Monday, May 30, 2016

Death Frost Doom Random "Encounter" Table

I wrote this random encounter table (really more of a "random spooky effect" table) for Death Frost Doom, and then ended up not using it because I was distracted by various chaotic things in both the game and reality. Perhaps someone else could get some use from it.

The idea, as per this excellent blog post from Dungeon of Signs, was to create a table of "odd noises and atmospheric effects." I tried to avoid things that affect the characters in terms of mechanics and concentrate on creating paranoia and unease in the players, instead. The lack of monsters throughout the beginning of the adventure really helps build the suspense, so I wanted to add to that instead of taking away from it.

Some of my inspirations include Oculus, the Silent Hill series (especially Silent Hill 3), Jacob's Ladder, House of Leaves, and In the Mouth of Madness. My wife provided some cool suggestions that wound up on here. I also recommend reading this very useful blog post from Lamentations of the Blood Countess.

Roll for a random encounter as usual. If one would normally occur, roll a d30 on the following table:
  1. For the next d6 turns, everyone in the party will be under the delusion that they number one more person than they really do. They will not perceive any specific extra individual, but any count will come up wrong, and they will have the feeling of an extra person in their midst.
  2. The cry of a baby is heard, very loud and close, from the direction the party just came from. It will be suddenly and immediately silenced.
  3. For the next d6 turns, everyone is colorblind except when they hold their heads very still or focus very hard on one spot.
  4. A big gust of freezing wind sweeps past the party.
  5. A random party member finds a moldy, frozen apple in their pocket or bag.
  6. Groaning is heard from the walls as the shrine settles like an old house.
  7. For d6 turns, a random party member smells like a putrid corpse.
  8. From an unknown source, a voice mimicking a random party member viciously and personally insults a single other random party member. The voice only speaks one or two sentences, then goes silent.
  9. For d6 turns, everyone present perceives each other's eyes to be black and empty.
  10. A hissing noise, like a steam vent, is heard in the distance.
  11. For one turn, the sound of their own blood pumping through their ears becomes almost intolerably loud for everyone in the party.
  12. For a split second, no one present can catch their breath, as if the air is gone.
  13. Tiny bits of ice fall from the ceiling with a low, subtle rumble.
  14. Cracks abruptly open in the ice or stone on every surface.
  15. For one turn, everyone present experiences hemineglect - they cannot perceive things on either the left or right (determine which side randomly for each person).
  16. Pick a random player - for d6 turns, everyone looks like that player (Fregoli Delusion).
  17. A clinking noise is heard in the distance, like chains.
  18. The party encounters an inexplicable warm spot.
  19. The scent of burnt hair and the taste of blood are faintly detected.
  20. The party finds a tangle of human bones in a shallow, frozen puddle.
  21. For a moment, agonized faces seem to writhe in the corners of everyone's vision.
  22. Footprints are found going in circles and into walls.
  23. Dried vines block the passage of the party where there were none before. They break into ashes when touched.
  24. Dried blood and skull fragments are found on the wall, as if someone recently had their head bashed against it with great force.
  25. For d6 turns, everyone present experiences an extra, phantom limb.
  26. For one turn, everyone's ears seem to ring loudly.
  27. Everyone must Save vs. Magic at a -4 penalty or experience a random emotion for one turn. Roll a d4: 1=Depressed, 2=Enraged, 3=Manic, 4=Numb.
  28. For one round, everyone's joints ache and feel stiff.
  29. Everyone must Save vs. Paralysis at a -4 penalty or else suffer unpleasant sensations. To each person, their skin will feel sweaty, sticky, ichy, hot, and generally uncomfortable, but to others, their skin will merely feel cold and clammy. Covered skin feels these sensations more acutely than bare skin.
  30. All light is magically extinguished for d10 rounds, after which it returns as if nothing happened. During the blackout period, sounds are heard in the distance, coming slowly closer: moans, screams, tearing flesh, breaking bones, sobbing, wailing, whipping, clanking chains, thumping, grinding stone and metal, and vomiting. No time actually passes during this incident - in terms of spells, hunger, fatigue, items/resources, and any other time-based mechanics, treat the situation as if no additional time has passed.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 6 - I'm Picturing a Wizard With a Bandolier Full of Scrolls

PART 6 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

"He can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands."

Elf games are serious business, you guys.

Clerics don't get a spell until second level, in keeping with OD&D. But they can turn undead and wear plate mail at first level, so it's not like they aren't useful.

Here's that rule I was wondering about back in Part 1: what state does a Magic-User need to be in when casting a spell?

  1. Not bound and gagged (or presumably in a similarly helpless or constrained state)
  2. Not walking or running while casting
  3. Not engaged in combat (which presumably means not attacking or being hit lest the spell be interrupted)
  4. "In some cases the spell may require substances or apparatus, such as conjuring a water elemental (5th level) requires the presence of water, a sleep spell requires a pinch of sand." Presumably this is often just a "flavor" thing and not mechanically enforced, since the example inventory of Malchor the Magic-User didn't include any "spell components," as they were called in D&D 3.5. Still, I could see a DM requiring a Magic-User to be near a body of water for a water elemental summoning spell, or an unholy altar for a demon summoning, or whatever, since they're presumably more powerful/complicated spells than Sleep or Magic Missile. (Also, 5th level spells aren't in this rulebook, obviously.)
I don't see anything that explicitly states that a Magic-User couldn't, say, cast a spell with a torch in one hand and a dagger in the other, as long as they can still make the required hand gestures with any kind of accuracy. This would probably differ from DM to DM, but I would almost certainly allow it. Besides, by my reading, drawing a weapon that is at hand (presumably in a scabbard or hanging on a belt for easy access) seems to be a "free action" (to borrow another 3.5-ism) in most cases, so putting away a dagger to cast a spell should probably be quick and easy anyway. At any rate, Holmes Basic doesn't seem to concern itself with having one's hands free for casting in anything but an abstract way. This is an approach I'm very fond of. If you're not bound and helpless and you're able to concentrate, you can probably cast a spell.

Here's an interesting bit that I think is unique to Holmes Basic: Magic-Users can't take their spellbooks into the dungeon with them. They have to go back to their "study" (presumably in town) to re-memorize spells. That's kind of weird to me. Granted, there's no reason to want to bring your spellbook into the dungeon and risk losing it in this version of D&D, since you can't rest (and thus can't memorize spells) in the dungeon, but I still find it odd that you just flat-out can't do it, with no explanation given. Presumably this is just another method of abstraction. It's not like spellbooks are too heavy or something, since the rulebook states that Magic-Users learn new spells by finding them in books in the dungeon and bringing them back to their study. FAKE EDIT: Actually, the exact wording is "The magic-user acquires books containing the spells, the study of which allows him to memorize a spell for use." I interpreted "acquires" to mean "finds in the dungeon," but now I'm wondering if it just means "acquires at character creation" or something. See below.

Also, there is no need to spend time and money to copy spells from one book to another in Holmes D&D. Just get the book back home and you're good to go. I like this. My LotFP players would be jealous. I guess this means that accomplished Magic-Users in Holmes Basic don't have a spellbook so much as a shelf full of them. That's a nice image. Very flavorful. I've always liked the idea of wizards as book-hoarding librarians with quirky super powers born from studying a ton of tomes.

FAKE EDIT: I might have been wrong about the "finding spell books in the dungeon" thing. See below.

Holmes Basic doesn't concern itself with breaking spell memorization down by a specific number of hours. Like resting to recover HP, it just flat-out takes a single day to memorize a full arsenal of spells. I like this simplicity. It meshes well with the idea that resting in the dungeon isn't an option and delves are broken up by downtime in town, which is measured in one simple kind of unit. Considering the year Holmes Basic was released, this might be a weird thing to say, but it feels "video gamey" (or perhaps "board gamey") in a way that appeals to me, since I have fond memories of a lot of non-tabletop RPGs which roughly follow this pattern.

And now for what might be my favorite unique aspect of Holmes Basic: really permissive and simple rules for scribing scrolls. Get this: it only takes 1 week of time and 100gp per level of the spell you're scribing to make a scroll! Extrapolating from those rules, scribing a ninth level spell scroll would take a while (9 weeks), but it would only cost a mere 900gp. More significantly, a Magic-User that makes a decent score on a dungeon delve could spend a few weeks scribing a bunch of cheap first level scrolls and go into the dungeon loaded with extra castings of Charm Person. Your level 1 Magic-User could start building a small army of monsters with a pretty small investment. Granted, it takes time to make scrolls, but it's cheap and it's probably more than worth it. So far, I haven't found any rules for aging, so unless there's something time-sensitive the party needs to worry about, everyone else can probably just kick back and put their feet up while the Magic-User loads up on scrolls. That one spell per day limit for level 1 Magic-Users doesn't seem so bad now.

