Merric's Musings

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A busy few days

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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I’m currently fighting a cold that was creeping up on me through the past few days, so my ability to write is somewhat curtailed by my need for sleep.

It’s been a pretty hectic last few days, though. On Thursday, I played Power Grid and Strasbourg with my friends at Goodgames Ballarat – I won neither game, but both were very enjoyable. Then my car’s timing belt broke just as I was leaving to go home. 10 pm in Ballarat, needing to travel 30 km. This wasn’t good. I eventually took a fairly expensive taxi ride home. (Though worth it!)

On Friday, I spent the first part of the day getting rid of my old car – which was very, very old – then the second part of the day obtaining a new car. The people at Ballarat Toyota were very happy and by the end of the game, I was driving off in a brand new car. (I’ve been meaning to get one for the past six months; I was just forced into it by the breakdown).

Friday evening we played the second session of Lost Mine of Phandelver with my regular group. Everyone attended, and I’ll write a report on what happened as soon as I feel better.

Saturday afternoon I’d hoped to play some board games, but Goodgames was very busy due to both a Yu-Gi-Oh! Sneak peak and a Magic game day happening at the same time. Sigh. So, instead, I spent the afternoon revising my manuscript of Secrets of Neverwinter, the adventure I’ve written for this “gap” of D&D Encounters.

Then came D&D Encounters, and we had 31 players taking part. Five tables, most with five players + DM and one with six players + DM. Lee had a lot of fun with the Nothic prisoner I’d put in the adventure, who was pleading with the group (telepathically) to let it go. The session went fairly long – partly due a later start because of us waiting for the card tournaments to finish and partly because there seemed to be quite a bit of material in the adventure. It’s hard judging length when there are substantial role-playing segments!

So we were fairly late in getting to post-Encounters fun. Four tables stuck around, so we had one table of Rifts, one of D&D 5E, and two playing AD&D including my own. And I finally found a place in the campaign to stick Rob Kuntz’s Prisoners of the Maze series. That gave us 22 players in the post-Encounters games, including two players who weren’t in Encounters.

This coming week, we’ll finish off Secrets of Neverwinter, play some 5E, and possibly even get in a game of Fiasco.

It looks like we’ll continue running through all of Tyranny of Dragons; possibly the entire series in the Encounters spot (although we may have some extra-long sessions, depending on how people are enjoying it and how the DMs who run other games afterwards feel. The experienced players really want a shot at going through the entire thing.

We’ll likely still have a table of low-level games running even after we move out of the regular “encounters” levels. It may be a refuge to those who don’t like a particular story, as well as being the place to introduce new players.
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Mon Aug 11, 2014 6:46 am
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Three Games - all different versions of D&D

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
Victoria
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I’m feeling really good about last week’s role-playing. Three games, each with a different version of the D&D rules, all memorable for their own reasons. There are times when things come together, and that was the case this week.

D&D Encounters – Legacy of the Crystal Shard – D&D Next

This has been a challenging season to run, but it’s been getting a lot better as it continues. The last season (Murder in Baldur’s Gate) presented the characters with three factions they could work with. This one presents three factions they’re trying to stop. The complication here is that there isn’t enough time to stop them all! So, in this session I ran the first interlude, where the threat they hadn’t been dealing with yet became much more active and dangerous.

This is great adventure-writing. The adventure might look physically similar to Murder in Baldur’s Gate, but the change in focus makes it run quite differently. Another big difference is that the encounters are much more fleshed out than in the previous season – the first one gave you a bunch of enemy stats and let you determine the specifics of the encounter. This one suggests numbers and set-up for the encounters. It’s still very free-form, but I’m finding it aiding me a lot more. Against that, I’ve found the adventure much more sprawling and confusing to grasp, but this session everything came together really well.

It’s also notable that we had two role-playing encounters and four combats in under two hours of play; a big win for the speed of D&D Next, after my well-documented problems with the speed of 4E.

Greyhawk – Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil – D&D 4E

Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is one of the big adventures of the 3E era. It was designed for a party of 4th level characters and would take them to about 10th level. Or thereabouts. I’m using it as the final adventure of my 4E campaign which I began when 4E was first released in 2008. The characters are now about 27th level, but the ease of adjusting monsters in 4E means that I’m finding it very easy to run. Admittedly, it didn’t help that for this session the notes I’d made on the monster stats hadn’t saved properly to the cloud and so I had to do some fancy footwork to fill the void. Luckily, I’m getting pretty good at estimating the stats (and the DM screen with its damage codes makes it a lot easier to wing things).

