Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alchemists of the Rainy City

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'll probably want to include an Alchemist character class in the campaign. Because so many spells and magic items will be unique, I like the idea of having a few magical effects that are reliable. Potions, produced by alchemists, are a good fit. So I've gone through and reviewed the various versions of the class available in Dragon Magazine articles (issues 2, 45, 49, and 130). I was a bit surprised (though maybe I shouldn't have been?) to find that the best version of the class for my purposes turns out to be the oldest, written by Jon Pickens for issue 2 of Dragon Magazine. I may want to borrow this or that trait from the later classes (the version in issue 130 has a good treatment of alchemical equipment and materials), but the Pickens version seems to be the best starting point for what I'm looking for. 

The alchemist can do things like detect and neutralize poisons, identify potions, and neutralize paralysis (non-magical paralysis only, though I'm personally inclined to allow any paralysis to be neutralized with a successful roll), as well as being able to craft known potions at a rate and cost of 1 week + 200 gp per level of the potion. This latter ability reminds me of the Holmes D&D rules for wizards scribing scrolls, which require 1 week + 100 gp per level of the spell scribed. 

The full class is a bit idiosyncratic, with a fighter's saves (+2 vs poison and paralyzation), a cleric's attack levels and hit dice, a maximum AC of 5 (chain mail, presumeably),  and the use any one-handed weapon (but not magical swords). The alchemist may use those magic items that are available to all classes, with a few exceptions, and its XP progression is close to that of Thieves, at least until name level is reached. It's a bit of a grab bag set of characteristics, and this is one place where the other three versions of the class are more coherent (all three other versions treat the Alchemist as essentially a "subclass" or relative of the Magic User). 

In summary format, Pickens's alchemist has the following abilities:

The Alchemist
Prime Requisite: Wisdom
Hit Dice: 1d6 per level up to 9th, +1 per level beyond 
Armor: Leather and chainmail only, shield not permitted
Weapons: Any missile weapon; any one-handed melee weapon
Saves: As Fighter, +2 vs Poisons and Paralysis
Attacks: As Cleric

LEVEL 1: Read Langauges (80% chance, one attempt per week per item), Prepare poisons and drugs, prepare a Potion of Delusion
LEVEL 3: Prepare potions and acids
LEVEL 5: Prepare Blade Venom
LEVEL 7: Read Magic (and hence, scrolls) as Thieves
LEVEL 9: Prepare potions from samples

The Alchemist's level progression can be found here

I'm tempted to mess with this a little. In particular, I prefer not to have to make the distinction between "magical" and "non-magical" paralysis. I'll just allow the alchemist to deal with paralysis of any sort. As far as larger changes go, I'm tempted to say that the alchemist's hit dice, attack ranks, saves, weapons, and armor should just default to those of a core class (Thief seems like a good fit to me, not least because it has a similarly fast XP progression). I'm open to persuasion otherwise, though.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Rainy City

The Rainy City will be the setting for our "one of a kind" campaign framework. It's a place where each spell, magic item, and monster is (usually) unique, and where most of the real monsters are men. It's a little bit elemental, a little bit post-apocalyptic, and a little bit weird. It's meant to be a staging ground for an urban D&D campaign centered on robberies and intrigues.

It's the end of the world. It always rains. Rain beats against the walls. It seeps through the shutters. It pours off the mossy backs of the gargoyles. It turns streets into streams and rivers.

Teetering, damp towers lean against rotting townhouses. Servants dash through storms on petty errands. Fireplaces sputter weakly, and spellbooks filled with moldy spells rot in spite of the protections lavished on them for their precious contents.

The great school of magic used to be here. But that was before the world ended and the rains came. Now the old school is mostly under the bay, its secrets ruined and lore lost. Oh, a few of the highest towers peak out of the waters, testifying to its presence. Ferrymen use the towers as moorings and wayposts when the rain and fog make navigating the bay treacherous. But the school is from a past world.

