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One More About Last Night's Game
One final thought about last night's game. While I think I exercised the nostalgic urge to play Basic D&D, I'm still curious how the system holds up to modern play. I think I'd like to try another game where instead of running an old school dungeon crawl, I actually try to incorporate story and roleplay into the game. I'm curious how the system holds up to the kind of games I like to run now.

Also, as a final bonus, I'm uploading the module I wrote for last night if anyone wants to read it:

Temple of the Frog Cult
April 26th, 2009 - 10:50 am | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Basic D&D Printed Material
I created two interesting items by hand for last night's game. The first was my module, which I believe I mentioned earlier some plan of making it appear close to one of the actual old school modules. I printed the interior pages in standard booklet format, double sided, and used my fancy deep-throated stapler to staple together. The cover I printed also in booklet format double sided, on a heavier card stock. It has an image on the cover, and the interior contains the map and the wandering monster chart. You can see the result from the image. I think it's pretty close to looking like an old module, only smaller and in black & white.

The second item was created last minute - my GM screen. I ordered one of those fancy customizable screens with the sleeves you can insert printed pages into, but it didn't arrive on time. I did have several pages ready to go to print and put into the sleeves, so the question was, could I assemble into a custom screen myself? In the past I've created custom screens by building them out of poster board manually, and then printing to sticker paper. It's a pretty manual layout process, and you're limited to having a background color of the posterboard you buy.

An idea struck me yesterday as I was working on it though. My printer is one of those where the paper is stacked vertically in the top, and it feeds down through the printer to land in a tray in front of the printer. As it has no drawer for paper and just feeds in from the top, I wondered if I couldn't feed it a longer piece of paper. I cut my poster board into 8.5' strips. That gave me sevarl 8.5' x 28' pieces. The posterboard was interestingly the kind without a shiny side, so it looked printable on both sides. I tried feeding a piece through the printer, using a source image that was 8.5' x 28' and setting the paper type to a manual size of 8.5' x 28' with no borders. It worked surprisingly well. The image was shrunk slightly to allow for some borders on the edges for the printer to grip. I was able to trim that off manually using a ruler and exacto knife.

The second problem then was that the poster board is kind of light weight. I solved this by simply gluing two layers together. You can see in the pictures the end result. I think it looks pretty good. I ended up still using the sticker method for the interior, only because I didn't have enough content to fill the entire interior and my charts were in a word document anyway. It was just easier than trying to convert that to an 8.5' x 28' image for printing directly onto the posterboard.

So there you have it, my printing projects for this game.
April 26th, 2009 - 10:28 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Basic D&D Post-Mort
I ran my first game of Basic D&D last night, and wanted to record my thoughts. As in many areas, I'm following Dan's lead here, and writing this up in post-mortem fashion. I'll use the same system we use at work, which is categorize my thoughts into the Good (what went right), the Bad (what went wrong), and the Ugly (what was successful but required muddling through). So here we go.

The Good

Fast Combat - Wow, combat is super fast in basic D&D. I think this was especially helped by my house rule that inverted AC. The effect may not have been huge for the players, but being able to simply roll d20 and add the monster's HD really streamlined things on my side of the screen. Also having a single initiative roll followed by just going around the table I think really helps as well. We played about 4.5 hours and got through 9 combats wihtout problem.

Turn Counting - I decided to try and be anal about counting turns. I had on my screen the list of things it takes to do in a turn, and I kept a tally by my side of turns. I even tried to enforce resting 1 in every 6 turns. That final bit became little more than a joke amongst the players, but that aside I thought it really added to the adventure to know just how long in real time the party had been down in the dungeon -- and it was a long time. By the end battle they had been down there 10 hours. They never asked to retreat and rest, and I almost felt like I should require them to do so given how long they had been down there.

In future, I think I would like to make the turn counter visible to the players to share with them this sense of passage of time. It might help them to try and maximize what they get done in a single turn. For example, they often had one character in front do multiple searches for traps and secret doors in a row, spending 2-3 turns in one area. If they had spread this out amongst more characters, they probably could've gotten it all done in 1 turn.