After a few sessions of slogging it through the crater mines, it was something of a relief to put in more role-playing and also bring back the idea of Adam’s original character, Archibald, as the chief villain behind the adventure. They’ve known he’s been involved, but he was revealed to be “Number 2” in the Doom Dreamers of Tharizdun this session.

But without doubt, the big event of the session was the group discovering a Deck of Many Things. I somehow completely missed it in my read-through beforehand (not that unusual), and so I didn’t have the Deck printed in Madness of Gardmore Abbey with me. Pity. However, the internet allowed me to find Rodney Thompson’s 2010 version of the Deck’s effects for 4e, and having adjusted a regular set of cards I was set.

This was not the first experience of some of the players with a Deck of Many Things; Greg and Adam had both encountered one when playing through Dungeonland about 10 years ago in my 3E Greyhawk campaign. (Yes, I am perfectly happy adapting adventures for all editions of D&D). So, all of the group – save Martin, as he’s wiser than the others – was happy to draw from the deck. And, by the end of the draws, Greg was imprisoned (DONJON) and Paul’s soul was taken (VOID). It’s quite likely that without Rodney’s notes I might have just left that there (go create new PCs!), but Rodney’s work inspired me to actually have the group break from the Temple quest for a session or two to recovered their lost friends. (It also gave me the details needed for the other, more positive effects, that Adam and Rich earned).

So, off to the Depths of the Earth and (quite likely) the Astral Plane before we return to the Temple. It’s a natural break-point in the adventure in any case, and should work well to getting their levels closer to 30th before the final encounters.

Greyhawk Vikings – The Caverns of the Oracle – AD&D

The week’s D&D ended with the continuing AD&D game. Six players turned up for this session, and they continued dealing with the Knights of Hextor and their Hellhounds. This time I did have all my notes with me, but, as usual for this game, I’m improvising a lot of the map and encounters. There are times in my life when I pre-plan everything, but this isn’t one of those times. Instead, I draw the map one step ahead of the characters and work out what is in each room either according to what should be there (based on theme) or let the dice tell me.

The knights are definitely giving the group some tough encounters, especially as I had most of them working as archers whilst the hellhounds engaged the party in melee. Jesse’s magic-user was back this session, so he was able to take out some of the knights, but the rooms were big enough that his area of effect spells weren’t as effective as they normally are. (We also had Callan running four players in his RIFTS game, so it was a good Saturday evening’s role-playing).

The group found some good treasure, enough for a number of the players to gain a level. Rich’s thief had finally reached level 10 by the end of the session. I’m going to be very interested if he tries to set up a thieves’ guild.

However, the major challenge of the adventure came when the group set off a magical teleportation trap and ended up in a gauntlet of quite dangerous encounters – four wights, two flesh golems and then two cockatrices – before they found their way back to the main dungeon and were able to escape. The wights really gave the party a shock, and they were saved mainly due to having three clerics with the party, and by Tait carrying around a large supply of oil. The group is actually very light on magic weapons at the moment (thanks, in no small part, to the encounter with caryatid columns a few sessions back), and so might not have been able to take advantage of the turning – they still would have had to go into melee with the wights – but Tait’s oil got them out of a tricky situation.

The flesh golems were more standard, but they did so much damage it was a confused version of musical chairs, with characters retiring from the front ranks and handing over their magical weapons to fresh combatants whilst the clerics kept busy healing everyone. No-one died, but it was close.

And the cockatrices? The party were very worried about them, with one hit on the front rank in the first round almost causing a petrifaction, but luckily the saving throw was made. And, at this point, one of the group realised that they held a scroll of protection against petrifaction! With that in hand, they were able to overcome the last challenge and make their way out of the gauntlet, although a few more knights and hellhounds stood in their way...

So, that was my week’s role-playing. Next week, more D&D Encounters and AD&D, but the Friday night game alternates back to Martin’s Deadlands Noir game (where I actually play rather than run the game!)
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Mon Jan 13, 2014 8:33 am
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AD&D: Chairs of Doom!

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
Victoria
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The final AD&D session of 2013 saw seven people playing, and the regular range of character levels from 1st to 9th. It also saw the group discovering What Lay Beyond the Orcs of the Bloody Eye, as - after rather destroying the first group they met - the group then negotiated their way past the other orcs. Mostly with, "Let us past or we will slaughter you", It worked pretty well.

The group actually found itself with no clerics when it began, so Shane had to hire a new henchmen to accompany the group. Paul turned up a little bit later, bringing with him his 5th level cleric henchmen, and the group was slightly better for healing. However, the major source of healing for the group was now Shane's 7th level magic-user, who had hired an alchemist and brew potions of healing. Every 2 days, for 200 gp each. So, given Shane will be playing something else next week, I expect he'll come back with quite a few potions in a fortnight's time. Or, maybe he won't - he also expressed an interest in researching some spells, find familiar in particular.

