Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wizard Spell Progressions Compared

Bryan Steward posted a question about the wizard (well, magic-user, whatever) spell progressions in B/X versus AD&D and made me realize that I had never formally compared the various editions of D&D in that regard. So I typed it all up in a spreadsheet that you may want to have a look at if you are interested in the details. (I should note that I suck at spreadsheets, so if you want to help me add more data or maybe some graphs, I'd appreciate it.)

The (perhaps not very surprising) conclusion is that wizards in AD&D and OD&D are more powerful (according to my metric anyway) than wizards in B/X. Between AD&D and OD&D it's sort of a toss-up with OD&D being slightly better at low levels and AD&D being slightly better at high levels.

Of course I couldn't resist and added my own spell progression to the mix, the one from my house rules. It mostly floats around AD&D except at level 14 where it clearly beats everything else with two 7th-level spells. But I should mention that the spreadsheet doesn't take XP requirements into account: it's pretty much impossible for anyone to advance to level 14 in my game because I keep doubling XP requirements forever.

So I am quite happy with my spell progression's power curve (mostly in line with the classics) and it's certainly a more straightforward pattern than what Gary and friends came up with.

Update 2014/04/15: Just added the BECMI progression from the Rules Cyclopedia and that wizard has it even worse than the B/X wizard. The Labyrinth Lord wizard is better off than most of the others, close to my progression actually. The Swords & Wizardry wizard is on par with mine as well, but the Lamentations wizard is in the AD&D range.

If that means anything, it's probably that most OSR folks like Dan Proctor, Matt Finch, and my humble self agree that the wizard's curve should have been a little better; just James Raggi (who would have thunk?) has to be different. Of course we all fervently disagree on how many XP it should take to reach, say, level 9 as a wizard: Dan says 310,000 XP, Matt says 100,000 XP, James says 288,000 XP, and I say 256,000 XP. Oh well...

Update 2014/04/16: Just for reference, B/X says 300,000 XP, AD&D says 135,000 XP, OD&D says 100,000 XP. For wizards to reach level 9. Go figure.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scourge of the Demon Wolf

I just finished reading through Rob Conley's Scourge of the Demon Wolf and wanted to share my impressions. You should not consider this a "review" in any formal sense, it's just my ramblings inspired by having a good time flipping all those pages. In case you don't already know, this is what we're talking about:

Note that Scourge is billed as an "Adventure and Sourcebook" and that's exactly what you'll get: The first 30-odd pages describe a variety of encounters the player characters can have as they are trying to uncover the secret of the Demon Wolf, the last 40-odd pages then provide additional details about the locations that mostly serve as "backdrop" in the first part. Rob provides an excellent summary of why things are this way, so let me just quote him directly:
The majority of the adventures in my Majestic Wilderlands are based around locales and focused on conflicts between different groups. The players arrive in the midst of a situation and have to use their wits and roleplaying skills to figure out the underlying problem. The resolution results in new friends and enemies for the players. In later adventures, the players in my campaign find that these friends are just as valuable as a +5 sword.
When I first read this paragraph I didn't quite understand what it was saying yet, but in retrospect it's glaringly obvious: This might be an "adventure" but instead of dragging the players along a scripted "adventure path" it's really more of a "slightly constrained miniature sandbox" in a sense.

Yes, there's a "hook" that gets the player characters into the fray. Yes, there's a "finale" that uncovers the mystery and allows the player characters to "win" in a sense. But between those two points we have roughly 18 encounters that (with a few exceptions) could go in pretty much any order. If that's not player agency taken seriously (in the context of something rather small like an adventure anyway) then I don't know what would be. Hence let me heap some praise:
It's not just good, it's mind-bogglingly (lol, what a word) great!
Of course my incredible enthusiasm for this aspect of Scourge might just mean that I've read too many "scripted modules" in my life. Just to make the point explicit: The way things are set up it's unlikely that the players will immediately stumble to the final encounter, but theoretically they could. The world doesn't function along a plot line, it functions by itself. Therefore the choices the players make will matter a lot more than they otherwise would.

