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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

H2-The Desolation of Smaug: Impressions and Semi-Review

Like many Middle Earth/JRRT fans, I saw the second installment of Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy this weekend. I saw it in "normal" (non-IMAX) 3D (more on that later). As previously, let me start my ramblings with a relatively spoiler-free* section then move on to the nitty gritty.

* By "spoiler-free" I mean about the film adaptation of the story, I assume anyone reading this blog knows the basic events of "The Hobbit" in general. If not, do not read further unless you want spoilers.

Extremely short recap/overview: When we left off at the end of the first film, Bilbo et al had escaped the orcs and wargs with help from the eagles. A good stopping point in the narrative, I thought. We pick up from there and move on to some of the more well-known (and a few of the lesser) scenes from the book. We have Mirkwood and Laketown and reach the Mountain.

Among these sections are some truly impressive scenes. I loved  the spiders. The effects/CGI was wonderfully done. It didn't follow the book 100%, but when does a movie ever?

Cooler than this.

Of course, because this is Mirkwood, the elves show up. And who is their prince? 

I'm still the prettiest!!

Yes, in case you live under a rock, Orlando reprises his role as Legolas Greenleaf, son of King Thrainduil. Mr. Bloom is a few years older now, but he was ridiculously young when he did LOTR, so it hardly shows. He carries a bit more gravitas as an actor now, which makes it a little anachronistic that his character is over half a century older in the "later" films. But that's always the issue with prequels. Bloom does a fine job, and I liked how his character was written for this. The sylvan (wood) elves are insular, nearly xenophobic, and a tad bloodthirsty. Good stuff.

The dwarves are then imprisoned, which brings me to the next bit about the movie: The caves of Thrainduil are gorgeous. I loved how they managed to capture the subterranean and arboreal feel. It redefines how elves would live in a cave to me. If ever a Simarillion  movie were made, they need to take a page from this film for Nargothrond (look it up). 

Thrainduil has a chat with some folks. I must say I am on the fence about how this character is being portrayed. He supposed to be a little edgy, I guess, but occasionally his portrayal seemed ...erratic. His essentially telling Tauriel that she's elf trailer trash compared to Pretty Prince Legolas and should keep her she-hooks off him seemed, well, bitchy. Ah well, perhaps it will fit with future appearance in the third film. 

Of course, thanks to Bilbo, the dwarves don't stay prisoners. The film moves right along to them getting freed and stuffed into barrels for a log flume ride.

Keep your hands and beards inside the ride at all times. 

Now, as the trailer shows, the nature of the ride is a bit different from the book, but it's an understandable change as it makes the sequence much more accessible (aka "exciting"). I enjoyed it, and it accomplished what it needed to plotwise, i.e. it got the dwarves further along in their quest.

Now, a brief aside here as I talk about some of the non-Thorin & Co. events in the film. As most people following these movies know, part of how Wingnut Films expects to give us 8 or so hours of screen time is by expanding certain events that are not detailed in the books, but only briefly mentioned or alluded to in the text and –in some cases– only in the LOTR appendices. Namely, Gandalf, the White Council, and Dol Guldur.

I have heard complaints about how these things weren't really in the story and are just padding, but I respectfully submit that they are fine additions to the film. They both foreshadow the events of the LOTR movies, and –as mentioned in the review of the first film (linked above)– justify certain things that seem a bit silly in the main story, i.e. Why on earth would Gandalf send such a bunch of silly buggers to antagonize a dragon? Answer? He's doing what Gandalf always does, juggle several balls at once. We get to see a little more of Radagast and Dol Guldur, so that's fun. More about this below.

Back to the main plot, the group manages to get into Laketown and resupply enough to head to the mountain. There are several changes in the plot here, some larger than others, but spoilers abound here, so it will have to wait a couple more paragraphs. Bottom line: The reach the Mountain and find the door, which is more than implied by the trailer. As is also the fact that Bilbo goes into the Mountain and sees Smaug in all his terrible glory.

This is my favorite picture of Smaug ever. Done by the Professor himself!

There's a bit more action at the mountain, and in Laketown, then we leave off just prior to Smaug attacking the town.

Without big spoilers, Smaug is beautifully executed. His appearance, animation, and of course Mr. Cumberbatch's voicing all work wonderfully. Nerd Note: I was pleased to see a "wyvern-style" four limbed version as opposed to a brontosaurus with wings.

A note on the 3D: Not worth it, IMO. It was distracting and made a lot of the scenes look weird in how they were shot. I would have preferred a "vanilla" viewing.


Okay! Let's talk a little about specifics and what I liked, and what I didn't.

Beorn: I loved that he was in the movie. I was worried he'd be cut for time. He wasn't there long, and the way the dwarves (and Bilbo) meet him is a little rushed, but I was happy he was included.

Mirkwood: Nicely done overall. Again, a bit of change from the books, mostly for pacing and time. The "oddness" of the woods and the way it played tricks on their minds was a nice way to handle things, but I was sorta looking forward to the stream of forgetful slumber. Including the butterflies and using that as a segue into the spiders worked well, too.

The spiders deserve their own special mention. I really like them. One of my favorite parts is when Bilbo puts on the Ring and discovers he can understand them. A nice touch! The spiders were big without being Shelob. They were scary and fast and nasty, too. The bit with Bilbo "fighting over the Ring" with the shelled spider was an interesting foreshadowing, but I would have preferred to see him doing the "Attercop" taunts with the Ring on and luring them off from the dwarves. I suppose having Thorin & Co. take a more active part in the fight was consistent with how the movies seem to be handling those characters.

As an aside: I was pleased to see some of the "other" dwarves getting a few more lines and scenes.

Legolas and Tauriel  were fun to watch in the fight scenes, and Evangeline Lilly is nice to watch regardless. I already mentioned I thought the tone struck with the elves' attitude was a good one.

Mmm! Ginger She-elf!

The introduction of Tauriel presents certain difficulties however. She has a large role in the film for a non-canon character, so that creates a certain amount of "ripples" in the plot. The most egregious of which is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY!! Namely, the romantic triangle between her, Legolas, and A DWARF!