There are some rules for creating new spells, as well. I wonder if a "new" spell created in this way has to be something actually new to the game, or if the Magic-User could also gain spells off of the rulebook's pre-existing spell list through (costly and time-comsuming) research if they get tired of sifting through books in the dungeon hoping and praying for that one spell they really want. I'd probably allow it, but I don't know if that was intended by the designers. At any rate, it's nice to see the game encourage players to be creative and proactive in such a way. LotFP has similar rules for players to create new spells, and it's something I really enjoy about magic in D&D-style games.

There is a large (80%) chance of failure in the spell research rules in Holmes Basic, though. I'm not too happy about that, since the research costs 2,000gp per level of the spell and the spell has to already be approved by the DM ahead of time. I'd personally just let the poor player have the freaking spell after spending that much, but then again, I'm a big softie.

As I alluded in Part 1, intelligence affects the minimum and maximum "Number of Spells Knowable per Level" as well as the "% Chance to Know Any Given Spell." The way this is presented is a bit ambiguous to me. Is this table just meant to be used at character creation to see what starting spells the Magic-User gets, or is this meant to be continuously referenced throughout the game. If it is the latter, that would mean that the Magic-User can only have a certain number of spells in their "study" available to memorize in the first place, which I don't really like.

Also, that would imply...wait a minute, let me flip to the TREASURE section...

There are no spellbooks on the random treasure tables, and none are listed in the treasure description. And the way scrolls are described, they are just meant for one-off spell casting and not copying down into a spellbook.

Wait, so was I wrong about the hauling of books out of the dungeon and the amassing of an awesome wizard library? Are the only ways to learn new spells through either leveling up enough to unlock a new spell level, somehow increasing your intelligence, or doing magical research with a crappy success rate and a hefty price tag? Is there no chance of finding new spells in the dungeon or getting them as quest rewards? Even if you did get them, would you be unable to add them to your collection if you're not smart enough to figure out how the fit more books on your damn shelf?

I'm sorry, but that sucks.

At least the game throws Magic-Users a bone in letting them try to pick their starting spells. That's where the "% Chance to Know Any Given Spell" comes in. You roll randomly for the spells you want, and if you don't get them you roll randomly for the spells you don't want, and if you don't get those you start over until you at least have your minimum number of spells know. That seems like an okay system, at least. It's not my favorite approach, but it's not bad. The wording of the example in the rulebook does make it kind of ambiguous whether or not this is just supposed to be done at character creation or before every adventure. If it's the latter, does that mean that the Magic-User is constantly losing access to previously-known spells and getting new ones? I didn't expect all of this to be so confusing. Most of what I've discussed in this post is on just one page of the book.

There's also a section on SAVING THROWS. It seems pretty straightforward for the most part, but it's not entirely clear to me which monsters use which saving throws. The specific part that trips me up is this: "Large or powerful creatures like demons, balrogs and dragons may be highly resistant to certain kinds of spells especially if thrown by a magic-user of lower level than their own level." I'm not sure how the DM is supposed to adjudicate this higher difficulty based on the table as presented.

I didn't expect to get so confused by this part of the book. It looked really simple at first glance. Am I missing something? Please feel free to tell me in the comments if I'm grossly misunderstanding anything here.

On the plus side, there is a lot I really like here. Especially the scroll-making rules.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Old-School Class Idea: Fighters=Thieves

Between my in-progress read-through of Holmes Basic (especially this part), my proposed method of separating race and class in LotFP, my re-reading of this post from James Raggi's blog, this Google+ discussion about Thieves in Holmes Basic, this blog post about the supposedly "preternatural" aspect of Thief abilities, and a whole bunch of posts and discussions all over the Internet about whether or not Thieves suck (like this and this and this and this), I've come to a realization:

Mechanically speaking, I don't really like either Fighters or Thieves all that much in most or all of the old-school D&D (and D&D related) games that I'm familiar with, but I think I might like them a whole lot if they were combined into one class.

My proposal is this: Remove the Thief class (or equivalent) Keep the Fighter exactly the same as it is in terms of Fighter class abilities, equipment use, HP, XP, saving throws, etc., except that the Fighter can also use all Thief abilities (or skills or whatever) as if they were a Thief of the same level. In LotFP, they would get skill points like a Specialist. In OD&D + Greyhawk or Holmes Basic or AD&D or whatever, they would use the percentages from the Thief table for picking locks and hiding and stuff, and they would be able to sneak attack/backstab.

Optional caveats: You could make it so that only human Fighters get these Thief abilities, since demihuman Fighters already have other extra abilities in many games. This is similar to what I suggested in that aforementioned post about separating race and class in LotFP. Also, Thieves gain the ability to use magic scrolls or wands in some versions of the game. If the idea of a Fighter being able to do that bothers you, it would be easy to disallow it.

(Please keep in mind that I'm specifically thinking about pre-Wizards of the Coast D&D and OSR games based on old-school D&D. I don't know that I'd want to make this change in D&D 3.5, for example.)

Here are some objections I could see being raised, and my responses.

"Wouldn't this make the Fighter/Thief too powerful compared to the other (core) classes?"
 I could maybe see this being the case in LotFP, since the classes are so hyper-specialized and niche-protected in that ruleset, but even so, the idea of a Fighter who also has a knack for Languages or Bushcraft or Stealth is deeply appealing to me.
Regarding old-school D&D, I often hear complaints that the Cleric is way more powerful than the other classes (or at least the core ones, if you're talking about AD&D or OD&D with all the Supplements and such). I also hear a lot of people say that both the Magic-User and the Cleric have way more potential for growing in power than both the Fighter and the Thief. While initially weak in many ways, even the Magic-User is arguably more powerful overall than other classes. Perhaps by combining the Fighter and Thief, the resulting class would actually catch up to the Cleric and Magic-User in terms of individual utility. If you allow Paladins and Rangers, this house rule might also help the Fighter differentiate itself from those classes a bit more.
Also, both Fighters and Thieves are already able to use magic swords and other magic weapons in many versions of the game, and the guy clanking around in full plate is probably not going to be that sneaky regardless of Thief abilities unless they strip down, so I don't think this house rule would throw things off too much in that regard.

"Wouldn't a Fighter be too busy focusing on fighting during their formative training to also pick up Thief training, or vice versa?"
In real life, soldiers train not only in fighting, but in wilderness survival (bushcraft), stealth (and attacking from stealth while targeting vital organs), climbing, searching for and disarming or avoiding traps, and numerous other skills that would fall under the mantle of the Thief in D&D (and the Ranger, for that matter). One can be good at fighting without devoting every single minute of one's life to that pursuit alone. It seems weird to me that the Fighter is often portrayed as being good at nothing but fighting, aside from the basic things that any adventurer of any class should be able to do. It seems logical to me for someone who intends to go dungeon delving to try and pick up Thief skills, since they could be crucial for success.

"Aren't Thief skills supernatural or almost-supernatural abilities that deserve a class of their own, or that would be too hard for someone to pick up without sole dedication to those skills?"
This is a perfectly valid and very cool way to imagine Thief skills, but it is not the only way. One could be much better at certain (usually non-combat) physical activities than most people while still only acting within the realm of non-magical capabilities - in real life, we call these people athletes, experts, and prodigies. I don't see why dexterity in combat couldn't also translate to dexterity in picking locks, or why the upper body strength, bodily coordination, and expert balance of a sword-fighter couldn't be transferable to climbing, given practice. Fighting skills can be transferable to other activities, and vice versa.
Besides, in my mind, Fighters are often the action heroes of D&D, the Schwarzeneggers and Van Dammes of the dungeon. Those characters aren't just good at fighting, but also at feats of agility that one might consider to be in the Thief's wheelhouse - they tend to do a lot of climbing and sneaking and running from explosions. And the Thief, on the other hand, is often thought of as an Indiana Jones type of character, and Dr. Jones sure knew how to handle himself in a fight, to the point that I tend to think of his movies as action films, among other things. And don't forget the pop-culture ninja, who is an unparalleled warrior in straight-up combat and a master of stealth, sneak attacks, climbing, disguise, using and avoiding traps, finding hidden things, and spying.

"Wouldn't this be against the genre conventions of the fiction that inspired D&D (or fantasy fiction in general)?"
Maybe, but I'm not so sure about that. According to the Giants in the Earth series in Dragon magazine, Gary Gygax's Conan write-up in Dragon #36, and the stats in Gods, Demigods & Heroes (and supposedly Deities & Demigods, although I don't have that right now), many classic Sword & Sorcery heroes are both Fighters and Thieves: Conan, Moonglum, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Kane, Shadowjack, Muirtagh, Captain Blood, and Dark Agnes. To my great shame, I don't even know who about half of those people are, but they're apparently from the kinds of stories that directly inspired D&D.
Besides, in the classic kind of "kill things and take their stuff" campaign, isn't everyone really a Thief at heart?

"Wouldn't this make AD&D style multiclassing and dualclassing obsolete as far as a Fighter/Thief combo is concerned?"
 Yep. I don't really care

"Shouldn't you come up with a new name for this combined class?"
 Yeah. I'd love to hear some suggestions.