Ranged Combat - Fairly early on we hit the problem of having a few characters rush forward into melee combat while others wished to hang back and use ranged combat. Now the rules dictate how much can be done in a round switching between the two, and give modifiers for cover, but do not tell me anything about shooting into melee combat. I decided on the fly to just allow it indiscriminately. This actually turned out quite well, as I suspect some of the characters in the rear ranks would have had little to do without it. Many combats took place in 10' wide hallways or across door openings, when really only two combatants on either side could get into melee. Allowing ranged combat into melee allowed everyone to get involved. And as their opponents could take advantage of it as well, it felt perfectly fair.

Starting XP - I was worried that elves are a little over powered in basic, especially at 1st level. I decided therefore to start everyone at 2500 XP, which makes thieves start at 3rd leve, elves at 1st, and everyone else at 2nd. This was actually an excellent balancing point and I think almost made elves underpowered. Having the least hitpoints of the lot, I only saw one elf during the course of play (and most players had to make more than one character). Plus, I think the players really did need the extra power to get through this.

No Wandering Monsters - I had intended to roll wandering monster checks -- it was part of the reason I wanted to be anal about turn tracking. However, there was plenty of action in this game, and I just didn't feel it was necessary. I think I will stick with my gut on this one, and only start rolling wandering monster checks if the party starts consuming lots of time and the action drags, like say by trying to rest inside the dungeon or diligently searching every 10' section of a corridor.

The Final Battle - I didn't pull any punches in this game, and while it made it pretty deadly for the players, it also lead to some real excitement in the final battle scene. The sides were pretty evenly matched and I played the bad guys to the best of my ability. The evil cleric used cause fear to send one of the players running, and another player decided to run as well just to save his own skin (a great tactic, and one I'd like to see more players use and not be so derisive about). The battle ended with a one-on-one duke out between the last player standing and the major bad guy. The player finally won, only to then spring a trap searching for treasure and pass out for several turns (the player's 3rd failed save vs. poison that night, and the only one that didn't kill his character). It was a very exciting encounter I think for the entire table.

Death - There was a lot of character death in this adventure. Only one player kept his original starting character through the whole game, and several players burned through more than two characters. Yet the experience was met by everyone with glee and good humor. At one point I even tried to retcon a death because I had made an error in the rules, and the player absolutely refused, demanding to make a new character. I'd hope that character death wouldn't be this frequent in a campaign game, but that the players would still find amusement in it rather than being bummed out.

The Bad

Too Many Players - I had 7 players, and it's just too many. I know the game is generally targeted at 4-8, and that many modules recommend 6-10, but I don't like it. I'd rather scale back the number of monsters in each encounter and stick with a 4-6 player range. I felt routinely like the players in the front of the marching order were interacting a ton more with the dungeon, while those in back were more or less just along for the ride. I could even see some bored looking faces towards the back of the party, and that always makes me feel bad. I think with a smaller group it's just easier to keep everyone engaged.

Morale - OK, the morale rules are a little grey. They state that you should roll morale 'in critical combat situations'. The book then gives two 'recommended' instances when morale should be checked - on a side's first death in combat and when 1/2 of a side has been killed or incapacitated. I tried to run a bit more loose with it, but allowed myself to be bullied by one of the players into checking morale on a couple of occaisons. I both didn't like having the rules intrued on me when I didn't want to check morale, and I didn't like it when I decided to finally check and the dice always seemed to come up success (meaning the monsters keep fighting). I think ultimately I'd rather ditch the mechanic all together and just make logical choices for myself when the bad guys flee. I think in most cases I have a good sense for when it should happen, and I should just go with it.

Dungeon Too Big - There were 25 rooms in the dungeon, and the players managed to visit the room containing their goal as the very last -- meaning they explored all 25 rooms. It was a bit too much. Also, when stocking the dungeon, I think I ran out of steam towards the end, and I think the players could tell as a certain part of the dungeon was far more interesting another.