All of this downtime activity from Shane is pretty new to my campaigns; it's never something I did with Meliander, my 13th level wizard, but a large part of that came from the nature of the campaigns. Meliander lived in a campaign where he was mostly busy adventuring, and - in addition - none of us were really that familiar with the crafting rules.

It's also due to one of the many sections of the AD&D rules where Gygax was horrible at describing the procedure. Not so much as in what was required (though this is somewhat lacking), but in just being horrible to the players. The list of ingredients for the suggested scroll in the DMG? By no means is it easily attainable - other suggestions are even harder! Yes, Gleipnir may have needed six impossible things to craft, but there's a big difference between the ingredients in a myth and the ingredients in a game - especially one played with pen and paper. Computer games would later take up the torch of collecting ingredients from slain monsters and putting them together to make magical items, but in AD&D it's a level of detail and messiness that the game doesn't need.

At least, my game doesn't need it. Yours might differ.

At some point I'll probably have to work out some territory acquisition rules and the like...

Meanwhile, down in the dungeon, the group found the Chairs of Doom.

Okay, they're not actually called that, but in a room on one of the lower levels, they found four wicker chairs. Yes, one of the group sat in the chairs. For once, they weren't man-eating chairs: instead, each pair of chairs teleported you from one to the other. The group started making plans for how to use them - put one near the entrance to the dungeon, and they could bypass a lot of encounters... (and have monsters randomly teleport to the entrance! They did consider this, and decided not to put the chair in their home!)

The next set of chairs were more standard - superglue chairs. All of which led to Paul's cleric teleporting back to town without his armour - picture a slightly portly cleric, running around in rust-stained padding, looking for a new set of platemail.

This game can be so much fun!
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Sun Dec 29, 2013 8:13 am
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AD&D: Scribing Scrolls, Resurrection (non-)Survival, and other things

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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The penultimate AD&D session of this year had six players in attendance, with characters ranging from first level to ninth level, and another trip into the depths of the Caverns of the Oracle. It turned out to be quite dangerous, as a number of hellhounds attacked the party as they got closer to the levels that Hextor’s followers hold in sway. The party consisted of a thief, a wizard, a low-level assassin and a number of clerics, and they were having trouble hitting the monsters – and the hellhounds were having little trouble hitting them!

One of the interesting things about the hellhounds is that they got to breathe fire every turn in addition to their regular attack – either 7 or 4 hit points per turn (depending on whether the player’s saving throw failed or was successful), and this stripped away the hit points very quickly. A number of characters went down and needed to be healed, and – in the end – Lee’s seventh level cleric was killed!

A quick trip to the capital and the high priest of his faith cost a little time and money, but it was all in vain, as Lee’s resurrection survival check failed! (A 98% on the dice!) Lee proceeded to roll well and created a new human ranger. I allow maximum hit points at first level, so Lee’s new character has 20 hit points.

Apart from that, the group faced orcs and ogres (which they retreated from), hobgoblins and trolls (which they slew, but didn’t press on as they were quite hurt) and found a door that summoned ghasts. Not really a problem for the group as they had three clerics at the time, but the clerics chose to stand in the centre of the room where the ghasts appeared! They were fortunate to not be surprised or to lose initiative... although then a few moved into melee with the turned ghasts only to be attacked (the assassin, one of the few bow-wielding characters, was paralysed for the rest of the combat!)

Another important part of the session was when the 7th level magic-users and clerics discovering they could now scribe scrolls – something that gave me some trouble in adjudicating as the AD&D DMG is somewhat vague about the costs involved. Time and success chances? No problem! How much it costs to make the ink? No idea!

The suggested cost for a scroll of protection from petrification includes a number of odd ingredients and likely 1,000 gold pieces worth of crushed gems. Possibly. Such a scroll sells on the open market for 10,000 gold pieces. Meanwhile, spell scrolls sell for 300 gp per spell level inscribed on the scroll. At the time, I assessed that the ink for one scroll would cost 1,000 gold pieces – and could be used for up to seven spells on that scroll.

Of course, getting home I wanted to research as to if there are any better costs in any of the supplemental materials, particularly FR4 The Magister, but though it has a section on creating magic items, it doesn’t really expand on the rules that much. The original game books list 100 gold pieces/spell level, so I will likely go with that for future scribing, although their time (1 week per spell level) will be discarded for the 1 day for spell level suggested in AD&D!

