Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Winter Time Gaming

Winter is in full swing here. It came a little later than usually, but is making up for lost time by dumping a couple feet of snow on us. Christmas is over and the New Year is coming on strong and this time of year always makes me want to game more. After all the time spent with families over the holidays it's good to go out and kill a horde of critters. Good stress relief therapy.

All the snow and cold makes me want to game more. I do miss sitting around a table and throwing dice, but there is something to be said about staying in your own home while using your preferred on-line tabletop program and skype to harass your friends or challenge a GM's ruling. My group is hoping to meet twice a week this coming year. Rob and I may attempt to get a new group running in the area. It's good to game with different people to shake off your comfort zone once in a while and mix it up with others. I admit that I am lousy at this. Rob will game at the drop of a twenty sider with anyone. The man has no fear.

I plan on doing a top 10 list or something for the end of the year. I've gotten more involved with gaming this past year than I had in over two decades. If I tallied up the money I spent on gaming this year my wife might beat me with my Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Plus it will be interesting to look back to see what influenced me and what bored the hell out of me.

I do hope everyone has a great New Year. Keep safe.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Yes, Another Blog About Experience Points

For the longest time and the current campaign my group is in is GURPS so experience points for treasure, monsters, gold or exploration isn't really factored it. To tell you the truth there is very little thought put into handing out experience points. For the current campaign four experience points are given at the end of each session. Sometimes a power gained during play can be given shooting up your character point total, but the four xp rate is standard. This fits our group for the time being.

For the past year I have been exploring all the systems and seem to gravitate toward Castles & Crusades and my new fondness for HackMaster. These are level based systems which makes the awarding of experience points more interesting. Now there is a number for magic items found, monsters slain, loot and exploration. Here are some of my theories on how I think experience points should be awarded. Any GM should explain their system of awarding experience points to his players before play begins. We all have our quirks.

1. I don't believe experience points should be given at the end of each session. It should be given at the end of a trip, dungeon delve, or an interesting time in the character's development. These may last one session, but could last several sessions. The GM can award the xp when there is a conclusion to an experience the players are having.

2. Experience points for magic items is awarded only to the character who can use that item and only gets that experience once. Joe Basher get his hands on a +2 Axe of Whoop Ass he will get the 2500xp for it, but Ricky Firehands won't get one drop since he can't use it. If Joe Basher finds another +2 Axe of Whoop Ass he will gain no experience since he already had that experience of using one.

3. I am not a fan of 1gp = 1xp. I never understood that math or the reason. I don't give any experience point for a pile of gold. I see that pile of gold as the funding/opportunity to continue onto other places to gain even more experience.

4. After reading Jeff Rients blog on exploration xp I am completely on board with that. I guess the only adjustment I would make is the players would need to interact with the place. Finding the Mines of Moria is great. Taking pictures of your buddies in front of the door will get you a big goose egg for experience. The players will need to get dirty. Some others who dislike the xp for exploration because they believe their players will go on a grand tour, but I think this is short sighted. If the GM is awarding xp for site seeing then yes this will probably get abused. But make the players interact and this is no longer a problem. Again, like with the magic items, the experience points are given once. This total is not split among the players, but each one is given the entire amount. So when Joe Basher and Ricky Firehands explore the Caves of Chaos they will both be awarded 250xp.

5. Monster experience points are divided among the players that were somehow involved with the interaction. This doesn't have to be the death of the monster. Depending on the situation different levels of experience points could be given. For unique critters, I will award xp just for seeing them. Like if Joe Basher was camping by Loch Ness and Nessie came up and took his bait. I would award xp just for seeing the creature.

6. Experience points for henchmen or followers or lackeys or can't find a job cousins. First off, I don't keep track of their experience points. If the players have a significant follow than they can keep track. When the players defeat a monster and Joe and Rickey have three followers with them I divide the experience in three shares, the followers all share one share. Giving a follower magic items will gain them only 10% of the xp value and this holds true for the exploration xp value. This is due to their secondary nature to the game and interactions. But this does allow a follower to gain in levels and become more useful as the character rises in power.

