Monday, April 16, 2018

In Praise of Carl Sargent

I'm a big fan of Carl Sargent's work for D&D. In the mid-1980's to 1990's he worked for both Games Workshop and TSR. At GW he worked on the Fighting Fantasy books (under the pseudonym Keith Martin). At TSR, he worked on numerous setting/adventure books for Greyhawk, such as the From the Ashes boxed set (something of an attempt to resurrect Greyhawk after it was razed in Greyhawk Wars), Iuz the Evil, The City of Skulls, and the Night Below boxed mega-adventure. He also wrote PC2, Top Ballista, and co-wrote GAZ 13 The Shadow Elves, for the BECMI D&D line.

I find that Sargent's work is, without fail, incredibly careful, thoughtful, detailed, and with near encyclopedic awareness of the prior game literature (e.g., whether working in the campaign world of Greyhawk or the Known World or whatever). He also has a real streak of imagination. For example, I recently read PC2 Top Ballista, which is a fanciful and attractive product (I would not want to write it off as a total joke, as one might from the title and cover). I honestly enjoyed the rocket-powered flying city, skygnomes with a biplane aerial academy, and the great library with its centuries-old undead floating-head librarian (get it?) armed with silence and death spells. At the same time, he presents alternative rules for falling clearly based on real-world speed/times, some obvious research into early biplane fighters, etc.

I might guess that Sargent's legacy for D&D is unfortunately constrained by having worked in a very conservative era for TSR: in the shadow of Gygax's departure, in an artistic contraction from the culture wars of the 80's, with very restrictive design dictates that ultimately wanted all the products to be PG-rated at best. His 165-page source book for the Great Kingdom, Ivid the Undying, was cancelled by TSR circa 1993 and never published (although later released as a free download online).

My general instinct is that Carl Sargent is a writer very much after my own heart. I would have liked to see what he'd create for D&D in a less restrictive context.

However, here's the surprising thing that I just learned: Sargent also held a PhD in parapsychology, and was quite a major figure in experiments claiming to show evidence for psi-powers, remote sensing, ESP, etc. He appears in the Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. His experiments claimed among the highest effect sizes for remote-sensing, until scientist Susan Blackmore visited his lab in the 90's and pointed out numerous violations of protocol (actually terminating her own prior belief in the paranormal). Sargent left the field after that, and at the moment I can't find any information on what he's done since then.

The one additional kick is that I can't help but note that Top Ballista (1989) is riddled with lots of ESP-type powers and counter-powers. Perhaps even better, he features a new equipment item for the tinker/mechanic skygnomes, the Skyhook Set, "essential for best use of the Machine Building skill... an old gnome saying is 'a good gnome needs naught but skyhooks'". Then in Susan Blackmore's essay on his work (2001), she cites the philosopher Daniel Dennett as asserting of the parapsychologists: "they are looking for 'skyhooks' rather than 'cranes.'". Weird echoes in a crazy world. Maybe some actual belief in the supernatural is of benefit to a fantasy game writer.

Carl Sargent, we miss you!


Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Master's Monastery, Ep. 3

Apru 7-8, 4729.
  • Personae: Brother Maccus (Human Ftr2), Long Tim (Hobbit Ftr2), Aslak the Unclean (Dwarf Wiz2), Tia Birdfoot (Elf Wiz1/Thf3). The party pays living expenses for the past 3 weeks, deletes any rations on record, buys two new potions of healing from the local witch, and then proceeds to the monastery ruins. 
  • Descending into the cellars beneath the ruin, Tim notes in the entry chamber that the pile of bones and skins seems larger than last time. The group skirts the wall to avoid it.
  • Eagerly proceed to the bandits lair, where the chief and servant boys were trapped to their doom in panic room (storage crates stacked over trap door). Distressed to discover that they have chopped their way out with an axe, writing "I will return a**holes" on the wall on chalk. Aslak adds "Wangs" to the graffitti. Open the inner trap door and a stone-weight of iron balls pour out on their heads: 4 points of damage to Aslak & Maccus. Treasure is gone.
  • Listen at a nearby door and hear dastardly goblins within in. Break open the door; Aslak casts sleep and 5 of 6 goblins hit the floor; Maccus cleaves the last one in twain with a sword. No treasure found.
  • Twenty feet later, at an intersection, Tia's keen ears detect more goblins, possibly lying in wait, to the west. Party goes south instead to a goblin storage room piled high with boxes, barrels, and sacks; no exit to be seen. At this point the half-dozen goblins cut off the intersection, and throw darts at them; all miss. Aslak charms the largest goblin (whose language he speaks); Maccus and Tim charge into the front row of spears and chop down two goblins. Morale for the others breaks, and they retreat to their guard chamber.
  • Charmed goblin, Ambros, is interrogated and says the goblins have a treasure chest, trapped with darts, unless the proper key is used. Also informs them that further east there are "giant goblins" (bugbears), which concerns party. Looking down the west corridor, they see overturned tables and beds, goblin-spears, and goblins warning them off. Party calls out to turn over treasure; reaction dice say cowed goblins comply. They push out chest and throw the key. Inside: 2,000 cp and 50 gp. Party loads up sacks with treasure, tells Ambros to rejoin friends and murder any bandits if they show up again.
  • Return to village. Treasure split up. Long Tim levels up to 3rd (Swordsman). Tia throws celebration; sets tradition of leveled-up member being forced to eat bowl of garlic and then down a quart of wine. Discussion of whether only one clove of garlic, or one per level. In interest of time, Maccus and Aslak drink healing potions so as to return next day.
  • Return to dungeon and corridors further west. First corridor finds flickering red light to south. Proceeding, look in half-dozen cells on each side; barred windows with an old corpse in each shackled to wall. In end room: a table with two skeletons in chainmail, slumped in chairs, and a fist-sized glowing red gem! 
  • Party suspects trap. Maccus notes doors to cells are unlocked; Aslak pounds spikes in to shut them. Takes pole and pokes gem which rolls off table; dead skeleton guards begin cackling hysterically; unshackling and pounding sounds from behind. Party grabs gem and runs, but Maccus is slow. Rolls for animate corpses to force open doors; 3 succeed, cutting off Maccus from rest of party. First one is stout and takes distressing punishment; dagger stuck in skull, arrow shot through throat, and two magic missile spells before he goes down. Another lurches through door but Maccus cuts that down with one stroke. Party escapes. Gem found to be clear glass with magic light that flickers red.
  • Further east, party sneaks past pair of wood-store chambers with many giant fire beetles. Enter large storage hall with mostly empty and smashed crates along walls, stretching to south. Exit via side door to west.
  • First small room: Pile of smashed wood, wood and walls stained reddish up to waist height. Second room: A 10' wooden vat with brass pipe through south wall. Following pipe: A room with 5' depressed floor, a few inches of filthy water within. Aslak steps through to look around next corner. Surprised to find himself trapped by giant acid amoeba, his boots already disintegrating off his feet! Party jumps to rescue, Maccus tries but fails to pull him out. Chops with daggers and swords, lantern fire applied to no effect. Aslak gruesomely consumed by the ooze, skin and flesh sliding off his bones. Tim finally chops the thing to death, but his sword disintegrates into fragments in the slimy mass.
  • Party proceeds past room with several old empty barrels. Enters large L-shaped chamber with many old barrels in wall racks, mostly broken and empty. Turns corner to find many nests in the barrels; 3 stirges appear. New dwarf shows up: Jam Falcon, "Hey, watch out for those stirges!"; throws dagger, bit by stirge for 6 points, immediately dies. Swordsmen chop two down; 5 more fly out to attack. Party runs and succeeds at slamming door shut to cut them off.
  • New dwarf shows up: Banjo Saskin. Conveniently brings spare sword for Long Tim. Group proceeds back to storage chamber, finds three doors in lower part of large chamber (east, south, and west). Listening at central door, succeed at hearing normally quiet bugbear voices. Try to force open door, Maccus fails initial roll. Group runs to westernmost door and bursts into same room that way, catching bugbears ambushing first door by surprise. Banjo charms bugbear in center of room (DM note: winds of magic say this is a one-time occurrence). Group mass-fires attacks at bugbear near door to no effect; he twists and dodges, several arrows sunk in door. Smashes Maccus in armored leg with large spiked mace; rather frail Maccus reduced to 1 hit point. Bugbear at other side of room throwing spears. Charmed compatriot attacks him, misses. Maccus, Tim, and Tia finally fell first bugbear. Tia hides behind boxes for backstab. Tim and Maccus cut down the remaining one.
  • Treasure chest found; searching for traps, skittering sound within. Charmed bugbear interrogated; what is it? Pet giant centipede. Any way to prevent it from coming out? No, it always jumps out tries to bite the opener. Bugbear opens chest and giant poisonous centipede indeed jumps and furiously bites neck, arms, ears, etc; thick-skinned bugbear laughs it off and offers party to pet it. Party declines and takes treasure instead; 1,000 sp and 100 gp. Bugbear ordered to stay and kill any human bandits he sees.
  • Back at village, party splits treasure and XP. Brother Maccus becomes 3rd level (Swordsman). Arranges room at inn to rest & recover, as he will require 4 weeks to heal from his fractured leg and other injuries.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Improv and RPGs at Paul's Gameblog

