Friday, January 24, 2020


Every time we game - and we've drifted through mashups of all kinds of D&Desque rules sets - from Black Hack and S&W, D&D B/X and AD&D 1st and 2nd ed, we've dabbled in fifth ed - as well as dropping in all kinds of house rules and other games' rules - critical hit/failure, DCC's magic system, the STUNT tables from Fantasy Age (using 3d6 for combat rolls no less...) and a million others.

For so many reasons, I want to go back to a fairly flexible, mostly rules-light system. I usually default to S&W with a bunch of house rules and that's okay. Most of what I been writing for publication has been in a houseruled S&W campaign world. 

So here's an idea for skills that keeps the idea of "rulings not rules" without getting too bogged down...maybe

On the character sheet are four columns with headings:

Very good at     Good at      Bad at     Very bad at

Maybe at the beginning of character creation could add one or two actions/skills in the good and the bad columns.  Like Good at swimming, running, bad at horseback riding, being quiet.

Good at skills come out at the player's discretion, bad at skills come out at the DM's discretion. 

When a roll is a critical success (Nat 20), the skill moves one column to the left, when a roll is a critical failure (Nat 1), it moves one column to the right. 

Being good or bad at something might make a +/-1 adjustment to the roll. Being VERY good or bad at something could use the advantage/disadvantage system. 

The DM might have a list of appropriate skills mapped out ahead of time or they could simply be the skills that come up during play. 

Say a character attempts to leap over a low wall and fails a dexterity check. No big deal, that's what we use the check for. BUT, suppose the player rolled a 1 on the check... then Bad at acrobatics or something could be added to the list (the player/DM would agree on the "skill" in question). Undaunted, the player tries the skill several more times (with a -1 penalty) and succeeds and fails a few times but eventually rolls a 20. He moves the skill over to "Good at". If he rolls another 20 he can become very good at the skill which gives him advantage and won't ever be reduced unless a double failure happens (two 1s) which move his skill back to the right (good at), etc. If you are very bad at something and you roll 2 20s, you shift it to the left, bad at...

Probably too complicated for a system that I want to be simple... 

But it'll be fun to playtest.

Friday, July 12, 2019

New Campaign... and so it begins again...

I've always had a soft spot for The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh - I bought it back in the day when it first came out and ran a couple parties through it over the years - though only one got through both parts. I have several times planted the adventure as part of a sandbox introducing new characters to a new campaign - sometimes they take the hook, often they don't.

So - my daughter has asked me to DM again - she just led some of her friends, brand new to RPGs, through a couple adventures for the Black Hack: Bloat Cave of the Man Flies and Prisoners of the Gelatinous Dome! They had a blast, but she said she missed playing (and felt a little overwhelmed running the game, even with the scaled down Black Hack rules).

So we're going to go through the U series as a sandbox. Yes, I bought The Ghosts of Saltmarsh - I'll be using it primarily for the village and some of the "other" adventures that I don't already own - but I'll use the originals for the "main" adventures.  Though even that's a bit of a misnomer, since it's mostly a sandbox that'll have tons of rumors and clues - there's about a dozen adventure opportunities (a certain reptile cult seems to be forming in Orlan... I mean Burle and there's been weird weather lately... like the very elements themselves are being stirred up... along with the regular humanoid incursion threats and the Lizard men and the Sea Devils and shipwrecks and, well, you get it).

So - here's the introduction for my daughter's party. We're going to start very prescriptive to give her group a strong hook to get them to the Saltmarsh area, but not so much that they will go right to the House on the cliff...

They will be approached by a man in a coach escorted by two of the Kingsguard.

Well, finally we meet.  You have been long away from home, it seems. Do you recognize the name Alvaro D’Alboran? You may not, indeed, as he died perhaps before you were born.  But rest assured, you would do well to remember the name, for he was your father’s, father’s brother, and, while you may indeed not know who he was, he has nevertheless provided an incredible opportunity for you.
 I hold here a writ, to the heirs of [your father], for a house and property near a little fishing town called Saltmarsh along the coast of the South Sea.
 As I understand it, your great-uncle died about 20 years ago. Alvaro was an alchemist of some renown, though not affiliated with the Alchemy Guild. The house on the coast is yours free and clear. But know this, it has stood empty for all these many years and it is certainly in need of repairs. Your great-uncle seems to have taken this into account as he has also left some money for you at the Chapel of St. Procan in the village of Saltmarsh. The exact amount is not given here, but I expect you will be able to care for the estate, should you choose to claim it.
 One other thing to note that you may not know. The law of the land is this: you must lay claim to your property within 60 days of receiving official notice of ownership. This is your notice. You have two months.
 Do you have any questions?

