Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Gygax Time Machine, Part 4: Pummelling Rules(!)

Zeb Cook makes things make sense in the 2nd Edition books. Things are listed in some kind of comprehensible order. All the encumbrance information is in one place! Erratic subsystems are purged or integrated or simplified. Great!
 
Well...
 
My 1e table (Greyhawk) returned for the first time since last summer. We’ve had a few sessions, and they’ve been a blast. I’ve also been running 2e (Planescape), and enjoying that, too. And at both tables, there have been some unarmed/nonlethal combat efforts on the part of the players. I really enjoyed both (closely-related) systems, and think they say something about the games involved, including Gary’s own rules style.
 
Undeniably, the 2e version (PHB pp97-98) is much simpler. Punching and Wrestling involves an Attack Roll, potentially modified by the attacker’s Armor type if Wrestling. The die result of this attack, if it succeeds, then (in a quite Gygaxian efficiency) is crossreferenced to a table which details the result. Punching involves damage and a KO% - ¼ of the damage is “real”, ¾ is temporary Punching damage. Wrestling involves flat damage and defining whether or not the result is a Hold which can be maintained. Overbearing is also an attack roll, with three possible modifiers. Weapons used for subdual (in the same section and worth comparing) take a -4 To Hit penalty, and produce ½ real and ½ temporary damage.
 
This is more complicated than later editions, of course, but it is still integrated with the main rules system. Each attack type relies on a normal To Hit roll with a limited set of modifiers: Punching takes none; Wrestling may take a penalty based on opponent Armor; Overbearing considers comparative Size, number of legs (!), and number of Overbearers; and Nonlethal Weapon use takes a straight penalty.
 
The 1e version (DMG pp72-73) uses more words, is not integrated with the main systems, and uses far more modifiers. Each uses a percentile roll rather than a d20 roll. Pummelling (that is, Punching) has a base chance of “success” based on opponent’s ACx10. This then takes 8 modifiers – attacker’s Dexterity and Strength improve their chances, as does the AC value of any real armour; opponent conditions (e.g. Slowed)  also boost chances; opponent high speed and Haste reduce chance. IF the Pummelling hits, a second roll is made to determine damage (which is rendered ¼ to ¾ as in 2e), modified in various ways by armour, condition, and even what is being used to pummel (e.g. mailed fist, metal pommel); this roll may allow a second attack by the attacker, may stun the opponent, or may even allow the opponent to counter, all depending on the quality of the damage roll. Either way, there is usually a second chance to Pummel per round anyway.
 
Grappling (Wrestling) also uses a percentile die system, with similar modifiers (though only Dexterity, not Strength, matters for the attack roll itself), but the Defender’s Armor type acts as an additional modifier, because bulkiness makes wrestling easier. Then there is a “Hold gained” table, Similar to the Pummelling damage table this takes several modifiers, including whether the opponent is wearing a helmet or carrying a shield or is taller or shorter than the attacker. Wrestling then permits a counter-grapple by the defender.
 
Overbearing is comparatively simple; there is a base percentile score to hit determined by both attacker and defender Strength, contextual modifiers, height and weight difference, etc. This becomes the damage result as well, which is a step shorter than the other two categories.
 
So two of the Nonlethal attack forms are two-step in 1e, rather than one-step; none uses the normal To Hit system; they each have many more modifiers; and the actual “attack routines” are completely different to normal combat (Pummelling produces two attacks per round, Grappling involves a Counter stage).
 
Is the 2e version simply an improvement? Undoubtedly it is quicker to remember everything and run; undoubtedly it has some elegant features; it has one element which really is more Gygaxian than Gary’s system, with the quality of the To Hit roll determining the actual Punching or Wrestling result. But we run the risk of misunderstanding the purpose of the 1e subsystem.
 
It’s what the kids now call a “minigame”. Cook retains some of the flavour of this, with the separate damage table for Punching and Wrestling, but the fact that nonlethal combat uses different dice and takes many different modifiers points us to the simulationist, wargame background involved. Gary is offering a different way of engaging with the game and with the problems the PCs face, here – the specificity is the point.
 
My 2e players go to Overbear a little Spinagon guard; they roll a To Hit roll – I check for the three possible modifiers. It feels a little different. It’s just another mechanical moment, though, to serve the wider game.
 
My 1e players throw a blanket over a Spelleater worm, and then start pounding it to capture it. We turn to a different system; a different mechanical challenge presents itself, with a different rhythm. The game palpably shifts in feel for the Nonlethal attackers. A different type of mastery is available, and a different diversion is experienced.
 
I think it’s quite natural to prefer Cook’s version, and I liked it. But it’s hard for me not to appreciate the angular Gygaxian form – it has a certain kind of artistry and focus which is lost by simplification.
 
