Saturday, September 2, 2017

Update Next Hack

I have modified the document some, updating it with more playable versions of the rules I first mentioned. Enjoy.

Is my DM Playing Gotcha?

Basilisks, Black Puddings, Brain Moles, Catoblepas, Dragonne, Floating Eye, Ghosts, Ghasts, Ghouls, Grey Ooze, Green Slime, Groaning Spirits, Harpies, Lamias, Lycanthropes, Medusae, Morkoths, Mummies, Night Hags, Ochre Jellies, Otyughs, Neo-Otyughs, Giant Portuguese Man-o-War, Purple Worms, Rhemoraz, Rot Grubs, Rust Monsters, Spiders, Ticks, Poisonous Toads, Trappers, Troll, Umber Hulk, Vampire, Giant Wasps, Wights, Will-o-Wisps, Wraiths, Type D & E poisons, and Death Traps.

What do all these things have in common?

Give Up? Probably not. You probably already know. Each of these critters has an exceptionally nasty ability or two that makes most players very, very nervous. Petrification, Paralysis, Death Poison, and more. All designed to make you a helpless sitting duck while these critters devour you at their leisure or will kill you dead on the spot. You usually do get a save. One save. Sometimes at with a bonus, sometimes without. But that once chance stands between you and almost certain, or sometimes very certain, D-E-A-T-H.

So today's question is, when these things come up is your DM playing the gotcha game? I absolutely do not think so. Well, I mean he might be, but by now if you have a DM being dirckly like that you probably already knew that before these beasties or obstacles came up. If all the kobolds in your DM's world are running around with type E poison, something is wrong. But generally no, the appearance of these monsters or traps or poisons in the world are not your DM being an execrable ass, they are simply the world of AD&D.

If you haven't yet noticed all of the above monsters are drawn from the 1e Monster Manual alone. 225 monsters by my count are in the Monster Manual and 38 of them listed above (maybe minus a few others), about 17%, are notoriously sinister in their ability to put you down quickly. I don;t think that's an awfully lot, and granted some of those are rarely used in most adventure settings. But they do exist. They are a part of the game.

But, some people have a really hard time with such obstacles being placed before their characters. In fact they have a hard time with these kinds of monsters even being a part of the game. Personally I like them, and the risk they represent.

The last time I played a character we ran upon an investigation of some lycanthropes. We actually
didn't know it was at first, because the adventure set it up to almost appear like a murderous psychopath was loose around the countryside. But turns out we got caught unawares in a community where the Lycans were running things. They lured us into the townhall for a celebration at night to be trapped inside when they closed and locked the windows and doors.My thief managed to vault over a table out a window before a window was completely closed, but got caught at the last minute. Long story short we were ambushed. But we still didn't know they were lycans or why we woke the next morning unconscious in the wood side with only but wounds on us, and not any other damage or lost items. We should have wised up between the DM stressing a full moon the night of the party and the "bite" wounds, but oh well.

As soon as we found out the we were suffering from lycanthropy--it didn't take too long after we blacked out or woke up in the woods covered in blood--I was seriously concerned. Why? Isn't it cool to be a Lycan? No!! Not in AD&D! If full lycanthropy hits you, you eventually go mad and have to surrender your PC to the DM. You're as good as dead within a month or so. So, I obsessively looked for a way out of the disease. Turns out the DM didn't expect this--he didn't even know that was a rule--but he went with it and we found a way to a cure.

The point is I understood that this was a part of the AD&D world, and accepted it. I went with it
based on the magical biology I understood to be at work within the world. I also had to accordingly accept the fact that I might fail and that it meant the end for my character. I see save or die poison, petrification, level drain, ability drain and other extreme dangers a part of the AD&D world as well. I mean, sure a DM can write them out of his or her world, but just because they choose not to, doesn't mean that your DM is trying to screw you over. The world is a dangerous place, and you may be a hero, or at least trying to become one, but you are not invincible.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

AD&D as a Uniquely Gygaxian Toolbox

Don't go Vampire Hunting without your ToolBox ...
And you can't  play AD&D without your Gygaxian ToolBox

AD&D is often seen as a restrictive and rules heavy version of the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Admittedly, later editions (even 2e) make AD&D look like the cliff notes to D&D, a lot like )e looked when first compared with 1e. But without argument AD&D was certainly an increase in volume of paper and rules over the original version of the game. The real question is: why?

