Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Half million hits (!) and a hiatus for miniature gaming

Wow. I noticed this blog has now exceeded 500,000 hits and 600 followers (counting Blogger and G+). It's a mystery to me why this is the case since I haven't been adding much content for the last year or two. Old posts still get a ton of hits from Google searches though...

Real life has gotten intense lately with serious time pressures from my job and family life. It's all wonderful stuff, but it's hard to handle late nights of gaming when the spawn awaken at 6am every morning.

So yeah, without actual play inspiration the blog has slowed to almost nothing - especially since the second born arrived. I'm pretty much on RPG hiatus at the moment because I can't handle long games and this Spring semester I'm going to be super busy. I need way more sleep than the normal person to function properly.

My gaming lately has focused more on stuff I can do in bite-sized chunks of time. Skirmish-scale miniatures mostly. In particular X-Wing Miniatures, which is totally fun and looks really cool on the table. I am also painting up a Warmachine faction (Menoth) for imminent deployment. I can play these skirmish games in ~1 hour, which fits my life right now. I can also paint minis in the evening, which is something that I find supremely calming.

Han Solo versus Boba Fett. Fun stuff.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Perception vs. Player Perception

In our last session the party climbed into a hole in a cloud. At the bottom - deep inside the cloud - they found a small river leading to a dark lake, the extent of which they could not make out in the dim light. Gemma the dwarf and Dvin the gnome eased out to the end of a rickety boardwalk extending out over the water. Just below the surface of the water, at the edge of the light, bones were emerging from the water. They clicked and they clacked and the water bubbled, and the bones self-assembled into a bridge extending from the darkness towards the party. Fingerous phalanges eventually wiggled out of the water near the adventurers, as the terminus of the bridge pulled itself up onto the boardwalk. At the edge of the light, ghouls with scabbed, cracked faces shambled across the bridge towards the party, and animated skeletons emerged, self-assembling, from the body of the bridge itself. A tough fight! The party won! The adventurers then walked across the skeletal bridge to a small island, where they found a prize in the ghoul refuse: a small golden orb bearing microscopic engravings - a map of an unknown world. the whole session was basically a single encounter. I thought it was a good, fun encounter and I had a blast as the DM. I felt a little disappointed afterwards, however, because there wasn't much in the way of exploration, narrative advancement, or NPC interaction in the game. I try to have every session present a good splash of each of these elements because it's the kind of stuff I like when I play. Also, there was a lot more chit-chat than usual that night (which is cool, the players are friends, some of whom I haven't seen in a while), music was playing the background, and there were plenty of miniatures and gratuitous Dwarven Forge settings - all in violation of immersion dogma! I had fun, but I wasn't sure how "well" I did as a DM...

Within the fews days after the session, however, three of the players separately mentioned to me how much they liked the session - especially the skeleton bridge. Ok, cool!

Dear Princess Celestia: Although this truth should always be self evident, it's important for me to always remember that sometimes it's okay to have a simple night of beer, metal, monster killing, and treasure fondling. As a Dungeon Master I shouldn't fret too much about packing every single session with mapping, dialogue, and weird characters. The simple, perennial pleasures of death dealing and leveling-up will never disappoint anyone who plays the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Session 7 ghoul smashing music:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

ACKS Minimal Edition for OD&D Fans

If I were going to start a new campaign I would almost certainly go with the Adventurer Conqueror King System for a ruleset. For me this game hits closer to the sweet spot between crunch, flexibility, and user friendliness than perhaps any of the other retro D&D-inspired systems out there. I was aware of ACKS when I started my current campaign, but decided not to adopt it because the core rulebook is still a bit too long and fluffy for my tastes. It contains a lot of material that is of extremely high quality, but is largely extraneous for my own campaign.

Damn. If I had only known about THIS:

The ACKS Character Codex. This book is a beautiful thing. It is the core of ACKS system condensed into a small digest-sized booklet. It's essentially a Men & Magic or Player's Handbook for ACKS. And it's only $4.45 on Lulu! (This isn't an advertisement, by the way - I have no connection to the creators of this item.) This means if a referee wants to adopt the system, they could afford to buy a stack of copies to hand out to players. The referee could then use the more voluminous core book as a reference.

