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BX Spells in Labyrinth Lord
As mentioned in my previous post, the two big areas in LL that diverge from B/X is in spells and armor. I addressed armor with a pretty quick house rule, but spells are stickier. What I'm talking about here specifically is not the details of any given spell, but the spell lists available to spell casting characters at given levels.

I did a close comparison of the spell lists, noting which spells were added, removed, and renamed in Labyrinth Lord. Here's a PDF of my results:

bx-vs-ll-spells.pdf

Now, the renames I don't really care about, and they're few enough. I will probably used the old names simply out of habit, but it's easy enough to remember that Arcane Lock and Wizard Lock are the same thing.

Ignoring the renames, the magic-user spell list is very easy to follow the difference. Basically, LL just adds three more levels of spells. To be honest, my players will likely never see these levels either way, so the difference is pretty moot. However, I tend to agree with Mr. Maliszewski's opinion on this, that removing effects like wish, symbol, and the mass spells will lead to a less fragile world and one more in line with the kind of settings I enjoy.

The cleric spells, however, cause me more problems. Again, chopping off the top levels we get rid of annoying effects like Restoration, Resurrection, etc. However, the cleric spell list has modifications starting at third level and does adds something I really don't like -- direct damage clerical spells. You see them as early as fifth level with Flame Strike and then again at sixth with Blade Barrier. I don't mind adding another cure spell (Cure Critical at 5th), and I do kind of like the idea of clerics able to Animate Dead just as magic-users do, though I'm not crazy about them doing it at 3rd level, two spell levels before magic-users.

Ultimately, I think the answer is to simply stick to the B/X spell list wholesale. I could try and find a middle ground here, but either way I'm stuck with writing up and distributing to my players an entire spell list. And that's just much easier to do when I'm just copying them from one place to another.

Taking a page from Delta's book, I created a spell book for any future LL games I run. Mine isn't nearly as fancy as Delta's, who actually wrote his from scratch (and it's quite good, I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a nice OD&D or Swords & Wizardry supplement). Instead, I just took scans of the B/X books and did a straight OCR on the spells, and then cleaned up the formatting a bit.

I'm hesitant to post a link to the file. Then again, if WotC really cared enough about my blog's tiny readership getting this small piece of their work, let them send a cease and desist. I'll take it right down.

December 9th, 2009 - 02:33 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Expanded Armor Types
I've been analyzing Labyrinth Lord from the opposite direction these days, meaning I'm looking at what I can house rule from BX into LL to make it more to my tastes rather than the other way around. There are enough things I like about each system that house ruling from one direction vs. the other doesn't seem to matter much to me, and LL does have the draw of being more easily accessible to potential players (in that they can pretty easily obtain a book if they wanted).

So there are two big areas in LL that diverge from BX that bother me: spells and equipment. When I say equipment, really I mean armor. Let's face it, that's the first thing anyone looks at when deciding how to spend their starting money. What armor can I afford. BX is pretty easy in this regard. You have 3d6 gp to start, and you have three choices: leather, chain mail, and plate mail. As plate only costs 60 gp in BX, you have to roll pretty badly to not be able to afford it, though if you're also considering a lot of other gear you might want to make the trade off of less armor for more other weapons and gear.

LL, I suspect adhered more closely to the SRD in regards to armor. There are a lot of varieties. While LL does increase starting money to 3d8 gp, there's still no way a starting player could afford the 600gp plate mail. This sort of makes armor into a level progression item, just like hp or attack bonus. As you go up in level, you start to get more money, and now you can afford the fancy armor. If you want more options as you level, I suppose this is desirable. Personally, my tastes tend in the other direction, but I can see the argument for this.

However, after writing my hireling generator, I noticed something else pretty elegant about the three armor system. In BX the base unarmored AC is 9. The three armor types go down by two from there, with leather at AC 7, chain at AC 5, and plate at AC 3. If you add in a shield, you get the full range of ACs from 9 down to 2. Of course, magic items and Dexterity can further tune it from there, but there's somethign really nice about there being one specific armor combination for each AC value.