How was this new game supposed to be played? Anecdotal evidence gives us ample proof that Gary rarely played AD&D with all of the rules, and like most of the old guard actually preferred playing in a manner closer to the original edition plus supplements, see Mentzer, Kask, et al. The three most popular clones of AD&D seem to be Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, Swords & Wizardry Complete, and Castles & Crusades. All of which are lite versions of AD&D that more closely mimicking the 3 little brown books plus supplements than actual AD&D. OSRIC is the exception, and can be played (as I have done) as a game in itself when the books are not readily available to your players. But OSRIC is not a popularly played version, especially since the AD&D books are now so readily available. It tends to be used as a supplement production base.

And it seems to those I have been talking to about the matter here and there on the internet, and among gamers I know off the internet, that the preferred way to play AD&D is with a selective use of the rules and some houserules. In other words not with the by the book rules as written. Now, I've written before about this. I never played AD&D rules as written early on either--in fact I never have. But, as you can tell from this year's posts, I have felt a desire to do so more than before. This is a perspective that I have developed as I have tried to come to grips with what AD&D is and where it "fits" in the overall scheme of D&D generally.

I mean why play AD&D if you are not going to use the rules? And what about all those injunctions that the DM should remember the rules are guidelines and ruling are important? That "The DM only rolls the dice because of the sound they make," and other such nebulous comments? Well, and the dragon articles I have quoted in recent posts make clear, that D&D suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in the late 70's. I would love to believe Gary had a distinct grand vision in mind with the development of AD&D, but having listened to Tim Kask and his commentaries on how the AD&D and Basic lines developed it is clear that it was a lot more haphazard and slapdash than we might want to think. Much of AD&D, and the Dungeon Masters Guide is most clearly representative of this, were notes and resources Gary had come across, developed and dreamed up for his campaign and play and for the game generally that made it into the DMG as appendices. Much of the rules, when you take the time to read them, are laced with that strange cant we call Gygaxian delivering justifications of why things are the way they are, what Gary's thinking was when he made some of the choices he did and equivocations about applying certain ideas and rules to the game. Monster race characters in the DMG comes to mind here, as do allowing characters to start at levels above level one. Both sections are equivocal about which way to take this, and sort of discourage it, but say if you do choose to do so, then this is how you could handle it. And Gary himself, when approached about rules questions, like the infamous answer of how invisibility really worked, was prone to default to answers like "Umm, by magic." And again the extremely helpful Mr. Kask also makes clear that alot of time Gary would listen to some request to solve some deep problem with the rules or that the rules didn't cover, and then pause and ask the questioner, "How did you handle it?" After which he would listen carefully and thoughtfully and say something like, "that sounds really good to me, I don;t know that I would have handled it any differently." In other words, it wasn't the rules so much for Gary as it was the game.

Now, none of this is new for most people. But the question comes up again, why play this then if most of the rules and options can be safely ignored? Or even worse if the rules don't really "matter", at least not in the way we might have once thought. Well, I have two ideas, and they aren't revolutionary in any great way, and only one of them makes good sense.

  1. AD&D is a toolbox

This is the idea that spawned the title of this post. AD&D up through Unearthed Arcana, and the Survival Guides not to mention the Dragon magazine articles and the like created a vast tool box to use within the game. But even if you limit yourself to the three canonical works of DMG, MM, and PHB, you can still see them as a tool box of rules to use as needed to build the kind of AD&D world you want. There is nothing wrong with not using some tools or with bringing in new tools, as long as they worked to build the kind of game and world you and your players wanted. This seems to be most people's approach to AD&D. This is the tack that games like C&C took, and their DMG is advertized as just that, a large toolbox of ideas you can choose to implement or ignore altogether. In fact, you don't need the C&C DMG at all to play their game. It is that modular in design. The simple and complete design of the game is contained in the PHB. AD&D didn't do that, and you really can't run the game without a DMG, or at least a DM's screen with the attack and saving throw tables. But this doesn't really get at why one would choose this toolbox over other toolboxes. Undoubtedly the game is a tool box, but it's not just a toolbox.