But there is magic here. Wizards hide themselves away in their damp townhouses, each one jealously guarding the few secrets he still has, scrounging and scheming for more. The richest men live on the three peaks on the north bay, where the rains pour off the dark rocks in waterfalls. The poorest live in the sump, a low lying slum that is as much a swamp as it is a city. The desperate, striving tradesmen build their townhouses in rings that cling to the lower slopes of the peaks. Strange foreign merchants dock but rarely stay. The incessant gloom and rain drive all but the greediest or most hopeless men to move on as quickly as they come.

Rainwater pours off the backs and from the mouths of the gargoyles that decorate the stone towers and keeps. They plot too. Some say said they plot to destroy the city, but wizards sometimes hire them to keep watch over their petty secrets, anyway. Most find that rough men are security enough. Violence comes easily to them, and they care little for sorceries. But thieves can make a fortune here, if they are quick and clever. From the lowliest medium to the greatest wizard, the mages hire experts to steal spells and enchanted items from their enemies. And from their friends.

It's the end of the world. The rain never stops. And there's no one left to trust in but yourself.

Monday, March 23, 2009

One of a Kind Magic Items

Magic items are probably the easiest thing to deal with in a "one of a kind" campaign. The game rules already come with random tables, making placement a snap, and you can easily put a little pencil mark or other note next to items when they're rolled up. If you roll the same item twice, you can just have a system (like, "move to the next item on the list"), and you're set. 

There are a few decisions left, but relatively few. What about +x weapons and armor? Is there only one +1 weapon in the world, one +2 weapon, etc., or is it that there's a +x weapon of each type (a +1 dagger, a +1 sword, etc.)? What about potions? What about scrolls? 

There's no "right answer" here, of course. Here's how I'm planning on doing it. I'll be using the "Encyclopedia Magica" four volume set of magic items, and the tables in Volume 4 handily separate out the simple "+x weapon type" items from specific named weapons or weapons with specific qualities. I'll just be using the tables for specific items, treating each one as unique. 

Potions I plan to make an exception to the rule: there can be multiple instances of potions. I like this for a few reasons. One, since I'll be going "one of a kind" with the availability of most spells in the setting at the start of the game, potions allow characters access to a few common, repeated effects. This takes the edge off the harder limits placed on spell availability. Also, potions are limited use items but are available regardless of class. They're also limited in terms of how many you can really expect to carry around at a given time, and they're often found in fragile containers. They strike a good balance: not likely to proliferate too much, but able to open up some of the possibilities that the "one of a kind" campaign framework otherwise restricts. 

Alchemists can create the potions. For internal consistency, it may be necessary limit this "common set of potions" to the set of potions that can be created by an "Alchemist" character class. It may not do to have potions reproduce spell effects that are quite rare. Who is making these potions? Luckily, there have been four different versions of the alchemist class in various Dragon Magazine articles (issues #3, 45, 49, and 130), and I'm looking at those now. 

Scrolls are another issue. But I'll push those off for when I'm talking about magic user spells. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beard of Elminster

Magic User Spell, Level 1

Beard of Elminster
Range: 0
Duration: 4d6 turns
Effect: the magic user only

Upon casting this spell, the magic user grows a full, flowing beard that exudes confidence and masculinity. For the duration of the spell, the magic user is considered to have a Charisma of 18 (and thus a +3 bonus to Reaction Rolls) in his dealings with lusty wenches. 

The material component for this spell is a pinch of pipe tobacco, which is smoked for one turn while the beard grows in. 

As is often true of such potent dweomers, the casting of this spell is not without risk. Each time it is cast, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the spell will draw the attention of Elminster himself. If this happens, Elminster appears, chides the caster, and takes the pipe tobacco for his own use. 

And probably the lusty wenches, too. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Combat at best is something to be done quickly so as to get on with the fun...