This book looks great. Here you can see it compared to the Grey Co. Spellbook supplement and the original Men & Magic:

Here's the title page:

Tavis Allison tipped me off on this thing. Apparently the Codex is not considered an official Autarch publication, however Tavis tells me that an official version of the Codex is on Autarch's lengthy to-do list. Let Autarch know if you want more stuff like this. I do!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Best Superhero Flick?

Mr. Gorgonmilk was wondering about trends in the quality of superhero movies. I'm not a big movie guy - actually I hate almost all movies - so I admit that I couldn't think of many superhero movies that transcended being merely watchable. I did, however, recall this scene from 1978...

Cinema doesn't get much better than this... At least in the opinion of Cyclopeatron...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Brief Log of Catheign Sessions

Friday night was Session 7 of our Cloud Mines of Catheign OD&D game. Below is a brief log of sessions, localities, and loot for the campaign, primarily for the benefit of those involved in the game. Hopefully I'll get to post some better descriptions and illustrations related to the game, but unfortunately it's been hard for me to find much time for blogging these days...

Primary PCs:
Bas – human thief (played by Reese of Kingdom's in Trevail)
Dvinsfeldfar – gnome MU
Broom - human cleric (played by Nathan of Secrets of the Shadowend)
Gemma - fighting dwarf
Kale - fighting man

Occasional PCs (currently residing at Inn in Tilman’s Grove):
Skuldge - human MU (played by Greg of Gorgonmilk)
Rufus – Fighting ½ giant

PCs gone or dead:
Sillus – fighting lizard man of Peis
Nix – cleric, left Catheign
Flurd – MU, left Catheign
Hu – fighting man, RIP

Session 1
            Arrival at Tilman’s Grove, Catheign
            Triangulation of cloud mine, initial foray up to first level
            Janis and Filby hired to join party
            RIP Hu and Filby
            Items recovered:
                        Goggles of Seeing Through Dense Mist
                        Some minimal goblin coinage

Session 2
Meia and Janis join party
            Thorough exploration of first level of cloud mine
            Goblin fights
            Ghoul falls from sky onto roof of first level
            Items recovered:
                        6 gold ingots
                        Scroll: ESP
                        Mic. Jewelry worn my vain goblins
                        Silver dagger with ancient script

Session 3
            Discovery and initial exploration of High Star Garden
            Zymos moondial, Gadeaxe stardial, Orchid of the cloud fountain
            Confrontation with ghouls seeking Dvin’s snuffbox
            Borgus the goblin, and his basket of black mushrooms
            Items recovered:
                        4 gold bracelets

Session 4
            Initial exploration of Low Pyramid of High Star Garden
            Room of animated mosaics
            Gol stonecutter Frammus
            Battle with Mielle’s Guard
            Death of Meia
            Items recovered:
                        Unidentified fungus
                        2 ancient, inscribed short swords
                        gold bracelet
                        90 gp
                        ring of feather fall
                        MU scroll: magic missle, invisibility
                        Dagger (unremarkable)
                        Meia’s Gem
Session 5
            Exploration of low pyramid
Note from Mielle and encounter with Mielle’s projection
            (stopped session in burnt library)
            Items recovered:
                        Small silver effigy of fine workmanship
                        124 platinum pieces

Session 6
            Continued exploration of low pyramid         
Chased Mielle to shanties as base of observatory tower
            Crash of wasp-covered wooden orb into the star garden
            Discovery of excavation at base of observatory tower and undercloud river
Session 7
            Spiked down excavation wall to undercloud river
            Encounter with self assembling skeletal bridge
Ghoul encounter
            Broom paralyzed by ghoul, almost drowns
            Small island with old statue
            Items recovered:
Finely engraved orb map of unknown planet

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Alternate XP Systems

I've always used the original method of calculating XP by counting up gold pieces and kills. Over the last few years I've also started awarding XP for magic items using the charts in the AD&D DM's Guide. A lot has been written about the pros and cons of this traditional approach, so I won't go into it here.