So, armed with scrolls of neutralise poison and knock, the group will be better equipped for their next descent into the dungeon. I do need to keep better track of time, and I need to consider what other penalties there are for the magic-users sitting out scribing – do the other characters go down without them? It may be best to let the group decide.

Lee’s new ranger managed to get a few experience points before the session came to an end. We’d started at about 5.30 pm, had a break for dinner, and it was 10.30 pm when I ended everything as it was really obvious that everyone was tired. At least, it was obvious that I was tired (as I was experiencing it), and the others had been arguing about how to deal with a trick stairwell. For twenty minutes. When the group loses the ability to make decisions, it’s time to call it a night!

I think I need to make a copy of the advice in the Players Handbook to give out to each of the players; in particular, the section on setting goals for each expedition. This is a very old-fashioned sort of mega-dungeon game (with a lot of funhouse encounters, because that’s the sort of DM I am), and the older advice still applies.

Actually, it’s very nice to see how many players at the table have copies of the Players Handbook – I think there were three or four copies there in addition to mine. (All Gygax Memorial editions. So is mine, though I have originals). The campaign is now over two years old, and I’ve switched back to running weekly sessions. Long may it continue!
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Mon Dec 23, 2013 12:41 pm
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Rules and my Roleplaying

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
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I find that as I get older, I get a lot less tolerant of having large rulebooks with lots of rules. This isn't to say that I'm against all rules, but I much prefer, as a DM, to need to remember as few rules as possible. It's one of the reasons I've enjoyed 4E so much: it's actually a very light system at heart, with plenty of complexity added through easily digestible chunks. Monster design is a particular case in point: to run a 4E monster, apart from the base game rules, I just need to know what the conditions do: everything else is in the statblock.

This is in particular contrast to the Pathfinder RPG, which, I'm astonished to find, has actually made the job of running a monster significantly harder than 3.5E. There are a lot of good things I can say about Paizo's adventure and world design. However, Pathfinder has hit a level of rules complexity that I don't care for at all. I ran two full Pathfinder APs over the last year (Council of Thieves and Kingmaker) and all the flaws of 3.5E were there in spades, and then things were made worse by Paizo's stance to rules design. I didn't fight so hard to put the group back together after I had a run of cancellations in large part that I didn't want to have to struggle with Paizo's rules any more.

I'm thus somewhat disappointed that two new RPGs that I've been looking forward to: Edge of the Empire (FFG's Star Wars RPG) and Shadowrun 5E have horribly big rulebooks, both just shy of 500 pages. They might warrant such large book sizes, but I have quite a lot of other things to do apart from working my way through these tomes.

My AD&D campaign has now been running for about 19 months. It's still incredibly popular; I had nine players at the last session, and I dread to think how many will turn up this weekend! One of the lovely things about AD&D is that because I'm so familiar with the system, I can happily let the system get out of the way and I can concentrate on all the things that are - to me - fun. Interesting tricks, NPCs, exploration and the odd combat or five.

It's a completely different beast to my 4E Greyhawk game, which has now been running almost five years. (When did 4E come out? Since then). It's been delayed by various illnesses and other catastrophes, but we're moving towards the endgame with the group having hit 24th level, and the final foe (Tharizdun) having been revealed.

The biggest trouble with 4E is just length-of-combat, which takes away from exploration, NPCs, and interesting tricks. I'm having fun at the moment as I'm able to put in lots of references to classic adventures. The group are on their way to Verbobonc at present, following the trail of a lot of cultists that have power over elemental creatures. I wonder how many of the group are familiar enough with D&D lore that they get the reference? I believe there wouldn't be that many; I think I'm pretty unusual in my group with my fascination with early D&D lore.

I'm experiencing D&D Next mainly through the D&D Encounters program at present. I made a couple of attempts to play it in place of one of my regular other games, but eventually decided that it wasn't complete enough (this was a few playtest packets ago) and I really wanted to properly complete my 4E game. My experience with Next is coloured by the problems that Encounters brings to the table, as well as a player population that is happy to play Next as long as they don't have to read the rules.

There seems to be a very big gap between the capabilities of a 4th level and a 5th level character at present. It's at that level that Deadly Strike comes into play, which significantly increases the damage the martial characters deal. The group almost got completely slaughtered by chitines last session, but, in retrospect, it was mainly due to the fact that the group almost all have 4th level PCs. Character creation in the playtest documents is nowhere near as clear as it will get in the finished product, and I think the players are struggling with it. Personally, I don't have trouble with it, but then I'm an extremely experienced player of RPGs.