Going through some old White Dwarf magazines, I stumbled across this letter from Gary Gygax responding to a (quite critical) article about combat in D&D, written by Roger Musson. This argument about realism in D&D is an old one (clearly), and you'll probably recognize some of the themes, which are still being earnestly repeated today. I've reproduced Gary's letter in its entirety, with no changes to formatting. All emphasis is from the original. 

What strikes me is the comment quoted in the title of this post. While I recognize the danger of taking a specific, context-bound argument and treating it as if it's a "true" revelation about someone's overall opinions, I still find this comment on the place of combat in D&D worth quoting. 

White Dwarf #7, June/July 1978, Letters, p. 11

Dear WD,

I read the article Combat and Armour Class by Roger Musson with considerable dismay. It appears that the good gentleman does not know what D&D is all about.

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game, of course, and this most reasonably indicates that statements regarding "realism" in a game must go out the window. (Quite frankly, there is no game with any true realism in it, or it would be real and not a game. Folks seeking realism should go and participate in whatever the game is based on, if possible, viz. if they are looking for realism in wargames they should enlist in the military service.) It got worse thereafter.

D&D is a HEROIC fantasy game. Who can slit Conan's throat at a blow? The examples are too numerous to mention, but the point is that the game is aimed at allowing participants to create a heroic character who is not subject to some fluke. Getting killed requires a lot of (mis-)play in most cases. How does the fighter escape the dragon's breath? The same way other superheroes do – bending a link of chain or slipping into an unnoticed crevasse in the rock he was chained to or whatever, i.e. the same way all other larger-than-life sword & sorcery heroes manage to avoid certain death. 

In summation, most players find that the game of seeking and gaining, with the ensuing increase in character capability is the thing. Combat at best is something to be done quickly so as to get on with the fun, and IT MUST NOT BE LOADED SO AS TO GIVE PLAYERS NO CHANCE TO ESCAPE IF IT IS GOING AGAINST THEM. Neither, of course, must it be a walkover. (And Conan is usually in a shirt of mail in battle!) Enough said.

Best Wishes,

E. Gary Gygax, Lake Geneva, USA.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Campaign Framework: The One of a Kind Campaign

We're taking a break from our Fantasy Trip campaign, and I'm setting up a D&D campaign based on a "one of a kind" model for magic and monsters.

The basic idea is straightforward enough: in this campaign, each spell, magic item, and monster in D&D is unique (with a few caveats). 

There is, somewhere, a wizard with "Bands of Sirellyn" in his spell book, and he guards it carefully. And rumor holds that the wizard Hovanast, famed for his knowledge of the spell "Detect Magic," entered the Tomb of Horrors never to return. Did he take his spellbook with him, or is it still in his abandoned tower? Yet another legend holds that the dwarves came and took Hornung away to their dismal holds. It is said that his spell book went with him, and it is the only place you will find "Hornung's Random Dispatcher." 

There is, somewhere, a lonely deserted place where the sphinx troubles travellers. And that vile red dragon, the Kingsford Worm, has so plagued the once prosperous town of Kingsford that it has been all but abandoned by goodly people. 

The Girdle of Giant Strength went down in a shipwreck off the coast of Hob's Cove. An old man at the pub in Mistlemoor brags to anyone who will buy him a drink that he knows where the Hammer of Thunderbolts can be found.   

The devil will be in the details, of course. How will races be dealt with? Are magic spells really completely unique? Can they be, given that anyone can copy a spell out of a spell book if they can get their hands on it. And so on. I'll talk about my take on how to deal with the questions in later posts. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

D&D links -- resources, historical anecdotes, and actual play reports

This is a repost of a collection of D&D related links I posted on my livejournal nearly a year ago. I'm copying it here so I'll have a local version, and also as a gateway for those who are interested and haven't already seen this information.  

When it comes to articles related to D&D history, not all these sources agree on all points (of course), but together they are a fairly rich resource.  