So we have roughly 18 encounters which despite the dependencies between some encounters lead to a staggering number of possible ways for the adventure to develop. The encounters involve roughly 7 distinct factions (more if you count sub-factions), each with their own interests, motivations, and prejudices. And it all plays out in roughly 6 detailed locations (a lot more if you count wilderness areas and locations only roughly sketched out). That's a lot of adventuring.

I have hopefully already convinced you to at least spend the money for the PDF of Scourge, especially if this kind of open-ended adventure seems attractive to you. Note, however, how I didn't say anything about the actual events in the adventure yet. In a sense the setup is rather simple: People died horrible deaths, someone claimed to have taken care of the problem but was wrong, and now the player characters are about to try the same. Yes, of course the Demon Wolf is responsible, but there's a lot more to discover in the process:
Where did it come from and why? What is it doing? What was it doing for the past two months during which everything seemed peaceful? Exactly how powerful is it and can we even kill it? Can anyone?
In other words, you get some kind of "monster hunt" wrapped in a "murder mystery" with a good deal of "explore the unknown" on top. And then there are the cool locations. Let me just talk about two here: The Village of Kensla and The Golden House Conclave.

Kensla is a very believable medieval village. There is a bailiff appointed by the baron and a reeve elected by the villagers. There are craftsmen, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and yeoman farmers. There is a three field system and other details of the local agriculture. There are 43 distinct locations and every single building is described complete with its inhabitants, their stories, and their attitudes. The entire thing should be extremely useful well beyond the events of the adventure.

The Golden House is a conclave of mages. Its probably best described as an independent (well, mostly) magical research monastery. The masters, adepts, apprentices, and staff that make the whole thing work are all described in sufficient detail to let player character mages interact with it on a regular basis. Once again we get stories and attitudes for everybody, but in this case we also get details about the various research projects being undertaken and about in-game effects of studying magic here. Just like the village, the conclave is very believable and should be useful for a long time.

Okay, now that I've ranted on and on about how cool this thing is, what are the problems? There just two that I can see, and for the most part they pale in comparison to how great everything else is.
  • The editing leaves much to be desired. I am sure the spell-checker was happy, but there are missing or extra words all over and sometimes you have to read a sentence three times to finally parse it correctly. Worse in a way is that there are several inconsistencies. Just one example: "Bebba's husband, Norhelm, died three years ago..." is followed a page later by "...a lot of tension between him and the staff, particularly Bebba, the housekeeper (Norhelm's husband)..." and I guess you see the problems here.
  • There are several references to Rob's Majestic Wilderlands supplement which I don't own, mostly in the section about The Golden House. Some things are explained in Scourge itself, but there are several spells and magic items that are non-standard (at least to my knowledge) and must be from Majestic or from Rob's as-yet-unpublished Book of Lost Magic. Of course they are easily replaced with something the referee makes up, but I would have preferred another paragraph or three taking care of those lose ends.
And there you have it. Easily one of my favorite "adventures" now and I honestly can't wait to run it. Despite the immense campaign potential, I think it still makes an awesome one-shot. Maybe I can even talk a few people into playing it with the new Delving Deeper rules?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ambitious Orcs or Avaricious Ogres?

Alright, so I barely finished writing up my thoughts on Ambition & Avarice and I am already feeling the need to tinker with it. I guess it would be good to run at least one session before messing with the rules? But I can't resist, sorry!

One of the obvious things that sets A&A apart from "classic" D&D is playable "monster" races: We get dark elves, goblins, hobgoblins, lizardfolk, and orcs. Wait, rewind that one more time: goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs? Isn't that just a bit much of the same thing over and over again?

True, much to A&A's credit it does characterize each of those three races differently. So goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs as written up in A&A are actually quite different. However, that doesn't help my deep-seated D&D sensibility of those races being almost interchangeable. Of course there have always been minor variations, and the cosmetics have been different ever since the AD&D Monster Manual started mentioning skin coloration and so on. But for most of my gamer life, those three races have otherwise been one and the same: Things low-level PCs wade through on their way up the campaign's food chain.