With the expanded armor, I don't see much gain. Sure, I guess you could probably find a way to get one of the even ACs and still have both hands free. But you also have weirdo things like leather and padded armor offering the same AC, but padded both costs and weighs less. Why would anoyone ever buy leather?

Looking over the rest of the equipment list, while LL is more expansive, the prices are comparable. I think a simple house rule to get BX style armor would simply be:

Starting money is 3d6 gp. Only three types of armor exist: plate mail costs 60gp, chain mail 40gp, and leather 20gp. Shields are still available at 10 gp. All other equipment costs are per the LL book.

I think I'll likely use that. I prefer the simplicity, and the fact that armor type is just a personal preference and not a system of advancement. Why make it more complicated?
December 9th, 2009 - 09:38 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

Hirelings
I love using hirelings in my games these days. I started writing some down on index cards, so during play I could grab one at random from the pile. In trying to quickly whip up some more, I started making charts to randomly generate equipment for them as this was the slowest part of making them.

This weekend, I went the next step and built my tables into an Inspiration Pad Pro file. If you don't know what that is, I highly recommend you follow the link. It's a great program for building random tables and generating quick random entries from said tables. It's free, and there's even quick executable versions for use as cgi programs on websites. I tend to us a wiki for storing my game notes, and this blends in beautifully with that.

In fact, I spent some time really learning the Inspiration Pad Pro format this weekend. It's very easy to just give it a list of items and make it randomly select something from said list, but it can do so much more. You can store variables, do some simple logic, etc. I ended up generating the entire hireling, including stats, class, hp, etc. It even correctly ensures demi-humans have the required minimum stats (if it rolls too low, those classes are not an option for the current NPC), calculates AC from equipment, and modifies HP and AC based on Con and Dex respectively.

Here is some sample output:
Yuri of the Watch
Level 1 Neutral Fighter
HP: 7, AC: 2 (3)
Str: 3; Dex: 10; Int: 7; Wis: 13; Con: 7; Cha: 11;
Plate Mail Armor, Battle Axe, Shield, Blanket, Iron Spikes (12), Hammer, Grappling Hook, 50' Hemp Rope, Bedroll

Ormod Moonwater
Level 1 Neutral Elf
HP: 6, AC: 5
Str: 6; Dex: 10; Int: 11; Wis: 9; Con: 12; Cha: 12;
Chain Mail Armor, Pole Arm, Short Bow, Quiver of Arrows (20), Iron Spikes (12), Hammer, 2 Large Sacks

Dmitri the Fat
Level 1 Neutral Halfling
HP: 6, AC: 7
Str: 7; Dex: 12; Int: 6; Wis: 10; Con: 9; Cha: 12;
Leather Armor, Mace, Sling and Stones (10), Holy Water (1 flask)


OK, so if you want them, here are the files: hirelings-ipad.zip

Name generation is in a separate easily replacable table. Or. you can open up the main table in your text editor of choice, and customize some of the tables more to your liking. I tried to comment it up as much as possible to make it easy to customize. Enjoy!
December 6th, 2009 - 05:20 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Spirt of the Old School
I was skimming through my copy of Spirit of the Century this morning, and found this quote that I think really sums up my adventure writing mentality lately:

Whatever the players are interested in is more important and better than anything you came up with. If your ideas are so good that player input ruins them, you should be writing novels instead of playing roleplaying games.


Now what follows may be a kind of controversial statement, but I happen to think that the Old School scene and the Indy Game scene have a lot of things in common. The above quote strikes me as exactly the same argument as why sandbox style settings are better than plot-point style settings. It's about players having the ability to impact the world, and have the world impact their characters in return.

This may just be me, but I think the goals of both movements are similar: to have a more engaging and imaginative experience for everyone. Their methods are like opposite sides of the same coin. The indy games analyze how engaging moments occur and creates unusual new systems to encourage them. The old school takes a more zen approach, assuming engaging moments will occur if we let go of the complicated rules and let them come naturally.