There are a couple very interesting sources on proto-D&D. The tradition of the "free kriegspiel" is one precursor that can be googled fairly easily. A direct precursor can be found in Dave Wesely's "Braunstein" game. At the Acaeum, Wesely himself has commented a bit about his contribution, and there are some good links at the Wikipedia page on Wesely. This link is worth looking at, as is this interview with Dave Arneson, which also mentions Wesely and Braunstein. Ewilen also has a summary, as well as other relevant links and comments in his livejournal archives.

Another precursor in the free kriegspiel tradition appears to be Mike Korns's "Modern War in Miniature." Wilf Bakchaus ("Chivalry and Sorcery, 1976) talks about Korns's game in this short but interesting piece at "Places to Go, People to Be."

Historical Notes and Anecdotes
Some of the players from the early days of D&D have talked about their memories of game play on various forums. Greg Svenson (gsvenson) and Bob Meyer (robertthebald), two of Dave Arneson's players from the early days talk about Blackmoor in this thread. Svenson adds additional thoughts on Blackmoor here and there.

Mike Mornard, another player from D&D's early years (from both Gygax's and Arneson's games), is a fairly prolific poster on and other message boards. Here are a handful of his anecdotes of historical interest:

1. on henchmen, strongholds, the D&D endgame
2. on learning the rules through exploration and again
3. on the use of minis in D&D and again
4. on XP, treasure, and wandering monsters.

Actual Play Reports
Greg Svenson also has a D&D page, which is home to his "The First Dungeon Adventure" actual play report. He has another actual play report here, this time with orcs.

At least one of Gary Gygax's actual play reports is online and can be found at this board.

House Rules
Here are the main reports on Gary Gygax's house rules: version 1 was compiled by R. Fisher and version 2 is a very quick post by Gary on the topic (his username at ENWorld was "col_pladoh").

For comparison purposes, here's an account of a Dave Arneson run D&D game and his house rules.

For more old school house rules, here's a copy of The Perrin Conventions on the OD&D boards.

Classic D&D References
Here's our current rules reference document (pdf) for Basic/Expert D&D play. It's primarily for use with the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, but some of the pieces are from Mentzer's edition and the Rules Cyclopedia, from the Holmes Basic set, and from the OD&D books. The document is originally based on Robert Fisher's Classic D&D quickref, with a generous helping from Philotomy's OD&D musings, especially the combat sequence notes he drew up based on Swords & Spells.

Robert Fisher's Classic D&D page is full of great thoughts and ideas that influenced the approach I took with our D&D game last fall. His quickref was the basis for my own rules reference sheet, and I found his articles On thief skills in classic D&D and I used to think... both interesting and useful early on.

I partially hijacked one of Judd's livejournal posts a few weeks ago and I don't think I linked to it here. So now I am. Just some thoughts on why some folks might not agree that 4e really nails the heart of what D&D is. I should probably add that I don't have any particular take on 4e myself yet: I haven't even read it yet and I don't pretend to have an intelligent opinion on it. My thoughts in this post have more bearing on traditional D&D. Here's the discussion for reference. My posts are fairly long and scattered throughout, but they're concentrated in two blocks: here and here. I also touched on some thoughts about the rhythm of D&D play in a short comment in an RPGSite post a couple years ago.

Longer Articles
Wired posted an article with a number of interesting historical bits and pieces, and there are some interesting bits in this Believer article, though to my mind, it's a bit spottier.

This is a necessarily partial and limited overview, entirely rehashed and without anything substantially new in it. But you still might find something useful in there if you're interested in D&D.

Other Sources
Recently, Justin Alexander posted a collection of "Accumulated Lore." D&D history gets some attention here, though most of the articles are about D&D and gaming in general (they are thought provoking). 

Ewilen's livejournal has tracked articles related to D&D history for a while, and Ars Ludi has some interesting coverage as well.