There is, actually, at least two other obvious comparisons here. In 2e, THAC0 becomes a single line by class, with a natural 20 always hitting and a natural 1 always missing; Weapon Specialisation (from Unearthed Arcana aka 1.5e) becomes an important secondary modifier making it easier for monoclass Fighters to hit and do big damage. These more or less directly replace the assumptions of the 1e PHB&DMG, which use full two-axis tables for THAC0 and which assume use of Weapon Type vs AC (which in 2e becomes a rather perfunctory and unattractive optional rule about Armor Type which is fairly little like the original, but much simpler to use).  The full table, of course, still heavily favours the natural 20 (a 1st Level Fighter hits AC-5 with a 20), though there is no automatic fail and a To Hit required can be negative. Weapon Type vs AC is quite complicated and is massively eased by modern macros on Excel! (See Anthony Huso’s 1e sheet for that.) You see the reason for both of Cook’s changes there – but there’s some loss, too, particularly in terms of the skill of choosing weapon type to combat different armour types.
 
The second comparison is Psionics (which, whatever he said, Gary liked enough to rejig and reformulate in his own later rulesets). 1e Psionics (PHB pp110-117) has a bunch of clarity issues, and got a whole issue of Dragon dedicated to fixing it – but the mechanically distinct way of generating Psionic ability, the separate “magic” system of Psionic Strength Points, and the full attack matrices (DMG pp76-79) all repeat the same pattern of mechanical distinction and elaboration that Nonlethal Combat and To Hit do in 1e.
 
In 2e, Psionics is reserved for PHBR5, where it comes with a new Psionicist class (which arguably draws one or two ideas from the Dragon magazine Psionicist for 1e). There are a lot of similarities – PSPs are used, for example – but the default for Psionics is a specialised class who automatically has the ability, with Wild Talents generated separately. The Psionic powers themselves – very easy and very powerful to use in 1e if you had the PSPs – receive balance using a version of Nonweapon Proficiency rules (a Cook innovation, though PHBR5 is a Steve Winter book). Mental combat is simplified, though not by as much – though there aren’t multiple attack matrices and effects tables, there is a new system to learn that isn’t identical to normal procedures. (This would be “rectified” in 2.5, in Player’s Option: Powers, which introduced MTHAC0 and MAC.)
 
AD&D is always mechanically baroque and dense, but for Gary this is at least in part out of an irrepressible instinct to offer mechanically varied ways to engage with the problems the players face – yes normally fighting uses THAC0, but here’s a whole new system for Nonlethal; yes normally magic looks like this, but actually different classes use that system differently, and Psionics is a whole different system; yes the basic THAC0 roll is this, but have you considered your weapon and their AC? Mechanically the game is varied and demanding, pushing players to enjoy and master different methods.
 
2e takes inspiration from this in one direction (a direction I mostly like, too): multiplication of splats, options, specialisations. That can be taken to the absurd, and can be abused, but it is a legitimate extrapolation. But 2e “modernizes” and moves away from the Gygaxian legacy in its general preference for mechanical unification, and that has been undeniably the prevailing direction of travel since.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Ability Score Generation and PC Dynamics in Basic, 1e, and 2e

I’ll try to keep this brief-ish despite the enormity of the title. Reading the 2e PHB/DMG has gotten me thinking about how the early games use character generation to teach the participants about the game’s superstructure.
 
Basically, the main thing (not the only thing) that I’m mulling over is Ability Score rolls. OD&D was 3d6, 6 times, in order of Abilities. Basic does the same. B/X offers a Referee-side option of allowing a new *set* of rolls if the scores the player has are really bad – so not a new roll for the bad stat, but a new array.
 
Now, Gary himself comments on this procedure in the Ability Score Generation section of the 1e DMG (p11). He says it’s important to create viable characters for an ongoing game, and then, second sentence, glosses this: “While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6...” He’s talking, of course, about OD&D (and Holmes Basic). This is classic Gary: assume your reader knows about some whole other thing and hare off on it. Basically, he thinks 3d6 in order takes too much time or leads to shonky characters in unwanted Classes. So he offers 4 methods in the DMG (and more in Unearthed Arcana) for generating scores.
 
Methods II, III, and IV are 3d6 systems, premised on creating ranges of scores or stat arrays for the player to pick from.
 
But you’d think Method I is the default, right? And that is...roll 4d6 six times, drop lowest on each, and assign as desired. Exactly the same as in Fifth Edition! Though Race modifiers are both more limited and more punishing in 1e than in 5e (where you can break the stat array at char creation, pretty much), the general effect is the same: solid characters with 1-2 15+ Abilities, per Gary’s comment in the PHB.
 
