Monday, April 30, 2012

RPG Review: Adventurer Conqueror King System

One of the more interesting D&D variants to come out of late is Autarch LLC's Adventurer Conqueror King System (henceforth referred to as ACKS).

At its core, ACKS, like many other variants of D&D, uses the d20 System Reference Document to recreate the flavor of a specific version of the D&D game. In the case of ACKS, the version in question is the D&D Basic and Expert sets with a touch of the Companion set thrown in.

As I've grown older I've had to remember that shorthand like referring to various versions of D&D may not be as illuminating to gamers who have never played those games as it is to old-timers like me. So what were the D&D Basic and Expert games like, with the 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e rules for comparison.

D&D Basic and Expert Overview

To begin, the Basic and Expert ("B/X") rules make use of the same stats as D&D 3.5 and 4e. However, the expectation is you will roll 3d6 and assign them in order for all your stats. Bonuses and penalties are a little bit different than those found in 3.x/4e:

Rating Bonus/Penalty Rating Bonus/Penalty
3 -3 13-15 +1
4-5 -2 16-17 +2
6-8 -1 18 +3
9-12 0

D&D B/X makes use of four basic classes, fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief. Non-humans, or "demi-humans" are their own unique classes. Dwarfs are essentially fighters with some racial abilities thrown in. Halflings are also similar to fighters, with additional abilities with stealth and throwing. Elves are a combination of fighter and magic-user. The demi-human classes are limited in how high a level they can reach - in B/X halflings were limited to 8, dwarfs to 10, and elves to 12 while the human characters could conceivable go as high as 36th! (This caused all sorts of issues which supplements tried to address to prevent topped out demi-humans from becoming useless.) The D&D Basic rules covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14. Originally the Companion rules were to cover 15-36 but when released it covered 15-25 and the Masters set covered 26-36. However, it was a long time between the release of the Expert and Companion rules, leading to many people to gain a preference for B/X play with 14 as the level cap - and this is the level cap that ACKS uses.

D&D B/X did not make use of things like feats and skills, though later supplements (such as the various Gazetteer books, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, etc.) added weapon mastery (a form of weapon specialization and feats) and a very primitive skill system. Again, D&D B/X used none of these.

D&D B/C had three alignments, Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. This was very much in keeping with Moorcock's Eternal Champion saga, one of the deficiencies in my readings that I'll need to remedy at some point. Chaotic was usually, but not always, considered "evil" while Lawful was typically "good".

D&D B/X used a descending armor class system - 9 was the worst armor class ("AC"), with lower ACs being better. It used a series of several saving throw types that were eventually consolidated into Fortitude, Reflex, and Will with D&D 3.0/3.5.

Like D&D 3.0/3.5, magic-users (wizards in 3.0/e.5) and clerics had to prepare their spells in advance and their spells would be forgotten after casting. Thieves made tests of their abilities by rolling percentile dice, with starting thieves having pretty horrific chances (a 1st level thief, with his d4 hit points, was a character to pity, even more than the 1st level magic-user).

ACKS Overview

With our basic background of D&D B/X in place, let us now explore the actual ACKS book and see what we see and what we think of it.

To begin with, I have both the hardcover and PDF version of the book. The book is illustrated with black and white art throughout and is about 270 pages long. There is a nice index int back of the book. The PDF has lots of PDF links within it, including at the place where the physical table of contents is. This is very nice, but one annoyance is there is not a separate table of contents accessible via bookmarks - you need to go to the page representing the physical table of contents or index in order to be able to jump to the page you want - this is a little bit of an annoyance.

In terms of tone, ACKS is very well written but is very clearly a rules-manual, staying very matter of fact. It isn't boring but rather it is to the point without a ton of color.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction to this book is farily typical for RPG books, discussing dice, abbreviations, basic concepts, etc.

Chapter 2: Characters

As might be expected this section details the creations of ACKS characters. It is similar to the character creation of B/X though the character class options have changed.

The core classes remain fighter, cleric, mage, and thief. Each of these characters has a template (more are included in the forthcoming Players' Companion) which provides a shortcut for starting proficiencies (see Chapter 4), equipment, spells, etc.

Fighters have the best combat abilities and also get a bonus to the damage they do. Mages cast arcane spells which will be discussed further in the Magic chapter. Clerics have access to divine magic and can turn undead. Thieves have access to special Thief Skills tested by rolling a d20 vs. a target number which decreases as character level increases.

All of the core classes are limited to 14th level. As characters reach 9th level they may construct strongholds and gain followers.This is an important part of the game, as ACKS assumes that higher level characters will aspire to leadership positions. They aren't required to but there is clear benefit in doing so.

Beyond the four classes there are campaign classes. These are essentially variants of the bases classes, with more in the Players' Companion (which also includes rules for making new classes). The campaign classes are:
  • Assassin - considered here a variant on fighters
  • Bard - a thief variant
  • Bladedancer - a cleric variant for priestesses of the goddess of war
  • Explorer - Another fighter variant that resembles rangers
Finally there are demi-human classes. Unlike B/X each race has access to more than one demi-human class. The classes are limited in level, though this level limit is not as much a hindrance as it was in D&D with the Companion and Masters rules. The demi-human classes are:
  • Dwarven Vaultguard - a dwarven fighter class, limited to level 13
  • Dwarven Craftpriest - a dwarven cleric class, limited to level 10
  • Elven Spellsword - an elven fighter/mage combination class, limited to level 10
  • Elven Nightblade - an elven thief/mage combination, designed to specialize in the fine art of murder. Limited to level 11.
The Players' Companion has more demi-human classes, though amusingly, none for halflings. It seems the makers of ACKS has something against halflings, though they do appear in the monster list.

Chapter 3: Equipment

As one might expect, a list of adventuring gear. This chapter also includes rules for hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, and specialists. Similar to the original B/X and AD&D games, it is expected that players will make extensive use of hiring help.

Chapter 4: Proficiencies

Here we come to something that is new to ACKS. Characters have access to general and class-specific proficiencies.Characters start with 1 general proficiency (modified by Intelligence modifier) and gain another every 4 levels. They also start with 1 class-specific proficiency, gaining others at varying rates dependent upon class.

Proficiencies are kind of a cross between feats and skills. Some give you bonuses to certain types of actions. For example, diplomacy gives a +2 to reaction rolls when the character attempts to parley. There are others which give access to new abilities, such as Familiar, Lay on Hands, Prophecy. 

I find the Proficiencies a nice addition to the game. They are nowhere near as complicated (or important) as feats or skills from D&D 3.0 and beyond but they provide a nice way to make characters of the same class more distinguishable from one another.

Chapter 5: Spells

At first glance this chapter resembles the list of spells that can be found in the B/X rules. However, a closer examination shows this is one of the concepts from the D&D game which has undergone some rethinking. In ACKS, a character does not memorize or forget spells like he does in D&D B/X. Rather he has a repertoire of spells.These are a list of spells for each level that he cast his spells from. He still has a limited number of spells per day for each level he can cast, but he does not need to select a subset of his repertoire.

For casters of divine spells, such as clerics and bladedancer, the repertoire is the entire list of spells of a given level that are in their class list. The default cleric and bladedancer lists are slightly different from one another, much like how in AD&D the cleric and druid have different spell lists.

The arcane casters, such as the mage and the elven spellsword, have access to the same list of spells. An arcane casters repertoire consists of the number of spells he can cast per day of that level plus a bonus equal to his Intelligence bonus. This bears some resemblance to the sorcerer of D&D 3.0/3.x, though in those games the sorcerer can typically has a small list of spells known (i.e. his repertoire). It is possible for an arcane caster to have access to spells beyond his repertoire - i.e. having access to spellbooks with more arcane spells per level then can be fit into his repertoire. In such cases it is possible, through an expense of time and money, to swap spells out the repertoire and replace them with new ones. The game explains this by stating an arcane caster can properly monitor the various conditions, taboos, etc. for only so many spells at a given time and swapping spells in and out of the repertoire involves neglecting such conditions for some spells and focusing/researching the conditions for the new spells.