In which a sharp lesson is delivered about inviting Yours Truly to be a player in one's game:

Monday, April 9, 2018

Monster & Treasure Assessment

The goal of the D&D game is, in some sense, revolves around the monsters and treasure. We defeat monsters, and accumulate their treasure. These are precisely the two things that generate XP in classic D&D.

The goal of this blog, as is perhaps obvious, is generally to analyze the system present in Original D&D. However, at its essential root, we are forced to admit the following (despite what appears to be a system of well-defined tables and the like): the quantification of both monsters and treasure in Original D&D is ultimately by DM fiat. In some sense, there is really no well-defined system for either of these subjects in the books. Let’s take a closer look.

Monster Numbers

The guidance on populating dungeons is in OD&D Vol-3, “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”. The subsection, “Distribution of Monsters and Treasure” is near the start of the book. For the moment, let’s just focus on its advice regarding monster quantity. It says (p. 6):

The monster(s) can be selected by use of the Monster Determination & Level of Monster Matrix which is given later in this booklet. The number of monsters is best determined by the level being considered and the kind of monster inhabiting the room or space. The Monster Table from Volume II can be most helpful here.

Note the second sentence here: it is essentially just a call for DM’s to make a subjective judgment call (no real system quantification). We might then look to the third sentence and direction to the Vol-2 “Number Appearing” statistics, but Vol-2 itself contraindicates such usage for dungeon encounters; the footnote there says, “Referee's option: Increase or decrease according to party concerned (used primarily only for out-door encounters)” (p. 4). So then we might attempt to follow the first sentence above, and refer to the Vol-3 random monster determination section (p. 11):

Number of Wandering Monsters Appearing: If the level beneath the surface roughly corresponds with the level of the monster then the number of monsters will be based on a single creature, modified by type (that is Orcs and the like will be in groups) and the number of adventurers in the party. A party of from 1-3 would draw the basic number of monsters, 4-6 would bring about twice as many, and so on. The referee is advised to exercise his discretion in regard to exact determinations, for the number of variables is too great to make a hard and fast rule.

