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Grumpy, yet verbose.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Moldvay Musings XXII: Experience for Gold

Hello again! Assuming anyone is still out there. With the recent end of our latest Traveller campaign, I’ve stepped away from the gaming table for a spell. Some family matters have made the last several of months distracting, but I’ve recently begun a personal project that’s got me trying to get back into the old-school D&D mindset. Thus, I have thoughts to blog.

There was a recent discussion online regarding OSE (Old School Essentials), the excellent BX re-skinning by Necrotic Gnome. A DM new to the system (I think he had previously run 5e) was asking about alternative experience/leveling methods other than XP for GP.

Several options and house-rules were bandied about. But as I read through them, it reinforced my preference for the as-written method of experience being mostly from treasure found through adventuring. My impulse was to reply to the thread directly, but as I organized my ideas, I realized there was a bit more connected to the subject than I first thought. So I decided to fling them all onto the page here and get them out of my skull.

NB: This got… wordy, so here’s the TL;DR – A character’s XP level or progression is not the ONLY way they can become more powerful within a game-world. Using treasure earned through adventuring as the way to measure their progress as adventurers makes perfect sense in a game like classic D&D.

First of all, when I say I like the XP/GP model, I mean specifically for D&D, especially if there is a focus on dungeon crawling. Other games and systems use completely different methods of advancing characters, and they work great. I wouldn’t try to change Call of Cthulhu over to a level based XP system relying on treasure-hunting.

But why do I like XP/GP for D&D? Firstly, and this is the least of it, it’s the way the game was originally written. My overall game-mastering perspective is typically to change as little as possible in the rules as written unless I find a compelling reason. Also, as I have said before “You can’t ‘Fix’ D&D.” There is a point in the rules-tweaking cycle where one has to ask if it’s still the same game?

The next reason I like XP/GP is simply that it makes sense. If you are playing old-school D&D as I believe it was intended, then your game is a series of risk/reward exercises. When you break into an ancient tomb, most PCs would have profit at least partially on their minds. So if the gold is the reward, what’s the risk? The monsters, the traps, NPC rival parties and bandits. In risk management, the goal is to maximize reward and minimize risk. Making combat attractive by adding making it a bigger source of XP results in risk-seeking, not risk management.

Now XP/GP isn’t perfect. The question often arises of what does a mid-to-high level character DO with all their coin? Not all PCs are interested in building a stronghold, and if you don’t let them buy expensive magic items or similar, they can amass an alarming amount of cash. I’ve written in the past about PC wealth and ways to help them spend it. The truth is this all comes back to the attitude of the players (and the DM). Wealth can be a role-playing challenge. What would you do if you were your PC and came into that money? I know some folks would say “Not go out adventuring again, that’s for sure!” And if it fits your character’s story to retire at that point, who is to stop you?

I would counter that maybe that’s not being the best player that you could be in the sense that you are a member in a group of (hopefully) friends. Leaving the party high and dry as your experienced PC bails on adventuring to open a tavern might annoy the rest of the group.  I usually enjoin players to think of character concepts that include wanting to continue adventuring. Or needing to in order to reach a goal. What you might “settle” for in real life may be VERY different from what your PC would deem enough. We’re playing a game of imagination, we can figure something out that makes sense if we agree on things like basic genres and tropes. If, as a kid, you and your friends went out to play Cops & Robbers, the compact there was there were two main types of people in the game: police and criminals. If one kid then claims he’s Spider-Man and can just web-up all the robbers, that’s a very different game.

I should take a moment to stress that in my games, experience is earned by treasure earned through adventuring. If you invest in a shipping line or marry the old widow and you end up with a million gold pieces, you don’t suddenly shoot up in level. You don’t become a better adventurer by not adventuring. Which is another reason I mislike things like “Story XP.” If the story involves adventure and monsters and such, then building some treasure into that is simple enough. Even if it’s a reward the adventurers are paid by an NPC and not found inside a chest in some dungeon. If the “plot arc” resolves itself without your typical adventuring activities, then it shouldn’t result in your PC leveling up in their adventuring class. But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t everyone just turn full murder-hobo? Because, dear reader, another reason I like XP/GP just fine is that XP doesn’t have to be the only kind of in-game reward.