     2. AD&D is uniquely Gygaxian

Here is where the real argument comes in. AD&D is the only uniquely Gygaxian game out there. Well, I mean Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventures also have a strong Gygaxian flavor, but they are hurt by trying too hard to not be D&D for reasons not critical to the discussion here. If you are going to play Gygaxian D&D you can only do it with AD&D. And sure, a person could be so "in-tune" with the Gygaxian muse that they are able to make their campaign unmistakably Gygaxian despite the rules system they are using, but most of us rely to some extent on the words of the master in guiding our game to fall within his flavor of game style. I wrote about Gygaxian some posts ago, and tried to make the point on at least part of what this style of play encompassed, but whatever you might think it is, it is enshrined in one game--AD&D. And though AD&D is a tool box of sorts, it is a uniquely Gygaxian one. It is the only Gygaxian toolbox that exists. Other supplements and articles to one degree or another express this quality, and other early D&D designers write in this vein, but we have to be judicious with what we consider Gygaxian and what we don't. We also liekwise have to be careful with what we allow in and what we don't if we want to hew at least somewhat closely to the Gygaxian style of fantasy. And if we choose AD&D as our base we are already 75% of the way there. And moreover, this toolbox is the turn of first resort that we look to when we have a question or uncertainty about the rules. Sure we make rulings instead of rules, that too is the Gygaxian ethos, but then afterwards we research and look to see what if anything the rules have to say about this. And even if we don;t find something, we are steeped further into the Gygaxian tone as we search and our rulings tend to be flavored with the spirit of the game. Our players search through them as well, and strategize, plan and create within those same Gygaxian rivers of thought. In this way the game stays ultimately Gygaxian and keeps the tradition, and in a very real way Mr Gygax himself, alive. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Gaming: How Much is Too Much?

A recent critical article about addiction to MMORPGs got me to thinking. Well, honestly it first ticked me off considerably. Anything that aims some nouveau criticism at RPGs by any stripe always raises my ire. This is the kind of stuff we dealt with in the 80's with D&D. It's just that the Satanic abuse craze has been replaced with the codependent/ADHD personality, I'm causing my kid to be screwed up stage. This psychological mumbo-jumbo is the same quackery that told us violence in cartoons made kids more violent. Uh, wrong! The problem has always been that it takes decent research about a decade to address the half baked sensational claims thrown around.

"My Son is Addicted to MMOs!" Makes a much better headline than No direct correlation exists between increase in addictive behaviors and MMOs. The fact is you can be addicted to anything. Chocolate, Sex, TV News, Double Ply Toilet Paper, Pornography, Texting, Church Choir, Internet Surfing, Booger Picking, Zit Popping, Monday Night Football, Cow Tipping, Hair Pulling as well as Video Games. Let's face it humans are an addictive species. Addiction is a complex human trait and not easily pigeon-holed. But true addiction is rare. Just look at all the people who drink alcohol and those that are actually alcoholics. Approximately 1.2% of America is known to be alcoholic while 54% of America self report drinking on a monthly basis. Sure, some factors are more addictive than others, and a few are highly addictive. Just as some people are biologically more prone to develop addiction than others. But condemning a substance/activity on the grounds of addiction is a highly charged accusation.

The Addiction Center lists the five most addictive substances known as:

  1. Heroin
  2. Alcohol
  3. Cocaine
  4. Barbituates
  5. Nicotine
We are all in agreement that there are substances that are harmful, such as those listed above, that rarely have sufficient reasons to even use, with the possible exception of alcohol. That being said, food itself, which we are evolutionarily geared to seek out, can provide a reward/satisfaction response akin to drugs, especially those which provide high carbohydrates. This makes even cookies, candy, soda, and breads potentially addictive. Let alone substances like caffeine, which have stimulant properties which also cause an addiction response in us biologically. 