Now the advice in the first sentence here fundamentally makes no sense as a balancing principle. If Orcs are the same individual strength as some other 1st-level monster – Spiders, for one example – then you simply cannot have the former appear in large numbers, and the latter in isolation, and have them both represent the same level of danger. But the rest of the advice here does synchronize and basically repeat comments elsewhere in important ways (ways which one might not expect, judging from later published adventures). To wit: (1) The number of monsters should be scaled to however many PC adventurers show up (as in the footnote in Vol-2, p. 4). (2) The number of monsters is ultimately up to the DM’s discretion, with no “hard and fast rule” one way or the other (echoing Vol-3, p. 6).

Treasure Value

Now we turn to the other half of the adventuring and XP equation: treasure. First of all we must dissect the fact that OD&D has two competing treasure tables: one in Vol-2, p. 22 (the “Treasure Types” table), and the second in Vol-3, p. 7 (no title, but the first column is denoted “Level Beneath Surface”). To cut to the heart of the matter: all evidence is that the former is for wilderness adventures, and the latter for dungeon adventures (that being in the “THE UNDERWORLD”, subsection “Distribution of Monsters and Treasure”). The clearest statement comes from the AD&D Monster Manual, which we consider to be continuous and a clarification of OD&D rules (p. 5):

TREASURE TYPE... it must be stated that treasure types are based upon the occurrence of a mean number of monsters as indicated by the number appearing and adjustments detailed in the explanatory material particular to the monster in question. Adjustment downwards should always be made for instances where a few monsters are encountered. Similarly, a minor adjustment upwards might be called for if the actual number of monsters encountered is greatly in excess of the mean. The use of treasure type to determine the treasure guarded by a creature in a dungeon is not generally recommended.

This specification is in line with the somewhat more cryptic advice on monster “Number Appearing”  in Vol-2, above (“used primarily only for out-door encounters”). We conclude that the entire Vol-2 system of monster numbers, in-lair %, and treasure types, is for use only in the outdoor wilderness setting. Another point of evidence comes from the D&D Monster & Treasure Assortment product, for use in keying dungeons only (introduction, 1st paragraph), which was produced by a school-aged Ernie Gygax rolling on that Underworld treasure table in Vol-3, and not by monster Treasure Types (Ernie remembers it was in the LBBs, per message on Facebook 2/19/18, but not the exact table – although we can logically deduce it was from Vol-3, because that’s the only one keyed to dungeon level as is M&TA). A third point of evidence is in Strategic Review #1 (1975), p. 4: the solo-dungeon system specifies treasure with monsters as "According to the type indicated in D&D, Vol. III for 'Outdoor Adventures' with pro rata adjustment for relative numbers." (A little scrambled, because treasure types are in Vol-2, and here they are in fact being used in the dungeon; but the intent seems clear that by design treasure types are for outdoor adventures, and also scaled by monster numbers, as in the later MM.) In AD&D, the dungeon treasure table is missing from the core DMG text (excepting perhaps one in Appendix A), so a pure AD&D player can be forgiven for not knowing where there was any positive rule for dungeon treasure.

At any rate, the dungeon treasure concepts are in that critical OD&D Vol-3 subsection. The “Level Beneath the Surface” table provides a way to randomize silver, gold, gems/jewelry, and magic based on the dungeon level – but this is indicated only for secondary, random fill-ins. The main advice comes a few paragraphs before that (p. 6):

The determination of just where monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can become burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time. It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monsterous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level. Naturally, the more important treasures will consist of various magical items and large amounts of wealth in the form of gems and jewelry. Once these have been secreted in out-of-the-way locations, a random distribution using a six-sided die can be made...

So the foundational process is really this stage in which the DM must “thoughtfully place” the most important (largest?) treasures... and apparently this could be anything, as no further quantification of this advice is given. In fact, consider the following: in the random determination method, the vast majority of the treasure value is in the very rare, very high-value gems and jewelry. Compared to the overall “average” treasure there, any treasure with gems has double the expected value; and any treasure with jewelry has about ×20 the expected value. So if we take the quoted advice above in the most literal sense, then Gygax is recommending that the foundational DM-placed treasures represent anywhere between ×2 and ×20, or more, in gold value compared to the treasure that appear in the random table. It could legitimately be almost anything and still be in line with the rules-as-written.