This is how I plan to award experience points to my players the upcoming campaign early next year. Of course I will discuss my plans with my players and see what input or changes they would like. As a GM I am flexible with my rules and I always like to see what the players want and often they come up with an idea that was so obvious that I whack myself in the head for not thinking of it. The one thing I strive for is being consistent. The same rule/system applies the same one the first adventure as the last.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wilderness Maps: Locations of Interest

When you finish your map and have all the forests, mountains, swamps, deserts and seas where you want them and after you string together all the villages, towns and forts you may think your done, but not quite. That vast space of wilderness needs a personality. It needs a history. This can be done by simply placing a few Locations of Interest in an area to tell the story.

Locations of Interest can be anything. They are the wildcard of the map. We know an upside down V is a mountain and a bump is a hill, but whatever symbol you use to denote a place of interest it can be anything. Since I am using a fantasy campaign as the example many of these places will be lairs of creatures, but these lairs can be more than a hole in the ground, a nest in a tree or a camp. These lairs can among the ruins of some ancient fortification. This centuries old fortification provides a glimpse into what was here before. A depth of place. Even if the GM never explains the ruins it sets a mood and gives the place relevance.

With the recent post at Jeff's Gameblog where a GM sets an experience point value for encounter certain locations, which I think is a fantastically obvious idea I never thought (slaps forehead). Locations of Interest can add a little boost a player's xp. Now when I create a wilderness map and I list sites there will be an xp value with the description.

And for your perusal a simple sample of one of my Locations of Interest:

The Shallow Barrows (500xp)

The Shallow Barrows are located at the foot of the northern most mountain in the Meznor Range. There are fourteen large mounds encircled with large black stones cut from the mountainside. The stones have large runes carved into the sides, but they vanish when it rains or water is poured over the stones. This is not a magical effect, but a natural occurrence. The hill barbarians will not enter the area and the local mage guild forbids its apprentices to explore the barrows.

Not much is known except that has the distinct oblong burrows and runes tell they are Northmen origin, a now extinct culture. Who or what is buried within is not known. Those who claim to have visited the burrows have seen ghostly men raise from the mounds a patrol the area. These are in fact wraiths, 1d4 for each burrow. They will drain their enemies of life. In the central burrow is the wraith lord. The wraith lord will only rise if one of the barrows is disturbed.

The stones around the burrows once worked as a barrier that the wraiths could not pass, but their power has weakened due to the erosion of the runes. When the wraiths approach the stones they will hesitate, but they will continue on. They will not go far from the barrows, but far enough to chase away anyone wanting to plunder their graves.

The Northmen currency was made of iron chits so those have all rusted to dust as well as their weapons and armor. The only remaining treasure under the mounds is magical. Each barrow should yield 0-5 magic items. These should be weapons and armor. The central barrow should yield 3-8 (d6) magical items plus the minor artifact, Anadour's Bracers.

Anadour's Bracers provided the priests of the Northmen the power to lead their tribes. These braces provide +2 to Strength and Constitution attributes, adds +2 to Armor Class, and allow the wearer to do an automatic critical hit once/month.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Vote for the Ritual System

James M. recently did a review on Rob Conley's Majestic Wilderlands. I read his review and a couple of his negative statements on the Ritual System got me to thinking why it's a good addition to a campaign.

The comments that caught my attention were "I don't much care for the concept of rituals, precisely because it changes the complexion of spellcasting character classes in a profound way. Without the so-called "utility spells" taking up spell slots, spellcasters no longer have to weigh combat effectiveness against the unpredictable needs of adventuring. Should I memorize find traps or hold person is a significant decision..." then finishes with "...I think it (the Ritual System) does serious violence to the class structure of D&D and would never allow the rules to be used in my campaign."

I completely agreed with James when Rob first wanted to introduce the Ritual System. Then we did a few playtests that included the Ritual System and I was shocked by how much it made sense. The effectiveness of the spellcasters increased and it made playing them at low level more enjoyable. In addition almost every historical tome on magic includes the components and specific time or situation needed to complete a ritual. Rob has simplified this into a gold piece cost per ritual. So it makes sense historically and it's very playable.