However, sometimes the very act of eating itself, and not necessarily the food being eaten, can be addictive. This is called compulsive eating, and falls into what are commonly called behavioral addictions. Behavioral addictions are non-drug activities or behaviors that we engage in that can be addictive. These kinds of behaviors are sometimes called natural rewards. Doesn't sound nearly as ominous when framed in this way, does it? However, another key component of behavioral addiction is that we engage in these activities and behaviors regardless of the consequences to our well being socially, psychologically or financially. In other words, the definition of addiction is doing something compulsively or obsessively without regards to other aspects of our life.

This is the real stop light we should heed. How much is too much? Well, if these behaviors are having a negative impact on some critical factor in our life, our family, our marriage, our schoolwork, our job, or our financial stability, just to name a few then we have become addicted and it is something we need to seek control over.

But can we say that something like MMO's or video games, or the internet is "more" addicitve than other substances or as addictive as other substances. Well, there is a way to make these comparisons, but it is helpful to understand why things become addictive in the first place. Addiction is generally a reward response involving the neurochemicals in the body, like dopamine, that become involved in the learning-motivation pathways. Basically put, very basically in fact, our brain realizes some pleasure and learns that that thing is good because it gives us pleasure and we want and therefore seek out more pleasure through the thing that provided the pleasure in the first place. We can easily see these sorts of pathways building in response to drugs, and behaviors like sex, food and exercise. However, are we dealing with the same thing in video games?

To a degree, yes. But the learned behavior for reward seeking is complex as is the stimulation response that occurs to things like interaction with the internet and video games. I will admit however, especially with online games, there is a ratio of difficulty to reward, frequency of reward and the programming of games to get people playing and keep them playing. Such a calculus also figures into in game purchases required to continue the stimulus response behavior. There are also factors like visual stimulation, and rate of change to visual/cognitive content that is carefully paced to retain attention. And the bottom line is that there are a lot of powerfully rich companies involved in making sure they get and keep our attention and reward us just enough, but not too much, to keep us playing and interested. In this way yes, video-games and their interactive cousins MMOs can be engineered even to provide a potentially addictive response in some people, and develop these responses in those not so strongly inclined.

However, like many addictions, some are predisposed to display addictive behavior regardless of the mode of addiction. Others are much less inclined. No matter how much I've really wanted to "get into" video games, for example, I just get tired of them after about 15 minutes or so. I'll come back to them, but they just don't quite do it enough for me to become addicted. Others, I'm sure, are very different. I also have drunk alcohol in the past, but it never really turned my crank. I rarely have the desire to drink either and in fact am a non-drinker now. However, I also used to smoke about 25 or more years ago. I quit when I was about 23. However ... I still dream about cigarettes, I still crave cigarettes occasionally, and love the smell of cigarette smoke. And I don't consider myself particularly prone to addiction.

So, addiction it is not a simple issue. It is very real, and something to be aware of in our lives. Anything can become addictive. Whether one thing is more addictive than other, depends on a number of factors and again is a complex issue. I am not however, one who believes we should jettison all things that could become addictive, or even be afraid of them. For instance, if we are going to get down on MMOs or video games for being potentially addictive, let's get down on Sex and chocolate as well. And we've all been down that road :-) The fact is, if anything is interfering with your life negatively, evaluate yourself and that thing. Make choices and strive for balance.

The Next Hack

A few posts ago, I put up some ideas I had for rendering 5e old school. For some context, I've been running a 5e game for about two years now. We are on our second campaign. The first was mostly a homebrew campaign based around a meg-dungeon of my own creation called Broken Finger. I had started detailing some of that campaign way back then, but never got around to finishing my campaign journal on this blog. We finished that campaign with the characters at about 8th level. Recently, we shifted eastward on my world to a different section of the kingdoms and I ran Phandelver as an intro to a Slaver's campaign. I found I was having a hard time keeping up with the demands of campaign creation and decided to shift to a pre-fab module from 5e (Phandelver) and then to a series converted from 1e to 5e (A1 - 4, The Slaver Series). We have just finished Phandelver, which took longer than I had realized. I relied a lot on Forgotten Realms (not my favorite campaign setting) locales, which worked since I have a region in my world that is very similar. The characters are now level four and creeping up on level five--perfect for the slavers difficulty level.