Did you ever wonder why there was no experience award for magic items in BX and other older editions? Likewise, they have no listed market prices. I believe it’s because magic items are intended as their own rewards. That magic armor doesn’t give you experience points. It gives you a freaking suit of magic armor! Actually, it technically does give you XP by increasing the chances of your survival. There aren’t set prices because magic items are, well, magical. I am not saying that I make it impossible for my players’ PCs to sell or buy magic, but it’s very case by case. Magic items do reward the characters, just not with XP.

Likewise for story goals that don’t include “normal” adventures to accomplish. There should be some reward, but it might not be XP. As I said before, if you thwart the Ice King and save Princess Bubblegum and then she gives you and your party 100K gold pieces, that’s earned by adventuring and 100% grants XP. But what if she names you all Heroes of the Realm and knights you? There’s no cash, and no XP, but that is definitely a reward. Everyone in the kingdom respects you and people seek you out for more quests and hero-work. You probably attract the notice of the court and access to all sorts of rumors and favors. You aren’t suddenly name-level, but your fortunes have definitely improved.

"Personal Goals" XP is no different. You’re finally getting the chance to avenge your brother’s death? Awesome! Let’s have a great scene where you get to confront the guy and have it out with nine-fingered man. When you win, maybe there’s loot, maybe not. Maybe achieving the goal contains an in-game reward like with the princess. Perhaps your vengeance clears the family name, and now you can restore your title? To me, personal character goals are meant primarily as RP opportunities and fodder for the DM to tailor the adventures to the player's interests, Not an XP source.

If achieving that kind of goal that doesn’t mean anything to the player because “it’s just RP” then maybe he needs better goals, or maybe these types of RP goals aren’t for him. Next time maybe he can say “My lifelong goal is to kill a dragon and take its hoard!” This is why I often have powerful NPC lords and ladies who aren’t necessarily name-level adventurers. They’re influence isn’t acquired by how many hit points they have. In less civilized places, “tougher” nobles (with levels) may be more common, though.

Remember, these rules aren’t intended to cover everything, so you need to decide how you want to handle the things that aren’t spelled out. Characters can do an awful lot in the game without worrying about what level they are, especially in a game as flexible and rules-light as BX. So before worrying too much about changing things like XP for GP, look a little deeper and ask how it can work for your games instead of how it can’t.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

ShadowDark RPG: Marrying the Old and New

 I recently stumbled across a Kickstarter for a new OSR product from a fellow longtime Garycon attendee. Kelsey Dionne has been a respected writer of 5e adventures for a while now, and has her gaming roots from growing up in southern WI, even meeting Gary at Gencon when it was in Milwaukee and playing with Gary-adjacent types in her youth like Jim Mishler. Her keen eye for design and brevity makes her work a very easy read.

Now she has released ShadowDark, her take on the 5e rules streamlined and simplified for old-school style play, and it is fairly impressive. The quickstart rules are free to download on her website, the Arcane Library, and her Kickstarter fairly blew up upon release and is closing in on the $1M mark. 

There are a lot of interviews, reviews, and let's plays out there online, so I won't try to rehash all that here. Suffice it to say I backed it and I am looking forward to getting my copy of the full "Core" rules after the campaign ends. I will probably use the rules for my next fantasy campaign as well. At least a one-shot or two.

At time of writing there is still over a week left in the Kickstarter, so take a look around at the quickstart rules and toss a few bucks in the hat if it looks interesting to you.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

RMA: Gargoyles

This was going to be an REF, but I was a little surprised to see that I hadn't done an RMA for Gargoyles. Perhaps because they aren't that uncommon as a monster. Since it turns out there is a lot to these rocky ruffians, I decided an RMA was more appropriate.

(from Moldvay)

AC: 5
HD: 4
Move: 90' (30')
    Fly: 150' (50')
Att: 4 (2 claws/1 bite/ 1 horn)
Damage: 1d3 ea./1d6/1d4
No. App: 1d6 (2d4)
Save: F8
Morale: 11

So, a few things leap out here. First off, FOUR attacks! None of them are exactly dragon's breath in terms of damage, but still! Secondly, it saves as an EIGHTH level fighter despite only having four hit dice. That's a resilient creature! Gargoyles also have a very high Morale. These guys aren't cutting and running too much.

Moving on, there are a couple items from the description that are worth mentioning. Magic or magic weapons are required to hit them. So right there that ups the ante for an encounter. Remember, these are Basic monsters, not Expert. The description actually states "The DM is advised to use gargoyles only if the player characters have at least one magical weapon."