I'm sorry, but I find it ridiculous that this centuries-old elf is even remotely flattered or interested in Kili. It's so obviously shoehorned into the plot, and wrenches thing off in weird directions. I admit I am prejudiced against Aidan Turner's Kili. Not because of the casting, but for the minor but annoying reason that HE HAS NO KIND OF PROPER FACIAL HAIR AT ALL!! Silly, I know. But there it is.

Sorry, stubble-boy. Legolas is still prettier. 

This was one of my major peeves with the film on a variety of levels. It uses a non-canon character to set up an unnecessary and ultimately futile sub-plot: Legolas doesn't end up with Tauriel, as later events show us. Kili doesn't either (I sincerely hope) because he DIES in the Battle of Five Armies. So Tauriel is there (partially) to add a romantic element to the story that didn't exist before and can't have any real resoultion other than –PREDICTION AHEAD– She somehow manages to die in the BoFA trying to save Kili or Legolas or both, or having to make some tragic choice between them, or Kili and her dying tragically together. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike having another elf character besides Legolas or his Pop, and I don't mind it being female, but I do mind making one up whole cloth for such a lame reason as to try and satisfy the ticket buyers who want to see some romance. 


phew! OK. Moving on now.

After the dwarves & Bilbo escape and -aheh- barrel down the river, they are pursued by orcs and the elves: namely Legolas and Tauriel. Kili is wounded by a poisoned orc arrow and the company gets away. Meeting Bard the Bowman/Smuggler/Political Rabble Rouser. 


You know what? Never mind Bard. It was a big change, but I get where PJ was going with it, it doesn't get in the way of advancing the main plot, and it sets up tension in Laketown so there's more story to see and do there. Fine.

When the dwarves are ready to leave town, they commit the biggest sin that any group of adventurers can.


The wounded Kili gets left behind and a couple other stay as well to watch over him. Why, you ask? why would PJ make such a drastic change to the story? Well the answer is quite simple: 


Orcs sneak into Laketown on Thorin's trail. But Legolas and Tauriel are following them. Action scenes ensue. Then Tauriel saves Kili from the poison with some Kingsfoil. (Which, I might point out, Bofur had gone to the trouble of finding in the first place!) Kili confesses his love for Tauriel in a fevered state and she acts all flattered and flustered and NOT AT ALL LIKE A 600 YEAR OLD ELF WARRIOR!

(I swear, I'll try to rein that in from now on)

Meanwhile, back at the mountain, more plot changes are underway. Condensing Bilbo's "visits" to Smaug was understandable. The plot twist of the Arkenstone being the real MacGuffin made a certain measure of sense as well, I guess. I really liked the detail that went into the hoard and the animating of things like coin spills, etc. I've already mentioned how much I liked Smaug.

What didn't I like at Lonely Mountain? Two things:

1) Bilbo takes off the Ring while talking to Smaug! WHAT?! The riddling talk and Smaug's playing for time while trying to find out what's afoot were part of the real fun of that scene in the book, IMO. Again, an effort to up the tension and action (Bilbo sliding around the coins stalling Smaug as he tries to grab the jewel, etc.). Also, if Smaug were aware of the Arkenstone, which he said he was, he wouldn't have left it in a pile, and he would certainly see the glowing gem skittering along with Bilbo behind. That fact seemed a bit glossed over to me.

2) The dwarves come to help Bilbo and fight with Smaug! Again, WHAT?! 

Look, Pete. I know you need some action in these films every so often, but this is HUGE. This is a radical departure from how the dwarves are presented in the book and also fairly flimsy writing. Smaug the Golden, represents an unbeatable force. Guile, trickery, and cleverness defeat him in the book, not charging around under the mountain trying to trick him. I found the entire chase and trap thing very disappointing, because it changes the story in ways it wasn't meant to go, and not in good ways or for good reasons. 

Ok, leaving the dwarves and elves for now, let's talk briefly (this is getting long) about Gandalf et al. 

His leaving the dwarves and riding off was handled very well, IMO. I liked it. It made sense, and it added some nice tension in a subtle way. I may be in the minority, but I am liking the White Council stuff. The tombs in Angmar were hella cool, with the bars bent back where the Nazgul had broken free of their crypts. 

The confrontation with the Necromancer in Dol Guldur was a nice wizardy battle. Honestly though, the gamer in me thinks A) Gandalf should have waited for Galadriel et al to arrive or, at least, B) Keep Radagast with him. What? Bird Poop-Head can't send an unladen swallow to deliver the message to Lorien? Dwarves can talk to birds in this story and Galadriel can't?? Of course, Gandalf's capture sets up the next phase of the battle at the ruins.

OK, this post has gone on long enough. Let me sum up by saying I enjoyed the movie overall. There were individual parts that I really liked, and as I think about the changes that irk me, I am reminded of another film that was second in a trilogy which provoked a similar response in me:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Grognardia: A year later.

James Maliszewski's blog Grognardia was a reading staple for OSR gamers almost from the inception the "Old School Renaissance." His reviews, observations, and play reports were always insightful and well-written. I don't know that there is or was a gaming blog that I read every entry of other than his.

A year ago today his blog ceased updating.

I confess I don't know all the reasons behind James' ceasing of new posts. The Dwimmermount Kickstarter complications and private life played a part as I understand it. While I can perfectly understand letting something like a blog lapse in the face of more important or pressing issues, and I don't blame James for not writing, I do want to go on record saying I miss his posts and also to give James a belated "Well done, sir!" for putting out such excellent material while the blog ran.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

RMA: Halfling

I know I've been gone a while, but here is something to mull over.

I've been working on a Moria-related project lately, and that got me thinking about hobbitses.

The PC races often are unusual encounters. As I have noted previously, "monster" listings and PC race descriptions are not always 100% identical. 

Halflings are probably even more unusual because, apart from the above:

A) There are probably very few DMs for which they are a go-to encounter.
B) They are rare random encounter, only appearing in two places on the BX charts ("city/inhabited" & dungeon level 1).
C) Halflings as monsters? Seriously??

The Stats (from Moldvay):
AC: 7
HD: 1-1
Move: 90' (30')
Att: 1 weapon
DMG: 1d6 or by weapon
No. App: 3-18 (5-40)
Save: H1
Morale: 7

Since halflings tend toward Lawful, they aren't likely to be marauding through the countryside. However, there is something to keep in mind here. Namely, that at low level, they are the most lethal class in the book. 

No, seriously! Look at the stats.