"Do you think you're the first person to think of this?"
Not at all. I know someone by the name of Lorgalis came up with the idea before I did in a really cool post in a cool thread, for example. To be fair, I think I did come up with this independently before seeing that someone else had already suggested it, but it's such a simple idea that I didn't expect to be a very original thinker here.

"I just don't like this idea for reasons of flavor or aesthetics."
That's fine. It personally doesn't bother me (quite the opposite), but I know this idea just won't be fun or appealing for everybody. I think it would put an interesting spin on the rules without compromising too much in terms of flavor, but it's obviously fine to disagree with me. Really, I'm just addressing some pet peeves of mine in terms of both game balance and flavor, and my pet peeves might be beloved aspects of the game to others.

Besides you could play a Fighter/Thief in so many different ways. You could be a typical platemail-clad walking tank who also happens to be particularly attentive when searching the environment. You could be a member of the Thieves' Guild who happens to also be handy with a blade. You could be a ninja, always looking to gain the element of surprise. You can be a scout, a swashbuckler, a bandit, a mercenary, or a particularly clever knight. You can lean more toward the Fighter end of the spectrum or the Thief end, based on your equipment and preferred tactics. I don't think extra HP and a to-hit bonus ruins the flavor of the Thief, and I don't think being able to climb and sneak and listen through doors and look for traps would ruin the Fighter. Even picking locks are disarming traps don't seem to me like things that are necessarily foreign to a tough, smart, well-rounded warrior. Or even a stupid warrior who managed to pick up some tricks on the mean streets of Phlan - they managed to pick up fighting, after all.

I'd love to hear opinions and suggestions if anyone is interested.

EDIT: If you want to nix the Thief but don't like my way of doing it, HERE is another suggestion that I like from Vaults of Nagoh. Also, I want to note that I don't hate the Thief; I just don't usually care for the specific mechanics of the class. Likewise, I don't hate the Fighter, but I feel like the Fighter is often pretty boring or limited in terms of abilities in comparison to the other classes. This is just a possible way of addressing that, along with my belief that it would make sense for Fighters to have some of the skills that are traditionally in the domain of the Thief (as well as some other skills). Finally, I should note that the main games I had in mind for this suggestion were OD&D, Holmes Basic, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it could probably apply to many others, too.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

My Death Frost Doom Playlist

So I'm running Death Frost Doom this Saturday. I don't usually play background music during our group's games (the players usually take care of that), but running DFD is sort of a special occasion, and a lot of people have recommended using creepy ambient audio to enhance this most atmospheric adventure. So with some help from my wife, I put together a playlist on Youtube. (I can't guarantee that the link to the playlist will always work, so I'll list the songs/videos below as well.)

The Celtic Frost and Samael songs were recommended in the 2014 version of Death Frost Doom. Sunn O))), the Sicario soundtrack, Sakrateal, Nadja, and OM were suggested by various people on Google+. There are a ton of great suggestions there (and elsewhere) that I haven't used as well. Sunn O))) was also recommended in several other places that I don't currently remember, and I used the TV Tropes page to pick out specific tracks.

Swans is a band I'm very fond of, and I think they fit the adventure perfectly. (I also used their song "Animus" in my preview for that adventure on Facebook, as discussed in the linked post.) Doom 64 just has an awesome and super disturbing soundtrack by Aubrey Hodges, who made similar fantastic soundtracks for other video games, like the Playstation port of Doom. The other videos on the playlist were suggested by my wife. She also picked out which Doom 64 tracks to include on the playlist, narrowing it down to the ones she found the scariest or coolest so I wouldn't end up just playing the whole soundtrack and excluding other stuff. And she helped me nail down the final order of the songs, because she's awesome.

EDIT: Over on the excellent LotFP Facebook group, fellow member 智彬 recommended another album by Sunn O))) as well as the work of Moss. I have added both of these to the end of the playlist, as continuations of the 93 Ave. B Blues "event" (see below). Thanks for the great suggestions!

The plan is to start at the beginning of the playlist when the party gets near the top of the mountain (probably around when they find Zeke) and just let it play straight through at low volume, with two exceptions: "Baphomet's Throne" by Samael will be played at the point recommended in the 2014 rewrite of Death Frost Doom, and "93 Ave. B Blues" by Swans will be played if and when a certain major event happens (if you know this adventure, you know what I'm talking about).

There's a good chance that the playlist will be either too short or too long, depending on how things go, but that's okay: I can just repeat things if need be. Hopefully, repeated tracks won't be annoying, since many of the tracks are ambient pieces with few or no vocals.

As always, if you enjoy any of these songs or videos, or use them at your own table, please consider financially supporting the artists responsible. A lot of Swans' albums are sold on their website, for example.

The Official Lamentations of the Fallen Lords Playlist for Death Frost Doom:
1. Celtic Frost - A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh
2. Doom 64 - Map 01 - Staging Area
3. Halloween Horror Music (Forrest Wilson) - The Road to Nothing (I think this is the name of the track - the Youtube video doesn't seem to specify other than providing this link.)
4. Swans - Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)
5. Doom 64 - Map 02 - The Terraformer
6. Nature - Underworld
7. Doom 64 - Map 07 - Research Lab
8. Swans - Some Things We Do
9. Doom 64 - Main Menu Music
10. Sunn O))) - Big Church (megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért)
11. Doom 64 - Map 06 - Alpha Quadrant
12. Nature - Otherworld
13. Sicario (soundtrack) - The Beast
14. Doom 64 - Map 12 - Altar of Pain
15. Swans - I Love You This Much
16. Doom 64 - Map 13 - Dark Citadel
17. Sakrateal - Where the moon rises
18. Doom 64 - Map 20 - Breakdown
19. Sunn O))) - Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself In Clouds
20. Nadja - Radiance of Shadows
21. Doom 64 - Map 18 - Spawned Fear
22. Swans - Helpless Child
23. Doom 64 - Map 10 - The Bleeding
24. Nature - Nightmare
25. Doom 64 - Map 21 - Pitfalls
26. OM - Pilgrimage
27. Doom 64 - Map 08 - Final Outpost
28. Sunn O))) - Aghartha
29. Swans - The Seer
30. Vinterriket - Dark Ambient
31. Samael - Baphomet's Throne
32. Swans - 93 Ave. B Blues
33. Moss - Crypts of Somnambulance
34. Sunn O))) - ØØ Void (the whole album)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 5 - Cowards Deserve XP, Too

PART 5 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Most of the rules about EXPERIENCE POINTS AND EXPERIENCE LEVELS are typical of old-school D&D, so I'll just note a few things that popped out at me.

As I stated before, Holmes Basic only goes up to third level. Since this is intended to help beginners get into D&D, among other purposes, that's probably a good thing. It certainly keeps most of the tables and charts nice and compact. It's not like getting to third level isn't an achievement or anything. Wait until I get to the part of the book with the monsters!

PCs in Holmes Basic actually get less XP for killing/subduing monsters lower in level than them. In such cases, the book says to divide the monster's level by that of the character's level to see what fraction of the monster's XP value is actually gained. I'm not sure I like this idea. The XP requirements already increase for each level, so this feels like overkill to me. I don't know if other versions of D&D use this rule or not.

"The Dungeon Master should have the option of lowering the number of experience points gained under special circumstances. If one character sneaks out of the dungeon with all the treasure while the rest of the party is being eaten, he should gain some experience points but not necessarily all of them!" Um...I hate to be the "every man for himself" kind of guy here, but why? It says earlier on the same page (page 11 in my copy of the book) that a character who gets a bigger share of the loot by stealing some of it from the other PCs should get a proportionately larger share of the XP using the standard formula (1 GP = 1 XP). Earlier in the book, it said that Thieves shouldn't be completely trusted by the rest of the party. Obviously, conflict between PCs isn't off the table here, so why punish a player for profiting from the misfortune of the rest of the party? Is it because they didn't "earn" the treasure? Bullshit. These are murderhobos we're talking about here. They earned it in deception, quick thinking, and blood. Especially blood: theirs, their enemies', and even their "friends'."

I'm sorry, Dr. Holmes (or Mr. Gygax, and/or Mr. Arneson if this comes from OD&D or AD&D). I don't mean to be a dick. This just doesn't make sense to me. If you want to discourage backstabbing within the party, why allow uneven XP distribution at all (aside from prime requisite bonuses and such)? Why write untrustworthiness into a class description? And if the cowardice of the sneaky character in your example is the reason for the penalty, rather than the lack of cooperation or friendliness, why award all treasure pulled out of the dungeon with XP instead of just treasure obtained bravely? If a group of 20 fighting men, all at level 3 with maximum HP and equipped with plate mail and shields waltz into the first room of a tiny dungeon known to be inhabited by a single sickly goblin (with one HP and only a broken toothpick for self-defense) and bully the poor sucker into handing over his unlocked, untrapped treasure chest containing 100 gold coins he inherited from his Aunt Bertha, that's not very brave of those fighting men, is it? Yet unless I'm misinterpreting the rules, they'd still get 100 XP for those 100 coins. Unless the DM decides otherwise by fiat, which seems to be what the passage I quoted above suggests, but how does one make such ruling fair and consistent? And why should cowardly characters earn less XP than brave ones if they get the same treasure?