This is not how 2nd Edition does things. Cook gives 5 generation methods. Method I is 3d6 in order, and Method III is 3d6 but arranged to taste. Method II and Method IV are 3d6 twice, keep best – so like the multiple stat Methods in 1e. Method VI is a weird combo of point array and dice. Method V is 4d6 drop lowest arrange as desired – the same as 1e Method I. Cook explains (2e DMG p10) that this creates a more heroic breed of adventurer; not ordinary schlubs thrust to greatness, but heroes.
 
Cook offers a three paragraph critique of this Method in the “Disadvantages” section, easily the longest. He highlights the risk of “super characters” which become difficult to challenge, and suggests that “ability inflation” will make high scores less exciting for players.
 
You’d think, from reputation, that this would be the other way around: Gygax encouraging gritty low-power play and 2e blowing this up in favour of superheroism.
 
(This isn’t even the only place this inversion happens: 2e Thief skills start lower, Weapon Specialisation can actually disadvantage Fighters compared to “Weapon To Hit Vs AC”, etc. Some of the changes are simplifications – like Specialisation – but some are also pretty obviously about reducing the power curve, as with the Ability Score generation discussion.)
 
What are Gygax, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, and Cook saying about characters via their organisation of material and commentary on it? (Well, the Basic authors don’t comment on it, but they recapitulate in principle.)
 
Gary, it seems, had concluded by 1979 that the “real” D&D could be best enjoyed by having tough and capable characters from the offset. Cook, on the other hand – with the benefit of having played through the 80s, through the UA/OA era (and he wrote OA!) – preferred 3d6. He implicitly prefers the “man down the street” adventurer, as he puts it. 2e is not designed, at this point, to be a superhero game – it’s designed to be a retroclone! It’s designed to endanger the characters. Or at least, those are some very basic presuppositions exposed by the information design.
 
Why, then, do we think of 1e as lethal and gritty and 2e as superheroic? All kinds of reasons, really. At some level it’s just about product ranges: 2e went heavy on splats and settings and dramatic story concepts for its adventures. 1e was narrower. 2e also cleaned up its PR – no more devils and demons and half-orcs and assassins, and the PHB cover is brave knights, not thieves robbing a temple. Stylistically 2e offered a different image.
 
I think the actual adventures matter, too. I mean, from like 1989 to 1994 or so, the only really good adventure designer TSR had was probably Ed Greenwood (at least, who was actively putting out adventures). But more than that, the basic style of adventure has mutated so far between 1979 and 1989: not just in the “big” things, where we slam Dragonlance, but in the basic building blocks. No grinning devil faces or giant frogs ruined player’s days in modules from, like, 1990. The assumptions about lethality and problem-solving had significantly morphed, even where the game was still much more lethal and difficult than 5e, say.
 
Which I guess leads me back to this comparison between Gygax and Cook: Gary, from shifting Ability Score generation to ramping up class power levels for the UA Barbarian and Cavalier and so forth, spent a lot of 1e working out how to make stronger and more heroic characters, in the midst of the lethal, gritty Edition; Zeb Cook, inaugurating the superheroic and smooth edition, wanted to rein characters in, to make the world dangerous and strange. The development arc of 2e vs 1e was in one way a continuity - *of Gary’s later vision*. But an alternative 2e is imaginable – one less run from the front office and more from Zeb Cook’s intuitions. Perhaps we see that 2e best explored, not in the harsh world of Dark Sun (start at 3rd level, it’s so harsh!!! Oh wait we barely support actual play in this setting), but in the magnificent body of adventure work by Bruce Cordell in the second half of 1990s. There’s a game there to be reclaimed: polished, loads of extra modular optional rules, loads of ideas, loads of material, but building on the earlier traditions of D&D.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

FICTION: "Arrest, Interrupted"

Just to get something out there, here is a draft of a short story set in the Borderlands. Tell me what you think!

*****

The stem-bridge bounced precipitously as Kennett scurried across it towards the shouting. A deep voice was calling out, its challenges interspersed by strange sucking noises. The red bowl ahead contained shops and the homes of craftsmen – but this ruckus sounded more like the arena!
 
He dodged past some slower-moving pedestrians ahead, scuttling along the very edge of the stem, the sixty-foot fall below broken only by a partial lattice of lower stem-bridges. Skidding between the legs of a Brock leaning at the bowl-gate, Kennett swung right and looked for a way up, avoiding the crush ahead which cut all view of whatever drama was unfolding. He could now hear a second voice, quieter, quavering, stammeringly replying to the challenger. Kennett could not yet pick out the words.
 