  • There is no penalty to their scores in BX, so that halfling can be sporting an 18 ST
  • +1 to initiative* 
  • +1 on missile fire*
  • Attacks as a fighter (best to-hits)
  • The best saves (along with dwarfs)
  • Their hiding ability
  • No weapon or armor restrictions, except for size

*NTM any DEX mods

Their only drawbacks are:
  • Slower movement than humans (90' vs. 120'), but faster than dwarfs!
  • No big/2H weapons
  • PC halflings get d6 instead of a fighter's (or dwarf's) d8 HD. Honestly, I don't know that you can actually count that as a disadvantage except against one class in particular. Also, the NPC/monster version gets a d8-1 so that's even LESS of a disadvantage. 

So these little furfoots are actually pretty tough!

As an encounter, you can be running into a dozen or so of these little guys. Considering that they are very good at ambushing, you can be in for a hail of arrows out of nowhere if you aren't careful.

Granted, their morale isn't awesome, but that makes sense. They aren't rabid fanatics. Chances are if they are fighting you, you've somehow threatened them or their home.

In their villages, you have the added wrinkle of running up against their leader (up to 7th level!) and maybe a dozen 2HD militia. Not a fun time if you've got them feeling prickly. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I Tap the Floor Ahead of Me With My 10' pole

I have recently become disenchanted with the sandbox setting. I find it is far too difficult to keep players motivated or to build up momentum for the campaign. Too often, PCs just flail around looking for the next hook to drop into their laps.

With this in mind I am pursuing a new type of adventure for me. The mega dungeon. I'm going to try running Greg Gillespie's Barrowmaze for my group. It is an excellently written dungeon crawl with many interesting features. Furthermore, I am hoping that it will give my players a little more structure without being an absolute railroad. I'm using LL/AEC and a few house rules.

I also chose a published module instead of writing my own because it would reduce the amount of prep time required on my part. I am a lazy, lazy creature.

I've added a few things of my own, like fleshing out the nearby town and giving it a name: Lychgate. I don't plan for the PCs to spends gobs of time there, but if they have a rough sense of the major NPCs and whom to talk to about what they need, I'll call it good enough.

We've had one session, and while the party didn't get very far, there were only three of them (plus a torchbearer/porter). The thief got poisoned by centipedes and that resulted in killing a week back at town while he recovered. In the end, they fought a few undead, opened a barrow, and got some treasure, so it was a good session by my reckoning.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The (new) Old Game. MAJUS: A review

When Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games began a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to publish a new RPG by Michael Curtis, I was –needless to say– intrigued. When Mr. Curtis explained it was to be a "Magic Noir" genre game in the vein of Harry Dresden and John Constantine, they had my money. Obviously they made their goal and the book is now in my hands.

First I'd like to say a brief word about the Kickstarter campaign itself. It was admirably run. The game was essentially written before they even started soliciting donations, which meant quicker delivery. They very specifically said up front that they weren't going to do stretch goals, which meant fulfilling those also wouldn't delay the product. There were regular updates and even a draft made available to preview. Bravo, gents!

The book itself is less than 100 pages total, laid out in a dense, but clear 3-column black & white format. This is more than enough to give you plenty of fluff and crunch. The artwork is by Mark Allen (one of my favorite  from the current crop of gaming artists). 

Now, on to the game.

Firstly, the premise. Like Call of Cthulhu and many other "modern supernatural" games, this takes place in the ostensibly "real" world. The PCs are –as the book describes– "...modern sorcerers enmeshed in a conspiracy whose roots extend back to the dawn of civilization." You aren't investigators dabbling in dark secrets, risking madness or death, you are the dark secrets. 

Mr. Curtis goes on to describe the game as one of conspiracy. The Mehen, or "The Old Game", is an eons-old power play between various factions to control the magical world that operates behind the scenes of the mundane one. The author does a wonderful job of evoking imagery and tone and sprinkling the text with terrific little details to fire the imagination, but he balances that by leaving the exact nature of the world and the Mehen to the individual GM (or "Cabal Master", as he calls it). Do the Maji fight over ancient artifacts, ley lines, or bloodlines? All or none of the above? You decide.

MAJUS uses the Pacesetter system (CHILL, TIMEMASTER, etc.) and its Action Table mechanics. I admit to not being terribly familiar with the system, but it seems fairly straightforward. The crux of the Action Table is that it allows for margins of success. In other words, if you make your roll by a lot, you have a better result than if you barely succeeded. Likewise for failures. One thing to note is that the adits (spells) often have their own set of result codes, instead of using the basic table. I found this slightly irksome, but chalked it up to my unfamiliarity with Pacesetter rules in general. I think a smart CM will place the burden of keeping those straight on the players using the adits. 

Skills and powers have base chances of success, usually derived from a simple formula based on relevant scores. For example, Stealth is derived from averaging DEX & Agility. This means a little bit of extra math at character creation, but once you've worked it out, just consult the results as you play. There is a good mix of skills and powers, allowing for a lot of individuality between characters. Remember, as written this is a game of intrigue. Even though you are playing a sorcerer, you aren't flinging fireballs at orcs. Skills and planning will matter a good deal as well. 

A note on magic. The adits are a terrific mix of powers. There are conjurations, scrying, and even some combat magic, but the idea is that using magic isn't instantaneous. It can take time to cast a spell properly. This might cause some players used to swords & sorcery to chafe a bit, but really it's a question of genre. Good CMs will make sure this is clear to the group and structure their adventures accordingly. 

In addition to "regular" magic, characters can also have "Paranormal Talents." These are more like psychic powers than spells (though obviously there is some overlap). As written, these are also more common among non-maji. Every PC starts with Aura Sight which allows them to notice whether something has preternatural properties (Aside: This reminds me of "Dimensional Sight" in Moldvay's Lords of Creation).

PCs start with a handful of adits and powers, in addition to their skills and scores. They are also assumed to have sufficient mundane resources to deal with supporting themselves. As a result, your starting PC ("Neonate") is already a force to be reckoned with compared to normal folks. At the same time, he is hardly immortal or invulnerable. I think the author strikes a good balance here. Your character is puissant, but still needs to be cautious.

