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Computers at the Gaming Table
You may have noticed recently I've been creating a good amount of GM assisting software, including the hypertext module and the hireling generator. This probably begs the question, do I use a computer while GMing? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is no.

I've tried it a couple times, using a laptop as either part of or the entire GM screen. It is nice at a couple things. I enjoy the ability to quickly navigate through documents, like searching PDFs of rulebooks or using a wiki to create my modules. On the other hand, there are some things it's just a terrible replacement for, such as dice rolling. And there are other things like quick note taking or HP tracking in a combat that I suspect it could be good at, but I haven't found any software yet that's faster than a pad of paper and a pencil.

Now I could get behind having a computer and using it for some things and not others, but the form factor is just not really conducive to that. The keyboard and mouse take up too much room, leaving only a small area for paper notes and dice. My laptop battery won't last a full game session, which is often at least 3 hours (my battery usually conks out after 2), so that means clunky power cables draped about.

Recently though, a thought struck me that perhaps this might be an actual good use for a netbook. Those tiny laptop machines may be horribly under-powered, but how much power do you really need to run a web browser and adobe reader? I started looking at netbooks with this use case in mind, and I stumbled on something that I'm now absolutely slavering over. The Asus T91.

It's a netbook, but in tablet form factor. That means you can swivel the screen around and close the lid such that the keyboard is covered with an upward facing screen. And then you control it with a stylus. At about 9' x 7' x 1', it's not much bigger than the steno pad I already use for keeping notes. It can lie flat on the table behind my usual screen, and still leave ample space for dice and other papers and whatnot. I have doubts about how good the OCR might be when writing with the stylus, but if I really need to write a ton of text quickly, I can always flip it back into laptop mode. And it claims to have a 5 hour battery, more than enough time for your average gaming session, so no annoying power cables.

The downside is, it goes for about $500 over at Amazon. That's pretty pricey for a netbook, and comparable non-tablet machines are usually in the $300 range. I could probably convince myself it's worth it, if only I could see and play with one for a little while. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a store that carries them, so my only choice is to buy it blind over the internet.

I may yet still get one. I'll probably wait until after Christmas and see where my finances are at. Who knows, maybe I'll get some Christmas money to offset the price. In the mean time, it's on my Amazon wish list, so I suppose there's always the extremely remote chance I might find one under the tree this year. Yeah, that's really not very likely, but they call it a wish list for a reason, right?
December 18th, 2009 - 08:36 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

XSL + Tiddlywiki = Hypertext D&D Modules
For some time now I've been keeping my campaign notes in a wiki. I think wikis are great for this sort of thing. Easy to modify, inherently cross referenced, they really are perfect. For stuff like game notes, where I'm really the only user ever, Tiddlywiki really is just about perfect. It's a self-contained wiki in a single file. A single html file full of javascript, it also contains the data of the wiki and modifies itself as you work with it. Very small, easy to email yourself or put a thumb drive, it's exactly what I need for keeping my GM notes.

I was reading an old module recently, and realizing for the umpteenth time how annoying it is to flip back and forth between map and keyed description, when I realized this is exactly what a wiki should be great at. The map could be a nice image map (do html authors really still use those?) and each room could open up the wiki section when you click on it.

Wondering about the whole image map thing, I did a little digging and found a great blog post about making an image map with pure CSS, including a lovely example in the form of a map of the US States. Hmm, a pure CSS solution should work fine in Tiddlywiki, right? I gave it a whirl, and sure enough I could make an entry in Tiddlywiki with the CSS embedded directly into it and get the result I wanted. Perfect. Sort of.

Well, there's an aweful lot of boilerplate CSS you have to write for each area of the map. It seemed to me like it would be pretty painful to mark up an entire dungeon map of the stuff. The only things that really were important was the name of the area being marked (to associate it with a unique entry in the wiki), the rectangle defining the area on the map, and the image to draw on top when you mouse over it. All that should fit in a pretty concise XML document, right?

Hmm, perhaps I could write a XSL style sheet to convert a simple XML document into the CSS format I wanted. Is this getting too technical? Hang on, the pay off is soon! I gave it a whirl. Sure, it worked, but how do you embed both the XML and the XSL style sheet into a tiddlywiki and get it to do the transform? I would need some kind of XSL transform plugin for tiddlywiki.

So yeah, I wrote an XSL transform plugin for tiddlywiki. Turns out, it was pretty easy. If you know XSL, I'm sure you could use this for a thousand cool things. If you don't, that's OK, you can just steal my XSL and all you need to worry about is getting the map graphics ready and defining your rectangles. Here's an example of the system at work in an otherwise blank tiddlywiki:

XSL Image Map in Tiddlywiki

(Demo map unceremoniously stolen from Dyson's blog. Thanks dude.)

You can hover over areas in the map, and if you click them it links to new entries in the tiddlywiki. The file won't let you save any changes you make though, for that you'd have to have a local copy of the file. So here's a zip of the file along with the images I used to make the demo:

xslmap.zip

If you take the time to learn some Tiddlywiki, it should be pretty easy to start marking up your own maps. Pretty sweet, right?
December 17th, 2009 - 07:51 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

About Those Small Weapons
One thing I had a little trouble with on those class generating tables was the small weapon restriction for dwarves and halflings. The chart doesn't really categorize small vs. large, but instead shows weapons in somewhat arbitrary groups (axes vs. swords for example). This made it hard to figure out what the impact of the small weapon restriction had on XP charts.