Overall I find this a nice change. It gives your 1st level mage access to a few spells at the beginning of play and allows him to choose which one will be of most utility It still preserves the image of the mage in his tower pouring over his spellbooks and deciding which spells to make use of in a given adventure.

One additional change in ACKS from B/X D&D is that higher level spells never become a part of a caster's repertoire. Rather they are learned through lengthy rituals. If a caster wishes to have access to these in the midst of an adventure he would do so by preparing a scroll or similar item to be able to cast the spell from that source.

Chapter 6: Adventures

Here we get to the nuts and bolts of the rules. The Adventures chapter has, unsurprisingly, the rules for going on adventures. It has rules for underground and wildnerness movement, encounter distances, rules for getting lost, etc. These are the types of rules that appeared in the B/X rules and their lack of inclusion in Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG was one of my few disappointments with that game. So their presence here was clearly welcome.

This is also the home of the rules for combat. The rules are quite similar to those that could be found in the B/X rules with some interesting additions made such as:
  • Spellcasters much declare their intention to cast prior to rolling for initiative (which is rolled every round)
  • When a character downs an opponent, depending on class he may have the option to take a cleave action - basically a free attack against a nearby foe. And fighters can keep on cleaving...
  • When brought to 0 hit points a character must roll on a Mortal Wounds table when someone tries to heal him to see if he can be brought back and if so, with what consequences.
  • When being raised from the dead a character must make a roll on a table to see if the gods allow the character back and if so, with what consequences.
I think the additions to the B/X combat rules are useful. They add some unpredictability, while also providing additional chances for survival.

Like B/X D&D combat is not grid-based, though nothing would prevent you from using miniatures in your games.

Chapter 7: Campaigns

If Chapter 6 was a guide to "tactical" action, this is a more strategic. It begins with familiar concepts such as magic item creation. Magic item creation has a set cost, much like D&D 3.x rules, but taking a page from AD&D 1e and D&D B/X typically involves some odd ingredients that require harvesting of icky monster parts.

The bulk of this chapter is about the various strongholds that characters can make upon reaching 9th level. This is reminiscent of the options in the D&D Companion rules, but handled in a different manner.

The default is for characters to rule over their own domains, with rules for populations, resources, morale, stronghold costs, etc. Characters can expand their domains by having their henchmen rule over other domains on their behalf - and when maximum number of henchmen is reached, those characters can have their own lieutenants ruling domains on their behalf. Characters with high Charisma will be quite happy with their ability to have a higher number of henchmen.

Mages can rule over domains as well but they also may wish to create their own monster-infested dungeon to make getting those icky magic item components easier. This attracts adventurers and may require an additional expense in guards to protect the citizens of the domain - failing to do so will make the peasants quite unhappy - giving me visions of the classic peasant mob armed with torches and pitchforks.

Thieves and assassins have the option creating hideouts.This allows the creation of thief and assassin guilds with rules on judging the success of various escapades and the profit that can be realized them. And as they advance such characters can try to take over rival guilds - or perhaps convince them to join.

Yeah, let's talk business, Mike. First of all, you're all done. The Corleone Family don't even have that kind of muscle anymore. The Godfather's sick, right? You're getting chased out of New York by Barzini and the other Families. What do you think is going on here? You think you can come to my hotel and take over? I talked to Barzini - I can make a deal with him, and still keep my hotel! 
- Moe Green, The Godfather

Chapter 8: Monsters

This is a pretty straightforward monster chapter, focusing on the types of monsters originally found in D&D B/X, with some new monsters that bear some resemblance to monsters not found in the d20 SRD, but with different names and tweaks.

The monster illustrations are black silhouettes - to be honest I haven't decided if this is a style I like or not.

Chapter 9: Treasure

High-level characters in ACKS have on of the more amusing excuses to go on adventurers, as their treasurer approaches them and warns them the vault is empty. "M'lord, perhaps you could vanquish the dragon and place his gold in the treasury..."

Beyond treasure in cash (which ACKS characters will probably want, even at higher levels), there is a fairly familiar list of magic items. You've got your potions, your magic rings, your magic weapons and armor (which seem to cap out around +3), etc. Like the Monsters chapter, what we've here got will be familiar to those with older versions of D&D.

Chapter 10: Secrets

This is primarily a chapter for Judges (hey another game which uses that term), though there's nothing in it that will ruin the game for Players.

The bulk of this chapter is about creating a setting. The recommendation is to create a campaign map using a hexmap with 24-mile hexes along with regional map using 6-mile hexes.

With that as a starting point, this chapter has rules for demographics, determining starting cities, trade routes, etc. 

Chapter 10 also has guidelines on creating encounters, wilderness and dungeon procedures, encounter tables, etc. As I mentioned earlier, I like finding this sort of guidance - it's the sort of thing one could ignore if desired but it is nice to see.

Finally there is a miscellaneous section with lots of ruling guidance on items like lycanthropy, aging, etc. 

Overall Impression

There's a lot to like here. As I've stated earlier in this blog, I like games that take older versions of D&D as their starting point and do their own thing with them. A game of ACKS would be easily playable by someone familiar with most versions of D&D but it clearly breaks out in its own directions in many areas, both major and minor.

The tweaks to B/X classes are nice as they allow for a nice variety of classes, especially with the addition of Proficiencies. I mentioned that the Player's Companion has additional classes, including rules for creating your own classes. It isn't officially out yet though those who pre-order it can gain access to the current draft of the Player's Companion.

The tweaks to magic make lower level spellcasters more useful and fun at lower levels and I suspect it would greatly reduce bookkeeping at higher levels.

You're going to need that reduced bookkeeping though. One thing I'm a little undecided on is the emphasis on domains, hideouts, etc. If this is what you want out of high level play then those rules are wonderful. For example, they would be excellent at handling games like Robert E. Howard's Conan (who became a king later in life), George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Andre Norton's Witch World, etc. In those books our heroes range from people ruling over kingdoms down to their lowliest soldier. Indeed ACKS suggests one could run a campaign featuring characters of different levels of play, with the three default tiers being "Adventurer", "Conqueror", and "King" oddly enough. Back in the 1990s I ran an AD&D campaign along those lines which was quite enjoyable.

On the other hand, if you are looking for adventures like those of Jack Vance's Dying Earth or Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar you might find yourself ignoring a lot of the domain rules. Nevertheless I'm sure you could have an excellent game, especially if the tweaks I mentioned hold a lot of appeal to you.

One thing which is missing from the core ACKS book is rules for mass conflict - with characters ruling their own domains it is quite likely that armies will clash. Autarch indicates they will be releasing a supplement entitled Domains at War to cover that. The basic version of it will be free at their website while the deluxe version (which sounds like it will be more tactical) will be free to those who sponsored ACKS during its Kickstarter phase and available as a premium download for anyone who wishes to purchase it. This is something I hope they release soon as it will most certainly be required for most campaigns. 

The voice of the game is a bit more mundane than that of my previous review, Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC seemed like it wanted to grab you and shout PLAY!!!! MAGIC IS DANGEROUS!!! READ APPENDIX N!!!!  ACKS on the other hand is a little bit more subdued in its tone, giving the Judge tools to build his game. Both styles work fine and most importantly, the tone stays consistent. 

"Sandbox" games and "hexcrawls" are getting a lot of discussing in gaming forums and blogs of late. Could ACKS support this kind of game? Absolutely. As characters explore the wilderness and clear out dungeons and defeat vile beasts they will begin adventuring in areas without any homebases. Therefore the domains the characters establish can become the homebases for further adventure, perhaps encouraging adapting the multi-tiered play mentioned above with the higher level characters ruling their domains or similar concerns while other characters handle the more mundane stuff - though surely there will be some challenges most appropriate for the "big guns". This seems to mimic the play expected as far back as the original "white box" D&D which included rules for clearing out the wilderness.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my reading of ACKS. I can easily see running a game with this system - and even if I don't, it has tons of stuff worth raiding for other games. It reminded me a lot of the B/X game where I got my start in gaming but it also took its own direction. Its easily compatible with similar games so even if one weren't to use it as-is it still has lots of material which can be ported to other games.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Gaming with Black Leaf and Elfstar - D&D in the 80s

Excerpted from Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons for purposes of illustration

For those who entered the gaming hobby after the 80s it is difficult to imagine the impact D&D had on popular culture.

