household designs and builds their own home, expressing their worldview and passions through it. Many of their kingdoms and holdings remain loyal to the Kind Masters.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

ADVENTURE: The Monastery of the Chuckle Brethren (Levels 1-2) (and "Dungeons of Loam Country")

Link here to the Google Drive containing my (free!) adventures and surrounding setting material. This is the first I'm putting up, though it's actually the least tested, because my playtest groups haven't gone for it. It's a slightly anarchic mix of silly traps, illusions, and mobile combats - it's chiefly a "hostile environment" dungeon, though not entirely. Heavy on the humour (too heavy for some people). See below for a precis if desired, or just read the doc.

It's set in my own setting, The Borderlands (Elidor+Narnia+80s-90s British Kids TV). So, as a bonus, here is a list of the dungeons of "Loam Country", the great area of black earth and wilderness between Gosswold (classic starting town) and the City of Quinces (a great city set in the branches of a giant rhododendron). Two of these dungeons are fully written up, one is fully planned, and one (very big one) is being written now.

The Monastery of the Chuckle Brethren - The “Chuckle Brethren” are an order of Gitsie monks who pose as bandits on the roads of the Loam Country, so as to attract the attention of adventurers to come and test out their monastery’s assorted “pranks”. There are other mysteries to discover there, too. [Levels 1-2, 16 rooms]

The Barrow of the Woad Chief: A large ancient barrow just outside the Gosswold’s town limits. Blue light is said to issue forth on cloudy nights, and local boys claim that there are secret tunnels inside. It hides a secret annexe where an Archon of the Old Water God produces goods to offer to the godling, and a sublevel which is a still-consecrated Shrine of the Old Water God. [Levels 1-3, 23 rooms]

The Tree Village Hideaway of Rollo Hatt the Bandit Prince – A picturesque village set amongst the branches of great trees and forest glades, prime territory for a band of jovial folk heroes. Unfortunately, it is instead ruled by Rollo Hatt, the vicious and pun-obsessed arch-bandit of Loam Country. [Levels 1-3, 25 rooms]

The Cold Flood – A frozen lake riddled by a great network of tunnels and ice caverns leading down to an unfrozen underground sea inhabited by Merrow loyal to the Kind Masters. The caverns include one formerly consecrated as a temple to the Old Water God. [Levels 2-9, approx. 150 rooms/areas]

The Great Carpet - On a steep hill stands a simple building, reminiscent of a temple, with a marble base and columns supporting an arched roof. Inside there is only one thing - a broad, richly decorated, finely woven carpet. If you step on to it, you discover its true nature. The scenes depicted come to life around you - you have entered into one of many epic poems so depicted, which you must travel through to escape the Carpet. [Levels 2-8, approx. 100 rooms]

Lost Elariel - A panoply of white spires and stained glass in the midst of a ruined town, this was once the summer palace of the Lady Shimmersong, a Kind Master of artistic talent and surprising empathy. She disappeared from the Borderlands even before the other Kind Masters; why remains a mystery. The answer may be inside – along with, by repute, her great treasure. [Levels 4-7, approx. 25 rooms]

The Flying Garden of the Silken Archmage - A great rock floats through the air. Roots trail from its underside. On the top are a vast array of gardens and mini-palaces - the abode of the Silken Archmage, a silk-printed Book Person of great arcane power. He is indifferent to the plight of those below his flying palace, largely seeing the world beneath as a resource for his experiments (this sometimes goes down badly). His gardens are full of illusions to beguile interlopers, as well as stowaways, whose friendship or enmity might be earned by adventurers. [Levels 4-10, approx. 80 areas]

The Sacred Workshop of Pimbob Buttersnap - The abandoned workshop/temple of the Brownie master-artificer Pimbob Buttersnap. It is full of funky, not entirely safe gadgetry, some interlopers, and the natural effects of decades of abandonment. [Levels 6-10, approx. 60 rooms]

The Waterfall Portal – Formerly a shrine to the Old Water God set behind a secluded waterfall and lake, now the lair of cultists loyal to the Kind Master Sir Jack Bloodhair. There is a portal to Sir Jack’s castle in the High Borderlands, accessible via blood sacrifice of a sentient creature. The cultists operate an imitation Wyld Hunt to procure offerings for their liege. [Levels 7-8, approx. 12 rooms]

The Sky Chapel – An isolated chapel dedicated to the Sky Lord and ministered to by Frere Barthélemy, the Sky Chapel is both a place of safety and rest in Loam Country, and the seal on an extra-dimensional rift imprisoning a presence defined by abstract philosophy, and obsessed by the prospect of absorbing others into itself. [Levels 8-10, approx 20 rooms]

PREVIEW: The Grottoes of the Fallen Feyarchy (1st Edition Adventure for 1st-12th Levels)

What are the Grottoes of the Fallen Feyarchy? They are ten sea grottoes (including two underwater) arranged on a 20-mile sweep of a subtro...