The outcome is the same: an exciting shared story. Where the indy gamer sets out to create such, the old school gamer allows it emerge naturally through play. Only the new school has lost sight of this, focusing instead on fairness, balance, and consistency.
November 17th, 2009 - 01:52 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Mocksgiving X
Remember when this was a photo-blog, instead of a gaming blog? Yes, it's been a while since I posted any pictures, but here at last are some from Mocksgiving X. I can't believe we've been doing this for 10 years now. Here's hoping for 10 more.
November 16th, 2009 - 03:40 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

One Page Dungeon Last Night
Last night was gaming night, and several of the players couldn't make it. For the two that could, I offered to run an unrelated one-shot for our gaming fix. We even got BJ to join us as guest player for a reasonable minimum of players. So what to run?

I downloaded recently the winners from the One Page Dungeon Contest and have been reading them. While I only like a few of the submissions, I'm quite taken by the format, and couldn't help by try writing one myself. So armed with that and my Labyrinth Lord book, we had our adventure.

All told it ran pretty well. I think for context it would help to have a brief synopsis of the game:

  1. The adventure began with the party sleeping in the common room of Bridgefair, my Lankhmar-esque city. They woke up in the middle of the night to discover a group of goblin thieves making off with their purses. The goblins scattered, and the party gave hot pursuit.

  2. Observing one slide into a sewer grate, the party descending after the thief and discovered a system of caves dug into the sewer walls. They begin exploring the caverns, and eventually come across the goblin band's main living area. Battle ensues.

  3. Many goblins are killed and the party loses one of their hirelings in the combat. One goblin is taken captive, and others are observed to flee through a northern tunnel. The party finds one of their purses amongst the goblins, and thus follows their quarry north.

  4. The party comes into the goblin chief's room, where he hides behind his harem and a few goblin guards. More combat is had, and the party managed to kill the goblin chief despite his attempts to evade them with some well placed archery. They find some more of their missing purses, and the harem escapes through another passage.

  5. Searching for the harem and their purses, the party fights a large viper, and then emerges into more worked passages. They stumble upon a trapped door behind which is a strange workshop full of gnomish gem cutters. They extort some gems from the gnomes for protection from the goblins to the north.

  6. Retracing their steps back into the goblin warren, the party finally discovers their treasure room and the remaining purses. Still no sign of the harem, and so they press on.

  7. The party fights some giant crab spiders, and realizes the underground complex is much larger than they anticipated. The players note that we're nearly out of time, and thus decide to return to the surface.


The game was a lot of fun, there was plenty of combat and a good NPC interaction scene (the gnomes). There were some great moments with their captive goblin (whom they nailed into a barrel), and a little bawdy humor when one of the players had a tender broke-back moment with his hireling. On the downside, I think the flow of the game was off. The ending fizzled a bit, there was no exciting climactic end scene, and the party had enough time towards the end to debate why they were down here in the first place.

I think my main failing was what I identified as the final part in my convention game post:

Finally, watch carefully for what becomes the second major event, and be as prepared as possible to interpret the third event (with the second for context) into some kind of climax.

The players had a pretty obvious goal: reclaim their stolen money (there were other hooks to sub-plots that could have evolved into a different goal, but this is what the party focused on). I should have realized this, and played it out longer. I could have decided that the goblin chief heard the battle, and being the coward he was, snuck off with his harem and guards with the treasure in tow. They could then lead the party on a merry chase through the underground, giving the players ample opportunity to still encounter minor events (the gnomes, teh pit viper, the spiders, etc.) until they were finally caught at a climactic moment.

I think ultimately I just wasn't paying attention, and thus lazily fell back on going with exactly what was written on the page. In future, perhaps I should write myself a note and hang it on the inside of my screen that reads:

Identify the party's goals, and formulate a climax.