What are some of your rules-of-thumb for quantifying the “most important treasures” and monsters in an OD&D dungeon?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Cubical Dice Through the Ages

Small joke here: not a true "Through the Ages" post looking at various editions of D&D, but rather an actual academic study by professor Jelmer Eerkens on the changing shape, size, and design of cubical dice from antiquity to the modern day. Fascinating stuff. From the abstract:
Cubic dice were brought by the Romans to the Low Countries, and are found in small numbers at many archaeological sites dating to the last 2000 years. We report on a systematic analysis of 110 well-dated dice from the Netherlands, showing that shape, pip configuration, and pip style changed significantly for bone and antler dice from the Roman to the recent historical period. Dice predating 650 CE are highly variable in all attributes, those dating between 1100 and 1450 are highly standardized, and those post-dating 1450 CE are standardized for some attributes, such as symmetry and configuration, but variable for others, such as material type. There is also a major shift from “sevens” to “primes” and back to “sevens” pip configuration across these temporal windows, and pip style was simplified over time from a dot-ring-ring pattern to simple dots.
(Hat tip: Jon Miller.)

Monday, April 2, 2018

On the Clock

For your consideration: I've fallen into a thing with wandering monster checks in my recent games, that I've never seen anyone else do. I broadly assume that adventurers are exploring a dungeon in real-time (however long they take to decide and interact with me), and time the wandering monster checks with my watch, every 15 minutes. In fact, I'll even tell the players exactly how much time to the next check on occasion. Checks themselves are rolled in the open; standard 1 in 6 chance. (Checks are waived while in combat mode; this can be adjusted to taste, but I like the simplicity.)

The reason I'm doing this is to combat my own cognitive biases about perception of time as the DM. We're all familiar with the advice that if the action drags, the DM can start rolling dice as a random encounter threat (possibly real or vacuous) to hasten the action. For example, DMG p. 97 cautions about a "boring session", and suggests, "Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice... might suffice."

But the problem with that is that the DM's perception of "boring" may not be exactly the same as the players'. If the players are deeply engaged with strategizing and planning, or character role-playing if that's what they like, or whatever, then perhaps that's not so bad a thing after all. While I want to be hospitable and support all of that, I'm just a bit suspicious that my own sense of time might be different while I'm not on the critical path of the action. And I don't want to prioritize my own sense of what the pace should be over everyone else's.

So, keeping the wandering checks (such that there's a legitimate pressure to use time wisely and proceed forward at some positive pace), but putting them on a strict clock (so as to make the pacing objective and not tainted by the DM's sense of time), seems to feel very nice right at the moment. This is a very "gamey" strategy, in line with my tendency to make almost all dice rolls in the open, to try to make the mechanics as transparent as possible, etc., and likely not suited for "deep narrative storytelling" type style. But if you're reading this blog, that latter description probably doesn't apply to you anyway. Consider it for a session and tell us how it feels.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Master's Monastery, Ep. 2