The other way I think it makes sense is that intelligent races innovate. Intelligent races find ways to make things better in a shorter time. So why would a magic be any different. After years of practicing magic, especially in an adventurer profession world, they would find ways to give them the best chance possible to survive and to thrive. I think a ritual system is a natural progression in what the next step a magic system would take.

Do I think the ritual system is right for every campaign or every GM? Absolutely not. But it's a viable option a GM should consider when developing their world. Options are good. Really.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Incompetence and Ignorance Can Be Fun

Rarely did Rob and I have a chance to adventure together. Rob was usually the GM while Dwayne and I tore up or got tore up in his Majestic Wilderlands. This time Dwayne decided to give it a go. We were playing GURPS so no alignments were needed, but Rob and I played a pair of nasty SOBs. I played an unlucky mercenary named Del-Goth who was not all that tough, always got into trouble and he never thought any of it was his fault. Rob played pretty much the exact same type of character except he was a dwarf and I was human. I referred to him as my 'little brother' because we were constantly getting into one mess or another. Neither were that smart and we played their incompetence to the hilt. It was a blast.

One of the first adventures we had was when I was fired from a job for no fault of my own. Little Brother was fired due to his association with me. So we concocted the fantastic idea of mugging thieves' guild members. We figured thieves steal for a living so they have money. We knew of one place where the thieves went so we set up an ambush. Little Brother with his crossbow and me with my sword. First guy comes to the door we are staking out so Little Brother tries to plunk him off is a shot to the top of the head. He had to point down so much that the bolt fell off the crossbow and onto the street. Alerting our mark and he disappeared. Crap.

Onto the next plan. We figured we were big bad mercenaries and they were just thieves so should just kick down the door crack some skulls and take the money. We needed money bad because we had none. So we go into the door we were staking out and went into the den of thieves. At first we did well. Kicked some asses and feeling good about ourselves. We were plucking the bodies clean like a pair of starving vultures when Little Brother got his with a knife. Then another. I grabbed Little Brother and tried to get out, but they had surrounded us. Crap.

I managed to get out by beating one little thief to the side and running out the door. On the way out running through the streets trying to lose the pickpocket boys we ran into our old boss. He didn't see us so we had a few healing potions got back up to snuff and came up with our next brilliant idea. Steal the money from the mercenary group. We knew the people, knew the layout, and knew where the gold was. Why hadn't we thought of that before? This plan lasted all of fifteen minutes. Del-Goth tried to convince one of the other mercenaries to let him in on the premise he'd forgotten something. I got in, apparently the guard was a bit more incompetent that us, and we went directly to the treasury and looted as much as we could carry. What we didn't figure on was how to get out. It's difficult to sneak by people when you jingle. The gig was up when we were spotted coming out of the treasury with sacks full of payroll. An alarm was raised and we were on the run again. Crap.

So we ran and ran until we ducked into a temple in the middle of the city. The priest was kind enough to offer us sanctuary. They fed us, were kind to us and when we woke in the morning all the gold we looted was gone. The priest explained it was the price of staying. Just when me and Little Brother were about shish ka bob a couple of priests I noticed outside a small crowd of mercenaries was camped and in the alley ways a crowd of thieves waited. Crap.

It took some time but Del-Goth and Little Brother escaped by getting shipped out inside barrels. At least we were fed and in good condition even if was a brief. We were shipped to this tavern at a crossroads and here is where Del-Goth and Little Brother's story ends. Again, we were out of money so a tavern seemed like as good as any place to rob. What I didn't know is the tavern was protected by an iron golem. After a short fight that saw Little Brother killed by a small mob of patrons. Del-Goth fell into a water trough and held underwater by the iron golem until he died.

We died they way we lived, unremarkable and wasteful. But there was a charm to playing them. It was one of my favorite pairings. The campaign did not last long, but I will always remember the adventures of the two most incompetent adventurers to strap on boots.

Hack Mania

I am so late to the party that the building that the party was in has been tore down, but I am indulging in it none the less. I'm talking about HackMaster or AD&D on steroids. My FNGS has a wall of 50% off gaming books and one shelf has a lot of HackMaster books. I read Knights of the Dinner Table when it first came out, but never followed it much. A few months back Rob gave me a few of the Bundles of Trouble and I loved them. And of course they were playing HackMaster through the series.