Pulling himself atop a crate and thence to a low roof, Kennett bounded across the roofs of the shops here. He ended up perching atop a chandler’s balustrade – picking at it, he rather suspected it was heavy plaster rather than stone. Well, Kennett wasn’t too heavy. He looked round for wherever the action was, his eyes passing over the landscape beyond the City of Quinces – the oak stands and rich grasslands of Loam Country, the hill of the Great Carpet with its marble monument atop it, the mountains to the east shrouding Lost Elariel from view, a great floating mote of some kind stationary above the woods to the south, shrouded in cloud. None of this held his attention for more than a moment – from the vantage of the Flower Towns, this was his daily view.
 
Ah, there – on the other side of the bowl, a hollow in the crowd, filled by four figures – a cowering Brownie woman clad in practical craft leathers, two mailed Human guards-for-hire, and between the guards, a long and strange slug with tentacle-arms grasping a scroll. An Arbiter.
 
“...The seventh charge laid and approved by the Kind Master Aurion the Smiling goes thus: three centuries ago, your grandfather was indentured to Lord Aurion” – a strange sucking wheeze, and Kennett spied, with his keen eyesight, a tumourous wound beneath the Arbiter’s mouthparts – “and fled, taking with him eight-hundred platinum worth of glasses, tools, and gems.”
 
The creature rolled up its scroll, depositing it in some sort of organic sac on its own back. It wore a purple silken half-cloak clipped around its neck, and a metal spike glinted from its tail-end. Beyond that, its rotten body was wholly on display – sleek, slimy flanks marred by gashes and warts and tumours, its face cut and rotted. Kennett briefly retched – and then, in a flash, felt pity for the awful creature.
 
“Under the conditions of the Happy Peace, I hereby take you under guard to return you to Faery and to the care of Lord Aurion. He assures me he will be merciful.”
 
The Arbiter gestured with a tentacle-arm at the Brownie, and the two Humans stepped forward. The crowd muttered and there was a stifled sob, but there was no movement. And then...
 
“JEROME K. JEROME!”
 
The voice sounded unnaturally amplified, but any consideration of the technique was soon swept from Kennett’s mind by a brown cannonball arcing up from behind a house on the far side of the marketplace, performing a perfect parabola down on to the scene of the arrest – straight down, indeed, on to one of the Human guards, barrelling the man over and dazing him.
 
Then the cannonball – unfurled? – and in its place stood a dimunitive and spiky being holding a rapier-like weapon. A Spikeling.
 
“Who’s next?” it cried, again in a strangely loud tone. Kennett thought he spied something silver at the tiny being’s throat.
 
The Arbiter began to sinuate its way forward, not even bothering to reply to the Spikeling’s bravado.
 
“Non, non, non, Poggle, I have told you a thousand times – that is not the phrase!”
 
This voice rang out from behind the Arbiter, and the crowd began to jostle and part. The same voice continued.
 
“Mon cher Arbiter, I am happy to relieve you of the burden of this arrest, and shall take this felon into my custody; be assured I shall give her all the punishment she deserves for such misdeeds!”
 
The Arbiter swung its head round, its purple cloak flapping sharply.
 
“By what authority do you seize this bounty?” it asked calmly, “Has Lord Aurion commissioned you also?”
 
Now Kennett could see the Spikeling’s ally. A Human male in a blue tabard displaying a white flower, wearing a floppy hat.
 
“Ah...” the Human paused, thinking, “Perhaps it is truest to say I bear the authority of Louis, the thirteenth of his name, and the love of Madame Bonacieux, and such marks give me full confidence to deprive you of your bounty.”
 
The Arbiter gestured to its remaining guardsman, who drew a sword and advanced on the blue-tabarded man, before turning its attention back to Poggle the Spikeling – who still stood at arms like a gamecock, waiting to meet the charge of this being some fifteen times his own size.
 
The Arbiter drew no weapon, but instead withdrew a round ball – crystal, Kennett thought, squinting closely – and thrust it at the Spikeling from eight feet away. What was this?
 
A wispy smoke began to issue forth from the ball, and the Arbiter seemed to murmur – or slurp – something, though Kennett could not hear what. The vapour began to entangle the little Spikeling, whose attempt to leap back was foiled by the smoke’s sooty arms.
 
Meanwhile, the two Humans had come to swordpoint, and had already backed off from one another, watching each other warily. The blue-tabarded man held a rapier like a fencer, the mailed guardsman a long sword; the fencer might seem to have the speed advantage, but the guardsman was tall and strong, moving rapidly and taking advantage of a longer reach. Then the blue-tabarded man leapt to his right, scattering members of the crowd, and landing on a raised slab of stone. Now he had the height advantage and was closer to the Brownie, to boot – who seemed to be recovering from her shock and was edging away into the crowd until one of the wisps of smoke seized her, too.
 
“GERROFFFOVME!” Poggle shouted, slicing at the smoke.
 