The other game I'm playing in is Martin's Deadlands Noir game, which is using the Savage Worlds system. We're two sessions in at the moment, and it's been heavily biased towards role-playing. The system itself is very basic - well, as much as I've seen of it, which has generally been skill checks. It's not a great distance away from the Serenity RPG, with the major difference being that Savage Worlds works while Serenity didn't. My character does break the system somewhat - he's both Attractive and Charismatic, which gives a +4 bonus to Negotiation checks. When you consider that a standard roll is "roll d8 and d6, take the higher", that bonus is astonishingly good.

The last session had only Peggy and Sarah playing in addition to myself, which was the three skill characters as opposed to the combat characters. We thus did a lot of role-playing and investigation; there was one (short) combat, which I ran away from and Sarah demonstrated how dangerous she is with a flower pot - although, unfortunately, not to the other side. Peggy and Sarah are much better at immersive role-playing than I am, although I can do okay for short periods. As I tired, I wandered back into the more descriptive style of role-playing ("I convince her that...") rather than the immersive style I started in ("Miss Jones, I'm desperately concerned that...") There was one great moment when I was completely tongue-tied and then got the giggles; Peggy and Sarah rather liked that moment. Despite both of them being better immersive role-players, I was the one leading the investigation for most of it... and thus doing a lot of the talking.

Apart from the two big books of Shadowrun and Edge of the Empire (the former only virtual, admittedly), I also picked up The First Doctor Sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG by Cubicle 7. I'm planning on writing a review of it Real Soon Now, but before I did so I wanted to see what other people thought of the book. There's a good review on rpggeek in which the reviewer has found a couple of mechanical issues with the book. I didn't even notice! Part of this is due to the unfortunate fact that I haven't been able to play the game yet, and thus the mechanical elements aren't that familiar to me. A larger part is that I just don't care that much any more, especially as the book does one thing very well, and that thing is very important to me: it gives great advice on creating good RPG adventures and stories.

Are mechanics important? They certainly are, but I'm no longer obsessing over them as much as I once did. When they work, I'm happy. When they don't work, I'm sad, but I'm even less a tinkerer now with rules than I once was. There are systems out there that I'm very happy with and will run. D&D Next might see me not changing to a new version of D&D for the first time (I've gone from AD&D to 2E to 3E to 3.5E to 4E), but it won't annoy me if it's not to my taste; I've got systems that will work for various groups. My feeling is that Next will probably still work for me, but I won't be shattered if it doesn’t.
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Tue Jul 30, 2013 4:43 am
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A regular weekend's gaming

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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This weekend saw my regular gaming habits continue: D&D on Friday night and Saturday, and boardgaming to fill out the holes. I feel quite fortunate to be able to regularly play games with my friends, and it was really good to have Adam join us again on Friday night.

Yes, after a gap of a few months, Adam has rejoined my 4E Greyhawk game, as his situation still hasn't quite resolved itself enough - he's not in Melbourne full time and is still commuting from Ballarat. Thus, being in a Melbourne rpg group is a bit difficult. Getting his character, Max, back into the group was really good, especially as Josh couldn't join us and Adam allowed us to have a group of four. There's also a strong likelihood that Greg will join in as well, but this weekend ended up not being a good one for his family and he was unable to attend. From worrying about the state of the group I've suddenly gone to six players - if everyone can attend at once, which seems unlikely; it was a major problem with the campaign in recent months.

As a result, I can move into what really will be the endgame of the campaign. I've been running this game since 4E came out, and the group is now 24th level. It's been a very interrupted game at times, but there have been some great stories coming out from it. We finished off the 4E version of Tomb of Horrors two weeks ago, with Acererak being destroyed. My major change to the adventure was instead of having the final encounters be on the plane of the dead god Nerull (who is quite alive in my game), I placed it in a place sacred to Tharizdun. I've been building up to this point for a very long time, and so revelations in Friday's session that the Doomdreamer elementalists that have been annoying the party for many, many sessions worship Tharizdun was not such a surprise to the group.

It's funny: I'm not a fan of the conflation of Tharizdun and the Elder Elemental God that occurred through 2E and 3E, but I am very much a fan of the 4E cosmology (which I've adopted wholeheartedly for my Greyhawk game, though the gods remain as they were in my 1983 boxed set). Thus, it seems that elements of the 2E/3E version are making their way into the game. I had Archibald (Adam's old PC, now a major NPC villain) turn up again, and the session ended with the group chasing him - and the Doomdreamers - off towards Verbobonc. My group doesn't have the Greyhawk lore that I do, though they're familiar with the bits they've played through, so the full implications of that place aren't immediately apparent to them; I'll make sure they are in the next session. There's a little village nearby that I think they'll be visiting soon...