For whatever reason I got onto eBay and went searching. I found a HackMaster Lot of 19 new books for only $60 + $12 for the shipping. I didn't hesitate and placed my bid. Then took the list of the books in the lot to my FNGS to fill in some of the gaps. It's fun to browse, but I like shopping when I have a purpose. And with the 50% off I filled in a lot of gaps.

Lately I've been spending my free time reading up on HackMaster and loving its sarcastic tone, the gruesome artwork and the pictures that play off the old classic pictures. This game knows how to have fun. And it's a very good game. I know I've been writing a lot about Castles & Crusades and still plan to continue building adventures for it, but I gotta say Hackmaster has my interest right now.

After the New Year my group intends to play twice a week. Intends is the key word. But if it works out I will be running a HackMaster campaign and Rob will run a Swords & Wizardry campaign in his Majestic Wilderlands. We will be play testing more material for future releases.

So if there are any HackMasters out there reading this do you have any tips or suggestions when playing a campaign? And suggestions on a rule set or changing one? And/or what house rules you use that makes the game better?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Building a Wilderness Hex for a Sandbox Campaign

Playing in a sandbox campaign means the GM needs to be fairly quick on his feet with improvising situations since there is no direct point to point exploration. Players can wander where ever they please and create the adventure organically without the heavy handed scripts that fill the beginning of most adventure modules. For a good sandbox adventure to succeed the GM needs to understand the ecology of his area to give the adventure and place a sense of depth. That life continues on in this area even if the players never set foot in the hex.

The following is an example of how to build a wilderness hex and by no means the only way to go about it. I do it differently than Rob (Bat in the Attic) and Dwayne (Gamers Closet) so find what works best for you and go with it. I'm not ashamed to say I've stolen elements from most of the GMs I've gamed with and incorporated those elements that would enhance my own style.

A campaign map will have hundreds of hexes with the basic information, a symbol representing water, forest, mountains, hills or plains. A dot for a village or city. A square for a castle or fort. What I am focusing on is all that space between the dots. The places adventurers must travel to find the lost tomb of the dead god of two many vowels in a row or that tower with obligatory orcs and femme fatale princess in need of saving.

Now you have your beautifully rendered map in front of you and you have to decide how large the hexes are. Mine are 12 miles across. Then you have to decide how many miles a party can travel. The travel times I use are the ones I get from Rob Conley. These distances are based on an 8 hour travel day and weather penalties are not included. Light forest and plains is 20 miles, heavy woods 10-15 miles, jungle/swamp is 5-10 miles. A good road a party can increase their distance up to 50% or a trail can decrease the difficult of the terrain by one.

Say your adventuring party has discovered the location of the goblin stronghold. The stronghold is located four hexes into the wilderness. The party will be traveling on a road for one hex, lightly wooded area for two hexes and the stronghold is located in a heavily wooded hex. The party will reach the middle of the 2nd hex after the first day of travel. So let's take a look.

Wilderness hex 2301 is a section of the Aberdeen Forest that borders the heavily forested hills of the Cranax Wayland to the north. There are no roads or heavily travelled trails here. This area is inhabited by typical forest animals including a giant grizzly bear, a small tribe of bugbears has moved into a pair of shallow caves in the northern hills and transient population of goblins from the stronghold. On occasion woodsmen from the villages of Orton and Green Tree can be found in the southern area of the hex. Then there is the Ghost of Aberdeen, a knight who has roamed the forest for years.

A brief description of the listed inhabitants above:

Giant Grizzly Bear: This beast stands 15' tall and weights over 1300 pounds. He usually stays by the streams to hunt and sleeps in the caves to the north of the hex. There are two broken arrows in his right side from a recent battle with the bugbears. The pelt will bring in a hefty price at market.

Bugbears: Twelve bugbears moved into the caves hoping to capture some of the goblins for slaves and take their treasure. Two of the bugbears were killed by the giant grizzly bear in the area. The bugbears are led by a dark shaman. He always travels with at least four body guards.