He knows:
·        Saltmarsh – where it is and how to get there; ruled by a town council elected from the prominent families; has a reputation of being friendly with the Sea Princes (pirates); is primarily a fishing village and a trader layover port
·        Uncle – disappeared about 20 years ago (actually 17 years ago) presumed dead; he was an alchemist, was very successful and was considered an enemy of the Alchemist Guild

He suspects:
·        Uncle may have been murdered (no evidence) – probably by the Alchemist Guild
·        House may have squatters or worse (monsters?)

He does not know:
·        Anyone in Saltmarsh
·        Where the house is located
·        What they have to do to claim the property (beyond showing the writ to the local authorities)
·        How much money is at the Chapel

He is willing to accompany the deed holder (for a significant fee) to verify the seal on the document if desired, though he is likely to be a liability on a journey: he is accustomed to certain amenities (a coach, sleeping at inns and wayhouses, warm meals) and he is a non-combatant (in fact, he is likely to faint or flee if combat occurs) with one exception – he will defend the weak or the helpless (not very effectively, but still…).

He is both a monk (of the order of St. Ashar) and a government official and he takes both of those roles very seriously so he will always tell the truth as he knows it and will always seek to uphold the law as he understands it.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Black Hack

So my daughter is having a game day with some kids from school today - mostly Playstation 'cause they're like 15 - but she asked me this morning (thanks for the notice!!) to print up some "D&D stuff" because the guys coming over want to try it out and she wants to try running a game.

She's played a dozen or so times with me under various cobbled together rule sets so I think she's ready to try... but not ready to digest a hundred pages of rules.

Enter the Black Hack.  Nicely streamlined with some new edition kind of features (advantage/disadvantage being the most obvious) and some neat quirks (I love the usage die idea and have adapted it in a couple of ways for my own use), the Black Hack has enough rules to get them started but is slim enough to digest and get ready on the drive (my daughter's school is 45 minutes away - so we'll be getting the guys - they will have that drive to digest the, what, like 8 or 10 pages of character stuff... and my daughter can take the whole hour and a half to get the rules and adventure ready...).

So I found her a couple of interesting but fairly simple introductory adventures and printed off some pregens (though I suggested she should have them roll characters - it should only take about 10 minutes...).

I'm going to have to fight my nature (to meddle) and let the adventure fly. I'll drop in and out of the game day (lots of meetings for me today) but I'm going to try to make sure I listen in a bit on the "D&D stuff."

Thanks David Black!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Chaos Theory

Caves of Chaos, that is.

I started in the Caves.  I'm pretty sure my first character died in the Kobold Caves (oh, the indignity!!).  I KNOW that I've been through the Caves four or five times (and we sacked the Keep at least twice...). Murder hobos indeed.

I was reading a post on the Hack and Slash Blog about the design of the Caves.  Good post. You should check it out. I know that B2 is often lifted up as a highpoint of adventure design.  And it IS the highpoint of a certain type of adventure design.  One many of us really enjoy. It's not how *I* write an adventure, but I do think it is a very useful (important factor - easy to use at the table) adventure.

And even though from an adventure standpoint it's pretty pedestrian - it WASN'T when it was published.

Still - not my point in this post.

I remember finally sinking my teeth into the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert sets and reading up on the monster descriptions (we all were both players and DMs back in the day - besides, they sold the box with both books so you read them both, right?) and thinking... I know these are the Caves of CHAOS but I don't think all these monsters would live together like this...

And I know over the ensuing decades this has been bandied back and forth a million times.  My turn to throw an idea out there (that has certainly been done before).

So there's this evil temple.  That's the key, right? I mean it's clearly the climax of the adventure - it IS the most interesting section with more words spilled on description than most of the other areas - it has arguably the most powerful opponents - maybe a single Minotaur or medusa would be more powerful than any one of the inhabitants of the Chapel - but taken together, this has always been the most serious challenge for parties in my experience.

The Chaos Chapel or whatever you want to call it is establishing a foothold in the region near the keep.  So what if none of these monsters has ever WANTED to live so close to one another - but are compelled to live under a vague and barely kept truce by the presence of the Temple.  What if the caves were originally home to two rival orc clans - two families (heck, the chieftains could have been cousins or brothers or whatever) who pledged allegiance to these powerful dark priests who wanted to use their caves as a base of operations... then the deal kept getting worse and worse as the priests moved in goblins and hobgoblins and gnolls and bugbears and kobolds. And the orcs don't like it -and occasionally take shots at the others (especially the really weak goblins and kobolods).  And all they really want is their caves back so they can go back to pillaging and plundering and doing their average orc stuff... No more of this "petitioning the dark forces of chaos" stuff...