The "Basic Action" section covers most of the situations you are likely to encounter in the game, including things like combat, poisons, radiation, vehicles, and disease. There are a lot of little rules sprinkled throughout this part, and at times I felt like it might be hard to keep track of them all, and a lot of page flipping might occur. Perhaps a handy reference sheet of all the situational rules might be in order? Or maybe a CM screen? :-)

The last parts of the book flesh out more of the default setting, with factions, NPCs, and some sample artifacts. There is a ton of cool ideas in here, even if you don't use them all. There is a section about "The Veiled Masters"; mysterious entities who appear to owe no allegiance and are often far more powerful than a typical majus. Their goals and motives are unknown, but as a plot device they are a useful inclusion.

What can I say in conclusion? I guess the best way to sum it all up is that while I love new settings and fluff, I am usually averse to learning yet another system of mechanics. MAJUS is something I would love to run, and I'm even willing to teach my group the Pacesetter system to do it. 

Well done, sirs!

MAJUS is currently available in electronic format at Golbinoid Games' web store. I assume non-Kickstarter print copies are forthcoming.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Summer of Snooze

Well, Labor Day weekend has come and gone, and with it the end of the summer vacation season. I have been taking a bit of a hiatus from gaming the last couple months. My intention was to recharge the creative batteries a bit and ease off the weekly session schedule in general. I had in mind to complete a few projects that I'd been toying with as well. One was a Moria skirmish terrain/minis project for Song of Blades and Heroes rules. I didn't end up getting much done there.

On the plus side, I published Gyre in time for it to be at GenCon. It was a definite goal of mine to have a new product out for the convention, so that's one for the win column. I also wrote and submitted an adventure for Ganesha Games' Tales of Blades and Heroes RPG to be published in the next issue of Talespinner magazine. It was fun to write for something new (though it does include Labyrinth Lord stats as well). I'm looking forward to seeing that when the issue comes out.

Now that our little ball of dirt hurtles its way toward the equinox, I suppose I shall be returning to the table soon enough. I don't know if I am yet ready to run a game (haven't really prepped anything), but it's been a fair while since I rolled the dice, so adventure awaits!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Just so's ya know

We've got a new module for sale!


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Vampire Poll Closed

So it would appear of those who responded, that occasional –but not a lot of– vampire badness in their campaigns is typical. About what I would have expected.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

RMA: Hippogriffs and Griffons, oh my!

Both of these creatures have strong mythological street cred, and are flying fantasy staples. I have found that they are nearly interchangeable as encounters most times, in a "Look out! It's some big bird-crossed-with-something-else and it's flying right at us!" kind of way. There are a few differences worth noting, though. But first, the stats.

Griffon (from Cook)

No. App: 0 (2d8)
HD: 7
AC: 5
Move: 120' (40')
    -Fly: 360' (120')
Att: 3 (2 claws/1 bite)
Damage: 1d4/1d4/2d8
Save: F4
Morale: 8

The griffon is a pretty tough cookie. Its AC isn't that great, but it isn't awful. It gets three attacks per round and the beak attack does some respectable damage, too. What's interesting about the griffon (apart from the flying thing) is its morale score (and using it).

"Its favorite prey is horses. When within 120' of horses a griffon must pass a morale check or attack immediately."

The young can be tamed (like Pegasi), but they still make morale tests near horses. This is a savage mount, and one I could easily see ridden by some chaotic warlord.

Hippogriff (from Cook)

No. App: 0 (2d8)
HD: 3+1
AC: 5
Move: 180' (60')
    -Fly: 360' (120')
Att: 3 (2 claws/1 bite)
Damage: 1d6/1d6/1d10
Save: F2
Morale: 8

No, I wasn't going to use Buckbeak!

These creatures are a bit less robust than griffons (lower HD), but I suppose that's the horse vs lion parts thing. The notes about taming them does not explicitly state you must get a young one, but that's GM discretion, to be sure. "They will usually attack pegasi, who are their natural enemies." as I mentioned previously. Surely there is some plot fodder there. 

Hippogriffs and Griffons are of animal intelligence, so that probably makes more complex training difficult. A flying mount could be a great status symbol, not to mention things like adding aerial combat to a game. Imagine being able to couch a lance and charge a dragon in the air!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

RMA: Pegasus

Fly, my pretties! Fly!

Over the next few days, I'm going to take a look at a few of our fine-feathered monster friends. Today's entry? The Pegasus.

Another mythological classic that appears in just about every version of the game. Many's a PC has wished for a pegasus mount. I have a feeling that other gamers may have seen more of these creatures in play than I have. I think, for me and my group, that flight –the very thing that makes them cool– makes them harder to run and use in play.


It's a FLYING HORSE! I don't care who you are, that's cool. Apart from flight, they are listed (in Cook) as "semi-intelligent," which puts them a notch above most animals in the IQ department. I imagine that makes them fairly trainable (see below). As for the stats...

(from Cook)

No. App: (1d12)
AC: 6
HD: 2+2
Move: 240' (80')
     -Fly: 480' (160')
Att: 2 (hooves)
Dmg: 1d6/1d6
Save: F2
Morale: 8

Apart from flight, they are approximately halfway between a war horse and a riding horse, but with better AC than either. As a foe, their main advantage is their tremendous speed in the air. They are among the fastest of the fast. That 480' is only matched by some birds (rocs, and normal-sized hawks). Nothing beats it on land, sea, or air. Dragons? Pshaw! Half a pegasus' speed. Even magic, like flying carpets, can't beat them. For transport, you have to go to teleportation to get there faster.

(insert sounds of tires squealing)

The are described as "wild and shy." Also "they cannot be tamed, but will serve Lawful characters (only) if captured when young and trained." They are also described as the natural enemies of hippogriffs, which is a nice bit of Gygaxian naturalism, I think.

I don't see a party having to fight pegasi too often. Although if some lord wants a pegasus mount and hires them to capture a foal, the herd might not take kindly to that.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

RMA: Hydra

You know what they say: Seven heads are better than one!

Another mythological classic, the hydra is a fun one. I personally have never used it in an adventure. I can't even think of an adventure where I fought one as a player. It's not only a tough challenge for the party, it's an interesting listing in the rule book.