Maybe the idea is that XP represents lessons learned and wisdom gained through adventuring, and that grabbing the treasure and running like a coward doesn't impart any useful lessons or wisdom. If that's the intended thought process, I simply disagree. The experience of running away should help the player learn how best to flee, avoid conflict, dodge danger, etc. Since hit points are an abstract measurement of how hard it is to kill a given creature, it makes sense that learning how to dodge and run away and be clever and tricky could lead to more HP (via leveling up). Also, it seems to me that "leave your friends to die and you can make a tidy profit" is a pretty strong lesson, and perhaps a wise piece of advice in a world full of man-eating monsters. Unless the game is trying to push heroic, morally-upright behavior on the players, but most OSR sources seem to insist that old-school D&D is absolutely not about that.

Perhaps the idea is that XP merely represents experiences that increase one's capabilities in combat and/or class activities. But if so, why reward treasure with XP at all? Grabbing coins doesn't seem like the kind of activity that would automatically make you more badass. Yes, I know it's not about the coins themselves but rather the dangers overcome in order to get those coins, but come on, not every coin in every dungeon presents equal danger. And no, I don't think you should give different coins different XP values based on where or how you get them, since that would over-complicate things. Instead, I think you should stick closely to the GP=XP rule and avoid arbitrary DM fiat - just allow the abstract system to be abstract and imagine that the characters face enough danger and learn enough lessons in other aspects of their adventures to make up for the rare situations in which they get treasure easily enough to not "learn" from the hunt for it. And maybe design your dungeons with encounters, traps, and puzzles that reward cooperation and bravery while making it difficult for cowards to flee with all of the treasure. After all, if you track encumbrance, you're already incentivising cooperation - how is one wimp going to carry out more than a small portion of the treasure during a deadly and chaotic melee?

Sorry. I know I'm ranting again. I really do love this book, but sometimes it confuses me, just like any other version of D&D I've read...or any other tabletop RPG I've read at all, for that matter. My point is that I love the concept of getting XP for treasure, but if you're going to use that kind of system I don't think you should then penalize characters for being amoral, greedy scumbags. You know, outside of the natural consequences of being scumbags.

I guess I just feel like heroic PCs are more special and more enjoyable when they act heroically without any direct mechanical incentives for heroism. Sometimes being good is its own reward.

Of course, if you disagree with me on any of this, I'd be interested in discussing the matter in the comments. I could be overlooking something.


I like how the chart showing the minimum XP, hit dice, and spells of each level of each class includes Thief abilities under the "spells" column. I know this is probably just to save space, but I like the idea of Thief skills as a set of spells with theoretically "unlimited" uses but a small list of spells and percentage-based chances of casting failures. Mechanically speaking, that is. Not necessarily in terms of the "fluff," although the latter is also amusing. "He climbed that sheer cliff face so quickly it was like magic!"

What the "Spells" column actually lists for Thieves are the letters A, B, and C, which correspond to lines on the chart titled EXPLANATION OF THIEF'S ABILITIES on the next page. As usual, a Thief's class abilities increase their chances of success with each level. I really like the charts in this book, because I am, predictably, a nerd, and proud of it.

If I'm not mistaken, many old-school D&D-type games will allow Thieves to try certain class-based tasks like opening a lock over and over again until they succeed, with the time spent acting as the cost, since spending time means spending resources like torches and risking random encounters. Holmes Basic takes a different approach: a Thief only gets one try per lock. In the given example, Drego the first-level Thief fails to pick a lock, and Holmes writes "no matter how long he works on the lock there is only a 15% chance that an inexperienced thief can get it open." Does this mean that Drego could come back and try again after he gains a level, since he is no longer so inexperienced? Also, does this one-try rule apply to, say, picking pockets or hearing noises?

The Holmes Basic Approach to Failing to Open a Lock
Pros: Everyone else at the table doesn't have to sit there bored and annoyed while the Thief's player tries the same action over and over again. Play is sped up. Some locks appear "in-universe" to be more complicated or difficult than others without needing to worry about establishing a Difficulty Class ahead of time or on the spot like in D&D 3.5. People who like to gamble can play Thieves and get more opportunities in which a single, high-stakes roll determines success or failure.
Cons: The DM doesn't get the grim satisfaction of watching the party waste resources and encounter monsters over a single stupid lock. Thieves look like either complete idiots or impatient jackasses more often: "I tried once and failed. Might as well give up forever." People who like to minimize the gambling in their class abilities may be even more put off by the Thief class than in similar games.
Conclusion: I don't lean toward the Holmes approach, but I can see the appeal. I'd be more okay with only allowing one attempt per day (or other unit of time), but one attempt ever, or even one attempt per level, seems a bit harsh, and it frankly hurts my immersion a bit. Still, rolling skill checks over and over again can get boring, and abstraction often serves D&D well, so if you like the Holmes way of handling Thief skills, more power to you.

The Cleric's ability to "turn undead" seems pretty standard in execution. The book mentions that higher-level Clerics than those covered by Holmes Basic can "dispel" undead, but that's beyond what a level 1 to 3 Cleric can do.

There's a section explaining the USE OF THE WORD LEVEL. It's a nice touch, and probably super helpful to beginners. This book is full of nice details like that, written in a style that is straightforward yet enjoyable. Maybe I've been a bit negative in this post, but please don't doubt that this book really is a great read. It makes me want to sit down and just start playing.

Countless people have commented on that special something, that je ne sais quoi that surrounds low-level play. I've even read suggestions that it could be fun to play a Holmes Basic campaign that caps the party's level at 3 and doesn't move on to OD&D or AD&D or B/X or anything else. I'm personally fond of mid- and high-level D&D, but I think the folks who prefer low-level play are really on to something, too. This book has me feeling it. Sometimes, three is all you need.

Next time: Wait, scrolls only cost how much to make?

EDIT: I wanted to link to THIS POST from Dungeon Fantastic because it's a good read that covered much of this same ground over four years ago. The comments are insightful, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 4 - Stop, Drop, and Run

PART 4 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

"Each turn takes ten minutes (scale time, not actual) in the characters' magical universe. In the players' universe arguments sometimes develop and a turn may take considerably longer!"

Amen to that, Dr. Holmes.

The rules in this section are mostly the same as in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which to my understanding are mostly the same as B/X, which is essentially the next edition of what I'm reading now, so that makes sense. A few things jump out at me.

There's a cool example of how the length of a turn combined with a random encounter (a purple worm in this case, one of my favorite D&D monsters) can create time pressure on the players. It mentions that the monster will be 60 feet closer to the party than it was when it first appeared if the players were to take ten minutes to search for a secret door. It doesn't mention how the DM is supposed to determine the starting location of the purple worm, though. I assume the rulebook with either cover this later (Hint from my future self: it does) or leave it up to DM fiat. I usually try to run random encounters so that they seem somewhat logical, like having the monster walk around the nearest corner in front of the party or wait in a room the party is approaching or something like that.

The book says that PCs need to stop and rest for one turn out of every six, or two turns if they have been running. I don't think I've heard of this rule before, or at least I don't remember it. Honestly, I'd probably skip this rule when the PCs are moving at exploration speed, since they are assumed to be moving pretty slowly, looking around carefully, and stopping to poke at suspicious things a little bit. (Maybe one turn every two hours would be okay. I just like to keep things moving, I guess.) I would probably still require resting if they moved any faster than that, though.

Interestingly, the default exploration speed of an unencumbered PC in LotFP, 120' per turn, is only the default speed of a fully armored and/or heavily encumbered PC in Holmes Basic, while an unencumbered and unarmored character in Holmes Basic can move 240' per turn. And those speeds are doubled for normal, non-exploratory movement! Holmes PCs are speedy! When full-out running, armored characters can go 360' per turn and unarmored/unencumbered ones can go a whopping 720' per turn.

It's nice to see time used as a major factor in the resource-management aspect of the game. Why else would anyone need to bring rations, or more than one torch? How else are you supposed to make the number of random encounters fair and impartial? This aspect of the game is something I overlooked when playing D&D 3.5 in college. I had a blast playing back then, but I'm glad that I've changed my gaming habits a bit since those days. I enjoy making time-based pressure a slightly bigger part of the games I run today. I hope my players like it, too.

Oh boy, time to talk about encumbrance. All coins weigh the same, and a backpack or sack can hold 300 gold pieces, which weigh in at 30 pounds. I'm fine with this kind of abstraction - I play a lot of video games, after all. It takes about 600 gold pieces to actually make a character heavily encumbered. Besides that, the book doesn't give a whole lot of guidelines on encumbrance - it seems pretty laissez-faire about the concept. Of course, most people with whom I've played any version of D&D are just as laid back about encumbrance, if not more so. LotFP is about the only D&D-type game I've played with an encumbrance system I actually like, rather than just begrudgingly respect, and even that can be a chore sometimes. "I think it's perfectly fair to love D&D as a whole without loving every single rule," said Captain Obvious as he taped a NOT FOR JUGGLING sign to the porcupine exhibit at the Obviousville Zoo.