Secondly, they are immune to sleep and charm magics. This limits lower level spell casters somewhat, as Sleep  is a perennial favorite option vs monsters of 4HD or less. 

"Gargoyles are very cunning and at least semi-intelligent. They will attack nearly anything that approaches them." 
Which meshes nicely with their high Morale and Chaotic alignment. These are vicious things! I wouldn't play them as highly intelligent or capable of long-term planning, but simple ambushes or clever combat tactics would be reasonable.

Couple all that with the fact that you are usually running into at least a couple of them in any given encounter makes it that much dicier.

Oh, and they can fly.

Treasure type is C; Which is respectable enough, but no one is retiring on the loot. 

While it isn't specifically stated, I would argue that their stony skin would lead to plenty of potential surprise situations.

DMs looking to make a memorable encounter should be taking all this into account. Low level parties running across a nest of these things should know they've been in a fight! If it were a planned encounter or set piece, I might be nice and drop hints about their presence. Perhaps even rumors in town about "flying demons" spotted in the hills or what have you. 

For players, I heartily hope that there is a magic weapon or two in your arsenal. Since Gargoyles appear on the Level 3 wandering monsters, I'll say your party should probably average out to 3rd level. that means you should hopefully have a 2nd level spell or two at your disposal. Hold Person  should work (they are roughly humanoid) on the clerical side. Magic-users might look to Web  or Phantasmal Force.  As always, Light to blind foes is a good choice, too! Even Levitate to partially counter their aerial advantage could be useful. And, of course, there's always running away!

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

RMA: Mermen

 RMA: Mermen

I've held forth in the past about aquatic encounters, but the majority of water creatures in BX are monstrous or mythical animals: Things like giant fish or water termites. There are very few sentient sea creatures apart from dragon-kin or fairy types. The one notable exception to this in BX is the Merman.

Mermen are not fae. They are a mortal race of half-man, half-fish that live in undersea communities. Usually coastal waters. 

(YOU know, Unda the... ocean!)

Mermen (which includes mermaids, I presume) are quite rare as a random encounter, only occurring as a single entry on one wilderness encounter sub-sub-table (Swimmers: Ocean). Typically found in small hunting parties averaging a dozen or so. But we'll get to that. First, the stats:

(from Cook)


AC: 6

HD: 1-4

Move: 120'(40')

Att: 1

Damage: 1d6 or by weapon

# App: 0 (1-20)

Save: F1

Morale: 8



Okay! So first off, not terribly imposing. The rank and file merman has ONE whole hit die, so an average of 4-5 hit points. No real armor protection (though swimming in armor is its own problem), and a pretty skittish morale. This paints a picture of a fairly unintimidating foe. But one must remember that the threat from mermen isn't their toughness, it's the environment!

A player character in the water should be at a major disadvantage. There are not a lot of rules in the books about how to deal with swimming/underwater PCs. Some options for a DM may include things like slowed movement, reduced attack and defense (maybe no DEX adjustment for AC) and wearing heavy armor and/or carrying a lot of gear could mean sinking instead of swimming. Not to mention the challenge of breathing if you go under the waves.

Mermen face none of these issues. If a PC has to strip off his armor and shield, then once they dive in find that their mobility and fighting ability is reduced might revisit just how "dangerous" that 1HD fish-man with a trident really is!

Another issue to keep in mind is that Mermen may keep trained sea beasts as guard animals. DMs should feel free to get creative with this. Maybe it's a shark, maybe a whale, or it could be a giant squid!

Mermen parties often have a 2HD leader type with them. Larger groups might have a 4HD chieftain type. These individuals are probably not tipping the balance of a fight where the fact that there are dozens of mermen already in the mix, but it is worth keeping note of. 

I think the real value of mermen in a campaign or setting isn't as a foe, but as an exotic race that the characters can meet and interact with. I'm not saying they need to be friendly, but as they are Neutral and described in hunter-gatherer terms, treating them like a "native tribe" might not be a bad angle to take. Perhaps they could be enticed to guide the PCs to that nasty dragon turtle's lair. Or maybe they can retrieve something from a sunken ship for a price?

Sunday, February 12, 2023

RSA: Protections from Evil

Neither of these are hardly an uncommon spell, but they do seem to generate a fair bit of confusion from time to time. I don’t pretend to be the final word on interpreting B/X D&D, but it is a game I spend a fair bit of time pondering.