“Mon ami, that is also incorrect – it is Jer-on-“ – and there the blue-tabarded man stopped, for he had to parry a sudden rush from the guardsman, who sought to follow that up by bundling the duellist from his perch.
 
Instead, he swayed back and seemed to fall to his knees, throwing his free hand out to the guardsman’s shoulder. His opponent began to flinch away, but the duellist had already launched off leaping over the burly Human’s head and landing into a heavy roll. As the guardsman turned, the duellist was already on his feet, albeit unsteadily, and drove his pommel into the taller man’s chin, knocking him down hard.
 
A third wisp of smoke detached from the mass to seize the victorious blue-tabarded man.
 
Then, suddenly, a burst of bright light above the marketplace, and the world suddenly seemed to undergo a brief blueshift, everything tinted in indigo and outlined in navy. Then normal colour returned, but a peculiar metallic taste remained in Kennett’s mouth. The smoke was gone, and the Arbiter was darting its head around, seeking something.
 
“Took your sweet time, Tinkerbell!” Poggle yelled angrily.
 
The duellist, by this time, had reached Poggle and carefully clapped him on an unspiked shoulder.
 
“Oui, oui, that is the reference! Correct!”
 
“Tinkerbell”, it turned out, was a small flying Fae – a Pixie, Kennett thought, but the being shimmered behind the speed of its wings and he could not be certain – and they were not happy with the epithet.
 
“I would not be so ready to mock, if I repelled as readily with my personality as with my spikes...” came a sweet female voice. Pixie or Sprite, then.
 
The Arbiter’s guardsmen were both shakily getting to their feet by this point. The ball of shimmering light moved slightly, and Kennett caught glimpse of a small, lissom arm – and then a shower of sparks covered the marketplace, causing guardsman and gawking crowd alike to scatter.
 
“...At any rate, I was rather busy drawing away the Arbiter’s other two guards!” the flying Fae finished, with a tone of superiority.
 
Before the sparks could clear, there was a further scuffle or sound of movement in the obscured area – and once they had dissipated, only the Arbiter and the two guardsman were left in the open area, looking angrily around. There was murmuring, clapping, and even a little ribald laughter in the crowd.
 
“Wow,” breathed Kennett.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

ADVENTURE: Dolmenwood - "Faery: Lord Gladhand's Orchard" (2nd-4th Levels)

 I've written another adventure or locale for Dolmenwood - my third! This time we go to Faery, specifically the Gladding-Gloam, Lord Gladhand's autumnal realm. This is a wilderness adventure with 9 locations, including a settlement and a mini-"dungeon", and 10 new monsters, as well as a passel of new magic items. The Orchard is a place of magical fruit, creeping all-consuming Blight, and a painter who really...captures her subjects.

Find the map below, and the adventure here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18ug1xJ0z1y39il1zMgBhKs4BY-nNtrID/view?usp=sharing.

Tell me what you think!








Friday, 2 April 2021

Preliminary Delineation of Adventure Types

As I prepare “How I Design” videos for different kinds of adventure, I am naturally brought to consider what types of adventure there are – because plainly different adventures have different formats and styles, and require different design decisions and different ways of running them. I’m going to offer a very tentative list of “adventure types” (and subtypes) here, in hopes it’s of use to, well, me, as well the community as a whole. Add other possibilities in the comments!
 
Fundamentally – given a basic assumption of D&D rules – I think there are three major categories of adventure. These are formally based on where they are located, though in fact their geography is only one part of their categorization, with the other being the format of their design, and the expectations on player decisions.
 
The Dungeon Adventure
The “Dungeon Adventure” is the adventure in a closed environment, with fixed and fully mappable geography, where the 10-minute Exploration Turn makes sense. The environment constrains player decision and focuses them on effective and intelligent exploration. This could be a 10-level megadungeon or a 19-room one-session wonder – size is not the determinant. Geography and format are.
 
The typical benefits of the Dungeon Adventure are the way in which the physical constraints allow the DM to create a textured and dense environment with relatively knowable routes of player action. For the player, it presents the ultimate challenge in environmental player skill – to map accurately, to predict patterns of traps, to solve puzzles, to pit physically close factions against each other, and the rest.
 
The Dungeon Adventure may occur in caverns or ruined castle dungeons, but it may also happen in any enclosed environment. A spaceship setting will often be a Dungeon Adventure (see S4 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits). A museum can be a Dungeon Adventure (see my How I Design A Dungeon video for my example of developing such a module). Even a “wilderness” setting can be a Dungeon Adventure, if set on a small enough groundscale and set into boxed “rooms” of content – think of the forest sublevel in Caverns of Thracia, or the “Upper Works” sections of something like T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil or Abbey of St Clewd. You’re “outdoors”, yes, and there aren’t strict walls and corridors, but the flow of the area is closely related to the Dungeon Adventure – the ground covered is a few square miles at most, the space is amenable to the use of dungeoneering skills, etc.
 