So there could be a little more opportunity for interaction with an invading party - more dynamics.

None of that is expressly suggested in Gygax's design.  Which is what makes his design choices perfect for a certain type of play and a certain type of GM. Namely, the improvisational style. Anything can come out of emergent play - the party suggests something and GM runs with it, the GM adlibs a conversation and it becomes a thread for adventure, the GM misreads a description or mis-remembers a rule and off we go.  And that's fun.  But not for everyone.

I guess I've always kind of lived in between the extremes of prescriptive vs. emergent:

Prescriptive: everything is written out/encounters are planned/generally, actions are anticipated, the setting is limited ("there's some caves up north with monsters in them who shouldn't normally live together - I'll pay you for information or bounty on monster heads or..." something) - NOT railroading, just "this is the hook for tonight because this is what I've prepared'

Emergent: a generally setting is established, some possibilities are anticipated, ideas are sprinkled about and several/many hooks are dangled ("you overhear three conversations near you in the tavern - one about some crazy hermit in the woods and his cat, one about the monsters in the caves up north [said in an incredulous/doubting voice], and one about something happening down at the capital city, about the duke being abducted or threatened or something...") or however hooks get dangled in your games (the bulletin board with notices posted?).

Obviously, those are my definitions - and how I view the two ends of the spectrum on which I try slide in my gaming - and I'm somewhere in the middle. I am well aware that there are many definitions of play styles. 

This is MY continuum.

I've seen the paralysis of "here's a great big world, what do you want to do?" and the frustration with "here's a haunted house to explore... oh, you're not interested... um..." So I have always been somewhere in between.  I prepare the beginnings of an adventure - here's where you start and here are a bunch of options and if you want to do something different/unexpected, that's cool - just give me a minute (shuffle, shuffle - roll, roll). Okay - here we go. I've got SO MANY resources at my disposal that I think there isn't much that would derail an evening of gaming. It's still limited to what I'm prepared (mentally/experiential-ly/ that a word?) to run/play. 

So... I guess this has wandered a bit... sigh, the nature of a blog...

(NOTE - I had this in my draft folder from a couple weeks ago and just finished in this morning...)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mapping - Second Proof of Concept

Probably spent 20 minutes on this.  Trying different brushes, different ideas.  The underlying technique is still the same: tile the crosshatching as a background layer, draw the dungeon in white on another layer - use the white as a mask (matte) for the grid, outline the white in black, cover over the parts of the background I want "erased" (I prefer covering on the white layer because mistakes can easily be rectified).

Still not thrilled - I actually like my hand drawn maps better - but this is faster (especially without all the clean up of a scanned map) and pretty good.  I'll work on it to make it "good enough"...

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Mapping - Proof of Concept

Threw this together in GIMP in about 10 minutes to try a couple techniques to make quick maps.  I'm pretty happy with the concept, rough though it may be.  Maybe it's not a substitute for hand drawn maps but it's a pretty quick and dirty solution using pattern fill for the hatching and layers for the rooms, chambers, corridors...

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

OPD 15 Review - The Locked Library of Somi Bodleian

A hidden library where a wizard of no small skill is busy at work trying to translate spell books from her master whom she betrayed and killed.  She is aided by sorcerous fairies who spring traps and generally irritate intruders.

Organization: Map top left, background/"hook" top right, map key bottom.

Clarity: The map.... sigh.  I'm sure at a better resolution than I have it (I got this off the OPD website so I don't know what's going on) it looks nice.  It's almost unreadable.  Like you're looking at things through a sheet of ice... That said, the writing is generally pretty clear, explaining some of the fuzzy blobs on the map in a way that I got the gist of the place.

Usefulness: Well... if I wanted to plant a Maguffin somewhere and send the party off to look for it, this might be at the end of the rainbow.  It's okay.  I don't like the heavy reliance on teleporters and the "magic won't open this" locks.  I did rather like the surprise in the treasure room, but it won't be to everyone's taste.  The "boss" encounter is okay. The fact that tactics are mentioned (briefly) is a good touch. 

Subjective: This shows me what makes the old school blue/black and white maps much simpler to use - even when the resolution is low, you don't lose so much you can't use it.  I imagine that this map is rendered nicely - tiles and gold piles and book shelves and portals.  I guess I might index this as a "lair" maybe for a random encounter or, as I said above, housing a Maguffin.  "The Spellbooks of Damaraiausouondon the Unpronounceable" or something...

Affiliate link to the 2009 OPD Compendium