What I was really hoping for when I started reading A&A was a monster race that goes a little beyond the "everyone is human-sized or smaller" trope that most games have been stuck in. What I really wanted was this guy:

Okay, that's in fact the illustration for a half-ogre from an old Best of Dragon magazine, but that's the kind of PC that I've not seen enough of. And I think it's easy to "tweak" it into A&A without actually having to write up a new race description: Just replace the existing Orc with Ogre and hand players the picture above if they are wondering what that's like!

Orcs in A&A get the largest hit die already, and obviously so should the Ogre. Orcs get a +1 to-hit and damage, and so should the Ogre. And Orcs get a -2 on reaction when dealing with "civilized pansies" such as humans and elves, right on for an Ogre. So it's really all about the cosmetics of it. I might be tempted to put some kind of cap on intelligence, and I might compensate for that with some kind of bonus for constitution, but A&A typically stays clear of having race modify attributes, so maybe I should follow suit.

Just imagine an Ogre Cultist defending a town from invasion and having to decide whether to sacrifice a few more tasty halflings in order to heal his party up as the big bad black dragon approaches in the dark and cloudy sky. Perfect.

Now how about some kobolds on the other end of the "barbarian" spectrum? :-)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ambition & Avarice

Warning: This "review" is not particularly well-organized, in fact it's mostly a "stream of consciousness" kind of thing that rambles along randomly. The various chapters/topics are covered highly unevenly as well, don't expect balance. But I hope you'll still find it somewhat useful?

I was torn about what to get in terms of a "modern OSR game" but I finally settled on Ambition & Avarice from Chubby Funster. In the end, feedback on a post I made in the G+ community for A&A convinced me to try it over the various competing products such as BareBones Fantasy, Beyond the Wall, and Dungeon World. You can actually tell a few things about the game from its cover:

Title image by Craig Brasco (orgo)

Heros? Well... They can be: For the right price! At least that's the setup, there's actually nothing in the rules that would make it a requirement to play a bunch of greedy "true neutral" mercenaries without a conscience. While that style of play is certainly supported (and playable races such as goblins and lizard men make it a tad more likely I guess) I don't think it's what Greg Christopher set out to give us. It's more of a side-effect of his obvious passion for sandboxes in which player agency rules and everybody around the table (including the referee) discovers the story as they play instead of having it scripted out ahead of time.

But let's not get too philosophical right away, let's look at the system first. We start with the usual six attributes rolled in mostly the familiar ways. There's a unified modifier table (in increments of two for some reason) but attributes also have other side-effects like constitution determining what kind of die you roll (from d4 to d12) to recover hit points after a day of rest. Some attributes are put to "surprising" uses, at least for people like me who come to A&A from D&D: strength is your to-hit bonus for thrown weapons, dexterity determines your movement speed, constitution determines your encumbrance level, wisdom modifies your initiative rolls, etc. There's nothing "wrong" with these choices, they just take a while to get used to.

There are two "core mechanics" if you will, rolling a d20 over a target number (saving throw, dungeon throw, attribute test) and rolling a d6 under a target number (various special abilities based on race and class). Saving throws are what you'd expect. Dungeon throws are "dungeon delving skills" that every character (regardless of race and class) has, things like force to open a door or chest, traps to find or disable a trap, sneak to move quietly and without being seen, etc. Attribute tests are everything else, including attacks in combat.

Speaking of race and class, there are a lot of those in A&A. You can play "civilized" dwarves, elves, gnomes, halflings, and humans or "barbarian" dark elves, goblins, hobgoblins, lizardfolk, and orcs. Each race gets a relatively fresh characterization (compared to the "usual" D&D tropes anyway), for example we learn that gnomes eat everything in sight whereas halflings are cosmopolitan adventurers. Race and not class determines hit dice (halflings and goblins get d4, dwarves and orcs get d10, everybody else is d6 or d8). Race also determines initial saving throws (with halflings getting the best and orcs getting the worst for some reason). Finally race confers some special abilities, for example dark elves have a 2-in-6 chance to identify poison, elves get a bonus to their notice dungeon throw, and hobgoblins don't have to count the weight of their armor against encumbrance.