I first encountered the D&D game in elementary school - I believe I was in 5th grade, probably winter and spring of 1982 which would fit in with the 8th printing of the D&D Basic Set - the first magenta-boxed rules with the Erol Otus cover. To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for this version of the rules. At the time it was just beginning its upward swing in popularity - I purchased my copy of the rules in a Toys R Us.

Fall of 1983 had me entering the 7th grade and the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon going on the air. I didn't get to see too much of it as this coincided with Saturday morning soccer (no Tivo, VCR, or streaming...)

1983 was also the year that a revision to the Basic Set was released, the Red Box with the Larry Elmore cover. In my circles this version of D&D was extremely popular. Kids would play it in study halls, there would be D&D clubs in school, etc. I was something of a holdout, clinging to my magenta rules for the longest time, though I eventually gave in and also acquired the red box. I also remember we used to play a ton of Star Frontiers. There would be ads for D&D and Star Frontiers in all the kids magazines and comic books.

However during this golden age there was also controversy. Now to be honest, I was fortunate. I grew up in Connecticut, very far removed from the Bible Belt so for me the controversy was mainly something I caught on the news. I first learned about D&D from my neighbors, whose mother was a very conservative Catholic whom I can recall having no big problem with the game. It wasn't an issue for my more liberal parents either - the only time D&D would get me in trouble with my parents was when I'd spend too much time playing D&D and not enough time doing homework. However they were well aware that a game need not be a tool of Satan in order to distract a kid from his homework. It was (and is) one of many things that competed for a child's attention. (Heck, my parents were mainly glad playing D&D got me to socialize more.)

But you only had to turn on the television to see that there was controversy brewing. The most famous incident and possibly the spark that kicked the whole thing off was the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year old child prodigy attending Michigan State University. He went into steam tunnels on campus intending to commit suicide. The attempt was unsuccessful. After the failed attempt he went into hiding. A private-investigator concocted the theory that Egbert had entered the tunnels as part of a Dungeons & Dragons game. (He had not and indeed didn't even play it.) The media latched onto this and treated it as fact. Egbert was eventually recovered and brought home, though he eventually committed suicide by gunshot in 1980. The steam tunnel story never really went away and was used as the basis of Rona Jaffe's novel Mazes & Monsters about a player in her stand-in for D&D, "Mazes & Monsters", who lost his mind to the game. This was eventually made into a tv-movie starring... Tom Hanks!

The steam-tunnel controversy was minor, however, next to the religious attacks on D&D. In 1982, Irving Pulling, a high school student who played D&D, committed suicide. The mother, Patricia Pulling held Dungeons & Dragons directly responsible for his death. She filed suit against his high school principal (apparently blaming him for a "D&D curse" being placed on her son) and she also sued TSR, publishers of Dungeon & Dragons. Though the lawsuits were dismissed, she founded the organization BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) where she linked D&D to occultism, describing the game as "a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings." She achieved a great deal of success in her crusade, both in Christian media and in the mainstream media, appearing on 60 Minutes. (Gary Gygax appeared on that episode of 60 Minutes as well. My recollection of it was the interview with him was edited in an unfavorable way - which would not have been surprising, as a controversy about an evil game seducing our innocent children is great for the ratings.)

That brings us to our friend Jack Chick. Jack Chick is famous for his "Chick Tracts", short comics which show you the one true road to salvation (accepting Jesus as your personal savior) - failing to do this sends you to hell. (I'm triply damned per Jack Chick's standards, playing D&D, being a Catholic, and supporting same-sex marriage.) One of the more famous tracts is Dark Dungeons, which features two girls who are pulled away form Jesus by the evils of Dungeons & Dragons (their characters being named Black Leaf and Elf Star). One commits suicide and the other finds her way back to Jesus and burns her D&D books. While horrifying in both its ignorance and its offensiveness, this one tract has generated lots of satire. Chick also features articles about the evils of D&D at his website. For example:
Literally millions of young people are unknowingly participating in genuine occult practices and opening the doors for demons to enter their bodies through this seemingly innocent game.
By the time they find out they were hood-winked, it's too late. They have taken that last step down the stairway to hell and are greeted by the engulfing flames. 

While there have been some well-written defenses of D&D refuting these inaccurate charges (for example, Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman have both penned defenses of the game), TSR removed a number of these "offensive" elements from the 2nd edition of AD&D, removing elements like demons, devils, assassins, half-orcs, etc. Over time these elements all made their way back into the game as the media spotlight moved to other items like the dangers of the Mortal Kombat Nintendo game...

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Keys to the D&D Kingdom

Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, seems unlikely to give me the keys to their D&D kingdom, but some events in D&D-ville (Monte Cook leaving Wizards of the Coast, rumors of a reprint of 3.5 coming in September in addition to this summer's 1st edition reprints) along with some discussions in Google+ got me wondering what I'd do if they did..

Wizards of the Coast is in the process of preparing a 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I've not been overly engaged in the development process. Life's been busy with work and children and I have less time to follow such things than I did prior to the 3rd edition when I had no kids and less responsibilities at my job.

However, what I've gleaned thus far is one of the main objectives is to embrace all styles of play, from super-optimized character builds and very detailed tactical combat down to very simple character classes and non-tactical dungeon crawls with several encounters in a given game session. While I think their goal is laudable, I'm not certain it is practical. D&D 3rd edition represented a big break from its previous versions and D&D 4th edition was largely an entirely new game. This isn't to say those were bad games, rather it is to say that there may be just too much variety to accomplish what they are shooting for. I wish them well but I worry they are doing something close to designing something by committee - I keep visualizing "The Itchy & Scratchy and Poochie Show" from The Simpsons and fear that will be the end product.

So, now that Wizards of the Coast has given me the keys to the D&D Kingdom, what do I do with it? Now, I understand the objective is to make money. However, while I'd continue development on a 5th edition, I would not try to make it the grand unifying edition. I would determine who the audience for the game is and have developers make the best game they could for that audience. Obviously I'm going to need to use some market research to do so but at the same time my directive to my designers would be "do not try to please everyone". This is something I experience in my job as a software developer. I work in the storage industry (if you've ever wondered how data in "the cloud" is stored, the devices that allow it is what I help develop). The data storage product that is useful for a giant bank or a company the size of Amazon or eBay is not going to be the same product that a small business relies on.

So I'm making 5th edition to have the best appeal I can, but that means there are certain consumers I'm not capturing. This is where I take advantage of the huge legacy of old TSR products that Wizards of the Coast has the rights to. I go ahead and make the old products available again.

This needs to be done carefully. I don't simply make the PDFs that used to be available on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG/Paizo available again. Instead I take a page from White Wolf. White Wolf has pretty much its entire catalog of "Classic" World of Darkness products from the 90s and early 200s available again via download. Moreover they have worked to make certain the PDFs they provide are the best quality they can make, with selectable and searchable text, tables of contents, etc. Their products are all available via print on demand as well. I've made use of this and the books you receive are of comparable quality to the original versions.

Now if I'm re-releasing TSRs old catalogue I'm going to have the PDFs cleaned up. Some of the downloads that used to be available (before Wizards of the Coast decided the best way to avoid piracy of their books was to make it so there's no legal way to buy them digitally) were of extremely poor quality so this is going to require some investment to clean them up. Re-releasing them all at once would just be too expensive. Instead I release my back-catalog slowly. This gives me the chance properly market the back-catalog that is being made available again. Where possible I feature on the D&D website interviews with people who were involved in making the old products or, if that is not possible, articles on the impact those products had.