Saturday afternoon was given over to playing boardgames. Jack was unexpectedly there, so Rich, Sarah, Jack and I played through two of AEG's Tempest line of games - Mercante and Courtier. Sarah found Mercante frustrating, but mostly because she was unfamiliar with the play of the game and the distribution of goods in shipments. She still won; I played a horrible game. I'm quite fond of games with auctions, and this one is a very elegant design. It isn't without flaws, but I've enjoyed the two games I've played of it.

In comparison, I really understand Courtier, and I ran away the winner of it - something like 32 points to 17 (Jack and Sarah), with Rich a long, long way behind. It's not a natural fit for Rich at all, and he's as bad at playing it as I'm as good. The Queen got arrested very early into the game, so it wasn't long at all.

The evening AD&D game saw nine players around my table; that number didn't include me as DM! Callan was away, as were Shane and Brodie, which meant that Callan's Rifts game would have taken away... one player. I would have still had eight players. Madness! I hardly expected the game to be so popular when I began it a year and a half ago, but it has proved to be so.

Due to having quite a few new players, the last few sessions have been lower-level games (with the experienced players taking the part of their henchmen), and we've gone through Castle Caldwell and the Lost Island of Castanamir. I'm really looking forward to returning to my proper campaign; I've put the PCs on fairly high XP gains so they'll be ready. 4th level characters can join an 8th level AD&D game and contribute; 1st level characters are just a bit too fragile.o o

I've also moved entirely to running the game using the reprint books, although I certainly have a lot of original books at home, the newness of the books speaks for a lot. I really like the cover designs as well (and those of the adventure reprints). I've now twice used dndclassics.com to download adventures for the group as I wasn't originally expecting to be running low-level PCs. Having my new Surface Pro has been an absolute boon, as it's so easy to use in place of a printed module; certainly in comparison to my laptop. Last session, I brought in the printed version of C3, which is still more convenient, but I didn't have it with me when I began the game.

D&D Next I'm playing primarily through D&D Encounters at present. The current season is massively more entertaining for me than the last; the mere fact that there are different factions struggling over the staff and that the players HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FIND THAT OUT means a hell of a lot. The holidays and midwinter have impacted our numbers somewhat, but we're still regularly getting two tables and might get back to three in the near future. The biggest problem we've been having relates to DM availability; one of my DMs hasn't made it for four weeks and another now has a job that conflicts. I still have two other options, but as we rarely have good notice, we're often running the sessions without good preparation. (Thankfully, they haven't been that difficult).

The D&D Next system still has problems, but they mainly relate to the maths. I'm very worried about the number of high-damage Area Effect spells the NPCs can cast; which, when coupled with the difficulty of saving throws, can cause a party to go from fully healed to dead with a poor initiative roll. I'm hoping the D&D Next team manages to fix this in the next packet.

It's really interesting how much I'm enjoying AD&D (and I look at Next through those eyes). I also really like 4e, with the exception of how slow combat can go. 3E is something of a dead system to me at the moment, though I think a very large part of my disenchantment with it is due to Paizo's philosophy of encounter design, which often boils down to "do you have spell X? If so, you can win. Otherwise, you'll lose". That's part of 3E in general, but my experiences with Paizo adventures is that they take it to extremes.

With any luck, Next will avoid that trap. (I don't mind monsters you need specific ways to take down; I hate them when taking them down is required by the adventure and it's a common occurrence).
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Mon Jul 22, 2013 4:45 am
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Dragonlance Adventures

Merric Blackman
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One of my at-yet-unrealised ambitions is to finally run all of the original Dragonlance adventures using the system in which they were designed. That would be the AD&D system, and it happens to be a system I'm currently running a campaign with (it's been going about 9-10 months), although I've dropped down to fortnightly sessions to allow some other campaigns (Rifts, Fantasy Hero) to run, and to allow me to play a few more board and card games.

One of the biggest problems with the Dragonlance settings to my mind is that, in the beginning, it was just a variant AD&D setting: you had kenders and draconians in it - and no orcs - but it basically used the AD&D rules.

This all changed with the release of the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover. DLA was basically TSR's first attempt to change the baseline rules of AD&D to fit another setting, including new classes, races and mixing things up even more, and it looks really, really cool - but, unfortunately, ends up creating a world that actually doesn't match what is going on in the novels or the original adventures. And then poisoned it for everything that came later.

DLA is also, in many ways, a preview of what would be going on with 2nd edition. Gary Gygax had included, in AD&D, "school" descriptors for the various spells, such as evocation. They didn't really have much effect. However, DLA actually decided to list all the schools and then limit the different types of Wizards of High Sorcery to certain schools of spells. Instant differentiation! Except, it's all sort of shit once you actually try to play those wizards. It also means that Raistlin couldn't actually cast a lot of the spells he does in the books, because a Red-Robed Wizard can't cast sleep (one of his signature spells in the novels).

