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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

REF: Castle Encounters

Castle encounters is an interesting subsection of the wilderness encounter tables. Despite the name, it’s not for encounter within a keep or castle, it’s for when the PCs stumble through the woods into the territory of the local lord and one of their patrols. It’s another example of how misleadingly compact the Moldvay/Cook rules are to include such a nifty bit of detail.

As the description states, “When characters discover a castle in the wilderness they will be unsure of the type of reception they will receive.” [X59] The encounter assumes A) the DM doesn’t have an attitude/reaction planned for the patrol and B) “the party does nothing either to arouse suspicion or inspire trust.”

The nature of the patrol (heavy or medium horse) depends upon the type of ruler (NPC class), but that’s a minor detail. Although I love the fact that it states “Note that the men listed are only part of the castle owner's forces. The rest of the force should include men and might even include special creatures such as trolls, or combinations such as superheroes mounted on griffons.”

I get chills.

The meat of this section are the possible reactions. Rather than the full monster reaction table, there are three basic possibilities: Pursue, Ignore, or Friendly. There is no CHA modifier (these are professionals), though I would probably allow a re-roll if the players showed some good role-playing.

Pursue: This isn’t necessarily a chase (though it could be). It could be a toll charged. Refusal can result in a fight or arrest.

Ignore: Just as it says. They pretty much give the PCs a “Move along.” It’s important to remember the ‘nothing to arouse suspicion’ caveat earlier here. PCs can act and look pretty suspicious sometimes without really trying!

Friendly: An invite of the keep’s hospitality. A fun tidbit: This can be offered by bad guys “for evil purposes” (!) Awesome.

A final note regarding demi-humans mentions “Elves, dwarves, and halflings are not given on this list, as their strongholds are special cases.” and suggests they would avoid contact. Fair enough, but that might vary from setting to setting.

So imagine the scenario of the PCs cutting cross-country, entering the territory of a 13th level wizard’s tower. It’s late afternoon and a patrol of a half dozen heavy horsemen appear. They are not hostile and even suggest the PCs might wish to shelter at the tower for the evening. The magus is always happy for guests. If they accept, maybe they come to the tower to find a bugbear mounted on a manticore is guarding the gate and lets them and the patrol enter without fuss.

Is the wizard evil? Are the PCs in for a really bad time? What would happen if they refused the offer? Maybe the mage is benign and he could even become an ally or resource for the party. All because the took a wrong turn at that gully and went one hex off-course.

Man, I love this game!

Monday, June 11, 2018

New BX Screen

I bought one of Hammerdog Games' landscape "World's Greatest Screens" a while back with the idea of designing a new one for my classic games. This is the result.

 The only tables on the player side are equipment costs, cleric turning, and thief skills.

Closer view of the custom art panel I made:

This was all done with open-source software. I copied the data for the tables into LibreOffice and then laid out the pages in Scribus. I exported the whole thing to PDF for printing. The images were tweaked a bit in GIMP. 

I'm not 100% sure about the readability of the tables' sizes, so I may lose the notes panel to allow for bigger table text.

EDIT: As per requests, here is a link to the pdf on my Google docs.

Friday, June 8, 2018

In Defense of Flavor Text

Flavor text, or boxed text, is a staple of classic adventure modules. The bit of copy set aside to read to the players. The part they can know, minus things like where the secret door is or the solution to the riddle carved on the wall.

In recent years, many (certainly not all) writers and reviewers of OSR-style products have voiced criticisms of boxed text. They find it distracting and disruptive to setting the pace of a game, even to the point of being jarring. The text can make also assumptions; such as the characters taking certain actions or that events having occurred in a certain sequence. 

These are valid complaints. While the GM can certainly amend text on the fly to reflect the current status of his individual game, part of the point to a published product like a module is to do some of that lifting for him.

When I have written flavor text for adventures, I have learned (imperfectly) to only present what can be immediately perceived upon entering a room or area, regardless of what may have happened before (within reason) and leaving further revelations to be determined by the players’ choices. Not all published products follow this model, so I can understand some people’s frustration. But before we throw the text out with the bathwater, allow me to offer my take on the value of flavor text in general.

As stated previously, boxed text takes some of the work off the GM’s hands. It gives him something to tell the players about their surroundings in an easily presented format. Granted, some boxed text can go on for far too long. A few sentences should be enough. Alternately, you can have a short initial description that breaks and allows for player agency. Then, if the players “trigger” the next part, there can be a followup box of relevant text. 