I also would produce "special editions" for some of the old product lines. Again, I'd take a page from White Wolf. For Vampire: The Masquerade's 20th anniversary they brought back the classic game in a new edition that was a "super-corebook" featuring the classic rules and as much material as could be fit in. I would occasionally do similar products for TSR's product lines. For example, there are a number of retro-clones in the style of the original (pre-AD&D)  D&D game. Wizards of the Coast owns the original D&D game. I would release a deluxe version of it, making it better organized with sidebars for various rules which were vague or poorly understood. For example, to this day there's some debate as to just what it meant for an elf to dynamically change class. I'd leave the rules as the were written with sidebars explaining various interpretations as to what this meant.

There is some concern about spreading oneself to thin. This is something TSR ran into in the 90s, supporting multiple settings which competed with each other. I believe this would be less of a danger when it comes to supporting a back-catalog - you don't need to pay for new research and development, you don't need to pay for a printer's costs up-front, and you don't need to risk producing more copies of a product than you need. This doesn't mean you can be careless - there will be an expense in cleaning up the old product and in making it available. This is why I would have it released slowly and would be careful about what sorts of "special editions" I would release - the goal is still to make money after all.

Keeping in mind this is a business, that does bring into question the problem of piracy. This is not an imaginary problem. I just did a Google search for "AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual pdf" and the first page of the results included several links to filesharing sites. One thing to keep in mind however - those pirated copies are already out there and Wizards of the Coast is making no money at all from them. So fear of piracy would not stop me from releasing these products.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the problem of piracy. I don't believe embedding the products with Digital Rights Management (DRM) would be an optimal solution. The biggest problem with it, in my opinion, is it is far too easy for pirates to crack while at the same time it provides a major inconvenience for your law-abiding customers. My inclination is that the best deterrent to piracy is going after those who pirate your products. This unfortunately means making an example out of people. I would therefore probably have in all of my products some sort of "publisher manifesto" explaining how this product is being released without DRM so as not to hinder its use by law-abiding consumers. I would also state that because of that the company would be extremely vigilant as to protecting its rights and going after those who illegally distribute the product, including to other members of the group. (I would also think that making discounts available to gaming groups who buy multiple copies of a book would be a good gesture towards law-abiding consumers).

So that's what I'd be doing with my keys to the D&D Kingdom. I hope it would make my company some money and also benefit the hobby. Though I'm an engineer, not a businessman. For all I know I've just driven the company straight into the ground and subjected my family name to disgrace for generations to come...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stephen King's The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

Cover art to the revised edition of the Gunslinger
"The man in black crossed the desert and the gunslinger followed." 
- Opening line to The Gunslinger

"You want to know about death. I left him a word. That word is NINETEEN. If you say it to him his mind will be opened. He will tell you what lies beyond. He will tell you what he saw. 
The word is NINETEEN.
Knowing will drive you mad.
But sooner or later you will ask,"

- Letter form the Walter o'Dim to Allie, The Gunslinger

"My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby."

- Opening lines of "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning

I first encountered The Gunslinger in my junior year of high school, in spring of 1988. I borrowed it from a friend though in short order I obtained my own copy from the local Waldenbooks as well as a copy of the only other Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three. It was in that year of school that I first discovered Stephen King, working my way through books like Pet Sematary, The Shining, and The Stand. I began reading It though truth to tell its thousand+ page length defeated me. Interestingly when I first tried reading It I was only a few years older than the protagonists were in the sections that featured them as children while when I finally read it again and in full I was about the age of the protagonists in the sections that featured them as adults.

But let us talk about The Gunslinger. It is a bit different from the other Dark Tower books which followed. While the other books in the series were all full novels The Gunslinger is a collection of five novellas dealing with the titular Gunslinger, far more often referred to as his title rather than his name, Roland, pursuing his nemesis, the man in black, Water o'Dim, a sorcerer who once served his father. There are two versions of The Gunslinger, the original (released in limited edition in 1982 and as a trade paperback in 1988) and the revised edition, released in 2003 to address inconsistencies in it with other books in the series. While there certainly were inconsistencies, I have a slight preference to its original version, though to be fair that may be due to its connection to my childhood.

For this review, I am going to discuss the individual novellas. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers and paint the plot in very broad strokes. One of the things I take away from The Gunslinger is its feel, its atmosphere.

"The Gunslinger"
Originally published in the October 1978 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The novella "The Gunslinger" is notable in the way it handles things in a reverse chronological order. It begins by introducing us to the gunslinger, pursuing the man in black across the desert - though really at this point we are at the fringes of the desert - still quite arid and dry, but not as deadly as the true desert which will follow. We don't know yet why he is following the man in black. He can't quite see the man in black but he does see signs that he is still on his trail - remnants of campfires for example.There was something appealing to me in visualizing the gunslinger in his pursuit. We don't know just how long he has been pursuing the man in black, Walter o'Dim, at this point, but we feel it has been a while. I picture the gunslinger a a very stolid figure at this point, trudging along, almost like one of the Terminators from the James Cameron movies. We can sense this is a man who does not give up early.

The gunslinger works his way to the hut of a farmer at the fringes of the true desert who had encountered the gunslinger's quarry. They talk and the gunslinger tells the tale of his passing through the town of Tull. In this tale he talks with the owner of the saloon in Tull, Allie, who in turn tells him of Walter o"Dim's visit to Tull.

His tale told, the gunslinger picks up his pursuit of the man in black.

As I mentioned above, the tales in The Gunslinger are for me about how they feel. This story feels very much like an American Western. We don't know much about the gunslinger beyond he is pursuing the Man in Black and he is quite deadly with his guns. We're getting hints of his world. It is a world that has "moved on". None of the characters he meets are able to give good estimates as to when any given event has taken place. Two weeks ago? Six weeks ago? Time is funny. There are hints of some disaster - we get suggestions of mutant animals people. There are suggestions that things were certainly better. There are hints this might be our world or somehow connected to it, with music that can be heard as well. And we get to see examples of magic, courtesy of the flashbacks to Walter o'Dim.

"The Way Station"
Originally published in the April 1980 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The gunslinger continues his pursuit of the man in black, nearly dying in the desert, barely making it to an abandoned way station. Though not so abandoned, as he encounters Jake Chambers, a boy from our world. The gunslinger learns of how Jake made the passage from our world to his own.

We also learn through flashbacks of the gunslinger Roland's childhood, as he and his friend Cuthbert made their first steps towards manhood.

This story is notable for establishing the first definitive link from Roland's world to our own, though there were hints of it in the previous tale. With this story our gunslinger seems a little bit human, someone with a past and a childhood.

We also learn more about Roland's world. We get the sense of how advanced the technology once was, with an "atomic slug" being used to power a water pump.

For those of us who are gamers "The Way Station" offers an excellent depiction of a ruin - the way station where the gunslinger meets Jake is very, very old. It is not sturdy and it has dark secrets that are revealed gradually. The way station itself is not very large but nevertheless we see how to get a lot of mileage out of a small location.

"The Oracle and the Mountains"
Originally published in the February 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

We finally leave the desert behind, entering into green lands for the first time in this book. We see more hints of magic as the gunslinger consults with an oracle demon and learns where he is headed. The oracle's prophecies give hints as to what is to occur in the next novel and, in the newer version of The Gunslinger, later.

Armed with prophecies we continue our journey in pursuit of the man in black.

"The Slow Mutants"
Originally published in the February 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

This is a tale which gave me the creeps as a teenager and still can put a shiver up my spine. The pursuit of the man in black takes us into tunnels underneath mountains. Days and days or darkness. It is an overused title, but King is indeed a master of horror and his skills are put to use here. I remember reading this in bed late at night. The light was bright above my bed but despite that I could feel the oppressive darkness.

Reading this book in the light I nevertheless found myself yearning for light.

And of course the darkness the gunslinger journeyed into was not empty.

During this tale we have more flashbacks where we learn more of Roland's childhood and how and why he faced his rite of passage to become a gunslinger.