The less said about the Knights of Solamnia the better, as they're meant to have all the cavalier abilities on top of their actual abilities. Yikes! The cavalier was one of the more broken classes out of Unearthed Arcana, and the write-up of the Knights manages to leave out a few rather key details. Not so good.

One good feature of DLA was the gathering of all the Non-Weapon Proficiencies from the Wilderness and Dungeoneering Survival Guides into one table. Not that I had the WSG at the time - I finally bought it last year. I think.

The original adventures and novels set, for me, the baseline of what Dragonlance should be. Beyond that, I'm not as interested - although I did play in a short-lived 3E Dragonlance game, which I enjoyed. However, I really, really want to run through the original saga at some point. There are twelve scenarios in it, and they should take about 4 sessions each; if I could do this as a weekly game, that'd be about a year to complete the entire thing. Two years if I had to do it on a fortnightly basis.

I'm fascinated to see how the players of today react to the adventures. There's a lot of scorn placed on the adventures today due to their railroading of players, but that's standard practice in the industry today. Paizo has made their business based on the back of railroaded adventure paths; so it shouldn't be an issue. Dragonlance doesn't make the mistake that the Avatar trilogy did of making the NPCs more important than the heroes; no, in Dragonlance, it's definitely the heroes that are at the front of the action.

The trick will be finding the players and the time. I'd say the optimal way of playing this would be using the original characters and a group-size of 6, with Flint and Tas being run by one player and Goldmoon and Riverwind by another. I wonder who would be interested?
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Tue Aug 21, 2012 3:56 am
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The Problem with Ability Score Bonuses in D&D and Pathfinder

Merric Blackman
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D&D has come a long way since its original presentation. Back in those days, the difference between a fighter with an 18 Strength and a fighter with a 9 Strength was the rate they gained experience points at; there was no modification to attack rolls from high strength.

Dexterity did allow a modifier to missile attack rolls, but it was at most a +1/-1 modifier.

In D&D 3E, it was possible for a character to reach a 34 Strength by 20th level, and thus gain a +12 bonus to attack (and a +18 bonus to damage if using a 2-handed melee weapon). How far we've come!

A lot of the trouble in 3E (especially) and 4E (to a lesser extent) come from the insane bonuses given by ability scores. Quite frankly, getting more than a +4 bonus is going to break the game, because it's so out of whack with your lower scores.

D&D revolves around the tension between Attack, Defense, Hit Points and Damage.

In AD&D, Attack overwhelms Defense for physical attacks for the most part as you go up in levels (though PCs tend to get better defenses than most monsters at high levels), but Defense wins against Attack for magical spells. It needs to, because low-level magic is just variant damage spells, but high-level magic is "save or die".

In 3E, Attack overwhelms Defense for all attacks, except when you break one of the defenses. It was extremely easy to break AC - I had a couple of characters that on-CR creatures needed 20s to hit, although they could hit the bard and magic-users of the group on rolls of 2. The overwhelming of Defense was a much bigger problem in 3E due to "save or die" spells still being on the lists.

In 4E, Attack and Defense *mostly* keep up with each other, except for stat-pairs you don't care about. A cleric's Reflex save is laughable at high levels. At least there aren't so many "defend or suck" monster powers.

But 3E and 4E both suffer from the "I'm a thief with a high Dex, my Reflex is great!" but "I'm a thief with a low Wis, my Will is horrible." At higher levels, you're looking at a gap of 8 for those defenses *just from ability scores*. Given that the "good" defense is often hit about 50% of the time, the "bad" defense is hit 90% of the time. (3E is actually even worse: the gap can be between a 34 and an 8 at level 20, or a massive 13 in bonus value and thus defense score).

3E "dealt" with this problem by making the game into "get the right magic" - so Freedom of Movement, Death Ward, etc. are required at higher levels just to stop all the Save or Suck spells, because no character has the ability scores to deal with all the attack types they might be hit by.

Limit ability bonuses to a maximum of +4 and you kill a lot of the problems the mathematics of the system throw up.

The real trick is working out what OTHER things will allow bonuses - something that the 3E designers failed to do. Having scores vary is great, but you need to understand how big the difference can be. +6 works great when ability scores are the only thing adding to defenses/attack, but much less well when feats, class abilities, magic items and spells also allow bonuses.