Goblins: Twenty to forty goblins travel though this hex two to four times a year on their way to a raiding camp. When they do a return trip their numbers are reduced by 20% to 50% carrying 100gp-1000gp worth of items, food supplies and coinage. When the goblins return to the raiding camp their numbers will be replenished.

Woodsmen: Paul is from the village of Green Tree and Jerrin and Lloyd are from Orton. They know each other well and are friends. They trap and fish in the streams. They know the area well. They know the location of the Well of Whispers, they've all seen the giant bear and the Ghost of Aberdeen, and they know to stay clear of the goblins when they come marching through. They don't know about the bugbears yet. All of them are competent combatants, but only do so in self defense.

The Ghost of Aberdeen: He is not a ghost, but a nameless knight who has patrolled the forest on his massive mount for over twenty years. He patrols the hexes surrounding this hex, but his main home is by the Well of Whispers. He does not speak and will not engage the players in any way. If attacked he will defend himself, but he will not kill. In combat he uses his double crossbow from a distance and a long sword and shield when engaged in close combat. His shield is battered and in poor condition as is most of his equipment.

A random encounter table would look like this;
1-5 d4 Wildlife
6 Giant Grizzly Bear
7-8 d4 Bugbear Patrol
9 d4+4 Bugbear Patrol + Dark Shaman
10-13 d20+20 Goblin Raiding Party
14-17 d20+20-25% Returning Goblin Raiding Party
18-19 d3 Woodmen
20 The Ghost of Aberdeen

The four stone long houses (the ruins) in the central part of the hex have nothing of value in them or around them. A person well versed in history would recognize the structures as those the North Men used to construct and in the center is a well. At night hundreds of voices can be heard coming from the depths of the well. Wells were holy places to the North Men. They placed their sacrifices in these wells and also offered their dead.

Now an enterprising GM could construct a cool little dungeon adventure here or keep it as an unexplained mystery. For this example this hex is to be travelled through, but this is a sandbox campaign so a GM may want to have some idea of what the players may find if they decide to explore. In just under 600 words I've got a pretty good picture of what is going on in this hex and how it influences the areas that surrounds it so if the players decide to explore, the GM has enough details to fill in the bigger picture.

Be flexible. Be prepared. The goal of the players in this example is getting to the goblin stronghold, but the journey there is just as important.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Majestic Wilderlands Unleashed

Most have heard already that my good friend Rob Conley, over at Bat in the Attic, has released Supplement VI, the Majestic Wilderlands. The blurb "Contained in this book are the background and rules used in a campaign thirty years in the making," is not hyperbole. I've had the honor of participating in Rob's Majestic Wilderlands for the past 25 years and I know he was running it for years before we started gaming together. If you are looking for a sandbox campaign this is it. This is the supplement you should get.

The Majestic Wilderlands is as rich a campaign world as you will find. One of Rob's strength's is his extensive knowledge of history and having the ability to adapt that historical knowledge into a playable and interesting culture, situation or event. He does this by putting his own spin on things and allows players to change outcomes. He allows the players the make history. Many of the cultures that are detailed in his book are because of his players wanting to do something different or wanted more information on how this part of society works. It's rare to find a GM who does not let his ego get in the way when players seek a change.

And if this amazing world wasn't enough Rob, as most of you know, is one of the best cartographers out there. His maps are fantastic. Above my writing desk where I do most of my work on gaming and write this blog are two beautiful maps of Rob's creation. One is a colored map of City-State and the other is a 4'x3' map of the surrounding campaign world. Any map you get from Rob is always top quality.

Here are some hard stats of Supplement VI, the Majestic Wilderlands:
This little powerhouse is 140 pages.
5 classes of Fighting Men.
6 classes of Magic Users. All with their own unique casting abilities and a ritual system.
5 classes of Rouges.
A detailed section on clerics.
A section on professional classes.
13 playable races described.
Sections on skills, monsters, magic items and combat.
This is all in the first 85 pages.
Brief descriptions of the campaign area.
Then finishes up with 22 cultures and religions.