"The Gunslinger and the Man in Black"
Originally published in the November 1981 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction as "The Gunslinger and the Dark Man"

Not to give anything away, but after an entire novel of pursuit the gunslinger reaches his quarry. This is one I cannot say much about without spoilers. It will suffice that we begin to understand just why the gunslinger was pursuing the man in black and we begin to understand what the "Dark Tower" is.

Overall Impressions

Most fans of the Dark Tower series consider this book a somewhat weak introduction to the series. I'm probably in something of a minority it that it is one of my favorite books, period. Don't get me wrong - the entire series is, in my opinion, well worth your time and the later books are clearly better written. The original version of The Gunslinger is very raw, written by a young man at the start of his career, one who while brilliant has not yet mastered his craft. The revised edition cleans it up a little but King felt, wisely in my opinion, that it was important to respect voice of the young man who began this series.

Did this book influence early D&D? No, it came to late for that? Did it influence my gaming? Most certainly. As someone who has only recently began deliberately seeking out books in the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide bibliography, it illustrated how to effectively tell a take on multiple words and with artifacts and people from one world crossing over into another.

In the previous fiction reviewed, Andre Norton's Witch World, we see similar concepts explored. There are several early  TSR products I can think of which embraced connections between the world of D&D and with our word and others. The 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide featured rules for making crossovers with Gamma World and Boot Hill. The famous Expedition to Barrier Peaks featured a spaceship, a smaller cousin of Metamorphosis Alpha's Warden. The World of Greyhawk featured the wizard Murlynd who bore a pair of Colt revolvers. Later books in the Dark Tower series deal with the importance and "reality" of fictional tales while AD&D featured adventures taking place in Lewis Carrol'ls Wonderland.

Beyond the connections between worlds introduced in The Gunslinger the atmosphere alone is worth taking note of, especially in The Slow Mutants. As we game in well-lit rooms it is easy to lose sight of what exploring a dark and hostile underworld labyrinth must be like. The Slow Mutants makes for great reading for anyone wanting to experience a depiction of a true descent into the depths of the Earth.

Does The Gunslinger bring anything new to the ideas I've mentioned above? I will preface my answer with my agreement with those who feel that the challenge in good fiction, whether for a novel or a game, is not in coming up with good ideas. It is in implementing those ideas. People had told westerns before, people had told tales of parallel worlds before. What King brings to the table with The Gunslinger is his unique mixture ideas and what he did with them. A lonely world that has moved on. A hero who, truth to tell, should frighten us at least a little. Horrors in the darkness. No one but King could have produced this tale.

Monday, April 23, 2012

RPG Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics

The intent of the Open Game License that Wizards of the Coast released with the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons was to encourage other publishers to support the D&D game with adventures, something they had viewed as less profitable than rule books.

Goodman Games, the creators of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG made good use of the Open Game License in this manner, producing a successful line of adventures in a line called "Dungeon Crawl Classics". They were designed to hearken back to the adventure modules released by TSR in the late 70s to mid 80s with their gatefold maps in blue and white, about 32-48 pages in length, with killer dungeons, treasures galore, and dragons at the bottom of the dungeon. They released products in this line for the 3, 3.5, and 4th editions of the D&D game as well as the occasional special 1st edition AD&D adventure.

What I imagine must have surprised Wizards of the Coast is the fact that publishers and independent authors determined it was possible to release their own complete rule books using the Open Game License.The first RPGs made in this manner tended to stay close to the D&D 3.0/3.5 rules but time brought the development of retro-clones - making use of the material available via the Open Game License to recreate older versions of Dungeons & Dragons. The first generation of these tended to deliberately mimic the feel of specific editions of rules. For example Swords & Wizardry clones the pre-AD&D "original edition" or 0e rules while Labyrinth Lord at its core clones the Basic and Expert D&D rules of the 1980s (with supplements to incorporate elements of AD&D or the original edition).

What we've seen of late are a series of what I would consider "second generation" retro-clones. While hearkening back to various incarnations of the D&D rules they also put their own unique stamp on their games. It is as if they go back to a certain point of time in D&D history and then explore others roads that might have been taken by TSR. The three that come most to my mind are Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics (obviously named from their adventure line, which will continue supporting their new game), Lamentations of the Flame Princess' Weird Fantasy Role-Play, and Autarch's Adventure Conqueror King. In this review I will discuss Dungeon Crawl Classics.

With all the preliminaries out of the way, let's get to discussing the Dungeon Crawl Classics (or simply DCC). What I will be reviewing here is the PDF version of the game which I received with my pre-order of DCC. I do not yet have a physical copy of the book.

The PDF itself meets the most important criteria I have of that format - it is easily navigable. When using my Galaxy Tab or Kindle Fire I do not experience delays while navigating and it has a nicely formatted table of contents allowing for quick jumping through the book. The game is nicely illustrated with black & white images strongly reminiscent of both the style and of specific illustrations from the AD&D 1st edition rule books (with many TSR veterans of that era).

Despite the pedigree of the art, the rules of the game do not take the traditional retro-clone route. It is very much its own game that in my opinion takes many of the best things from 1st edition AD&D and 3rd edition D&D (oddly 3rd edition D&D is really a misnomer as in many ways it is the 3rd edition of AD&D but anyways...).

So let's walk through the game and see what we see.

I'm going to do this review with an overview of each section (which will include my own opinions where appropriate) followed by an overall impression.


The game begins with a list of "qualifications" for the reader. Kind of a manifesto. It does suggest it is not really intended as a novice game but rather for those familiar with the works of Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw, Holmes, Kask, Kunzt, Mentzer, and Moldvay. It goes on to talk about the artists and style of the game.

One thing of note which may surprise veterans is in addition to making use of the traditional d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d% it also makes use of d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30. The reason for these funky dice is not given in this section but later on the book we learn that the main purpose of these different dice it to allow for "shifting" upward and downward of dice as modifiers. For example, when making additional attacks or spells or other actions a character keeps his normal bonus but rolls a lower die - a d16 instead of the traditional d20. Though my gaming group is fairly geographically dispersed requiring virtual dice I picked up some of these odd dice out of curiosity. The d3 is fine, albeit odd-looking. However the d5 and d7 seemed very odd and not evenly shaped - kind of like a wheel. For example the d5 is a three dimensional triangle with 1 and 5 as the bases and 2, 3, and 4 on the sides of the triangle. To be honest I don't quite trust it to roll randomly, though that might be my own prejudices.The patent indicates otherwise.


The introduction explains the core mechanic which is familiar to players of the 3.x and 4th edition D&D games - roll a d20 (possibly shifted to a different die-type), add or subtract modifiers, and try to beat or match a target number.

It then talks about how this game differs from 3.x and AD&D. It is worth summarizing this:

  • Unlike 3.x, no prestige classes, attacks of opportunity, feats, or skill points
  • Like Basic/Expert D&D, races are also classes
  • Uses an ascending armor system
  • Three saves like 3.x - Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower
  • Clerics turn what their religion considers unholy
  • All spells are cast with a spell check roll. Higher results indicate better results, customized by spell. Lower results mean failure. Only on a  failure is a wizard spell "lost" and a very low failure may result in some corruption (for wizards) or disapproval of the deity (for clerics).
  • The game makes use of a critical hit matrix.
  • Ability scores can be temporarily or permanently burned for special benefits/reductions in penalties.

Chapter One - Characters

DCC makes use of an interesting character generation system referred to as the "funnel". The intent is each player generates several random zero-level characters using 3d6 for every stat. It's been a long time since I've seen rules for zero-level characters. The intent is that you run all the characters at once in the first adventure where you will presumably lose some or even most of these poor, vulnerable characters and after the first adventure you pick your main 1st level PC(s) from among the survivors. Your characters' occupations (including race) are determined at random which will go towards what skills you have.