By now, however, I have become somewhat disillusioned with several aspects of 5e. I could probably boil my primary dissatisfaction with the game to two factors:

  1. The power level of the PCs
  2. The concept of Bounded Accuracy
Now, to be fair the two are entertwined, but they are not the same thing. In my head I imagine WoTC statisticians crunching numbers involving complex, multi-variable statistical analyses on what factors contribute to player power versus monster power and encounter difficulty and coming up with what they consider their ideal sweet spot. Yes, I'm overly imaginative like that. In reality it's probably a much more nuanced and flexible design process whereby a combination of play experience and back of the envelope calculations lead to a general idea of play-ability according to their various design goals. 

One of those design goals was obviously to achieve a less restrictive system feel and give players options to customize. One of the things I have never been very happy about was the power creep that has been going on since 1976 with Greyhawk and Blackmoor. So, in a way one could say D&D has always been dealing with power creep, and that would be a valid argument, but I also feel there has been a constant struggle with balance and feel that argument could be just as valid. Let's face it, the original game was brutal. I personally like it, and I only experienced it with AD&D until about two years into playing I actually got a copy of and read the DMG to find out there was an assumption, even by Gary, that PCs should have better than average stats and needed to be "exceptional". I still recall being blown away by that and running to tell my best friend and gaming buddy, unsure even then if it was legitimized "cheating" to play this way! We were still playing 3d6 straight down the line and if you rolled a one on you HP, it was a 1 sucker, deal with it. We actually kept playing with that last rule for a long time. I also recall being shocked that Gary approved of a less than zero kill level (players being able to go below zero before dying). 

So, the game was brutal, lots of PCs died, players thought that sucked, so we amped up player power and put off death. This endless cycle continues not in one definite direction, though player power has increased to the levels of 4e, we have backed off some in 5e. The difference now, is that the basic assumption of the formula has changed. I have to wonder if this was due to WotC seeing this and the need for developing some end to this cycle. Hence we have bounded accuracy. 

Now, I have some idea of what they said bounded accuracy was supposed to be, but basically, mechanically, this is what it achieved. Characters didn't really get "better" at doing most things very quickly. Proficiency bonuses replaced levels as a measure of skill, and level became indicative of toughness (HP) and range of options (spells and class abilities). Accordingly, a 4th level PC can't really hit anything more easily than a 1st level PC, but the 4th level character has more stuff he can do and more hit points. Which leads to the second thing, that it is a lot less important how "powerful" (as in CR) a foe PCs are up against and much more important how many of them there are.  The real determiner of difficulty is how many attacks are we dealing with as a party. If there are 4 PCs of 4th level they each have usually one attack each which is four attacks available per round. Set them against 8 kobolds that is a huge challenge because there are 8 attacks versus four. Which is where player power comes into consideration. Generally the game is amped up damage wise so that monsters and players are both doing more damage per attack and monsters, even low level monsters, can often do decent damage with an attack. So in the above scenario if we say average damage per attack for the players is 7 HP they can deal 28 HP of damage per round, while the kobolds with an average of say 6 dmg per attack can deal 48 per round. Keeping in mind that kobolds can hit about as well as 4th level PCs that makes for s serious problem since most PCs are going to have an average of 36 HP at 4th level. 

Now, this new idea of bounded accuracy has been touted as a great thing, since it keep monsters that are typically relegated to the nuisance heap in earlier editions are now still relevant in 5e,just up their number. The problem, of course, has been that the reverse is also true. Through a difficult monster up against the same group, say a basilisk, and the encounter can become pitifully underpowered on the monster's side. Especially since many of the iconic abilities of the monsters in 5e have been nerfed so much as to make them much less of a threat. The poor basilisk now can only petrify you magically, an effect that ends as soon as you make a DC 12 Con check, and even then can be reversed by a restoration spell that most Cleric's refuse to go without. At least what I have found is that though such an encounter is nothing to sneeze at, unless there is more than one basilisk, or some lackeys to back her up she will likely be relatively easy meat for a decently healthy party of 4. 