Of course, the flavor in flavor text is often the mood-setting, or atmospheric, descriptions to help people feel more immersed in the game. While this is a laudable goal, I often feel it is over-emphasized in boxed text. I mean, that clever imagery about the moon through the dead tree branches is cool and all, but not if I have to listen to a minute and a half of it before the GM tells me there’s a werewolf under the tree.

Another reason for prepared text is to help the players. Not just in setting the mood or presenting their initial impressions of their surroundings, but in filling in what I call the “perception gap.”

There is an old-school GM-ing conceit of “The player never expressly said they checked X, so they don’t know Y.” While this is fair as far as it goes toward allowing for player agency and their characters to stand or fall by their choices, there is a range between what one overtly sees or hears, and what one might realistically perceive if one were actually there. This is the perception gap.

Articles and books about adventure design often address this with advice like using all five senses when giving descriptions, not just sight or sound: What do they smell? Is it cold or hot? Dry or humid? and so forth. The idea is it helps the players visualize and become immersed more in the game. This is good advice, but has two potential pitfalls.

First, this can be a lot more work for the GM. Hence the previous point about using a published module. If an author has already incorporated some of these descriptors into the text, then the GM doesn’t have to. I am a proponent of not overusing this technique, though. Every room shouldn’t have a laundry list of sensory stimuli. Use the technique sparingly, and usually only when it will have an impact. Which brings me to my second point regarding the perception gap.

Providing more detail to players via prepared text not only for atmosphere, but to provide hints relevant to gameplay. A rotten smell might indicate zombies in the cellar, or a drafty room might hint at a secret passage. These are things that a person would probably notice just by being in a place, but may or may consciously register. Some may be less obvious than others, but still definitely perceptible. Unless you want to train your players to repeatedly stop you and ask for input for each sense, scattering some of these details in subdued ways gives players a chance to follow up on these cues without necessarily smacking them over the head with them. The tricky part is to make such cues normal enough in one’s “GM patter” that metagaming players don’t pounce on every adjective, but distinct enough that they were given a fair shot before saving throws are called for. This sort of lexical balancing act can be tricky, which is all the more reason to use text that was prepared ahead of time either by the GM or by a published module’s author. 

As with any aspect of game design, boxed flavor text can be done well or poorly or anywhere in between. When it’s done well, I feel it can be a real asset to the players’ experience, both for setting the mood and filling the perception gap. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Curious Objects: Staff of Wizardry

Once again, he is undeterred!

The staff of wizardry is arguably one of the most powerful magic items in the game. It's effectively the BX equivalent of AD&D's Staff of the Magi. Basically, it is three separate magic staves in one: in addition to its own distinct powers, it has all the abilities of the Staff of Power, which in turn can be used as a Staff of Striking. Let's start with the most straightforward of the three and move upwards, shall we?

Firstly, the Staff of Striking lets the wielder have a stronger melee attack than your average MU is capable of (2d6 damage, but costs a charge). While this staff is unusual in that clerics can also wield it, I do not think that aspect translates to the Staff of Power or Wizardry. While it isn't expressly stated, this is usually ruled to count as a magic weapon attack for purposes of hitting special monsters like gargoyles.

The Staff of Power gives the wielder some nice attack spells: fireball, lightning bolt, and cone of cold. Each dealing 8d6 damage! Sure it costs charges, but an Elf or MU toting one of those around is going to have something to bring to almost any fight. I particularly like that he has a variety of damage types to choose from. Fighting something immune to fire? Cone of cold it is!

The Staff of Wizardry is the main event, though. In addition to all of the above powers, it can also cast quite the laundry list of super-useful (and powerful) spells:

  • Invisibility
  • Passwall
  • Web
  • Conjure Elemental
These are some awfully nice abilities that aren't tying up a spell slot! Something I hadn't previously considered is that the elemental conjuration isn't just for one kind, it's any of the four! We're not done yet, though.

The staff also allows the wizard to create a whirlwind like a djinn. It also doubles as a wand of paralyzation. 

The last trick the staff carries is its "final strike." This release a fireball effect of 8hp damage per remaining charge (not rolled) to anyone within 30'.* This includes the caster or any friendlies, so it's a last-ditch effort, to be sure. It's still mighty impressive.

Staves in BX are found with 3d10 charges, and there is no BtB way to recharge them. So while this is a very powerful item, it is limited. The Elf or MU that found one would probably want to be conservative in its use. With an average of less than 20 charges, it's not going to last forever. In fact, I can imagine an NPC wizard with one who knows it's down to just a couple charges, but does his best to hide the fact in order to appear more dangerous. 