First, the stats:

Hydra (from Cook)

No. App: 1
AC: 5
HD: 5-12
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 5-12
Damage: 1d10 per head
Save: F5-12
Morale: 9

The number of heads are random (1d8+4) and determines HD, Saves, and –obviously– number of attacks. While I think many DMs will assign the -aheh- "head count" to scale the encounter's difficulty, randomness can be fun too. An interesting note: A hydra always has maximum hit points for its HD (8 per die/head).

A minimum of 5 attacks per round is impressive, especially at 1d10 damage. Couple that with decent range of THACOs, and it can get scary to be too close to this thing.

There is a mention of Sea Hydras, which merely adds to the fun. I'm always for anything to spice up aquatic adventures.

Now, instead of the mythological version that grows more heads when one is destroyed, the BtB version just loses one head for every full 8 points of damage. I suppose this is easier on the bookkeeping, but part of me like the regeneration aspect. Of course, there needs to be an out for the PCs; like Heracles burning the neck stumps, there has to be a way to finally stop the thing.

Lastly, there is this marvelous quote from the end of the listing:

"The DM may wish to create special versions of hydra. Special hydras could have poisonous bites or breathe fire (as a dragon, but with a 5' range and only causing 8 points of damage per head). Such creatures should be placed by the DM to guard special treasures."

It just tickles me to have a passage encouraging the DM to muck about and surprise the players with a homebrewed version of a creature. Keep 'em guessing! That's the ticket!

Now, as to fighting them:

  1. Their AC and Morale is so-so. Most PCs should be able to hit the thing pretty handily. You might even scare it off. 
  2. Unlike dragons, they don't fly and the have no real ranged attack. Pepper them with arrows. Granted, the poisonous or firebreathing variations add some zest, but both are still melee-based.
  3. They aren't smart (despite the multiple brains). So some good tactics might fool them or lure them into a trap/ambush.
  4. Treasure Type B: Not a king's ransom, but a respectable shot at hard coin and maybe even some magic. If the DM took the book's advice and placed a special hydra, then maybe there is special loot, too!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

RMA: Vampires

I know Strahd is AD&D, but it's an iconic bit of gaming art.

Vampires. You gotta love the classics. While our fine fanged friends don't fit the bill as an "obscure" monster for my RMAs, they are a complex enough creature to run that I think they are used less often than they might be. Also because of their sheer lethality.

Within the scope of BX, the vampire is arguably one of the most powerful types of undead. Spectres are scary, to be sure, but the only undead that tops the vampire IMO is the lich, and he doesn't show up until the CM portions of BECMI.

As much as I like all that the vampire brings to the table as a foe, running a vampire combat is a bit tricky, as there is a lot to keep track of. Take a look at just some of the fun these things have in store for a party:

  • Level drain (TWO levels per hit! No save!)
  • Charm gaze (Save vs. spells at –2!)
  • Regeneration (3 hp/round!)
  • Shape Change (wolf or giant bat or vapor)
  • 1d10 unarmed damage!
  • Summoning bats or rats or wolves to their aid
  • Magic weapons needed to hit him (silver's no good)
  • Immunity to sleep, hold, and charm spells
Sure, they have things working against them too, like holy symbols and garlic and sunlight. Being an intelligent form of undead –and having that whole immortality thing working for them– a clever vampire sets himself up carefully to bulwark against these vulnerabilities. Minions, both mortal and undead, can protect him and perform missions. A modicum of wealth and discretion can even keep his true nature a secret.

A vampire, even beaten, is likely to get away and return to hassle the party again. Between turning to vapor when they reach 0 hit points, or simply flying off as a bat, or charming PCs to aid their escape, they make marvelous recurring villains. Coupled with their wealth of offensive capabilities, any but the most powerful of characters facing a vampire are in for a rough time. 

All of the above would still be true if it weren't for the horror that is the vampire's draining attack. Two levels in a hit means nobody wants to get near this thing, which means those without ranged magic (spells or bows) are pretty ineffectual unless they brought holy water along. 

Clerics can turn it, but not until 6th level minimum. It's true 11th level + clerics are destroying the monster, but the vampire is smart, he will avoid this by throwing minions at the cleric and staying out of the way until he can strike from surprise. If the vampire gets a hit in on that cleric, suddenly he's not high enough level any more! Or maybe he can charm the cleric, making the point moot. 

So, tell me, what's your experience running these bad boys? Check out the poll up top, too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

RMA: Giant Horned Chameleon

Admittedly, a normal chameleon –as weird as he looks– isn't particularly scary. In fact, I think they're kinda cute in an alien-meets-dinosaur kinda way. The giant variety a la Moldvay, is a different kettle of lizard.

Lizard, Giant Horned Chameleon (from Moldvay)

No. App: 1d3 (1d6)
Move: 120' (40')
AC: 2
HD: 5
Attacks: 2 (bite, horn)
Damage: 2d4/1d6
Save: F3
Morale: 7

So stat-wise, it's no great shakes. Their morale would indicate a skittish creature. The best things you can say about it are that its AC is decent and 5 HD is too much for a Sleep spell to take it out. While the book's listing doesn't specifically state it, in the real world chameleons are gifted climbers, so I would probably allow a certain amount of clinging to rough walls, etc. Where the GHC really shines is in the details, though.  Let's look at a few tidbits:

"The immense 7' giant horned chameleon can surprise its prey, despite its bulk, due to its uncanny ability to take on the color, appearance, and texture of its local surroundings. A victim will be surprised on a surprise check roll of 1-5 on 1d6."

Yup. That's right. You have a less than 17% chance of not being surprised. That means free attacks, and with up to 3 of them in a random encounter, that could be six attacks before you can do anything about it.

"The giant horned chameleon has three special attacks. The first is its sticky tongue, which can lash out to a distance of 5'. If this attack succeeds, the victim is immediately yanked back to the chameleon's mouth and bitten without the need for another attack roll, for 2d4 hit points of damage."

Five feet isn't exactly longbow range, but it doesn't need to be adjacent to you either. The automatic bite is a nice touch, and 2-8 points of damage is respectable enough. 

"The second special attack available to the chameleon is its large horns, which inflict 1d6 hit points of damage."

Not really all that special, but still a solid melee attack for close-fighting.

"Lastly, the chameleon may, on a successful attack, knock down an opponent by lashing out with its tail. The opponent may not attack the same round this occurs."