The other thing I have found is that most 5e encounter builders are exceedingly undernourished strength wise. I've used several and have been displeased with all of them. Some used the balance rules as written in the rules, others use, I assume, their own tweaked metrics. None have I found build a solidly reliable encounter based on desired difficulty. This general approach can  be mitigated by assuming some old school ethos in our adventure and campaign building. I have sort of reached a balance myself and now "have a feel" for the edition to know about what kind of power level I am going to need to challenge my players. I am not fond of allowing PCs to wade through battle after battle, challenge after challenge (what happened to save or die?!) until eventually they need to recharge spells to carry on. I also have not found the healing rules acceptable--but I can go into that another time.

Now, to be fair, 5e itself does give some advice in the DMG as to how to deal with all these issues based on the kind of game you want to play. And I am as sensitive as the next guy in knowing that players don;t want to feel as if their are entering a meat grinder every time they step outside of the city gate. Contrary to what it may appear, I am not a killer GM. We have had one death, count it, one, in a total of 13 characters. Not counting the NPC hireling who bit it before they reached level 3. But I am looking for a slightly more authentic feel, and little less superhero to my game. In other words I'm willing to make compromises. The document below is my first attempt to do that. This was penned at the start of our current campaign about 4 months ago. It is my first draft, and I am already rewriting it. I've tried to drop in several of these rules and they haven't worked too well, as I wrote before. But I am tweaking them some, and making them easier to understand and play. Feel free to take a look and beg, borrow, steal or barf on them as you will. Ideally I would like to shift to a more 1e game overall, but if I can get these to work and keep tweaking, I may be able to fee more satisfied if we continue playing Next. 

Oh, and a word on the name. Obviously we know where Next comes from. The Hack part is a three part metaphor, for hacking the current system I'm playing, and drawing inspiration from the Hackmaster system, and Hack & Slash as in making the system more gritty, dangerous and exciting. Let me know what you think. I'll be posting a revised draft sometime soon. 

GDoc for the Next Hack

Matt Finch is Awesome!

Another great Youtube find recently was Matt Finch's new channel in which he covers all things Swords and Wizardly. He has done a basic What Is S&W, and some coverage of various Frog God releases compatible with S&W. I particularly like the background on some of the campaign related material for the realms in which the adventures are being produced. It not only intrigued me but also spiked my interest in the setting and the depth of roleplay they were building into adventures like Rogues in Rembalo. For anyone who thinks old school is just about generic dungeon crawls should really check the out Rogues as well as the other products coming out of Frog God.

Also, Matt has produced three awesome videos on the OGL and the SRD. Now Matt is a lawyer, but he makes clear what he is giving is not legal advice, rather a hopefully in depth overview of what the OGL is, how it works, and how you should proceed working with it. I found this very helpful. Not only do we have someone with legal understanding and knowledge, we have an actual game developer telling us how to proceed if we should wish to take advantage of the license. I know that one of my main reasons for halting when I've though of sharing my content under this is an obstacle that has held me back, among others :-) I found the presentation direct, easy to understand, and useful and applicable to putting out content with the license. It has also made me aware of some of the inevitable pitfalls that, if not avoided, could lead to an unhappy outcome.

Lastly, just want to put out there that it is great to have luminaries like Matt putting themselves out there to help us common folk. Yes, some could say it just helps their production efforts. I personally am just fine with that. Matt has put out some cool stuff and it is people like him the rest of us often look to in helping us keep the old school relevant and alive. Thanks again, Matt. Also: please go by and check out his channel, give his videos a like if you find them neat, and subscribe. As evidently this has a lot to do with your Youtube presence. The more likes and subscribers you get the more Youtube caters to your needs. Support these avenues or they disappear.

WoTC Survey

WoTC is asking for responses to an online survey to determine product interest. You may not be a wizbro fan, but they are offering to give 0e and 1e players a voice and in game preference. At least they are asking which edition you prefer ... But, most importantly, you can vote for Greyhawk!!!! If you do nothing else, do this.

Of course, ever since I voted and closed the survey I've been a bit conflicted. I mean I would rather that someone else have the license to GH, and frankly to 0e and 1e as well. But that's not going to happen. And frankly any new exposure and material for Greyhawk is a good thing in my eyes. So, even in a conflicted state, I urge you: Vote!