Still, I like how encumbrance is handled in Holmes Basic. Simple, abstract, and mostly left up to the judgement of the DM (or perhaps the group as a whole). It gives an example inventory for a Magic-User named Malchor. If my calculations are correct, this character would (barely) count as unencumbered in LotFP as well, assuming multiples of the same item share a "slot." I like how Malchor is carrying around a quart of wine in a dungeon. I've heard of dungeon punk, but I guess this is more like dungeon crunk. I also like how the book recommends that players write down not only what items they possess, but where on their bodies or in which bag they are carrying each item. Finally, here's an interesting note: "a fighting man will be far more loaded down, but it is assumed that such individuals are trained to be stronger and so able to carry more weight" than the 75 pounds or more that would make characters of other classes heavily encumbered. It's nice to see Fighting Men excel at something besides bashing in heads.

The rules for light are pretty standard. It does mention that all monsters can see 60' in the dark, just like a Dwarf or Elf. It also says that the light of a torch or lantern will reduce the distance a Dwarf or Elf can see from 60' to the normal 30' range in which humans and halflings can see. A party of all Dwarven and Elven Thieves would be amazing as far as sneak attacks go, and they would probably save a lot of money on torches and lamp oil.

Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings have a better chance of hearing noises through doors, and Elves have a knack for just magically stumbling across secret doors without even looking for them. Wow, humans really are obsolete.

On rolling dice to open doors via brute force: "Of course, if the party has to hit the door several times before getting their roll of 1 or 2, there is no possibility of surprising the occupants of the room." I like the idea that an Open Door check isn't about whether or not a PC can open a stuck door at all, but rather whether or not they can do it quickly and/or quietly.

Doors are evil - if you don't spike or wedge them open, they tend to close by themselves, and on top of that, they open automatically for monsters if not spiked or held shut. I think this was the case in OD&D as well. Why do doors hate adventurers so much?

RANDOM ADVENTURER: Stupid door! What did I ever do to you?
DOOR: An adventurer killed my father!

I wonder if they're also double-hinged doors that swing both ways, like I seem to see in video games all the time.

If the party is surprised by monsters, PCs can drop whatever they are holding if they roll a 6 on a d6. I'm not sure what the purpose of this rule is. Maybe to make drawing a weapon faster when the party finally gets a turn? Or maybe so if they're in the middle of robbing the monsters blind they can drop the loot and play dumb?

EDIT: I think the actual point of this rule has penetrated my thick skull. Please see Part 7 for details.

Ah, here's some more information on random encounters. The DM rolls for one every three turns. If the party has someone watching for monsters, they can see or hear them from up to 120 feet away in most situations. If the DM is unsure of how far away a monster should start from the party, they can roll 2d6 and multiply that by 10 to get the distance in feet.

The WANDERING MONSTER TABLE and HOSTILE/FRIENDLY REACTION TABLE are pretty typical (which is to say, awesome). I do want to point out a very important quote from the book: "The number of wandering monsters appearing should be roughly equal to the strength of the party encountering them." The book then goes on to explain ways to justify this in-universe. The next time someone who hates Wizards of the Coast-era D&D tries to tell me that the concept of Challenge Ratings is entirely foreign to the game, I should just point them toward this quote.* That's not to say that parties should never get in over their heads or meet creatures that are over their power levels, but rather that it's okay if the players want to play a game in which the challenge is at least somewhat adjusted to match their characters' current abilities. I love how fighting is usually the worst option when confronted by monsters in, say, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (or in many non-D&D horror games like Call of Cthulhu), but I also love D&D-type games in which combat is often worth engaging in. D&D is allowed to be different things for different people in different campaigns. It's a rich, diverse game. Please don't judge people who like balanced combat and CR too harshly. For beginners at the game, like a large portion of this book's intended audience, for example, I think balanced combat especially makes sense because players need to be able to learn the rules and find out which options are easier or more effective than others. Being killed too early in the game can also kill the enthusiasm of some players.

Here's a detail about Charisma I missed in my first Holmes post: "The Dungeon Master should make adjustments if the party spokesman has high charisma or offers special inducements." Presumably, the specifics of this could be handled either by DM fiat/pure roleplaying or by a house rule.

And here's something that might explain that bit I mentioned earlier about dropping items when surprised: while fleeing, PCs can drop items like food or treasure, and there is a random chance that the pursuing monsters will stop to pick those items up, depending on whether they are "intelligent" or not. Burning oil can also deter pursuit. Maybe the intention is for a surprised party to be able to start dropping stuff like this immediately, in anticipation of fleeing after the surprise round. Maybe Malchor's dungeon wine is for distracting alcoholic owlbears. Maybe what D&D really needs are more piss-drunk purple worms. How terrifying would one of those be?

Next time: On how many LEVELS can we EXPERIENCE Holmes Basic D&D? (Three. The answer is three.)

On an unrelated note, THIS is one of the best actual play reports I have ever read. I bought the hardcover of World of the Lost. I should probably get around to reading it if it produces games this good.

*If I just constructed a straw man argument about players who don't like WotC-era D&D, I apologize, but I believe I really have seen people on the internet make such claims about the Challenge Rating system at least once or twice. And I understand the argument that using the recommended CR for a given party to build encounters balances the game in such a way as to make it too easy. If you feel that way, then I think that either A) that indicates a flaw in the execution of the CR rules and not necessarily the concept of CR itself, or B) you might just want to pit your players against higher-CR enemies, then. Option B is what one of the DMs I played with in college did, and it rocked. My point is that I think balancing encounters isn't always necessary, but it is often a good idea, and I like it when the books I'm using help me do that.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 3 - A Real Neutral Being, and a Lawful Hero

PART 3 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2

The section on hiring retainers is pretty normal and quite solidly written. Interestingly, it says "Subdued monsters will obey for a time without need to check their reactions, and such monsters are salable." Nothing like casting Charm on a subhuman individual and then selling the creature into slavery! Or for spare parts! We're the good guys, right?

Well, that depends on your alignment, and Holmes Basic presents an infamously unique take on that very topic. HERE is the alignment chart from the book - the link was taken from HERE. That blog post and the discussion below it have a lot of interesting information on the subject. I'm not going to go quite so in-depth here, but this is the gist of it: Instead of the three alignments of OD&D (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) or the nine alignments of AD&D (just...take your pick), Holmes Basic has FIVE alignments. There's Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil. It's actually very similar to the alignment system of D&D 4E, and I've read secondhand that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1E has a similar system as well. Essentially, it's just the AD&D system without any of the Neutral alignments besides True Neutral.

Oh boy. Now it's time to talk about my feelings regarding D&D-style alignment on the Internet. Surely no one will disagree with me to the point of ridicule and/or death threats.

Frankly, I just don't like codified systems of morality in fantasy adventure RPGs. Plain and simple. I have two main complaints about alignment. One, I think that such games are more interesting (and less headache-inducing) when the characters' behavior is rewarded/punished/acknowledged/shown to have consequences in an organic way. For example, a nice person could make friends more easily but also be taken advantage of more easily, while an unhinged murderer could be treated like a dangerous animal by the public at large but be sought out as a hitman or mercenary by certain unsavory groups. A person with strong religious beliefs could be treated as a guest among like-minded people and face prejudice among those with strong faith in a competing belief - or face well-deserved wrath if they violently try to impose their beliefs on "heathen foreigners" in a far-off village and rile up an angry mob of said "foreigners." Imposing XP penalties or forced class changes when a character acts "out of alignment" too often doesn't appeal to me at all. I understand the idea of Clerics and Paladins having to follow specific codes of conduct and stuff, but even then I'd rather base such penalties on specific oaths the characters have sworn based on their personal or institutional doctrines, rather than a catch-all alignment which applies equally to multiple religions and to secular life. And even then, I'd rather just not impose those kinds of penalties at all, but that's just me.

Second, I'm not a fan of including objective, provable, magically-backed, universal ethics in the games I play. I like using moral ambiguity in fiction. I find it more interesting and more applicable to my real-life experiences. Now don't get me wrong: I understand that this is fantasy, and it does not have to mesh with real life at all. That may be the appeal of fantasy, to some extent. But I like it when fantasy is a little grounded, so that the differences between the fiction and reality stand out more, and so that the fiction can help me consider aspects of mundane reality in new, fantastical ways. I think that objective, verifiable morality in fantasy can be very interesting in theory, but in practice I haven't seen it accomplish much in RPGs at the actual table besides restricting player freedom in annoying and sometimes arbitrary ways.

If an intelligent magic sword is only supposed to allow itself to be wielded by a Lawful individual, I think it would be more interesting for the sword to arbitrate its wielder's behavior based on what it believes is Lawful conduct, rather than what objectively counts as Lawful. My favorite alignment system in a D&D-style game so far actually comes from Lamentations of the Flame Princess - it has the same three categories as OD&D, but the rulebook notes that these alignments have nothing to do with morality and are based solely on what kind of supernatural beings, powers, or forces would ally with you or oppose you. It's not an ethical system, but more like the magical equivalent of the continuum between acidic and alkaline chemicals.