The three event thing is nice in retrospect, I could say that the chase above ground was event one, and the fight with the main force of goblins is event two, but it's hard to identify this stuff during play. The chase felt like intro, thus during play I would have been hard pressed to call it an event. That would have meant the goblin chief encounter was event two, and where do you go from there for a climax? The gnomes were fun and took a chunk of time to play out, but do they count as a major event, or are they just a minor encounter along the way?

Ultimately, I think it doesn't matter. The only real indicator I think is real time. Identify the party's goal, and keep an eye on the clock. If they're too close to their goal and there's too much time left, add some more impediments. If they're far away from their goal and there's not much time left, start cutting.

I think the ultimate challenge is to write enough content that allows the party to formulate their own goal, and be observant enough during play to figure out what they chose. From there, I think it should be reasonably easy to manipulate the adventure during play into something that flows well.

I'm not going to share my one page dungeon yet. I think I can get a fair bit more use out of it, and some of my readers are likely to be my players. Eventually though, I will post it.
November 12th, 2009 - 07:57 am | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Testing the Theory
I ran a little test last weekend with Jenn as my guinea pig. She probably hates it, but she's perfect for getting usability opinions from, as she knows roleplaying but doesn't have much history playing D&D. Thus she already understands all the concepts, but isn't fettered by nostalgic ideas or ingrained practice from years of playing the game.

So I created three quick and dirty character sheets on some spare paper. Each detailed the same level 2 fighter with the same stats and gear. Here's one sample of what he looked like:

2nd Level Fighter
Str: 15 +1
Int: 9 -
Wis: 8 -1
Dex: 12 -
Con: 11 -
Cha: 10 -

HP: 10
AC: 3
Attack Bonus: +2

Gear: Full Plate, sword +1


That's all the detail included. The three characters differed only in what version of AC/Attack Bonus they used. The first was straight B/X, meaning instead of the above +2 attack bonus, he had the attack matrix written out. The second looked like what you see above, which is essentially Delta's Target-20 system. The third had 3.0 style ascending AC, and thus looked just like the above but showed an AC of 17 instead of 3. My test subject (Jenn), however, had no background in any of these systems and thus was unaware of what was being simulated. All she saw was what was written on each page.

I then proposed the following fictional situation: You are playing the fighter above in a one on one battle with an orc. On your attack you roll an 11 on a d20. Which is easier:

a. You add your +1 from Strength and +1 from your magic sword to get a total roll of 13. You look this up on the little chart and tell the DM 'I hit AC 5'.

b. You add your +1 from Strength, +2 from base attack, and +1 from magic sword. You tell the DM 'I rolled a 15' and he tells you if you hit or not.

c. You add your +1 from Strength, +2 from base attack, and +1 from magic sword. You tell the DM 'I hit AC 15.'

The difference between b and c is perhaps not immediately obvious here, but consider the fact that in example c the player has his own AC of 17 on the sheet for comparison. Thus, the player has some inkling of how likely he is to hit by comparing the AC he hit (15) to his own AC (17). Of course, in example b you can probably just consider how close you rolled to 20 to be some indicator of how likely you are to hit, but I personally think example c is just a little more in your face.

So which did she choose?

She went with a. If I recall correctly (and I'm sure she'll comment with corrections if I get this wrong), she felt that example a had less elements to contend with. Even though all three have exactly three elements, example a has two additions plus a table look-up while the others have three additions. It seemed to her that example a had less things she had to remember (add Strength and magic sword). The use of the table just seemed so obvious, it would be hard to forget.

She was pretty strongly against example c. Not only did it have more math, but she didn't like the high AC values. She didn't give a real quantitative reason, but it just rubbed her the wrong way. One could hazard a guess that AC 3 is just much easier to remember than AC 17, but I was simply glad to see that my own feelings about lower AC values validated. I was worried I only preferred lower ACs because that was the way we played when I was 10.