It's the entire package you need to look at. How poor should a low defense be and how good should a high defense be? Understanding that part of the mathematics is key to designing a new edition of D&D.
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Wed Jul 18, 2012 3:33 am
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Day of the Vorpal Sword

Merric Blackman
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Well, I've done something in my AD&D campaign that I've never done before in 30 years of gaming. Yes, I've given one of the PCs a vorpal sword.

This wasn't any of your "choose a treasure package" or "wish list" items; this was one randomly rolled on the AD&D DMG tables. (A 0.11% chance or approximately 1 in 900 chance). The character who took the item is all of 5th level.

And I'm fine with it. Really, really fine. There's no doubt that the weapon - with a 20% chance of beheading any human-sized-or-smaller creature and a 15% chance of beheading any larger-than-human monster with each attack - is an extremely good one which laughs in the face of balance, but it's going to be fun and memorable in the game, and it's rather unlikely that another one will enter the game.

Probably.

If the blasted thing does become just Too Good and sucking the fun from the campaign, I'll take steps, but as I'm mostly running an old-fashioned Dungeon Crawl Campaign, at the moment it's the thing that distinguishes Paul's character from all the other half-orc fighters in the group.

We're sixteen sessions into this campaign, which at times has two DMs, and 22 players have played at least one session. The "core" group is about 12 players who split time between the AD&D game and other games (Dresden Files and Scales of War 4E).

Meanwhile, after a bout of Illness and Easter, we'll finally get to the third session of our Pathfinder campaign this Sunday. Looking forward to that. Even though it doesn't have a VORPAL SWORD in it.

Anyway, does anyone want to guess as to how long it'll be before I get sick of the Vorpal Sword in the game? (And create immune-to-vorpal monsters? )
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Wed Apr 18, 2012 6:00 am
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A historical look at AC in D&D (part 1)

Merric Blackman
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Historically, Armour Class is derived from naval games (Fletcher Pratt, Jane's Fighting Ships) which Dave Arneson incorporated into his own naval design, and then passed on to D&D.

Original D&D Armour Class is not a feature of Gygax's and Perrin's Chainmail. Instead you have a table that cross-references the type of armour with the weapon used, the combinations are as follows:

Armours: None, Leather/Padded, Shield, Leather + Shield, Chain/Banded/Studded/Splint, Chain+Shield, Plate, Plate + Shield

By Original D&D, you get AC of 2-9 and the "to hit" tables give only those values. Of note, Dexterity gives *no* modifier to AC, a magic suit of armour subtracts its value from the "hit dice of the opponent", and magical shields have only a 33% chance of working (in which case they give their penalty to the attacker).

Supplement I: Greyhawk has a much greater range of magical armours, and has one of the clumsiest explanations ever as to how they work, using this table:

From gallery of MerricB


(It also has errata: Chainmail and +1 shield should be AC 3)

It's in AD&D that we finally get the cleaned up tables, AC now goes from 10 to -10 (rather than 9 to 2), and it'd stay that way (mostly) for the next twenty years, or thereabouts.

One of the interesting features of this is that every AC in original D&D (sans supplements) is in the range of 2-8.

With the expanded AC ranges from Greyhawk, you get the Will-o'-the-Wisp, with an AC of -8, the highest on the supplement's table, but there aren't many other monsters with negative ACs (the Platinum Dragon, with -3, is the next best).

Blackmoor is back in the 2-8 range, Eldritch Wizardry gives the first AC of actually 9 (the Succubus), and gives Demogorgon a fearsome -8 AC, with Orcus behind on -6. Finally, Gods, Demigods and Heroes incredibly goes back to the 2-9 range, with a few exceptions (and not gods - generally monsters), though some of the gods have magic armour that isn't factored into their AC - Odin has a helm +5 and mail +5!

So, onto AD&D where Gygax is drawing on the various work he and others have done for D&D. There's no AC 10 in the Monster Manual (but, to be fair, there's no AC 9 in the monsters in core OD&D either!) The Will-o'-the-Wisp retains its AC of -8, likewise the Platinum retains -3. Demogorgon and Orcus keep their respective ACs.

The tables in the DMG enshrined the -10 to 10 range of ACs, and a monster came out with a -10 AC not all that long after - Dave Sutherland's take on "Lolth" - from Q1. Also in 1980, RJK's and Jim Ward's revision of the deity supplement gave the gods ACs that weren't generally quite as impossible - Odin has AC -6 instead of his previous (effective) -8, although we get our first breaking of the -10 "cap" - Indra has an AC of -12!!

Indra's AC is actually correctly calculated for his +4 plate, +4 shield and 25 Dex (-6 def bonus).

However, it's debatable how many of these really low ACs belong to beings that will be fought...
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Tue Apr 10, 2012 9:44 am
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