Depending on how you count things, there are two to four spells in this category: 

The “personal” vs the 10’ radius and the Clerical vs MU/Elf versions. For the purposes of this Random 

Spell(s) Assessment, we’ll just be (mostly*) looking at the former.

Starting off with the first one of these spells that players are likely to get their hands on, there is the 

classic: Protection from Evil.

(from Moldvay)

Cleric 1/MU 1

Protection from Evil Range: 0 (caster only)

Duration: 12 turns

This spell circles the cleric with a magic barrier. This barrier will

move with the caster. The spell serves as some protection from

"evil" attacks (attacks by monsters of some alignment other than

the cleric's alignment) by adding 1 to the clerics' saving throws, and

subtracting 1 from the "to hit" die roll of these opponents. The

spell will also keep out hand-to-hand attacks from enchanted

(summoned or created) monsters (such as living statues), but not

missile fire attacks from these creatures (see COMBAT). The cleric

may break this protection by attacking the monster in hand-to-hand

combat, but still gains the bonus "to hit" and saves.

*Both MU versions are nearly identical to the clerical versions, so there’s no need to list both descriptions here. The one big change is that the duration for the MU 1st level spell is half that of the clerical: Six turns instead of twelve. I guess those arcane types aren’t getting a divine assist. Everything else is the same.

There is a fair bit to unpack in this description, so let’s dig in, shall we?

In essence, the spell creates a sort of force field around the cast that blocks or limits attacks by “evil” creatures. Since this is BX, there is no “Evil” alignment, just Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. As in the “Detect Evil” spell, evil is defined as a differing alignment having an “evil” intent (malice, etc.). So a Neutral Elf would be protected from lawful or chaotic beings wishing him harm, etc. 

The first effects listed are pretty straightforward. The caster gets a buff to saves and the baddies get a penalty to attacks (+1/-1). The next part is interesting, though. 

“The spell will also keep out hand-to-hand attacks from enchanted (summoned or created) monsters (such as living statues), but not missile fire attacks from these creatures (see COMBAT).”

This point is probably where I see the most confusion from people: Notice that the stuff about differing alignment is no longer in play here? That chaotic chieftain is getting a -1 to hit you, but he can absolutely try to smash you in the face with his battleaxe. That Bone Golem? Not so much. This is an important distinction. I’ve seen games where this wasn’t clear to the group and a lot of confusion arose about how exactly the baddies could do anything to the caster after this measly 1st level spell was in effect. 

The next thing to remember is that the caster cannot engage in melee combat with the warded monster without breaking the effect. It doesn’t say anything about missile fire, though. Also, the +1/-1 is still going even if the force field is gone. 

The area of effect version is pretty much the same, except it can protect more than one person at a time. It’s also the only way to put the effect on anyone else (both spells are centered on the caster, no other target is valid as written). 

(from Cook)

Cleric 4/MU 3

Protection from Evil 10' Radius Range: 0'

Duration: 12 turns

This spell circles the caster with a magical barrier that will protect

all friendly creatures within 10' of the cleric. This barrier will move

with the cleric. The spell serves as some protection from "evil"

attacks (attacks by monsters of an alignment other than the

caster's) by adding 1 to the caster's saving throw and subtracting 1

from evil opponents' "to hit" roll. This spell will also keep out

melee attacks from enchanted monsters (such as elementals) but

not missile or magical attacks from these creatures. Enchanted

monsters can melee if any of the protected creatures attempt to

attack them with hand-to-hand combat.

(Once again, the MU version is weaker in that it’s a higher level spell than for clerics. Otherwise, no differences.) The new takeaways from here are that multiple people are protected, but only if they stay close to the cleric, and that if anyone even tried melee with the warded monster(s), they can ignore the force field effect in general (“...if ANY of the protected creatures ATTEMPT to attack them with hand-to-hand combat). This means not only that INT 6 fighter could negate that protection with a swing and a miss, he dispels the field for *everyone*. Again though, missile fire is fine for some reason. I guess it’s a look don’t touch kind of thing?

Now, there is some ambiguity regarding the nature of the 10’ radius field. Part of the text seems to indicate that it simply creates a protective field for all the people in the radius, other parts make it sound like it could be used to block a corridor or similar. Personally I’m inclined to the latter, as a 3rd-4th level spell should have a little oomph, IMO. Also the idea that one person attempting melee dispels the effect for all makes it sound like one big field, not multiple personal ones. Fun tidbit: Remember that the alignments you are protected from are determined by the caster’s alignment, not each individual friendly getting the effects. So if a lawful cleric casts it on the party, it won’t grant penalties or bonuses vs. lawful for that neutral thief.