I like the idea, though I'd have preferred a little more detail. The rules as written basically give you 1st level abilities upon reaching enough experience and unless you rolled a non-human you get to pick your class. There was an AD&D adventure called Treasure Hunt which had a similar premise - you started out with a zero-level character. I like the DCC approach of multiple characters a little bit better - it gives a character with good stats a few "redshirts" to protect him and encourages extreme caution. However, one thing I liked about Treasure Hunt better is that  your actions in the adventure determined your class and over the course of the adventure you began gaining class abilities.

The abilities are a little bit different from traditional D&D games. They are:
  • Strength
  • Agility (effectively Dexterity)
  • Stamina (effectively Constitution)
  • Personality (a combination of Wisdom and Charisma)
  • Intelligence
  • Luck (new stat)
Luck is an important stat, perhaps too much so. (I think I'd make certain any character with a low Luck gets red-shirted in the funnel adventure...) It is used for:
  • A modifier to a certain kind of roll (determined at random) for the character's entire career. This modifier never changes even if luck goes up or down.
  • Modified critical hits, fumbles, etc.
  • Can be burned to get bonuses.
For the most part burned luck does not automatically come back though it can go back up very slowly. Thieves and halflings however automatically regain burned luck.

DCC makes use of three alignments - Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. Looking through the sample monsters we see goblins listed as Lawful while orcs are Chaotic, breaking away from the normal Lawful=Good convention Basic/Expert D&D used.

Unlike most D&D incarnations the maximum level is 10 and the game uses a fairly coarse experience system. It is designed like older D&D incarnations such that earlier advancement is quicker and 10th level characters are considered akin to demi-gods.

DCC features seven classes:
  • Cleric - able to cast spells, turn the unholy, and lay on hands to heal. Laying on hands is more beneficial to characters of the same alignment and/or religion. Every time a cleric fails in one of his attempts increases the chances of deity disapproval. A cleric knows a certain number of spells that increases with each level and never "forgets" a spell, even if his spell check is a failure.
  • Thief - Thief-abilities are, like everything else, resolved by d20 vs. Difficulty Class. Interestingly the thief's alignment determines his bonuses. For example, Chaotic thieves are best at back-stabbing while Lawful thieves are best at stealth and trap-handling. As mentioned before, the thief ability to regain luck is huge.
  • Warrior - A massive fighting machine. Instead of a straight bonus to attack rolls warriors get an ascending attack-die, +d3 at 1st level and +d10+4 at 10th. This is added to his normal attack rolls. Also, in place of feats this random die (called the Deed Die) is used for various stunts. To succeed in a stunt (like disarming, shoving a character, etc.) the attack roll must succeed and the Deed Die must meet a certain difficulty - 3 at the least, higher for more difficult stunts.
  • Wizard - Not surprisingly, a caster of arcane spells. Unlike traditional D&D games, a wizard does not usually "forget" spells upon casting them. Rather for every spell there is a table indicating the result for a given spell check roll, ranging from horrible failures such as  corruption (which can be super-minor to massive physical changes such as a character's mouth being replaced by a beak) to the mother of all magic missiles... A wizard knows a set number of spells that increases per level. Unlike traditional D&D games a wizard cannot expand his library by finding a spellbook or scroll. However, he can use this to determine what new spell he gains upon gaining a level, otherwise the new spell is chosen at random.
  • Dwarf - the first of the demi-human (returning to the pre-3.0 terminology) classes. The dwarf is very similar to the warrior, a tad less effective at warrior abilities but gaining special dwarf abilities such as infravision, underground skills, special abilities when using a shield, etc.
  • Elf - a combination of a wizard and warrior. Unlike the dwarf the elf does not gain the warrior abilities. An elf is also uncomfortable wearing iron armor, eventually taking damage. An elf is however about as effective as a wizard. Indeed, I could think of few, if any reasons, that you would choose an elf instead of a wizard. However since race is chosen at random, with the great majority of characters human, that may be as intended. One of the elf's initial spells must involve an extra-dimensional patron, a pact which is to the elf's benefit but at a price. Wizards can choose this as one of their initial spells but are not required to. The rules mention how over an elf's long life he probably makes use of consulting the same extra-dimensional multiple times. This puts a bit more of a sinister bent to elves. That said, I always found the wood elves of The Hobbit as kind of creepy and there is Schubert's Erlkönig for good examples of some less than frolicky elves.
  • Halfling - Halflings are a bit different than I'm used to. They are masters of two-weapon fighting and are very stealthy. Unique to this game (but in my mind, very in keeping with Tolkien's hobbit-folk), halflings are very lucky. Like thieves they regenerate luck. They also gain larger bonuses for their expended luck. Finally, unique to them, halflings are "good-luck charms" - they can spend luck for other characters. You can bet this would make having a halfling in the party a very popular option. 

Chapter Two - Skills

Skills are handled very coarsely in DCC, Based on a character's background (especially as a zero-level character) the Judge (not called DM or GM...) decides if the character is skilled or unskilled and either rolls a d20 or a d10 vs. a difficulty, with modifiers from ability scores, circumstances, etc.

Chapter Three - Equipment

Nothing terribly shocking here. A few things to note:
  • Some weapons (daggers, blackjack, etc.) do extra damage when used by thieves for backstabbing.
  • While wizards and elves can wear armor, the armor check penalty applies to their spellcasting checks.

Chapter Four - Combat

I've covered combat quite a bit with my discussion of warriors. A few interesting things that separates DCC from other D&D variants:
  • There are critical hit tables. Different tables are used depending on class, level, etc. Some of the criticals are brutal with limbs flying away. (Fortunately there are cleric spells that can patch those up, so make sure you save your severed limbs).
  • There are also fumble tables. Fumbles get worse the more heavily armored you are.
  • There are special rules for spell duels, involving the casting of spells and counter-spells.

Chapter Five - Magic

The chapter on magic is huge. The great bulk of it is made up of descriptions for spells. I've touched on the magic system quite a bit already. I'd have to say there are too main differences.
  1. Magic is not quite "Vancian". A character typically does not forget a spell after a successful casting, though a failure for wizards and elves does indicate a lost spell. Clerics increase the odds of gaining the disapproval of their deity with every failure (it starts as only happening on a natural 1 but increases with 1 for every failure).
  2. Magic is not predictable. To cast a spell you make a spell check, rolling a d20, adding your level plus your Intelligence (wizards) or Personality (clerics) modifiers, attempting to beat a Difficulty of 10 plus twice the spell level. Extremely low rolls may result in deity disapproval (for clerics) or misfires/corruption for wizards. Extremely high rolls result in some powerful results.
The system presents a setting where magic is very powerful but it is neither predictable or safe. Deity disapproval can have clerics making all sorts of sacrifices, working hard to evangelize new converts, etc. Corruption can be specific to a given spell or it can be generic deformation with skin growing scaly, hair changing colors. etc. It gives the tone of the corruption suffered by wizards in the Lankhmar and Conan novels. That said, it isn't severe as rules for corruption I've seen in books like the AD&D and RuneQuest Lankhmar sourcebooks. Odds are a character will suffer some corruption over time but not to the extent in those settings - and corruption can be avoided by permanently burning a luck point.

There is also some discussion on ritual magic - the idea that there are versions of spells that can be cast using rituals, harnessing the power of multiple casters and taking advantage of increased time to cast.

Chapter Six - Quests & Journeys

This chapter is primarily an advice chapter. It discusses some quests for powers that have no "spell" to gain access to - raising the dead, taming a dragon, special weapon proficiency, etc.

There is also a discussion about the setting, being a medieval world where most people do not travel and that travelers are special people. It has some basic information on travel times, gaining retainers, and other planes, suggesting that extraplanar situations be introduced early.

One thing I found a little disappointing is there isn't very much detail on travel, consisting pretty much of distance covered by varying modes of travel. There is no detail on terrains slowing you down, the possibility of getting lost, finding food in the wilderness, etc. I can certainly find that information in other D&D-style games but I would have liked to have seen it here - the dangerous wilderness seems such an important part of the genre that it seems a shame to "handwave" it.