All that said, I kind of like how Holmes Basic breaks alignment down into these five categories instead of the nine I'm used to. I think the AD&D system is too ambiguous about what each category entails, even though it presents the categories as if they were fairly separate and clearly codified. The Holmes system at least cuts out the four AD&D alignments that I find the most troublesome. A Neutral Good person just seems to me like someone who goes back and forth between acting Lawful Good and acting Chaotic Good. In other words, they only believe in Lawfulness when it suits them and ignore it otherwise...which just sounds like Chaotic Good to me. Likewise with Neutral Evil.

Lawful Neutral seems absurd to me - why would someone be utterly loyal to the law in every shape and form unless they either believe the law facilitates moral correctness (in which case they would be Lawful Good, although they may be foolishly following bad laws because they incorrectly believe them to be good laws), believe that the law facilitates their desire to selfishly get an advantage over others (in which case they would be Lawful Evil), or merely believe that they are unwilling to face the consequences of breaking the law (which would probably make them True Neutral).

And Chaotic Neutral just seems to be the philosophy that one should do whatever one wants without concern for what is right or proper...which sounds evil to me. Chaotic Evil. And don't get me started on the theory that the True Neutral alignment is supposed to reflect a desire for an even distribution of Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil. That's not how those concepts work!

To be fair, I could kind of see the classic Lawful Neutral and balance-style True Neutral alignments working for creatures with very alien (and possibly illogical) outlooks, like the Inevitables from D&D 3E, but for creatures with human-like viewpoints, I don't think such philosophies are coherent. I'd rather see players put down stuff like "Liberal Protestant" on their character sheets instead of Lawful Whatever, kind of like what I've seen in some LotFP fan-made materials (like The Undercroft #3).

Just as I feared, this turned into a lengthy rant. Anyway, that's my opinion. I certainly respect other opinions on this subject, and people are obviously entitled to run their games as they like without judgement from me, provided everyone at the table is treated fairly and ethically IRL. My point is, I'm not fond of alignment at all, but as far as such things go, I think the approach taken by Holmes Basic is fine.

One more alignment-based thing: Holmes Basic includes alignment languages. These are most definitely not unique to this version of the game, though. I've never seen alignment languages come up in any game I've played in, but if you're going to include magical, objectively-demonstrable systems of ethics, you might as well include mystic alignment languages that somehow everyone knows. At least that's a delightfully weird concept.

Also, the LANGUAGES section is deliberately vague in a way I find endearing, referring to the "common tongue" and the "continent" in quotations. The way D&D generally treats languages is oddly specific while pretending to be vague. What if my campaign setting doesn't include continents and everyone lives on the backs of giant kangaroos in space? Well, I guess that kind of setting wouldn't be very "Basic," now would it? But you see this kind of thing in Advanced and modern D&D rulebooks too, so...whatever. It's easy to houserule. Still, I find the assumptions about languages in D&D really interesting.

Next time: Time, Why You Punish Me?

(Now these two songs are going to be stuck in my head. Thanks, Dr. Holmes.)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 2 - Your Fighting Human is Obsolete

PART 2 OF 12

Part 1

I know it's not exactly a huge rulebook by RPG standards, but if I go line-by-line and page-by-page too strictly this is probably going to become tedious for most people to read, so I'm going to try and just stick to details that I find neat, weird, amusing, or inspiring. I love this book so far, so let's keep going!

The book briefly mentions that Dwarves and Halflings can be Thieves, but it only gives actual rules for them to be Fighting Men. I'm sure you could use the Thief rules from Supplement I: Greyhawk or from one of the many great retroclones out there to figure out how a Dwarf or Halfling Thief is supposed to work, and simply making something up would probably be pretty simple, too. Still, I wonder if it was an editing mistake that they left in a mention of an OD&D rule that isn't actually covered in the Holmes Basic book. You know what? Later on the same page, it says that the rules for Dwarf/Halfling/Elf Thieves are in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It still strikes me as weird that they'd mention demihuman thieves like they'd be covered in this book and then turn around and say "Looks like you'll just have to wait for AD&D to come out, kid."

Really, the default class list in this version of the game is the same as in B/X: Fighter (Fighting Man), Magic-User, Cleric, Thief, Dwarf (Fighting Man), Halfling (Fighting Man), and Elf (Strange Fighting Man/Magic-User Multiclass Character).

It's funny that Fighting Men "can use any weapon" because all weapons do 1d6 damage per hit, like in OD&D without the Supplements. On the other hand, the Fighting Man can use all magic weapons and all armor both mundane and magic, so it's not like the class is lacking in badness (which means goodness).

As far as mundane weapons go, Magic-Users can only fight with daggers. Not that that's a problem. Still, no staff?

Here's an unintentionally funny bit from the Cleric's description: "No swords or bows and arrows can be employed, for the cleric is forbidden by his religion from the drawing of blood." Um, about that...

"Thieves are not truly good and are usually referred to as neutral or evil, so that other members of an expedition should never completely trust them and they are quite as likely to steal from their own party as from the Dungeon Master's monsters." How rude. No wonder they started calling themselves "rogues" and "specialists." Some cool stuff: Thieves can use all of the same weapons as the Fighting Man, including magic ones, and "Thieves above the third level of experience can read magic scrolls and books and 80% of languages so that treasure maps, etc. are easy for them." Does that mean they can cast from scrolls like a Magic-User (or like the Gray Mouser in that classic story I haven't read and really need to)? What is the significance of them being able to read magic books? How do you determine which 20% of all languages they can't read, and how do they suddenly learn 80% of what are presumably all languages they encounter when they reach a certain level? I'm confused, but also intrigued and kind of delighted. It's like this very straightforward instruction book suddenly started throwing riddles at me and then stopped just as abruptly.

So, uh...Dwarf special features: betters saves against magic, 60' infravision, one in three chance of detecting traps and architectural anomalies when underground, automatically knows the languages of gnomes, kobolds, and goblins.

If I'm reading the rules correctly, Elves get to use the features of the Fighting Man and the Magic-User at the same time; no class-switching between expeditions seems to be necessary. They have to split XP equally between both classes, though, so they level up slowly. Other features: one in three chance of finding secret doors, 60' infravision, immune to being paralyzed by ghouls, automatically knows the languages of orcs, hobgoblins, and gnolls, as well as elves.

Wait a second. Dwarves don't get their own languages? The Elf description says they share "the Common speech" with humans, halflings, and dwarves. There's no mention of a Dwarven tongue. Maybe Dwarves share a native language with Gnomes?

Anyway, Halflings have to use appropriately-sized weapons, but that probably won't matter much if every weapon does 1d6 damage. They get a +1 bonus to missile weapon attacks, they get better saving throws against magic like Dwarves, and they are supposedly stealthy when outside, "having the ability to vanish into woods or undergrowth," but I don't see any rules for exactly how that works. They don't get any special languages.

Hit Dice: d8 for Fighting Men and Dwarves, d6 for Clerics, Elves, and Halflings, and d4 for Thieves and Magic-Users. Also, the Dwarf and Halfling use the Fighting Man's XP progression. You know, without considering the level caps in OD&D or AD&D, demihumans in Holmes Basic seem to be really badass. The Halfling trades a little HP for a +1 ranged attack and better saving throws - seems worth it to me, since a dagger does the same damage as a halberd. The Dwarf doesn't even need to trade in any HP; I don't see any advantages for human Fighting Men over Dwarven ones here. Is this meant to be a trap, so that players who insist on using the most powerful characters get screwed when they move to AD&D? That hardly seems fair to players who want to play demihumans because they genuinely like them and not just because they have to be the very best all the time (and I'm not even convinced that's always something worth punishing). On the other hand, I feel bad for any players who might have picked a human Fighting Man when playing Holmes Basic and then realized they were playing the worst version of their class in these rules.

I'm actually kind of in love with the idea of Halflings being more vicious and deadly than your standard human warriors. Little killing machines, like mini-Reavers. How long until every kingdom replaces its army with brutal Halfling mercenaries? Humans are obsolete on the battlefield. Let us make tea cosies from the skins of our enemies.

As for resting, the book says that PCs regain 1 to 3 lost HP per day of rest. It also seems to imply that the party will return to the surface/town at the end of every game session. I'm guessing there won't be any rules for sleeping in the dungeon, then. It probably wouldn't be a good idea, anyway, unless you brought along Ye Olde Air Mattress.

The equipment price list seems pretty standard. Animals are included, but good luck getting a horse into a dungeon. These rules don't cover wilderness adventures.