Mars 15, 4729.
  • Two weeks elapsed. Brother Marcus (human fighter with low constitution), still convalescing from sprained wrist in last adventure. Bawk Grueber (human fighter) retired. Tia Birdfoot (elven thief/wizard), in parts unknown.
  • Adventure group of 4: Long Tim (hobbit fighter), Tahj Birdfoot (elven fighter/wizard), Aslak the Unclean (dwarven wizard), Penrod Pulaski (human thief). Everyone buys a potion of healing from local witch with money from last adventure. Group considers but declines advertising for hired help.
  • Travel to the monastery, enter the main cathedral, mostly open, grassy. Search presbytery at end with raised platform. Attacked by stirges flying down from high remnant of ceiling. Party mostly specializes in ranged weapons; various arrows and daggers shot. 3 of party are struck by stirges. Tahj is hit for critical, 96% result: "larynx punctured"; no speaking or spellcasting.
  • Long Tim shoots the stirge out of Tahj's neck with a perfectly-placed arrow (triple damage critical, 15 points). Others manage to wrestle out stirges and snap their necks. Tahj drinks her potion of healing; larynx magically heals. 
  • Enter a side room, stumble upon two giant pony-sized hogs hungrily emptying out buckets of grain by old statue of stern man in robes. They leap to the attack; Tim takes vicious charge directly in breastplate; Tahj casts sleep and one saves (the other slumbering). Tim scores a mighty attack with his normal sword used double-handed (8 points), the others surround and stab it to death.
  • Stairs discovered. Lantern lit, the group descends.
  • Entry room with webs. Group carefully and quickly edges along the wall and out a side corridor.
  • Past a door, party gains a partial map, decide to follow it.
  • Map leads to large, totally empty room. Party search for secret doors or traps but find nothing. Decide to backtrack.
  • Party attacked by cat-sized, poisonous arachnid. Manages to bite both Aslak and Penrod; each of their saves vs. instant death is the exact number needed to survive. Nonetheless each take significant wounds before the thing is dispatched. Some small treasure found.
  • East and north lead to the edge of the presumed map space and two doors. Hear indistinct voices to the west. Open door, see lit room some 60' distant. Consider sending thief to creep in, but then Tahj shot by crossbow bolt (glances off armor). Aslak casts charm person, target fails save, beckoned to approach. Other men heard calling after him. Made to say he is going to latrine; another man follows, saying it isn't safe. Party lurks on other side of door; as men exit, Penrod grabs second man from behind, covering mouth, backstab is fatal.
  • Charmed man, Franz, questioned by new best friends. Explains general banditry principles; and hunt for legendary gemstone. Plans hatched. Franz calls down corridor, says Oskar (actually dead) has fallen and needs carry to bed. Three men exit without shields and almost surprised. Penrod gets caught behind door as it slams open. Franz attacks former friends. Tim takes glancing blow off iron helmet. Various daggers and arrows cut down the bandits and they slouch to the earth. Penrod loots bodies of a few silver pieces.
  • Problem: Franz tells group that his sergeant, with pay chest and two aides, is holed up in "panic room" nearby. Considered stratagems: (1) have Franz lure them out, saying other bandits encountered with treasure, (2) set fire to inner door, (3) spike door shut and siege them into submission, (4) saw through door and pay chest on other side, etc. Plan (1) attempted; sergeant opens door for Franz to enter and consult, then kills him (reaction roll: 3 out of 12, "Hostile reaction").
  • Aslak tries plan (2), spikes inner door shut. Various and sundry threats delivered in both directions. Drives a spike through into pay chest. A few silver coins spill out. Spikes hole bigger, hoping to grab mass of cash. Chest removed, Aslak jumps away as sword thrust through hole. Various other threats in both directions. Claim that party has 20 fighting men and 5 wizards not found credible per dice.
  • Party backtracks into bunk room, piling multiple heavy crates against outer door, sealing it shut. Plan is to return in some weeks after sergeant and aides starved to death.
  • Nearby tool room found; amidst junk, workable saw and drill found. Also chest: trap found, wire connected to scythe hanging on wall overhead. Wire cut safely, but chest found empty (after various searching for secrets).
  • Long eastern corridor explored. Wood store (rotting logs, worms, moths, etc.) discovered with giant glowing beetle; bypassed. Second wood store found; beetles here attack on sight. Tim cracks open first beetle with one blow, but 5 more scuttle up out of wood pile. "We don't want to fight an endless number of increasingly aggressive beetles", says Aslak. Party runs away (all at full 12" movement, faster than beetles, so automatic escape). 
  • Party looks down two other southern corridors on way to exit. Numerous doors found. Listen at one; goblin voices heard (Aslak knowing the tongue).
  • Party returns to village with little new cash, but several combats. 450 XP, 25 silver pieces each.