So there you have it, another reason to stick with by-the-book descending AC in B/X or LL. I may though try using Target-20 behind the screen. As a DM, I think the difference between asking a player 'What's your AC?' and 'The orc hits AC 5, does that hit you?' is pretty moot. In fact, if anything the previous question is more straight forward and nobody would care what system you used behind the screen when you ask that question and once answered come back with 'The orc hits you!'
November 10th, 2009 - 09:15 am | Comments (4) | PERMALINK

Ascending vs. Descending AC
In the past I've mentioned I prefer an Ascending AC system. My personal favorite part of the system I've been using is that the equation for the GM is simply:

d20 + Monster's HD >= Player's AC

I happen to really like the fact that the AC is on the right hand side of the equation, meaning I as GM don't have to memorize or write down the player's ACs, which I'm often too lazy to do. However, I noticed recently when playing I think I actually prefer the descending system.

Part of this may be simply that my brain is hard-wired from years of playing to think about AC in a range of 0-10 (and sometimes negatives) where lower is better. However, from a usability side, I just like having the little chart on my character sheet. No THAC0, no math, I just look up the number I rolled on the d20 on the little chart on my character sheet and shout out the AC I hit. Maybe if I'm lucky and have some kind of bonus, (bless spell, magic sword, etc.) I'll just add the bonus to my roll mentally before looking at the chart.

In comparison, when I make my players use the ascending AC system, I modify the character sheet to show a 'Base Attack Bonus'. I found players routinely forgot to include this value when fighting, so I then added section for currently equipped weapons, giving boxes similar to the 3e character sheet to show out all the math so players know where everything is coming from. +2 base attack, +1 sword, +2 for strength, +1 for bless... The character sheet gets busier, and the player is even more confused where he's supposed to look for stuff.

Oy, the problem isn't the difficulty of the math, it's the number of variables we have to remember. Fact is, we never remember this crap in play. Instead, we roll the dice and shout 'I hit AC 5!' Then our buddy the cleric says 'don't forget, I cast bless on you earlier.' 'Oh yeah, AC 4!'

Now I'm wondering if I can't manipulate the math to make it easier for me as GM to play with descending ACs so players can have their little charts. I mean, obviously I could write out charts for ascending ACs, but as long as we're using charts, there's something very appealing about having one less house rule. When possible, I do prefer to go by the book.

I think I'll have to go back and re-read Delta's Target 20 system. Maybe that will help.
November 6th, 2009 - 01:34 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Starting XP
I used to always create pre-gen characters for my con games, but I think one of the real charms of old school systems is how easy and quick it is to create your own character. That said, you don't always want to run a con game with a bunch of level one characters (in fact, I think the sweet spot is somewhere around levels 2-5, but that's probably an issue of personal preference). However, I think starting characters out at a specific level breaks the character class balance.

Wait, the character classes were balanced? Yeah, they were, but the balance wasn't what powers you had access to, but how you advanced. Specifically, classes were balanced by use of level caps and XP cost per level. Since I rarely play as high level as the caps, that issue rarely comes up, but I think the XP per level is huge. Players in a campaign may shy away from the elf with his steep XP chart, while when playing a con game where everyone is the same level, why would you ever choose magic user over elf?

Here's my solution. In your con game, give a starting XP value rather than a starting level. Almost always this averages out to most players starting at the same levels, but thieves are a level higher and elves a level lower. I suppose you could just say 'You can make a 3rd level elf, a 5th level thief, or a 4th level anything else.' Somehow though, I feel just a bit more justified saying 'Make a character with 10,000 XP.'

In Labyrinth Lord, it's pretty easy to pick the amount. Just figure out what you want for the baseline level, and look up how much XP it costs for a Magic User to enter that level. Set that as the XP. For example, if you set the XP to 160,001 (required amount for an 8th level Magic User), your elves will still only be level 7, your thieves level 9, and everyone else is level 8.