It feels very "old school" to me that the exact abilities each race gets don't fit a cookie-cutter pattern of modifiers. Some people might criticize this as "unbalanced" but to me it creates a lot of fun flavor.

As for classes, we have brigand, knave, knight, ranger, and savage in terms of "mundane" ones as well as conjurer, cultist, priest, shaman, and sorcerer in terms of "magical" ones. Each of those is again nicely characterized, but I have to admit that I find it hard to remember what each class is supposed to be just from their names. To give you an impression of these classes, here's my summary for each:

  • Brigands are criminals all the way from highwaymen to cat-burglars; they can pick pockets and identify good loot quickly; they can fence off stolen goods and escape from bonds.
  • Knaves are spies and assassins usually playing for nobles in their political games; they can backstab and identify voices; they can find black market traders and blend in with the rich and powerful.
  • Knights are wannabe nobles who were born too late to inherit; they have to be honorable although that doesn't necessarily mean "good" here; they can identify heraldry and scare their enemies.
  • Rangers try to beat back the monsters surrounding the various "points of light" of civilization; they can track in the wilderness as well as identify plants and animals; they are hardy and get a larger hit die and have a chance to identify what left a certain track.
  • Savages are uncivilized barbarians; they can charge into battle with a big bonus and identify particularly weak enemies; they can also re-roll force throws and identify smells.
  • Conjurers summon and create stuff using magic; they can create binding circles to trap creatures and they recognize symbols, runes, and glyphs; they have spells such as summon elemental, burden, and shockwave.
  • Cultists receive their powers from young deities who expect sacrifices and conversions in return; they can sacrifice humanoids to heal others as well as identify individuals with weak wills; they have spells such as charm, cripple, and distraction.
  • Priests follow large established religions; they can keep someone hovering on death's door alive and they can also identify divine beings, symbols, and artifacts; they have spells such as emblazon, deathwatch, and eternal slumber.
  • Shamans draw on the spirit world to perform their magic; they can identify and cure poisons and disease; they have spells such as blink, dragon's breath, and infection.
  • Sorcerers are "scientific" magicians who study magic carefully and deeply; they can identify and counter spells being cast by others; they have spells such as detect magic, icy touch, and nap.

Class also determines initial dungeon throws (with mundane classes consistently getting away better than magical classes). Mundane classes also gain character points (three each level) to further improve their hit points, dungeon/saving throws, weapon proficiencies, or to-hit bonus. Note that these are in addition to the "leveling up" process described below. I should probably mention that the advantages mundane classes get regarding dungeon throws are somewhat compensated by the spell progressions for the magical classes: these can cast a lot more spells than you'd expect from D&D. For example a level 5 magic-user in D&D typically has 3/2/1 spells, but a level 5 shaman in A&A has 6/5/4 instead!

One last aspect of classes is a little scary to me: All of them get some kind of henchmen or familiar or whatnot every single level. Take the Conjurer and his imps for example: A level five conjurer could have 5 imps and could therefore be in 6 places at the same time. True, the imps are not very powerful, but being able to spy on that many locations just by concentrating (assuming the imp can hide well enough) could be very powerful. That said, I'd probably try it out before tossing it, but I'd warn my players that this particular aspect might get toned down.

Let's turn to another aspect of the game: equipment and related rules. Encumbrance is measured in pounds and there's a (rather fiddly in my opinion) system that first groups characters into encumbrance levels based on constitution and then tells you their (exploration, combat, running) speed based on dexterity. I would have preferred a simpler approach here, but I guess for those of you interested in "realism" there's something to be said for this system. What I do like is that "exploration speed" explicitly includes looking for traps, something that's not entirely clear in the D&D iterations I've played.