You know that bit in OD&D about how players can really play anything they want as long as the DM gives the go-ahead and the character starts out weak and has to gain XP to become the Hundred Man Slayer or whatever? A variation on that spiel is in here, which rocks. Hooray for creativity, imagination, and freedom! There's also a blurb about the "sub-classes" in the upcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books; it lists Paladins, Rangers, Illusionists, Witches, Monks, Druids, and Assassins. Too bad the Witch didn't actually appear in AD&D, from my understanding. I've seen a lot of OSR blogs introduce their ideas of a Witch class, though, so it's nice to see a way in which this book spurred creativity in the community. Oh, and half-elves and psionic powers are mentioned as upcoming features, too, but the book says that it's best to get used to the basics of the game before "adding further complexities." I agree.

How many characters should a player be able to play? The book suggests one or two. I imagine "two" might be a bit safer if you're only got one or two players besides the DM, especially since these rules are for low levels. If a character dies, tough luck: roll up a new one with 0 XP. Well, a Cleric has to be at least seventh level to raise the dead, but the book does kind of imply that there's a very slim possibility of finding an NPC Cleric to do that for you. There are no resurrection spells in this book, but that need not stop anybody. Still, generally a dead character is gone, and a new one starts at first level. You can have your new character inherit the money and items of the dead one, though...after a 10% tax.

"There is no reason, however, why a character could not choose to 'retire,' wealthy and covered with glory, and let some fresh, hot-blooded adventurer take the risks." And let the new guy have all the fun? Yeah, right.

Wow, I've barely progressed through this book at all today. So much for keeping things brief. Next time: Why does the alignment chart look like a propeller?

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Fighter/Mage/Wild Card Paradigm

A close friend of mine was reading the blog (Hey, dude!) and texted me some cool thoughts. He said I could quote him, so...

"I've always been in love with the basics of dnd party lineup wise (fighter, wizard, token rogue: there is a primal delight in this bread and butter arrangement) along with the idea of them struggling with basic enemies early in their careers. Engaging in mortal combat as unseasoned warriors. [...] Not to say that other classes are bad, but once you leave the standard books the magic of each person having a specific role that they alone excel at, their niche, gets muddled. Or can get muddled."

Since the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Playtest Document 0.1 has proposed knocking the number of classes down to three, and since I often find myself tinkering with class rules, I've already been thinking along these lines for a little while. Then my friend randomly texted me and pretty much put my thoughts into words almost perfectly. Funny how that works.

Based on the blogs I've read, a lot of people in the OSR seem to enjoy boiling the class system down to a very minimal number of choices. I often see people discuss dropping the Cleric and/or the Thief from D&D. I also hear about a lot of campaigns that cut out classes like the Paladin, Ranger, Monk, Assassin, and Bard to prevent them from encroaching on the territory of more generalized, archetypal classes like the Fighter, the Magic-User, and sometimes the Thief or Cleric. There seems to be a widespread desire for a minimalist, "back-to-basics" approach to classes.

When it comes to the few vs. many, generic vs. specific debate about character classes, my stance is determined almost solely by my mood. Sometimes a simple approach appeals to me, and sometimes I just want a lot of variety. It depends on the game and the day. I don't think either approach is universally wrong. Lately, I've been wondering what D&D would be like with just Fighters and Magic-Users, or what it would be like with everything but generic Fighters and Magic-Users.

Anyway, this reminds me of a related subject I've been mulling over.

I don't know how much you see this in tabletop RPGs, but in video games with character classes, it often comes down to three choices: a Fighter-type class, a Wizard-type class, and...something else. Usually that something else is either a Thief-type class or a combination/variation of Fighter and Wizard traits. Sometimes melee combat and ranged combat are split into two separate disciplines, so you have a Fighter/Wizard/Archer setup. Sometimes a second school of magic is introduced, so you wind up with a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric arrangement or the like. Sometimes stealth or some other skill is emphasized as the game's third answer to combat outside of physical and magical attacks. At any rate, many video games with RPG classes break those classes down into Fighters, Wizards, and Wild Cards (in the sense that the third type of class differs more than the others).

And even though most class-based games, of both the tabletop and video varieties, usually have more than three classes, I think that most classes in most D&D-style games of fantasy violence (and some SF violence) are built primarily from combinations/variations of only two or three main building blocks: physical fighting/toughness, casting spells/using special powers, and some third thing that varies from game to game. Often that third thing is a skill system. Sometimes there are two or more "third" things, so you might see the basics as something like a Fighter/Thief/Cleric/Wizard setup, but even then, the two key ingredients of physical/fighting prowess and magical prowess are almost universal.

Maybe this is a "well, duh" kind of thing, but I think it's interesting because it highlights some assumptions we often see in class-based fantasy games. Physical and magical abilities are often non-complementary, even opposed, within the same individual; some games allow characters who dabble in both, but usually not to an equal degree, and even when a class can be equally skilled at both, they're usually not as skilled at either discipline to the degree that a "pure" Fighter or Wizard is. Brain and brawn have trouble mixing, and so do the physical and metaphysical worlds. Also, the most important aspects of character classes and/or the most important details about player characters in general must include at the very least some measurement of how good they are at combat and how good they are at magic.

If I were to sum up most character classes in most fantasy games, I would use phrases like:

  • It's a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric.
  • It's a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric except...
  • It's a combination of a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric and a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric.
  • It's one of the few classes in the game that isn't a variation on a Fighter and/or a Wizard, like a Thief, or much more rarely a Diplomat (like a Bard or something), a Scholar, a Specialist of some kind (merchant, blacksmith, doctor, language expect, etc.), or something else with an ability that is either unique to that class or presented as a third major aspect of the game.
I guess my point is that it would be cool to see this paradigm shaken up a bit more than it usually is. This doesn't mean there's something wrong with the approach taken by D&D, since as my friend would agree, the basic classes are fun and satisfying, but I'd like to see more variety in other, newer games, or even in some new D&D house rules or hacks.

Some possibilities that might be fun:

  • Every class uses magic, and the differences lie in the schools or philosophies of magic. You could have the fireball-slinging wizard, the Illusionist, the psychic, the summoner, etc.
  • Every class is good at fighting, and the differences lie in their fighting styles and/or their skills outside of combat. You could have a Ranger/Paladin/Archer/Swashbuckler/Mage Knight/Pirate/Ninja/Samurai kind of thing going on.
  • You can do what every version of AD&D and modern D&D has done, which is pretty much all of the above plus more in one great big wonderful mess, but either throw balance out the window like in RIFTS (or so I'm told), work on maintaining the balance a bit more carefully, make sure every class fits more than one niche (so no basic Fighters or basic Wizards), make sure every class has a super-specific niche outside of fighting and casting, or just add in crazy classes that bend or break the rules (like the Alice in A Red & Pleasant Land or the Chaos DJ in The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia).
  • Ditch any kind of generalized skill system for a bunch of separate systems with different rules that are at least theoretically as central to gameplay as fighting and spellcasting.
  • Make the skill system independent from the class system, so that your Fighter or Wizard could also be good at picking locks, sneaking, climbing, learning new languages, diplomacy, or what have you.
  • Make the number of core classes with extreme niche protection something other than three or four. For example, present options like a Knight (only decent non-magic melee fighter), an Archer, a Summoner, an Illusionist, a Sorcerer (only guy throwing fireballs), a Spy (only stealthy guy), a Trap Master, a Shapeshifter (only decent magic melee fighter because NOW SHE'S A MAGIC BEAR), an Herbalist, and a Chess Expert (because everyone in the kingdom is obsessed with Chess and you can use that to your advantage).
  • Set your fantasy game in a world in which physical violence between sapient beings is impossible, and make the classes things like politicians, craftsmen, and entertainers. This would be pretty far from your standard D&D game, but it could still be a fantasy game and still have classes, making for an interesting, semi-familiar experience.
I'm sure this has all been done before in one way or another, and I probably look really out of the loop right now. Be that as it may, I'd love to see more class-based fantasy games (either new or that I've simply missed) that avoid or heavily alter the Fighter/Wizard and Fighter/Wizard/Other Thing paradigms. And yes, I know classless games are a thing, and I don't have anything against them, but I'm simply kind of curious how unusual we can get with classes.

I'll leave you with some examples of games that stick fairly strictly to the Fighter/Magic-User/Wild Card thing. I can barely think of any Tabletop games with classes that haven't featured at least four of them, but video game examples are plentiful enough.
Tabletop RPGs
Lamentations of the Flame Princess (Playtest Document 0.1)
OD&D (before the Supplements and magazine articles, and ignoring races)
Tunnels & Trolls (to the best of my knowledge - I'm admittedly not very familiar with the system)
Video Games
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
Dragon Age series
Fallout series (arguably, although it's more like Figher/Thief/Diplomat)
Hexen: Beyond Heretic
Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos
Legend of Grimrock
Lords of Magic
The Magic of Scheherazade (applies to the main character)
Phantasy Star Online
Quest for Glory series (although a Paladin class shows up after the first game)
Shadowrun (Sege Genesis version)
Swords and Serpents
System Shock 2
Wizards & Warriors III: Kuros: Visions of Power

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 1 - Let's Dig In!