In fact, this sent me diving through a few different sources to try and figure out exactly what weapons dwarves and halflings were not allowed to have. Fortunately, the original BX books are pretty explicit. For both classes, they are specifically forbidden two handed swords and long bows. I find it a bit odd that pole-arms are not included on the list, and I'm personally tempted to include those as well.

Labyrinth Lord's expanded equipment list makes it more confusing I'm afraid, especially as the wording on the restriction in the text is even more loosely defined. Dwarves are still specifically restricted from two-handed swords and long bows, but the section for halflings reads:

Like dwarves, halflings may not use large and two-handed weapons, but may use any other weapon and armor.


Now, the comparison to dwarves implies that it's the same list of weapons, but the subsequent text does seem to try and genericise the limitation to any two-handed or large weapon. Are we to assume halflings are more limited in weapon choice, or that the section for dwarves needs expansion to also include any two-handed or large weapon? Just which weapons are considered large anyway?

At least in BX the equipment list is pretty brief, so it's easy to identify the three potentially limited weapons: two-handed sword, pole-arm, and long bow. In BX there isn't even a 'long sword', it's just a 'sword', so no worries there that it's too big.

LL introduces more troubling weapons, and not just the rename of sword to long sword. There's the morning star, heavy pick, heavy flail, and trident, all two-handed weapons. Crossbows are grouped into light and heavy, should we make exception for the heavy crossbow just as we do the long bow? The battle axe is specifically listed as being two-handed as well, but not allowing a dwarf to use a battle axe just seems wrong. And what of the bastard sword, which can be used either one or two handed?

If we go back to BX and assume use of the optional damage by weapon chart (remember default in BX is that all weapons do d6 damage, which to some degree makes this whole thing kind of moot under that system), and we assume that pole-arm should be included in the list of proscribed weapons, we can see that dwarves and halflings lose access to melee weapons that do d10 damage, and ranged weapons that do d8 damage. That at least seems like a real mechanical limitation.

Allowing dwarves and halflings to use a mace (d6) but not a morning-star (d6) reduces the rule to purely aesthetic. If instead we say that the limitation applies to any melee weapon that does more than d8 damage, and any ranged weapon that does more than d6, we not only have a rule that has actual mechanical impact in LL, but also a pretty manageable list of proscribed weapons: two-handed sword, pole-arm, bastard sword, long bow, and heavy crossbow.
December 11th, 2009 - 08:40 am | Comments (5) | PERMALINK

Races and Classes
Though I have defended race as class in basic D&D, many of the players I play with would much prefer the wider range of character choices when race and class are split. If splitting the two means my players will let me run an old school campaign, well, that's a compromise I'm willing to make.

So I've been looking into how to adapt Labyrinth Lord to split race and class. I was really hoping that the Advanced Edition Companion would come out before I had to do any work on this, as I figured I could probably just lift what I needed from that. Unfortunately, the release on that work has been delayed, and my opportunity to start a new campaign will arrive sooner than that. Also I really don't want all the baggage that comes with 1st edition (which is why I'm not considering OSRIC or the like), I just want dwarves, elves, and halflings to have access to the same classes as humans. I'm not sure how closely to 1e Daniel Proctor plans to adhere in the AEC.

Now, Michael Curtis wrote a nice article entitled New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic, which happens to have an appendix full of tables that breaks apart the features of each class into XP modifiers so you can build any custom class with a correctly scaled XP progression chart (which in turn is based on an old article from Dragon Magazine #109). I'm a big fan of using level progression as the balancing factor, so I decided to try and use these as a basis for my own race/class system.

I started by creating a spreadsheet of those tables so I could quickly play with options and see the effect. Apologies to MS Excel users, but I use Open Office, so you'll have to download that if you want to check out my spreadsheet. It is free after all.

classes.ods

Anyway, playing with those tables I was able to recreate some standard classes with reasonable accuracy. So next I tried creating some non standard classes, such as a dwarven cleric or an elven thief. Mostly I was trying to come up with a quick formula that could be applied to one of the core four human classes to make a non-human version.

To do this, I first had to decide what class features should be tied to race instead of class. Obviously, the 'racial features' table goes with race, and includes all the special rules for a race such as infravision, finding secret doors, and the halfling +1 with ranged weapons. The other item I decided should be part of race is the saving throw chart. I know 1e just converted this to saving throw bonuses for different races, but I kind of liked just allowing the non-human races to just use their own chart out of the book regradless of their class.

Given that, I started to see some easy math emerging. It boils down to this:

To create an elven version of a human class, add 20% XP to each level. To create a dwarven version, add 10% XP. To create a halfling version, use the XP chart as it is.


The halfling thing may be surprising, but basically it looks to me like the bonuses for halflings (hiding in wilderness, +1 to ranged weapons) are easily countered by their detriments (small weapon requirement). This makes the assumption that the race as class versions of dwarf and halfing are equivalent to the 'fighter' version, which probably precludes those original race-classes as written (why would you play a halfling with less hp and a level cap instead of a halfling fighter?) I think I would leave the elf race-class in as an option though, as the only real example of a multi-class character.

This is just a quick off-the-cuff idea, I haven't really done any close analysis of what this produces. It may be well enough for my use though, at least until Proctor gets the AEC out.

It does raise one question for me though, which is do I really want all races to have access to all four core classes? Thematically, I'm not sure about the idea of dwarven magic-users. Halfling spell casters of any type also strike me as a bit odd. Elven clerics seem unusual, but I'd probably just skew them in the direction of druids, at least aesthetically. I'm not sure though, perhaps it's worth polling my players to see what they think.
December 11th, 2009 - 08:08 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

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

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