Chapter Seven - Judge's Rules

This chapter has rules and guidelines for Judges with topics like familiars for wizards, consulting spirits, supernatural patrons (including new spells a wizard or elf might learn from his patron), divine aid for clerics, special magic regions, etc.

There is also a section on the frequency of heroes and on handing out experience points. DCC sugests for example that perhaps 5 people out of a hundred ever make it out of zero level and perhaps 1 in 10,000 people are fifth level.

Finally there is a section on Luck, including under what circumstances any character (including non-thieves and halflings) and gain or lose luck. This brought to mind some of the Lankhmar tales with Fafhrd and Grey Mouser earning the support or annoyance of the unworldly.

Chapter Eight - Magic Items

Magic items in DCC are all unique - there are no generic magic items. That said it has guidelines for the manufacture or finding of various items, especially magic swords with tables resembling those found in B/X D&D and AD&D for intelligent weapons with purposes. Of note is the fact that the gods do not care for powerful magic items and characters who bear them are subject to Luck penalties. (Did I mention it seems definitely worthwhile to dispose of any characters you roll up with low Luck during the Character Funnel adventure?)

Chapter Nine - Monsters

The Monsters chapter of course includes a listing of monsters with a lot of new critters such as androids, deep ones, etc. However, a large part of the chapter is dedicated to making monsters as unique as possible with advice such as "don't refer to a dragon, refer to the dragon".  Referring to Goodman Games' own Random Esoteric Creature Generator (by James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess) as inspiration it includes random tables for varying humanoid and a discussion on how to make other creatures as unique as possible. There are also critical tables for various creature types (if PCs get criticals so do the beasties).


There are Appendices covering curses, languages, other "Old School Renaissance" games, poisons, a discussion on rules complexity, guidance on names, titles, and Appendix N (below) for inspirational reading.

Appendix N - Inspirational Reading

Appendix N reprints the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide Appendix N list of inspirational sources and talks about the influence they had on the original D&D game. It also recommends Clark Ashton Smith who was somehow left off the original Appendix N and also recommends a pair of films for inspiration - the 1963 version of The Raven for its wizards' duel (I've never seen it) and The Horror of Dracula for its clear inspiration of the cleric's ability to turn the unholy (I have seen it and can definitely vouch for it).

Sample Adventures

There are a pair of sample adventures, one for zero-level characters and one for fifth. 

Both are pretty brief. They are interesting and useful but I think a Judge would want to expand them - especially "The Portal Under the Stars", the zero-level adventure.

Overall Impression

Well that overview wound up being awfully long - but it is hard to give a good impression without a good overview. I've also not shied from giving my opinion in my discussion of the contents.

Overall, I like what I see a lot. I greatly admire its boldness. You really can't call it a retro-clone, it is its own game which takes D&D as its starting point. And that may not even be fully accurate. I'd have to say it takes all the incarnations of D&D prior to the 4th as its starting point for its rules and takes the inspirations for original D&D as its inspirations. When I picture DCC adventures I don't really visualize characters dividing their +1 swords, their buffing items, etc. I picture the warrior as a battle-scarred dealer of death, the thief constantly pressing his luck and laughing at fate. I see clerics working to stay in their deities good graces, having reasons to go on quests and evangelize on behalf of his deity. I see wizards who possess great powers of which they are not fully the masters of. I see alien elves who have long-term relationships with demons and spirits, who are feared by humans with mothers who worry about children being kidnapped for the Elf-King. I see dwarfs as hardened warriors of the mines, looking for all the world like one of Thorin's folk. And I see halflings who survivors where you wouldn't think they would be, who manage to bring out the best in their companions.

While it's a thick book, there are a few things more I'd like to have seen in it and a few things I'm not convinced about. For example, Luck seems too important an ability score and elves seem to be able to do about everything a wizard can do and more (with there being only one experience table that all characters use). I'd also like to have seen a bit more detail in running wilderness and dungeon adventures. The book states it assumes that the Judges running this are experienced but I still think those are the sorts of thing that should have been included.

Beyond running this game, would I want to play in it? That depends. It certainly doesn't lend itself to carefully building a character to get every bonus possible, the sort of mini-game that the 3.x versions of D&D embraces. That's not to say you can't have an impressive character - the various classes all become powerful in their own ways. I think its appeal would lie in the accomplishment of developing your character - and surviving to that point. To do so will require intelligent play, to know when to be bold and when to hide. When do you burn that Luck point, risk angering your deity, etc.? Do you save that Luck point or risk further corruption.

I've been flirting with the idea of doing a D&D-esque game (right now we are playing Call of Cthulhu) and DCC definitely has a strong appeal.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

19th Level's A Game of Thrones Drinking Game

My wife and I have been watching "A Game of Thrones" on HBO. We both enjoy it a great deal but we've noticed certain tropes seem to be repeated over and over again. With that in mind we've developed the "A Game of Thrones" drinking game. (For entertainment purposes only). Feel free to send me additional suggestions.

This contains spoilers for all of season 1 and the first 3 episodes of season 2.

Drink when the following occurs:

  • A character says the word "bastard" (one extra drink for every syllable over two in the word - i.e. ("baaaastard")
  • Cersei Lannister tears up a piece of paper.
  • Cersei Lannister comments that "Ned Stark had a piece of paper".
  • A character gets naked with one fluid motion (bonus drink if said character is male or if you predicted it would happen when character first appeared).
  • You get two characters mixed up. (Bonus drink if you have no idea who the character is but it is clear you should)
  • Ned Stark or one of his sons does something that is honorable but stupid.
  • Tyrion Lannister comments that he is not Ned Stark or honorable.
  • Tyrion Lannister points out something obvious that everyone seems oblivious to.
  • A dire wolf draws blood.
  • A character on the show drinks.
  • A character is betrayed. (Just take a sip here or you will die of alcohol poisoning. Full drink when the betrayal is revealed to all).

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Geek Gateway Drugs of the 70s and 80s

For most people my age (I'm 40) and older, their gateway drug into fantasy was  the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I was a little bit different, for me it was C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. When I was in kindergarten my family was in the process of moving from upstate New York to Connecticut. During the transitional period my father spent his time in Connecticut while my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Brooklyn, New York.

My mother and grandfather often took me to the Brooklyn Public Library - I think it was the Sheepshead Bay Branch but I could be mistaken. I remember always being drawn the collection of Narnia books they had - I seem to recall they had them on their own special display - though at the time they were a little above my reading level, though I was an early reader.

During that same period and before I got around to reading the Narnia books (which definitely did happen) another geek milestone occurred - the release of Star Wars (Just Star Wars. No Episode IV. No A New Hope.) During the summer that summer after I finished kindergarten my uncle took me to see it. I was, to say the least, stunned. I think I saw that movie a gazillion times that summer. When we moved to Connecticut in July one of the first things my parents did was take me to see it in the local theater- a single screen theater that sadly did not last much longer and became a roller rink.

With no VCRs, DVDs, or streaming when Star Wars left the theaters there was no way to watch it again. There was a narrated audio cassette version of the film my uncle got me which included dialogue and music from the film that I listened to over and over. (I still remember you'd flip it over as the Millennium Falcon  was captured by the Death Star). When the Star Wars storybook came out a year later I was all over that. I suspect that's the source of my being convinced I saw Biggs in the movie as I'm pretty certain he was featured in it and I read that book two gazillion times.

There was also a Scholastic Star Wars book which came out about real space travel. I can't find a link to it by scouring the internet so it must have been pretty obscure. It came out in the late 70s or early 80s and was the same format as the storybook above. It had information about the Viking probes, the space shuttle, O'Neill Colonies, Voyagers 1 & 2, etc. This is probably what got me interested in "real" science and put me on the path to becoming an engineer.