D&D’s rules, particularly in older editions, naturally tend towards the Dungeon Adventure. Even our language of “levels” comes from that background – but the assumptions of player choices and of the actual mechanical skills provided in Original, Basic, and First all also assume an enclosed and “networked” environment.
 
Design-wise, the Rube Goldberg element of D&D comes to the forefront in these adventures – things are placed in very close proximity that can explosively interact and provide the players with opportunity or danger. This requires a serious approach to mapping. These adventures are the hardest to design geographically, because for your players to successfully apprehend the nature of the space, the space must be rational and made from ordinary geometry. Rooms linked by stairs need to actually be next to each other, not warped out by your poor scale on one level.
 
The close proximity of encounters also means that the best Dungeon Adventures require a more serious reflection upon ecology. When tribes of humanoids are many miles apart, their co-existence is more plausible; when they are in neighbouring caves, as in Keep on the Borderlands, some deeper logic must be sought, or else a frank handwaving offered (which is usually unsatisfying).
 
The Wilderness Adventure
The Wilderness Adventure operates as an exact opposite to the Dungeon Adventure – it relies on the sense of vast space, of geographic confusion, of “natural” environments now being disturbed by the adventurers. The groundscale of the Dungeon is in the low square miles; the Wilderness Adventure is nearly always in three figures at least.
 
The Wilderness Adventure is not simply “a wilderness map”. It is a particular set of objectives set on a wilderness map; it is not simply the world itself. Dolmenwood is a campaign setting, with many vignettes and locales on its map – but it is not a Wilderness Adventure, insomuch as it is the setting as a whole. UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave, the aboveland portion of S3 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, or D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth are all good examples of Wilderness Adventures.
 
The locale of a Wilderness Adventure can be anything appropriate; S3 is overland in the “ordinary” world of Greyhawk, UK1 is functionally on a demiplane, D1 is in the Underdark. To The City of Brass is extraPlanar.
 
Format of exploration can also vary – hexcrawls, pointcrawls, and “open map” experiences are all legitimate. The better adventures of this type will care about distance and travel, because they will provide measurable costs for the vast distances players traverse. It does not matter how these are measured, as long as they are measured and measured seriously. Slumbering Ursine Dunes is (probably) a Wilderness Adventure, as is Misty Isles of the Eld by the same author, both using pointcrawls; B10 Night’s Dark Terror is a hexcrawl, as is S3.
 
The challenge to players in the Wilderness Adventure ought usually to consist of a relatively limited amount of time versus a “mystery” of space. There is much ground to cover, dryads to placate, swamp hags to slay or gain tutelage from, wandering knights to recruit. There are micro-Dungeons to clear (of course, the Nested Adventure is legitimate, so long as it doesn’t collapse needful time constraints). There are ingredients to gather. The hurry around the map, the depletion of resources by the many challenges, the complex variety of terrains – these all contribute to creating a compelling situation.
 
The players are not worrying as much about precise mapping or procedure (traps must necessarily be less prevalent over such a large area – the statistical chance of characters simply missing them altogether must be large). The DM rolls for Getting Lost and Random Encounters, and will provide set encounters and obstacles in given hexes or paths. The thrust of the adventure is to plan their time well and triangulate their targets.
 
The DM has to make sure the wilderness seems lively but also wild, and also to ensure that the passage of time and space feels meaningful. “Dungeon dressing” here is, ironically, important – the sense that the characters are travelling across vast vistas, dealing with many challenges, with the weeks slipping away from them, is important.
 
The City Adventure
Finally, there is the City Adventure, which is perhaps harder to describe than the former two. This is partly because it is a hybrid – a vast space in which many Dungeon Adventures may be located; an enclosed space, too, with set limits and standards. A further complication is that simply being set in a city does not make an adventure a City Adventure! Sea of Blood is largely in a Sahuagin city, but it is only at points resembles the sort of Adventure I have in mind. Its dynamic is usually to frenetic and bloody for our purposes.
 
But I think there are distinguishable features for a City *Adventure* (rather than a City Setting – CSIO and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko are really both City Settings, though Marlinko blends into an Adventure at points).. It is an adventure that relies on a Fairly Peaceful Peopled Place. There are many places and many people to speak to; much sneaking about; much negotiation; Mini-Dungeons fitted to the setting, with depraved secret cults rather than humanoid-occupied caverns; the business of negotiating with the Thieves’ Guild over cuts and fees; the corrupt City Watch to manipulate.
 
The party needs to find the cult’s headquarters, and identify its leaders – but it cannot smash every door down, or simply set up factional warfare as it might in the Dungeon. Civilisation’s standards are different to the (ordinary) Wilderness or Dungeon. Roleplaying is emphasize, as are Thiefly skills and utility spells from the Magic-User.
 