That's a fun wrinkle for a fight: the lizard(s) just making folks lose their turn over and over. There's no save against it, and a 5 HD critter is hitting often enough. What's particularly interesting about that is since they get two attacks per round, they can ruin a PC's turn by knocking him flat and still attack for damage (bite or impale). 
 I could see a party wandering into some large room that was a chameleon lair, housing 5-6 of these things and having a pretty interesting encounter.

Monday, May 6, 2013

RSA: Part Water

Let's just get the Heston screen cap out of the way, OK?

An amusing and powerful spell. And, like most RSAs, one I've rarely seen a PC use. It's odd that this is a MU/Elf spell in BX rather than a clerical spell given –like some other spells– its obvious mythological origins, but who am I to blow against the wind?

Its pretty high level (6th), so it's understandable why you don't see it cast all the time. Also, it's really only useful when dealing with a large body of water, which isn't too terribly frequent in most campaigns. 

Part Water (from Cook)
Level: 6 (MU)
Range: 120'
Duration: 6 turns

This spell creates a path through a body of water, enabling creatures to walk on the bottom. The path will be up to 120' long and 10' wide. The spell may be ended at any time by the caster before the duration is over.

The first thing I notice about the spell description is the dimensions/AoE. Why? No depth! It doesn't care whether you are making a path through a fish pond or an ocean, it goes ALL THE WAY DOWN! Obviously it's hard to do the Red Sea Stroll without it reaching the bed, but still!

The second thing about the dimensions is, well, the other dimensions. Only 120' x 10'? That's not getting you very far. One hour duration is nice if it's only for one combat, but you aren't getting a lot of overland travel done in that time. It would be handy for some river crossings and the like, though.

Now, one fun use of this spell that comes to mind is when it comes to a naval battle: Opening a gap in the water right in front of an enemy vessel? Good times! Of course, you'd want to angle it just right to maximize the effect, but I would say even a big ship would stand a real risk of capsizing or dipping its prow low enough to be swamped.

Like many of these higher level, unusual spells, I would be tempted to place a scroll in a campaign just to see what fun the PCs might come up with.

Monday, April 29, 2013

RMA: Cockatrice

Hello all!

It's been a little while, as I was finishing a draft for a new Mutant Future module. I am back now with a new Random Monster Assessment: the cockatrice.

I've written previously about the cockatrice (in passing), but have not done an entry on it in particular. Maybe others have seen it in play more than me, but I can only think of one time I ran an adventure with one, and the PCs never ended up exploring the area near its lair.

The cockatrice is sort of the "101" for petrifying monsters. It's small, not too hard to kill, and the nastiness that is flesh to stone only happens A) after a successful hit, and B) a failed saving throw. Unlike gaze or gas attacks (Medusa and Gorgon).

The beauty of the cockatrice is that the petrification thing makes it utterly terrifying to most players even though it's sort of wimpy.
Let's have the stats, shall we?

Cockatrice (from Cook):
AC: 6
 HD: 5**
 Move: 90' (30')
  Fly: 180' (60')
 Attacks: 1 (beak + special)
 Damage: 1d6 + petrify
No. Appearing: 1d4 (1d8)
Save: F5
Morale: 7

First off, it's "chicken" (get it??). A morale of seven means it will turn a tail feather pretty easily. Secondly, its AC is no great shakes. On the other hand, five hit dice is pretty sturdy for a scaly cockerel, so it will probably take more than one hit to drop, not to mention immunity to the ever-popular fight-ending Sleep spell.

The thing about the cockatrice is that the odds are it WILL get a melee attack in at some point. Even 1-2 pecks will give the PCs sweats. And if, by chance, it does manage to petrify a character, then the whole adventure can become a much more complicated situation. Unless you've got an 11th level MU in the party who has the appropriate spell, it will take some work to get your companion unstuck.

Since it only has a melee attack, peppering it with arrows is a good way to get it to flee. Just do not pursue it into cramped quarters, where it will get to close with you if cornered.

As an aside, the mythology of the creature can make for fun background fluff. The stories go that a cockatrice is hatched from a chicken egg incubated by a toad or snake. Definitely a bit of imagination fodder there. What if there was a nest of them in some poor farmer's henhouse? 1d8 in lair... (evil grin).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Missed opportunities and relief

We (Faster Monkey) were approached by another company to do some work on a large project they were trying to get completed. Without going into a lot of details, such a job would have probably meant a share of the crowdfunding that had been raised as well as being able to sell a version of the product ourselves. It was gratifying to be asked to do this. It was a kind of confirmation that the hard work we put into our own products was being noticed.

At the same time, it would have meant getting up to speed on a large amount of someone else's previously written material, trying to work within the creative confines of that, as well as the timetable the other company was trying to maintain. Definitely a bit outside my comfort zone, but then I am a lazy creature. Nevertheless, we were excited to try.

After some initial back & forth, it turned out that the other group was going to try and keep things more "in-house." I felt somewhat disappointed, but at the same time relieved. I have a couple of my own projects nearing completion, and Mr. Joel has a few large, long term things he's been working on for a while. Part of me would have resented putting our own work on the back burner to satisfy the requirements of this outside project.

Does this mean I would never take on such a job? Of course not. I would rather write my own things rather than trying to adapt to someone else's vision, though. The indie-RPG publishing world is a tiny pond full of some very creative fish, and if we didn't each have our own ideas about things, we wouldn't be doing this.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Wasting Time

First off, let me bore you with a little bit of shoptalk.

I just got back from Garycon last week. It was great fun and I had a blast, playing, running, and working the vendor hall. Of course, having been an exhibitor, it meant wearing my "publisher" hat a little more than I normally would, but one the plus side, it meant my ego had the satisfaction of people asking me to sign some products (Really! I swear!) and having Frank Mentzer call me over saying "Jeff! I need to talk some business with you!" So, yes, while a small-press RPG publisher is not making money hand over first, the nerd cred is gratifying in a hobby I love.

That said, I have two products I am writing simultaneously. One has seen playtesting and is in rewrite stage now. The other is in rough draft form, less one section we decided to add at the last minute (that's been giving me minor fits, but mostly a matter of slogging through it). There are maps to clean up and other steps that will have to happen from there, but the point is I have projects on my desk to keep me plenty occupied.