*Cook lists both 20' and 30' as the radius, but the Rules Cyclopedia says 30', so I went with that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

RSA: Snake Charm

While a fairly low-level spell, I don't see this one getting a lot of table time. Largely, I think, because it has a pretty narrow focus and the cleric would probably want to know in advance that it would be useful before preparing it.

Snake Charm (2nd level Clerical Spell, from Cook)

Range: 60'
Duration: Special

The cleric can charm 1HD worth of snakes per level. Given that the biggest "normal" snake in the books has 5HD (Rock Python), and the cleric needs to be at least 3rd to cast the spell, chances are he can deal with at least one reptile. The description doesn't specify whether the snakes get a saving throw vs the spell, but my assumption is that they would.

What's interesting is the nature of the "charm." The snakes won't do the cleric's bidding, they just rise up and sway, like in the movies.

Hostile (attacking) snakes will only sway for 1d4+1 rounds. Neutral ones will be "charmed" for up to 5 turns. Plenty of time to get past a nasty save or die situation.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

RMA: Insect Swarm

One of the neat things about Basic/Expert D&D is the compactness of the rules and how much material they actual contain. This entry in the basic book is a good example of that. What could be a complex and unwieldy series of entries in the monsters section is distilled to one, easily re skinned, listing.

Insect Swarm (from Moldvay)
AC: 7
HD: (2-4)
Move: 30' (10')
    Fly  60' (20')
Att: 1 swarm
Dmg: 2 pts
No. App: 1 swarm (1-3 swarms)
Save: Normal Man
Morale: 11
TT: Nil

So, stat-wise, other than a high morale score it's pretty unimpressive. Of course, that's not the point of the "creature." It's role is to represent one of the more mundane threats in the rules. It gives the DM a handy tool for representing any horde of tiny bitey/sting-y things.

As the book states, "Swarms are not single creatures, but are whole communities of tiny creatures acting together." A swarm might be defending a nest, hungry, or just investigating a curious smell. A normal-sized swarm is 10 x 30', which means more than one PC can be enveloped, and swarms can be larger or appear in greater numbers. Imagine a 30' x 90' area filled with angry bees!

There are a few other things to keep in mind that can make these clouds of critters particularly dangerous.

1) "If a character is within a swarm he or she is automatically hit by the creatures and will take 2 points of damage each round."

Two points doesn't sound like much, but a PC will have a hard time outrunning a flying swarm and a few rounds can seriously mess up a low-level character. Not to mention that unarmored types like magic users take double damage!

2) Running away still means taking a few rounds' worth of damage (albeit halved) as the insects already on the character continue to bite or sting as he swats them away.

3) If you damage the swarm, they will pursue relentlessly. Your best bet is diving in water and submerging yourself.

Now, there are several easy ways to deal with swarms. Fire and smoke are among the easiest. Just swinging a sword won't hurt it, but it will help fend it off somewhat. A sleep spell will knock the whole swarm out, but burning a spell slot to deal with normal bugs seems costly.

Despite not having used these as a challenge in my past games, I hope to spring this one on some hapless adventurers in the not too distant future.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Curious Objects: Wand of Metal Detection

This is one of those very simple magic items, but one that has such an atypical power that it makes me wonder what sorts of interesting uses one could out it to. Like most wands, it carries 2d10 charges and is usable only by MU/Elves. It has a very short description as well.
"This item will point towards any mass of metal weighing 1,000 coins or more if within 20'. The user can detect the type of metal."
 I find it a nice touch that this method of detection involves the wand physically pointing in the metal's direction. I suspect that it was originally imagined as tugging in the user's hand, but I like to picture setting on the floor and letting it spin like a compass needle.

Interestingly, the wand has a very limited range. How often is a hundred pounds of metal within half a dozen paces and you can't already see it? This is highly tailored to dungeon crawling, where the treasure may be behind a secret door or a wall or similar.

Lastly, the user knows the type of metal as well. A thousand coin worth of iron or copper? It might not be worth tracking down. Gold or platinum? That's a different story.

The description also describes the detected metals as "a mass." This could be interpreted to exempt things like a scattering of miscellaneous metal objects like rusted weapons lying about a room or even a man in a suit of plate armor with shield and weapons (and maybe 100 gp or so in a pouch to round it off).

It's a pity thieves can't use the wand, it would be a great tool for a cat burglar searching a room for the hidden loot.