It must be frankly admitted this is an underutilised genre of Adventure. I most quickly leap to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying adventures like “Shadows over Bogenhafen”. But there are some good D&D exemplars. Gabor Lux’s various cities (Gont, Baklin, and the City of Vultures material) have a distinctive flavour combining aboveground intrigue with vast undercities for Dungeon Adventures.  Some of the 2e Lankhmar material is spot on. Any good adventure that leans into fantasy noir tends to have a decent City Adventure component.  Discounting Vornheim as a toolkit rather than an Adventure or Setting, this is an area the OSR could really move into, it seems to me: specific and focussed scenarios set against a larger urban background.
 
The challenge for the players here comes in adhering to the loose rules of the place, of bypassing the relatively overwhelming force of the state’s forces, of negotiating their way between quite settled factions with skin in the game. There is an objective, and there is not the constant up-front danger of the Dungeon or sheer space to cover as in the Wilderness, but the objective is occluded. Where is it? Who may grant access? What alternative routes may be found? Which factions might help, and which will seek vengeance after?
 
The DM has to thoroughly people the City; it cannot simply be a concrete Wilderness, with vast unpeopled spaces, or spaces which might as well be unpeopled for all the good the crowd does. There must always be a jostle, the risk of pickpockets, overflowing tavern brawls. The hardest thing for the City is to make it feel alive – the actual dynamics of accessing a hidden space or discovering the secret High Priest really resemble a Dungeon puzzle or Wilderness gather-quest, depending on how the flow-chart works. The real difficulty is emphasizing the human dynamic of these discoveries, of the need to reckon with a whole city of allies and adversaries – and you never know which is which.
 
Anyway, what do you think? Are there other genres I have missed?

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Magazine Monsters Part 2c: Creature Catalog #1 (Dragon #89) – Shrike, Giant-Wind Steed

 One interesting set of features Dragon published in 1984 and 1985 were the three Creature Catalogs: each a mini-Monster Manual (with 29, 18, and 24 entries, respectively), full of monsters that were largely forgotten thereafter. Many were created by master monster makers Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore, and they present the single largest untapped resource for monster ideas even today. This is the third and final entry in my look at Creature Catalog #1.
 
SHRIKE, GIANT – 3HD Giant Animal
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. A 9’ wide bird with a friendly chuckling cry, but which tricks prey by making baby noises and joyfully kills creatures it doesn’t want to kill, just for fun? Yes, please. Much better than a Giant Eagle of whatever else – profoundly unpleasant and disconcerting, especially for those scarred by Hitchcock. Good combat notes, too. Number Appearing is only 1, but seems reasonable to increase that in some circumstances to get a nasty swarm effect (or you can give them 1d4 1HD-1 young with two attacks at 1-4/1-2).
Marks: 5/5
 
SIND – 4+4HD Demihuman
Print Status: Only in Dragon. There’s a weird pseudo-adaptation in a Spelljammer Monstrous Compendium Appendix, under “wiggle”.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. A Narnian import, because the Sind is also known as a “marshwiggle”, and they “tend to be dour, cynical pessimists but they also stubborn, pragmatic, good-natured, and sensitive”. You get the picture. Even before seeing this, I had once inserted a Marsh Wiggle into my big 5e D&D game, so I’m predisposed to like this. These are definitely a distinct spin on Puddlegum, though – with 30% of mature Sind gaining imprisonment once a day, and all being immune to a variety of mind spells (like charm, sleep, etc). They have a demigod who has a 10% (!) chance of turning up to help any threatened Sind colony. They make friends with Lizardmen. I find this a really rich concept, though grant “rich” can be a pejorative when it comes to food.
Marks: 4/5
 
STAR LEVIATHAN – 24HD Astral Beast
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Roger Moore. Slightly odd, though fun. A very intelligent blue whale-type creature who projects itself to the Astral from whichever Prime Material it dwells upon. They’re super-telekinetic, and have a fairly nasty defensive mechanism (with one round Psionic prep, they have a molecular shock field for four rounds, which has a chance of disintegrating any non-living object touching it, or causing 4d4 damage to any living creature and potentially destroying all that they carry). But honestly, this doesn’t much fit as a normal combat encounter – you could get players hunting it, of course, but they’re much better fitted as an ally to seek out. Perhaps they could help the players travel safely through a dangerous part of the Astral, or join them in an attack on some lich’s lair. Literally and metaphorically both unwieldy and awesome.
Marks: 3.5/5
 