I have to admit, though, that I am certainly not alone in finding it frustrating when mid-level characters have to acquire swimming pools of gold pieces, impossibly huge gemstones, or Satan's Pitchfork itself to advance at a reasonable rate (at least given my gaming frequency, which is only two or three sessions per month). I don't have a specific objection to massive wealth accumulation - it worked for Conan, right? - but sometimes it doesn't jibe well with the flavor I want to go for in my games. I mean, goblins wearing jewelry is pretty weird and cool and I'm definitely down for that, but it gets progressively more difficult to keep monster stashes fresh and in line with a gygaxian naturalist universe. Also, the arnesonian approach of squandering gold for experience doesn't work in my games since characters are almost always traveling through some manner of proverbial Night Land, not hanging out in taverns.

There are a huge number of XP tweaks and alternate systems out there. My head starts spinning when I think of trying out new house rulings. There's a tricky trade off spanning multiple parameters including complexity and ease-of use, transparency, rigor and consistency, and meta-gaming effects (i.e. players change their character's actions in order to game the XP system). I see three common approaches to houseruling advancement:

XP-free leveling systems:

Here leveling is based on the accumulation of game sessions or encounters.

This probably works fine, but I have never tried it. This approach would completely nullify traditional class-specific advancement. Advancement tables are such a fundamental aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, I find it difficult to walk away from them. I don't give a crap about game balance, but class-specific advancement rate is an important stylistic component of D&D that underlies much of the flavor of the game.

Ad hoc XP systems:

ad hoc or abstract XP systems assign experience on a purely subjective basis at the end of each session. This approach is nicely described thus at the Paper & Pencils blog:
"Almost every game I’ve run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they’ve earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome."
In my opinion this opaque system is not very fair to the players. If a player chooses to be driven by character advancement, they should have some objective handle on what will work for them. I think effective refereeing requires some degree of objectivity, even if it's partially an illusion.

Category tweaks:

Going back to the very beginning of the hobby individual referees have tweaked the specific categories of experiences that can result in XP awards. Gygax's personal choice was to keep it simple - treasure and kills - but David Hargarve's Arduin, for instance, had a different, expanded set of categories that included interestingly sensible things like XP for being cursed, resurrected, or serving rear guard. Tweaking XP categories to fit one's campaign is time honored, old school tradition. It forces some important considerations, though:

Individual vs. Party XP: Moldvay was very specific that XP should be given to the party, and then divided equally among characters. This is what I have always done. It's so fast and simple. I also think it discourages tedious treasure grubbing conversations among players during or after a session. Individual XP is attractive because you can reward specific characters for noteworthy experiences or achievements, however routine implementation can result in serious bookkeeping overhead and arguments about referee fairness.

Slippery slope of categories: The obvious danger that Gygax worked to avoid by sticking to the original XP system is the increased complexity associated with adding categories. It's easy to write down dozens of things characters should get XP for, but what's the tradeoff in terms of bookkeeping, "realism", and enjoyment? I don't know...

Motivation: Your selection of XP categories could drastically influence your player's decisions. XP for gold encourages tomb raiding. XP for completed quests encourages railroading. XP for being cursed encourages self destruction (kind of cool, actually). None of this is necessarily good or bad, but it's real.

So... IF I decide to start houseruling XP to some degree, here's what I would probably do:

- Keep treasure and kill XP categories in place
- Add a few more categories to reward exploration, NPC interaction, and discovery
- Stick with party XP
- Possibly have a very small list of individual hargravian rewards, like for resurrection and curse
- Make a simple checklist to track party XP for each session

Hopefully I'll get a chance to think and post more on this topic. It's something I want to resolve in my mind. I'd be interested to hear about other ideas or approaches, especially if they've been playtested.