Now, in case you didn't know, I have a day job. It gives me enough flexibility that I can, for the most part, block off my time to get my work done and still push ahead on my writing projects around the edges. But the job is my livelihood, not Faster Monkey.

Like so many writers and other "creative" types, it is terribly easy to get sidetracked by life and the internet. (If you've never seen the Simpsons episode in which Neil Gaiman guest stars; Lisa's writing troubles? THAT! EXACTLY THAT!)* which brings me to the title of today's post: Wasting Time.

When you look at the hours in the day, it seems like there are enough to do what you want to do, whether it's writing, cleaning the house, exercise, fixing that broken lamp, etc. but somehow the time just slips away. You just pop over to Facebook for a minute, you watch that one YouTube video, or you decide to go grab a Starbucks. Next thing you know, the day is over. Of course, life is filled with plenty of distractions beyond your control: kids, jobs, flat tires, errands, etc. too, but enough of them are of your own making, that it can be infuriating sometimes.

It is one of the ongoing challenges in my life (and many other peoples', I suspect) to budget time wisely and effectively. Reams of self-help advice have been written on the subject. I don't pretend to advise anyone here, I'm just noting that the condition exists. (In fact, just writing this blog post about it instead of working on stuff is evidence of the condition itself!)

Now, onto how all this relates to gaming.

I mentioned trying to get things written for publication, and of course the same issues would apply even if the adventures were just for personal use (though perhaps to a lesser degree). Apart from players (and GMs) dealing with prepping and making time for gaming, I wonder at the characters and their time management skills.

Keeping track of time in the dungeon makes sense. After all, you've got wandering monsters, torches burning out, rations, etc. It also makes sense when talking about travel time. Are you riding or walking? Is it rough terrain or a smooth road? Or are you taking a ship? What are the prevailing winds? The list goes on.

What about PCs that are just easily distracted or lazy or overworked? Do player characters ever say "I meant to get my armor repaired while we were in town, but there was a great game of cards down in the pub and I lost track of time." or "I was going to transcribe that spell at the mage's guild, but I found a note tucked between the pages of a book full of dirty limericks about the faculty. It was HILARIOUS!"

Probably not.

In truth, I don't even know that it would really add to the overall enjoyment of the game, but it might provide some amusing roleplaying fodder.

* Looks like the video isn't there anymore. Sorry


Episode 36 is up:

Monday, March 11, 2013

New campaign and impending Garycon

Tonight is the second session of the new LL campaign. I'm trying not to steer things too much, but –following Beedo's advice– I want to give them a definite adventure hook to follow initially. I haven't had oodles of time to prep more than that, but hopefully it'll be enough to carry them along into the setting, where the broad strokes I laid out will guide things a bit.

All this is right in the middle of getting ready for Garycon. I shipped our merchandise last week and I fly out to Milwaukee Wednesday afternoon. This will be a very different experience for me, as I am both GM-ing and exhibiting at the con. Still, I did manage to make some room for actual gaming.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

vlog? What vlog?

I know I haven't been posting videos as much lately. I tend to do them when a topic occurs to me. I've just posted a new (albeit short) one about the "ClassicDnD" pdfs being available again.

I look like I'm singing the National Anthem or something in that thumbnail.

Monday, February 25, 2013

What to Run: Part 2

Plans are progressing on the campaign front. I sent a "broad strokes" email to the group and got some good response from a few people. Enough so that I felt justified in setting up an Obsidian Portal page for them to peruse (If you've never checked OP out, do so. It's a terrific online resource, even for face to face playing).

Taltos is the setting that Reaper's "Warlord" game uses. I've always liked it (and the minis), as it allows for a lot of fluidity to events. Instead of a nice, stable kingdom, the whole region's power structure is in constant flux. This gives the PCs a lot of freedom, but also less security. It should be interesting to see how they handle it.

I plan on tweaking things a bit from canon, of course. Partially to avoid spoilers (though I imagine most of players have not read the setting fluff) and partially to tailor it to an RPG format instead of a wargame.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What to run?

(Forgive the lengthy rambling. I'm working a few things out in my head as I type.)

So my group is talking about wanting a more extended campaign instead of a series of short adventures and round-robin GM-ing. After Night's Dark Terror (which ran almost a year), we kind of took a break from longer campaigns. I totally understand wanting to play the same character for a longer stretch though. The question: What to play?

I had suggested running an LL/AEC megadungeon campaign for them, using either Barrowmaze, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, or Stonehell. All outstanding products, BTW. (I wish I'd written one or all of them!) The thinking was that it gave the campaign a definite structure, or at least a sort of axis to revolve around. Also, if the PCs had a base of operations (nearby town, etc.), it would make it easier to change the party makeup when one player couldn't make it or one that missed the previous session came to the next (PCs coming or going from town).

I didn't get a lot of buy-in on the idea, so it left me wondering what to try next. I considered Kelvernia, but the cross-genre aspects were a turn off to some. I realized that you can't please everyone, so I should focus on running something I wanted to run. The trouble was none of these choices really "grabbed" me.

I pondered various settings, modules, systems, etc. for a while, but none seemed a good fit for various reasons. Some of them had to do with me, but I couldn't ignore that player buy-in was crucial to not only the campaign's health, but my enthusiasm as a GM as well. It's hard to sit down behind the screen week after week when the people at the table aren't having fun. Then it occurred to me that I could try approaching this in a different way. I decided to start with what I knew about the players at my table and what motivated them (much like Robin Laws' player types and hooks), then I could look at those things and see where it led my imagination. I've always been more creative with a springboard instead of cut loose in a void.

By the way, if you haven't read Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, do so. NOW.

In the end, a series of distinct, but not wholly incompatible, trends emerged. Without naming names or pointing fingers, this is what I found defined my group as an aggregate. Some are more typical than others, but needed to be accounted for, IMO:

  • A desire to see characters progress and "power up" through experience, influence, skill, loot, etc.
  • Escapism into a fantasy world where the character can do cool things competently, including a reasonable amount of good old hack & slash.
  • A chance to influence the story and the world around them.
  • Opportunities to role play and character development through role play, including intra-party relationships and conflict.
  • A fondness for military and martial themes (wars, invasions, special ops, etc.)
  • A fondness for dark/horror themes.
  • Different character types should have their chance to shine.
  • A chance to think and act tactically, trying unorthodox or unexpected things. Also having the potential to be rewarded (in-game or meta) for doing so.