Hmm, in retrospect perhaps it would be easier on the players if I just told them the base level and said elves get -1 and thieves +1.
November 6th, 2009 - 12:47 pm | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Old School Con Games
BJ's Halloween game represents only the second data point for me of one-shot old school style games. His game was I think even more steeped in the traditional old school style than my own, with no forced background elements of any kind for the players and a pretty pure sandbox layout to the adventure. I was impressed at how well our party still managed to come together, and extremely charmed by the climax of facing off against my rival. On the other hand, as pointed out previously, the game did suffer slightly from a pacing issue, having he climax arrive slightly too late when the energy of the players was flagging and thus cutting the game short.

Last night I re-read Jeff Wilcox's article Running a Great Con Game from Fight On! magazine, issue 3. He makes a couple points that I think ring quite true based on my still limited experiences:

...the second tradition must be ignored: the role-played 'meeting' of the characters. Nothing wastes more time than having the characters try to justify why they are hanging out with folks they would never actually hang out with.


This is where my own game flagged. My game started with the players arriving in town for various reasons, and discovering that one character's sister had gone missing. I also had a few other leads for other characters, but this was the strongest and most likely to be pursued. The players decided to pursue it, but the game was slowed by the players trying to find a reason to involve the other players in this who had more tennuous connections to the plot line.

On the other hand, BJ began simply with 'you all have been traveling together for some time after being forcibly ejected from the last town you were in, it is late at night and you are on the road, when you see a light emanating from a nearby hunting lodge.' Yes, there were other entry points to the adventure other than the hunting lodge (a graveyard and spooky castle were also nearby), so we didn't feel railroaded into examining the lodge. That was our choice. However, we never questioned why we were together, and in fact the vague reference to being kicked out of the last town was a nice element for us to latch onto if we wanted to come up with our own explanations. Brilliant.

Jeff Wilcox actually advises that you get the players into a first encounter quickly to get the group to gel. I think BJ absolutely did that, as it wasn't very long before we were battling werewolves in the hunting lodge. My own adventure lacked that, starting with a good amount of investigation.

The raw time-vs.-game-events calculation is easy: Prepare 3 major events for a 4-hour con game. Prepare 4 major events for a 6-hour con game. Prepare 6 major events for an 8-hour con game. An additional event should be on hand in case you get a fast group. You should be prepared to skip one of the major events with a group [that] is slower than expected.


On it's own, this quote can sound a bit railroaded and less sandboxy, but I think the nugget of it is correct. Both BJ and my games were 4 hours long. In mine, there were three major events (negotiation with the slavers, facing off against the slavers in their den, and raiding the necromancer's tower). In BJ's, there was the fight with the werewolves, raiding the spectre's tomb, and facing off against Morgus. Both games had some other minor encounters along the way, but each has three major tent-poles around which the rest of the game is draped. Planning around this kind of flow probably isn't a terrible idea.

So to wrap this up, here are my thoughts on what I will likely do to plan my next con game (probably HelgaCon, though perhaps sooner):

First, narrate quickly why the group is together and get them into an encounter as quickly as possible. Start with a bang and a situation that forces the party to quickly gel.

Second, fill out the area sandbox style with a large number of things. Try as best I can to make sure that initial encounter can lead in many different directions. By creating more content than can actually be used, the party should feel empowered to take the adventure where they want. Also, this should give me my 'extra event' should the party somehow tear through stuff very quickly.

Finally, watch carefully for what becomes the second major event, and be as prepared as possible to interpret the third event (with the second for context) into some kind of climax. This is probably the hardest part, as it requires creating content detailed enough to run but vague enough to be able to reinterpret during play. I think BJ did this very well when he turned a simple encounter of another adventuring party into our rivals, and even tied it in with the previous event in that they were searching for the treasure we had just missed.

Man, I've been struggling for a while now trying to come up with something to build an old school adventure for HelgaCon around. This may be exactly what I needed to get the old imagination sparked up again.
November 2nd, 2009 - 06:48 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

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