I think I have spouted off enough about Rob's virtues. Honestly, I think Supplement VI, the Majestic Wilderlands is an incredible addition to the OSR and to gaming in general. Rob, I wish you the best of luck and success with this product. I know how hard he worked on it. It took thirty years to create it so maybe its influence will last twice as long. I can't wait to see what the print version looks like.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dark Knight : I'm not Batman

So I was cruising the web last night after perusing the latest blogs and I decide to watch some TV. I stop on hulu and what do I find, a show called Dark Knight. Now maybe this is already common knowledge, but I hadn't heard of it before. Ivanhoe returns from the holy land to return King Richard to the throne. Production values make me think of late night 90s television. It's so bad it's good.

The first escape scene was laughable. Rob was questioning where Ivanhoe's DM was. He kicked a sword up into his hand and the jailer fell on it. The soundtrack seems to come from the old Dragon's Lair video game. Dirk the Daring has nothing to worry about. He still rules. You old timers know what I am talking about. The special effects are fun bad, the open scene has this specter or wraith thing gobble up some henchmen (they always get the short straw). The specter is similar to the green booger ghost in Ghostbusters.

If you like bad fantasy, over acting, last generation graphics and a sound track that seems to be ripped off from a video game, check out Dark Knight. Now if this is not enough to get you searching hulu for it there is the bonus, Dark Knight also includes the actor who played Baldwin the dwarf in the 1980 cult classic Hawk the Slayer flick. If that is not enough for you check out Dark Knight than I can't help you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Campaign Cultures

In most fantasy RPGs skills, advantages and disadvantages are decided by race. Where this is helps define a race it doesn't take into account the various cultures within a race. AD&D made an attempt at it with the elves and somewhat with the halflings, but the difference were found in the Monster Manual not in the PBH. In the PBH it states, "Elven players characters are always considered to be high elves" so they try to eliminate the option of being an aquatic (you never know), drow, gray or wood elf. At least you find a something that separates the different elven cultures.

Halflings also had three cultural variants, the hairfeet, tallfellow and stout halflings. There is only one sentence in the PHB that mentions a cultural variant "...halflings of mixed type and those of pure Stoutish blood are able to note if a passage is an up or down grade 75% of the time and determine direction 50% of the time." Exciting stuff. It's always good to know which way you will roll when you fall down.

Cultural relevancy adds depth to a campaign above the surface racial benefits. I've had to fortune of being a player in Rob Conley's Majestic Wilderlands for twenty some years. This is where I learned to appreciate the cultural differences. What better place than City-State to have a melting pot. To be effective in Rob's world you better know the differences in the cultures. What one might consider to be an honor another may consider it a grievous insult. Cultural tension plays a huge part in who the characters are and the situations they get into.

A small scale sandbox campaign tend to be homogeneous and probably should considering the scale, but to add a small population of same race, different culture there is built in tension on many levels. There will be tension based on strength, moral fiber, different religions (or again they could be worshipping the same god, but very different aspects) and political.

Example. You have a simple group of farming villages run by a local lord. The lord's land lies on the frontier of the kingdom and have no buffer between them and the uncivilized lands. To the north are several tribes of hill barbarians. Their tribes are not large, usually made of two to six families. The hill barbarians battle with one another quite often, over hunting land, a perceived sign of disrespect or because it was Monday and they were cranky. The farmers view the barbarians as savage and uncivilized (the definition of a barbarian). But the farmers need the barbarians because they enjoy killing all the horrible creatures that pop out of the wilderness that wants to gobble them up. Most of the leaders of the tribes trade furs and other items for food. They are barbarians, but know not to plunder the villages. They need the extra food source during the winter months and know storming the lord's fortified keep would be futile. But the barbarians consider themselves superior and the farmers weak and cowardice. They brave the wild and fear no creature.

When developing a character for this setting the skill set would be drastically different if the PC came from the lord's hall or a barbarian tribe. It's good to develop a template for each 'culture' so they PCs will have a skeleton of skills based on which culture they have chosen to be from. So being human is much more than being able to be any class at any level. Being an elf is more than wise tree dwellers. And dwarves can be more than grump miners. Every culture developed within the race adds a new depth to a campaign that the players can explore and find something new each time they sit down around the table.