UTUKKU – 10+5HD Fiend
Print Status: Also in 2e Monstrous Compendium Red Steel Edition. A different monster of the same name appears in the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary.
Comments: By Roger Moore. An odd treasure-seeking Tarteran fiend, with a lion-like head and a scaly body. There are two ways to conceive of this guy in 1e terms – either as a hefty, dangerous combat for fairly competent high-mid-level adventurers, or as a negotiation. In the former case, you’re looking at something with 3/day of each of teleport without error, fear, create darkness, and 12d6 lightning bolt; 1/day symbol of discord and control weather; and 1/week cause disease and polymorph self. That’s not accounting for 3 attacks at 4d4/4d4/3d4, and -2AC. If a party does some of its homework, or is just extra-cautious with bringing magic to the battle, that’s a fun battle. On the other hand, the Utukku’s at-will suite of utility abilities mean that a party could wrangle a deal (everything from survival up to lots of magical assistance), if they can somehow source treasure whilst it is visiting the Prime Material. However, the implied behaviour and the likely dynamics do point to the combat route. A fun design, if specific.
Marks: 3.5/5
 
VENUS FLY-TRAP, GIANT – 6HD (body)/2HD (each of 3-8 jaws) Giant Plant
Print Status: Possibly some kind of official Pathfinder version; certainly several 5e Homebrews.
Comments: By Roger Moore. I like Giant Plants, as you may have picked up. This has an interesting ecology/combat description – lots of 80%-likely-to-be-hidden jaws trying to swallow Small-sized targets or latch on to larger ones. It’s really a passive ambush predator, then, but much less dangerous than your typical slimes. This feels like it could be a memorable encounter or a fairly quotidian random roll. Decent, not as strong as the other Giant Plants in CC1
Marks: 2.5/5
 
VURGEN – 7+7 to 9+9HD Marine Beast
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: By Ed Greenwood. Another weird Greenwood marine predator, and all to the good in my view. This one is a weird one with a giant set of jaws and a fairly slim body – so fairly distinctive-looking (it’s nicknamed the “giant gulper”). There’s obviously an issue with getting the party to deal with it – it is said to sometimes threaten shallows and harbours, so that’s easy, or you could use the hint of Locathah informants to send a high-mid-level party underwater with to help the friendly fishfolk. Solid if unexciting entry.
Marks: 2.5/5
 
WHALE, KILLER – 9 to 12HD Marine Beast
Print Status: Also 5e Monster Manual.
Comments: By Roger Moore. Suitably savage and cunning, including the insane danger implied by Number Appearing 5d8, excluding juveniles who can also attack. They sneak under ice, drag people into freezing waters, etc. Oh, some of them are psionic too. These guys seems overmighty, but there’s something incredibly appealing about using them nonetheless. If a party (foolishly?) heads into the arctic zones of your world, this is a great random encounter risk. Random encounters are part of the risk calculation for parties, both in terms of material risk and resource drain; a pod of hungry orcas are very much on one end of that risk range, but it’s something the human whalers or penguinfolk could reasonably warn a party about. If you want to tread out over the ice sheet to reach the Spire of Blue Ice, to rescue to Frost Elf Princess and loot the hoard of the interdimensional raiders, go prepped for the nastiest beast in the cold seas. This works very well for that.
Marks: 4.5/5
 
WIND STEED – 4HD Horse
Print Status: Only in Dragon.
Comments: This is a “quest creature”, but undoubtedly a cool one. Levitating horses with Manoeuvrability Class A – so casters can perform spells of any kind except those requiring glyphs! This is top-drawer player-bait. They’re also hilariously intense in an anime manner. Their gaze is so intense they are immune to gaze attacks! They can break the grip of Aerial Servants at a 40% likelihood! They are immune to wind-type damage! They cohabitate with pegasi! They are sometimes led by varicoloured, seashell-patterned specimens who can cast suggestion! Those who hate the Haughty Fantasy aspect of D&D will hate these guys; of course, the haters are wrong. THIS IS AWESOME. It’s specific, with only a few viable contexts (you’re out to tame them, there are loads of local griffons and you need allies), but it’s a great monster.
Marks: 4.5/5
 
Conclusion
The most reliable set I’ve reviewed so far. Of the whole of Creature Catalog I, there are two undoubted duds – the Corkie and the Fachan – but there are real classics, too: the Glasspane Horror, the Killer Whale, the Wind Steed, and above all the frankly disturbing Giant Shrike. There are a few good Demihumans/Humanoids too, in the Amitok and Sind. Finally, notable that a big theme of CC1 is marine and plant monsters – the former a neglected area, the latter an obvious source of environmental/wilderness colour. There is a lot here for the creative DM. Recommended.

The Gygax Time Machine, Part 4: Pummelling Rules(!)

Zeb Cook makes things make sense in the 2 nd Edition books. Things are listed in some kind of comprehensible order. All the encumbrance inf...