Inevitably, I did rediscover the Narnia books. My parents used to go to a flea market and I'd usually be able to get a matchbox car out of the deal. One time I found someone selling all the Narnia books and convinced my parents to let me get them (oddly, something I've noticed both as a parent and a child - parents are a lot more willing to part with money for books than for matchbox cars.) I of course loved the magical world of Narnia - though like many, not a huge fan of the final book. I'm guessing my elementary school self was not quite up for a fantasy version of the Book of Revelations. As an aside, I enjoyed the books as a fantasy story vs. the Christian metaphor they were written as, something I became aware of as I grew older.

Take your d20. Use it. Give in to your geekiness.
The stage was now set for the final step into the world of geekdom. I think it was in 4th grade that my next door neighbor got a copy of the D&D Basic rules for Christmas. Their family found it a rather confusing game. As I flipped through it I thought it was amazing. Confusing too mind you. "So big numbers are good. Except when you are rolling for thief abilities or for AC. And levels can refer to spells, characters, dungeons...".  But in short order I managed to get a copy of it - this was at the beginning of the D&D popularity surge of the 1980s. I still have a fond place in my heart for my first version of the D&D Basic set with the Erol Otus cover featuring the sorceress and warrior fighting the green dragon.

I do wonder what kids today use as their gateways. I have a hunch that the younger adults first encountered fantasy through the Harry Potter novels. With my two daughters (aged 9 and 6 with birthdays soon approaching for both) I've noticed that both have eagerly consumed the Barbie Fairtopia series of movies and books. And as they grow older there's the Twilight series (not if I can help it - Buffy yes, Edward no) and books like The Hunger Games. There's now RPG tie-in novels, something that did not exist when I first entered the hobby - and something of a mixed blessing, given the uneven quality of them. I thought they were awesome in high school though having flipped through a few in my adulthood I find they have not aged as well as Narnia or Middle Earth...

One thing I've noticed is the whole "geek culture" is a lot more mainstream than it was when I was a kid. Oh where were the trendy geek girls back when I was in high school...

Note -Originally I'd planned on using Saturday postings for more "real-world" issues. But I ran into the difficulty of making such topics fit thematically with the rest of the blog. So for the time being I'm planning on making Saturdays more of an open topic day which may overlap with other themes and also may touch on real world issues.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Digital Gamer's Toolkit

When my wife and I first moved into our house over ten years ago the house seemed enormous. It was just the two of us, with dreams of starting a family. Our considerable collection of books and my RPG collection barely made a dent in our available space.

Move forward from that point and our family did indeed expand. Pets and then children joined our happy house. And with these additions our once seemingly infinite space began to seem, well, rather finite.

During this time many RPG companies began offering their products in PDF format. Wizards of the Coast for a while made old versions of Dungeons & Dragons available as PDFs but one day they convinced themselves the solution to digital piracy was to pull all their gaming products from online stores (making it impossible to download a legal copy but still possible to download illegal copies - not quite certain how that helped them, but hey...)

When Amazon released their first Kindle I eagerly pre-ordered. And I was quite pleased with it as it offered a solution for the clutter of books. It did not really solve the issue of my massive collection of RPG books. I experimented with their Kindle DX which was an excellent size for gaming books but it was often too slow.

It was the first iPad which provided me with the perfect platform for reading of gaming PDFs. The screen was the right size, the Goodreader App offered an excellent way to store and display PDFs. Unlike the Kindle DX I found the iPad to be of adequate speed.

I've since moved from the Apple camp to the Android one. I have two main platforms for reading gaming PDFs. The first is the Amazon Kindle Fire. Built on Android technology its big advantage is its portable size, with its 7-inch display. On the other hand, for gaming products that display size is often a limitation, as the most common size for gaming products remains the letter-sized books (pages typically measuring 8.5 x 11 inches). The pages can be displayed at a smaller scale and for most gaming products the text is still very readable but occasionally one needs to zoom in and out.

I've lately begun making use of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9. As the name describes, the screen is 8.9 inches in size. This is a little bit smaller than the iPad and most other tablets but truth to tell, I've found the larger tablets to be a bit unwieldy - the 8.9 inch size is for me an ideal compromise. It is small enough that I can still hold it in a single hand but not so small that I find myself squinting or zooming in and out. I've not seen a rush of 8.9 inch tablets so I'm not certain the size is catching on but I rather like it.

When using either the Kindle Fire or the Galaxy Tab I make use of the ezPDF Reader app. It functions very similar to the iPad Goodreader App. The big difference is Goodreader offers, in my opinion, better cloud access. For example, I store my gaming PDFs in my Dropbox account (for my own use only - being a person whose livelihood depends on software I have a healthy respect for digital copyrights). With Goodreader you can download files directly from Dropbox into Goodreader. ezPDF doesn't have such easy access to Dropbox and other online storage services. On the other hand, it also doesn't need them as much as with Android you can use a Dropbox app to download and then the ezPDF app to access them as both can access the same filesystem. The Apple iPad, on the other hand, silos its applications such that one application can not access data from another application.

One inconvenience on the Amazon Kindle Fire is that it does not support the Dropbox Application. It does support other online storage apps - for example I'm not quite certain why this is. As a techie person I found it easy enough to download a copy of the Dropbox Application directly from the vendor's website and then "sideloaded" it onto my Kindle Fire. This is effectively installing an unsupported application, something the Kindle Fire does allow. If you find yourself needing to do this do a Google search for "sideload dropbox kindle fire" - though hopefully Amazon will add support for it soon.

How is the experience using digital gaming books? To be honest, it depends. First of all, once you have more than a few random gaming PDFs it is important to develop a system of organization. This includes both a folder structure that works for you and a system for naming your files - I've found that even from a given product line naming conventions for file names often varies so I will typically provide my own file name after downloading.

Secondly you are dependent on the quality of the PDF. Some older products are essentially scans of the original books. Assuming a good quality scan these usually display just fine but you often will be unable to search, highlight, etc.

Also, the ease of navigating a PDF product varies tremendously. Some gaming PDFs have a hierarchical table of contents, links within them, etc. These are usually a joy to use. Others are just unindexed documents. For a product with a small page-count this is typically not a problem but for larger books this tends to be infuriating. As I'm married to a school teacher who gets discounts on software I have access to a full version of Adobe Acrobat so I will often add my own bookmarks - where possible. Which brings up another consideration - the PDF files have varying degrees of security applied to them. Some are fully open, others won't let you edit them (this is most common in my experience) while others, annoyingly, won't even allow you to copy and paste from them.

With regards to security, I tend to be of the opinion that you are better off assuming your customers are not out to defraud you. It is incredibly easy, for example, to unlock a password-protected PDF to change rights to allow for editing, copy/pasting/etc. Fortunately a brief fad of using DRM (Digital Rights Management) has ended, a security measure that, in  my opinion, mainly provides inconveniences for paying customers who weren't out to defraud you anyways - pirates can crack those with ease.

From my own personal experience I find the newer White Wolf products to be among the better ones, typically well-bookmarked. And they've been diligently re-digitizing their older products to make them easier to use. At the other extreme I'm sorry to say Chaosium products tend to have no navigation aids. (I really am sorry to say this as I'm running a Call of Cthulhu game at present). When I review various gaming products ease of navigation will be one of the criteria which I use.

The picture here shows a product with excellent navigation - Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing.

How well do PDF gaming products replace physical books? For me, from a reading perspective, I actually tend to prefer a PDF to a physical book. No clutter, I'm not likely to misplace it, etc. Multipage maps are sometimes a pain to deal with but in such cases zooming in and out typically works pretty wel. When actually gaming? Usually for me it works pretty well. One negative is it is harder to have two books open at a given time. And while searching is an awesome feature, sometimes a quick flip or scan through a physical book at the gaming table works better. Typically for games which I play regularly I like having the core book of the game physically available (as well as a PDF copy) but I tend to do just fine with digital-only copies of supplements.

As far as PDF pricing goes, given that I often use PDFs exclusively I don't expect companies to provide their digital content for free or at near-free prices - though I certainly don't mind when they do. On the other hand, as someone prepared to pay a reasonable price for a digital copy of a product I definitely want a product that takes advantage of the format - bookmarked, internal links, etc.