Armor has strength requirements, so plate mail is not for everybody who can afford it. There's a spell failure mechanic based on armor worn as well as encumbrance more generally. The coinage system is needlessly fiddly in my opinion, but not because of the valuation (it's a sane 1:10 ratio except for electrum pieces) but because of weight: Gold pieces are heavier than silver pieces for example. What a nightmare, realism be damned. There's a brief note about the campaign using a silver standard, but then most of the prices are given in gold pieces anyway. Thrown weapons have a range based on strength, which is neat. There are a bunch of herbs/poisons/drugs on the equipment list. They come with neat "stat blocks" which seems to indicate that their use is encouraged to a degree. Yes, characters can become addicted to drugs.

All of the items on the equipment list are described in some detail with many weapons getting a special effect or two and most "mundane" items receiving some suggested adventuring uses. I like the idea of making equipment choices more important, but I also see the drawback of forcing new players to read the entire equipment list if they want to make "optimal" choices for their characters.

How about experience and level progression? Experience points can be awarded for treasure recovered, monsters defeated, or quests/puzzles solved according to DM preference. There's a unified XP table straight from 3rd edition: 1000, 3000, 6000, etc. On gaining a level characters roll for additional hit points, reduce one saving throw by 1, and at levels 3, 6, 9, and 12 raise one attribute by 1; mundane characters gain 3 character points as described above, magical characters gain new spells.

How about combat? There's hit point damage and attribute damage, the latter of which is much harder to cure. Combat rounds are 6 seconds (turns are 10 minutes) and you can typically move and attack unless you're casting a spell or aiming carefully. The combat sequence: casting declarations, initiative, actions, morale check. Two-handed attacks double strength bonus and cause a critical on 19 or 20. Two weapon attacks grant a flat +2 to-hit. Touch attacks ignore armor, and grappling is based on that as well as an interesting "degrees of success" scheme that goes back-and-forth between the "wrestlers" involved (yes, several characters can combine their forces to grapple one).

There are some cool optional rules covering sustenance, sleep, fatigue, long-distance movement, vision and light, and actions under time pressure.

Magic is not too different from what you would expect coming from classic D&D except that there are memorizing as well as spontaneous casters much like in 3rd edition. The real "shocker" are the spells themselves, some of which are really quite different from what I am used to in D&D games. Just some cool 1st level spells picked at random: burden to increase someone's encumbrance level, erosion to weaken a physical object, false cure to make it seem like you healed someone, overwhelm to create emotions in a target, rumors to start an contagious false belief in a population, etc. Those things are full of potential and I am officially amazed that many of the spells in A&A have never shown up in D&D before to the best of my knowledge. That's impressive.

The entire book is full of useful advice for DMs, especially regarding sandbox play and the concept of player agency. There's advice about adventure design with a long list of commonly used tropes and how to combine them. There's advice about monsters and how to design them (indeed, A&A doesn't come with a monster chapter in the traditional sense, you're almost completely on your own). There's advice about NPCs and a cute favor/disfavor system that immediately leads to sources for new quests. And so on, and so forth.

So what's the verdict? I very much enjoyed reading A&A because it offers a fresh approach to D&D that still mostly satisfies old-school sensibilities. True, in a few places the 3rd edition stuff shines through a little much, but it's not too horrible. There are a few editing problems that annoy me a bit, but OSR writers don't have an army of professional editors to help them out so that's okay. I look at A&A as a great "change of pace" game, something I would run "on occasion" whenever we need a break from our "regular" campaign. There are also a few mechanics (rest die!) and spells (rumors!) that I might steal outright for my D&D game. After reading A&A I feel inspired to run a gritty, high-fantasy, low-magic, weird monsters everywhere, let's borrow some ChAoS from Warhammer thing that could be a lot of fun. I really hope I get to try it out. Who knows, maybe it'll even become our regular campaign eventually?