PART 1 OF 12

Thanks to the Internet hunting skills of my wife, I managed to snag a copy of the "Blue Book" Basic D&D rules by Dr. J. Eric Holmes for a very good price recently. Just glancing through it, I think I'm already in love. Physically, it reminds me of a strategy guide for an old NES RPG like Final Fantasy or Wizardry, with the added benefit of being useful without electricity, so right off the bat it hits me in the nostalgic chamber of my heart even though it came out before I was born. The writing is straightforward, the game looks fun, and I can't wait to check it out in more detail. So let's do exactly that.

Keep in mind that my only experiences with Basic D&D come secondhand, like playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess (a kinda/sorta retroclone of B/X, among other things), reading blogs, playing and reading adventures that are compatible with Basic D&D, and reading the few pre-Wizards of the Coast D&D books I've managed to get my hands on so far, which have usually been meant for either AD&D or OD&D.

Also please keep in mind that I'm writing these posts more-or-less as I read the book, so I may have to go back and correct some things.

Starting with the cover, we've got that classic piece of art with the wizard and the warrior confronting the dragon in its lair. It's blue on my copy of the rules, but I've seen the color version online, which I think was on the cover of the boxed set. This picture really captures the most basic aspects of the game: you've got the two most archetypal D&D classes, the magic-user and the fighting man, both human like Gygax supposedly intended, getting ready to kill a dragon in a dungeon and take its stuff. It's pure. Elemental. I like how the dragon manages to look a little silly or cartoony yet menacing and inhuman, even a bit alien, at the same time. The wings look like they're maybe placed a bit too low and forward, and like they're too small to support the creature. Maybe it flies with magical assistance, or maybe the wings are vestigial, since the dragon lives underground. The devil-like tail is a nice touch, the scales look appropriately armor-like, and the face has a really distinctive structure, with weird eyebrow ridges and little cheek-growths that could be whiskers or polyps. Best of all, the monster is sitting on an absolutely obscene amount of treasure. That's got to be enough to pull these two murderhobos dashing heroes out of the Level 1-3 grind covered by this very rulebook.

Also, I see that the magic-user is preparing to cast a spell one-handed while holding a torch in the other. Granted, he seems to be casting from a wand, but still, different versions of D&D and different retroclones, OSR games, and fantasy games in general seem to often have different rules for whether or not you can cast one-handed or only two-handed, with or without items in your hands, etc. I'm curious to see how Holmes Basic handles the physical act of casting spells.

We've got another freakin' sweet image on the copyright page. A magic-user and two fighting men are trying to hold off a horde least twenty orcs, if I'm counting correctly. Two of them look to be dead already. I love the abstract look of the dungeon and the detail of the little gargoyle statue on a pole. I hope that magic-user's spell isn't the only light source they've got, or they're screwed. Should have brought some hirelings.

The preface strikes me as a little cheeky: "This work is far more detailed and more easily understood than were the original booklets nonetheless," it states, perhaps throwing some shade at the OD&D booklets Holmes was tasked with cleaning up. Don't get me wrong, I love Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but yeah, it's hard for a rookie like me to get into those little brown books. Not that I don't want to try, because OD&D sounds awesome from what I've heard from OSR people, but it's certainly intimidating.

The preface mentions some other D&D books. It is described as being based on "the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets," and looking at the list of D&D products on the back cover, I see that Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes is not listed as Supplement IV, but independent of the first three Supplements under the "Collector's Editions" section. Strange. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is also mentioned in the preface as the natural point of progression when players want to go beyond what's in the Basic book, which would presumably happen after the PCs hit Level 3 considering these rules don't go any higher than that.

Anyway, the book also includes the "FOREWORD FROM THE ORIGINAL EDITION" which gives some cool history of the game's origins and is always a good read. Speaking of throwing shade, I love how Gygax outright states that you won't like this game if you lack imagination.

The actual introduction to the Basic book itself uses a wonderful phrase: "for adults 12 years and up." That says so much. You need to be mature to play well, but kids are often more mature than we give them credit for. The intro also makes it clear what the basic building blocks of the game are: explore, overcome dangers, kill things, take their stuff, get more powerful, and use that power to survive going deeper and deeper underground each adventure in order to overcome greater challenges and obtain greater rewards.

The "HOW TO USE THIS BOOK" section says at least two players are required, one to be the Dungeon Master and one to go adventuring. Oddly enough, the cover says the game is for three or more players.

The book stresses multiple times that very little is needed to actually play the game. Just the rules, paper, pencils, dice, and optionally a table with a map and/or miniatures. I remember this was a selling point for the game even when I first got into it as a kid (3E/3.5, if you're wondering). The book hilariously tries to sell the reader miniatures while downplaying the importance of miniatures at the same time. "While only paper and pencil need be used, it is possible for the characters of each player to be represented by miniature lead figures which can be purchased inexpensively from hobby stores or directly from TSR Hobbies." Gotta make bank!

Characters do the usual routine at creation: roll 3d6 for each ability score, then pick a class. Strength and Wisdom seem to lack any mechanical use outside of being the prime requisites for fighting men and clerics, respectively, with high scores granting XP bonuses and low scores inflicting XP penalties.

Intelligence is the prime requisite for magic-users, but it also allows one bonus language per point over 10, and it also affects a magic-users number of spells known per level and the chances of already knowing any desired spell at character creation. (I want to look at this in more detail later.)

Dexterity is the prime requisite for thieves, but it also seems to be directly used as a static initiative number in combat, so in any situation when you need to know who acts first, it's always the person with the highest dexterity. On top of that, a Dex of 13 and up gives you a +1 to hit with missiles, and an 8 or less gives you a -1. Talk about a "god-stat!"

Constitution also looks important, since it affects one's HP per HD. Supposedly it "will influence how a character can withstand being paralyzed or killed and raised from the dead, etc." but I have yet to find more details in the book about that.

Finally, there's Charisma, which looks like another important one. You need at least 13 CHA to hire more than 5 followers, and with less than 13 even those five are said to have "luke-warm" loyalty. Charisma is mentioned in the "NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS" section regarding PCs who try to convince monsters to join forces with them, but my interpretation of this section is that it's just referring to the cap of 5 followers for non-suave individuals, so it looks like the DM is supposed to adjudicate whether or not such attempts work based on how good of an offer is being made.

The most interesting detail about charisma is this: "Also a female with high charisma will not be eaten by a dragon but kept captive. A charismatic male defeated by a witch will not be turned into a frog but kept enchanted as her lover, and so forth." I take this to imply two main things. First, when there is no specific rule covering a given situation, the DM should feel free to adjudicate things non-mechanically (i.e. without rolling the dice or following a set-in-stone rule) by eyeballing a character's ability scores and determining from that what they can or cannot do. Second, monsters have motivations and aren't just stacks of HP making claw attacks, so the DM should sometimes have them treat PCs differently if they have high or low scores in relevant abilities, or have them seek to sometimes fight for reasons other than food or self-defense, like the taking of captives. Presumably, a DM could easily house-rule that someone reduced to 0 HP is either killed or knocked out, at the choosing of the attacker, or something like that. Also, I love the idea of some poor monster becoming absolutely smitten with an adventurer and just following them around being a pest. A smart player could turn that to their advantage.

I might as well quickly mention the way sex is treated in this book. It's "fighting men" and not "fighters," but the book specifically mentions that characters can be either male or female, so presumably female fighters are "fighting women." The examples of charisma-based captivity above mention different monsters as being lustful toward men and women, but the general idea is the same for both. And guess what: there appears to be absolutely no mechanical difference between female and male characters, thankfully.

One more note on ability scores: the rules for swapping scores at character creation are pretty interesting, and for all I know they are unique to this version of the game. Swapping is actually determined by class:

  • Fighting men, halflings, and dwarves can increase their STR by 1 point for every 2 points of INT or every 3 points of WIS they decrease.
  • Clerics can increase their WIS by 1 for every 3 STR or every 2 INT they drop.
  • Magic-Users can increase their INT by 1 for every 3 STR or 2 WIS they drop.
  • Thieves can increase their DEX by 1 for every 2 INT and every 1 WIS they drop.
  • No mention is made of Elves being able to adjust their ability scores.
  • No ability score can be reduced below 9 using any of the above rules.
This is the first time I've ever seen this approach. I've heard of allowing players one swap, allowing players to swap whatever they want, various point-buy systems, and even just outright letting players choose their scores at will, but I've never heard of a point-for-point exchange rate this specific. It doesn't exactly solve all my complaints about how D&D handles ability scores, but it is a fresh and flavorful approach for me, and it seems fair, maybe even generous, given the general "hardcore" reputation of old-school D&D. This system seems designed to let players choose whatever class they want (within some loose restraints) no matter what ability scores they roll.

The book has a note about "HOPELESS CHARACTERS" who roll really bad stats. If the DM chooses to allow it, such a character can be discarded and the player can roll up another one, but the book does encourage players to not totally discount the possibility of a character with low ability scores being successful. This note also uses the odd phrase "the universe of chance." I don't think I've ever heard that idiom before. Why "the universe?" Why not "Lady Luck" or "the gods of Fate" or "pure chance?"

I think that's enough for now. Next time, I'll start with character classes.