The duration for both of these spells are obviously applicable over more than a single combat. However, given how easily the “force field” can be dispelled, it seems that the +1/-1 is the more durable benefit. Smart timing could grant those receiving the spell’s benefits with a nice little modifier as they move into an area where they expect to be butting heads with folks of other alignments. Entering Area K in the Caves of Chaos would be a great example of when to use it!

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Giving up the Reins

 Well, the Traveller campaign has continued on with a player taking over as GM and my taking a seat on the player's side of the screen, running an NPC the party had met before. It's working all right overall as I had not read much ahead in the campaign materials, so I don't have spoilers.

The difficulty is in my letting go of "running" the game I'm in. I'm usually the GM and --for good or ill-- I have a particular style. The new GM's style is not radically different, but it's his own as well. I fear I sometimes may chime in with comments on rules or mechanics when I should just be quiet and play. 

On the other hand, one of the reasons I normally GM and not play in our little group is that a couple of the players can, well, be a lot. One is very competitive and dominates a lot of the conversation, making it hard to be heard sometimes without just constantly interrupting. The other favors "storytelling" over rules and die rolls, so he's happier when we don't bother looking up a rule and either A) handwaving the whole thing or B) just letting the GM make an ad hoc ruling and move on. I have no beef with either style, but when I run, I usually only handwave or wing it when the actual rule doesn't exist or is not easily found. 

Both of these players push back when I cite rules, but as GM, I have more of say in how we proceed than as a player. The friction between our styles is more annoying when I am just a player at the table with them. I know that sounds a little petty, but when most sessions consist of getting fellow players talking over and interrupting you when you're trying to describe your character's actions or grumbling when you point out a relevant mechanic in the book, the fun level drops.

I know this is more in my headspace than in their actions, but it's just something that I'll need to process. Otherwise it may be time for a break. Game group dynamics are always interesting to navigate. What's strange is that it can actually vary from one campaign to the next. A group of people can play together just fine for one game system, then be utterly derailed when playing another. I'm not sure what the alchemy is there, but it seems a real thing. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Death of the Campaign

 Over the last several months of running Traveller, I've started to notice a pattern in my gaming habits that conflicts with a long-held assumption I've had about styles of gaming and my own preferences. It's forced me to take a serious look at what I want and get out of this hobby.

As a fan of old-school games and things like classic D&D, I've often been a staunch defender of the whole long-term process of characters leveling up over time and getting really enmeshed in an extended campaign. The time it takes to get from 1st to "Name" level being essential to really making the PCs part of the world and for the players to get invested in the setting and what's happening there. There's no substitute for "putting in the work" as they say. It's not that I disagree with this now, but I believe I am at a point in my gaming style, as well as of an age, where my priorities are shifting somewhat.

Lately, I find that I am far more likely to experience burn-out on campaigns that last for months (or longer). This is especially when I GM, but has happened as a player, too. I realize that by some grognardian standards, a 6-12 month campaign is hardly "extended," but when you factor in all the games over the years that have crashed and burned after only 1-2 sessions, I think sustaining one for the better part of a year or more is certainly at the longer end of the curve.

When I went on my game-purchasing spree last year, I originally had the idea of getting at least one published campaign for each system. While Runequest lacks a full campaign (presently), it does have several compilations of scenarios. The thinking was to reduce the workload for me to run the different games and have enough for players to do for a good long while in each game.

The reality has been a little different. While I count myself lucky that my group has really been enjoying Traveller and have gotten engaged with the setting and the campaign, I'm struggling as GM to maintain the energy to prep and run it, even with published materials. My enthusiasm for the campaign has waned over the months and I fear I'm going to need a real break from it soon, which, as experienced gamers know, often means that it will never get picked back up again. Because of this, I've been trying to push through,hoping to regain some momentum. Sadly, that seems to not be happening.

So where does this leave me? Well, for one thing, I've learned something about myself as a GM and a gamer, so that's good. (I guess?) Secondly, I know I will need to make the call about the current campaign at some point, and third, I should focus on shorter, more episodic games where there are frequent "stopping points" to let one wrap up and have some closure before moving on. We had a moment like that in the Traveller campaign right before we shifted gears into the Drinax campaign. Perhaps I should have taken it. Perhaps the open-ended, long term campaign is not for me any more.

Live and Learn.