Not everyone displays all these traits, but almost none of them are utterly exclusive to one player. 

So what was my takeaway? 

1) A sandbox environment with no predetermined story arc. There should be good chances at combat, treasure, and magic.

2) The rules should allow for on-the-fly rulings that let players be creative and clever when dealing with the challenges in front of them, as well as a variety of challenges besides just dungeon crawls and combats.

3) Next, some sort of conflict like a war or rebellion would be a good hook generator, with a chance for the PCs to become involved, willingly or not. 

4) Ideally, there would be enough diversity and detail in the setting to make it immersive without being overwhelming, and provide RP opps for those who wished to interact with things like NPCs and forge ties to people and places. 

5) Lastly, there should be some element of darkness or weirdness to the place. It's shouldn't just be orcs and dragons. There should be real horrors out there that aren't going away because you can swing a sword.

What do I do with all this? Well, it gave me the germ of an idea. Let's just say that it involves LL+AEC and a published setting, but not a D&D one. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Lake Geneva awaits

I managed to get registered for the Garycon events I really wanted (yay me!) and the event I'm running filled up (woot!). Now begins the process of getting organized for running two vendor tables there. We'll (Faster Monkey Games) be running our table as well as Goblinoid Games' (the makers of Labyrinth Lord and other fine products).

Gary Con, for those who do not know, is a small con organized by Mr. Gygax's children and several former TSR employees. It is held in Lake Geneva, WI every March to mark the passing of EGG and honor his legacy. It's a small con (a few hundred attendees), but growing (this will be the 5th year). This will be my third GC (I missed 1 & 2).

I'm looking forward to the con a lot.  I always have a good time in Lake Geneva. I was first there in 2008, right after Gary Gygax passed away, for the last Lake Geneva Gaming Con (run by Troll Lord Games). I was supposed to play in Gary's "front porch" event. It would have been the first time I'd have met the man, but he died in March and the con was in June. I still had a great time, but there was an understandably subdued quality to the crowd.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Little Dungeon on the Prairie

I've been reading my daughters the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" books. Right now we're on "Farmer Boy", but I've been reading ahead a bit. By "a bit" I mean I'm on the 8th book (Hey, they're kids books!). I'd never read them as a kid, so it's interesting to fill in the literary gaps.

In "Big Woods" (the first book), Charles Ingalls (Pa) farms and hunts and traps in and around his tiny farm and log home in the forests of Wisconsin. He and his family live an almost subsistence lifestyle. One or two trip per year to the "town" of Pepin account for the things they cannot easily make or find for themselves, most of which are obtained by trading furs. As time goes on in the series, the Ingalls encounter more and more of the modern era (railroads, threshing machines, store boughten goods, etc.).

Why am I bringing these books up on a gaming blog? Well, it occurred to me that they paint a fascinating picture of a partially pre-industrial lifestyle, tempered with the periodic incursion of "modernity." To me, this depiction of mid-to-late 19th century frontier America carries a lot of material to model your typical farmer/villager in a D&D fantasy world if you put magic in place of technology –hardly a new idea, I know.

Not Pictured: The unicorns in the barn.

A few things in particular draw my gamer eye in these books:

  1. Just the sheer amount of WORK these people do. Whether it's the Wilders in "Farmer Boy" or the Ingalls in the other books, they are up before dawn and working the whole freaking day! I know, I know; what's in the books may or may not reflect the actual reality of their lives with perfect accuracy, but I think most students of that period would agree that the settlers and homesteaders worked pretty darned hard! Besides, I'm not talking about the history, I'm talking about the stories. In a fantasy game, the peasants probably have it harder than the Ingalls. If you are using a medieval model, they might be serfs. They almost certainly don't own their land, and they likely don't live in a democracy. 
  2. It's also incredibly interesting (to me) to read the first hand account of how things actually got DONE. Need a sled to haul wood? Here's how they built one during a single afternoon! Necessity is the mother of invention, and people who live off the land need certain things to survive but they necessarily can't always just run to the general store and plunk down a few electrum pieces for them.
  3. As I mentioned before, the juxtaposition between the "old fashioned" (mundane) way of doing things and the modern (magical). In a high magic world, farmers might be able to obtain things like a healing potion for emergency first aid, or a druid might dowse the best place for a well to avoid repeated effort in digging one; but the fact remains that most of their survival depends upon them working hard and sticking to it. 
  4. The Ingalls, and most of the families you meet in the books, are fairly straitlaced protestants. Their religion, their work ethic, and their sense of morality is pretty inflexible. Rural folk in the preindustrial age tended to be pretty insular, if not downright close-minded. That's not to say the same things never happened in cities, but it was certainly common enough in the countryside. Peasants and farmers and villagers are not known for being real open to weirdness, especially if it flies in the face of established social mores. Your character might be a barbarian from the wild steppes of Angabolg, whose cultural dress is a tattered loincloth made of the warrior's first kill, but if he comes to a remote village where a man without a hood on might as well be naked, he may not to be well-received. That's not to say that the puritanical standard should be universal among farmers; but whatever they believe, they tend to have believed it for a long time and won't adapt quickly. 
  5. The value of things might be a bit different when one is far from "civilization." How much is that ruby bracelet worth in a town that has maybe 50gp in coin total? It's like if the US Congress went ahead with the trillion dollar coins idea and somebody stole one. What could they do with it? Ask for change?? Value is assigned by the market. Read: the buyer(s). Some farmer isn't going to sell you his food in the middle of a blizzard if it means his family starves. How would he spend those coins if he can barely reach the barn to milk the cow? In a society where a large percentage of the population is operating without much of a safety net, they tend to look out for themselves. That's not to say they're necessarily heartless,  just pragmatic. Sure, they might let you stay until the storm blows over and even share their dinner with you, but if you want to buy his horses, he'll say no unless he's real confident he A) won't need them right away, B) gets enough money to buy new ones, and C) will find any available in time for him to do things like harrow and plow for the spring crops. 
I think sometimes we (gamers) tend to think that our culture and era's realities can be applied to these imaginary times and places. While I do think that many parts of human life are nearly universal, it's interesting to see how people used to live and think and see how different it might be. It's also fun to think about applying those things to the game and how it may change what the players can or can't do.