Caller - I continue to hate using a caller. I tried to do it Dan's way, having the players elect a caller at the start. I mentioned to them that I would only go to the caller though when there was discord amongst the party. I never felt like we reached that point. What I do think happened though, is that the players who tend to be a bit more reserved had an excuse to fall even further into the background, letting the caller make all the decisions. Another cause I think for the bored faces towards the back of the party. I won't use a caller again.

Thief Skills - I never saw a thief skill get successfully used. Twice our thief tried using Remove Traps to disable a trap, and twice botched the roll and triggered the trap on himself, the second time resulting in his death. I found it far more interesting when I simply described the trap to the players and they figured out how to safely trigger or disable the trap using real logic. All the other thief skills pretty much never came up. I don't know what to do about this, but I do know that I don't like the mechanic.

Saving Throw Charts - On my screen I have the saving throw charts copied from the Expert book. The players had a copy of the basic book on the table to help them create their characters. We discovered that the saving throws listed for dwarves and halflings in the basic book is actually different from those listed for 1st-3rd level in the expanded charts from the Expert book. I decided to go with the expert book ones only because they were what I had most readily at hand.

The Ugly

Dungeon Creation and Clever Traps - I made the dungeon by taking a randomly generated map and using the system in the back of the basic book to stock it. The map generated had one huge flaw -- the goal chambers were in the center of the dungeon but there was also a circuitous path around them with lots of other rooms. Naturally the players took the circuitous route, requiring them to visit every single room before getting to the goal. I think if I were drawing a custom map, I might try instead to have many entryways that all lead up to the goal, allowing for some feeling of variety while still getting the players to the end more quickly.

Also, when stocking the dungeon and a trap is rolled, there are no rules at all on how to create traps. This is both a blessing and a curse. I think some of the most enjoyable parts of the dungeon were when the players had to figure out how to get past a rather clever or bizarre trap. However, creating these traps is actually pretty difficult, and towards the end of stocking the dungeon I dreaded rolling a trap result. That may just be a symptom of the dungeon being too large.

Character Creation - The books are not laid out very well to get a new player though character creation quickly. They'd have to read a lot of text to do so. This was compounded by the problem of having too many players, so I didn't have the time to help players through it, especially when creating replacement characters mid game. I think this fairly easy to solve, first by writing a streamlined character creation guide (which I have done in the past for Warhammer), and second by reducing the number of players.

Encumbrance - Sorry Dan, I love your encumbrance system, but the fact is it's really geared towards your system of crunching all the numbers yourself. I prefer to enable the players to do as much without me as possible to take the load off of me. So I wrote up an equipment sheet with the weights of every piece of equipment, and tried to explain to the players how the weights effected their movement. I didn't do a great job at it, and the result was that players had scribblings in their equipment list of weights that made it actually harder for me to calculate their movement for them than if they just a list of what they were carrying.

I think the fix here though is pretty easy -- I just need to push all the way into empowering the players to do this part themselves. If the equipment sheet laid out for them the rules in concise language and the character sheet were a little more structured for recording weights, it should be very easy for them to calculate their own encumbrance. All this could go in my character creation guide, which I think more and more I should write.

Battle Mat - Again I went with Dan's method here of using an unlined battle mat and a custom ruler with common room sizes and player movement distances marked. I actually do quite like the unlined battle mat, but the ruler was a mistake. If the goal is to keep things fast and loose and discourage careful pre-measurement of movement, I should just go all the way and ditch the ruler. I'm pretty sure I can free-hand draw most rooms to a reasonable approximation of the correct size, and then eye-ball all movement on it.

April 26th, 2009 - 07:10 am | Comments (5) | PERMALINK

RPG Tables
One of the most important pieces, and also most variable parts, of table top roleplaying is the table top. I've played at a wide variety of tables with different shapes, sizes, and forms. From no table at all, to a coffee table in a living room, to dining room tables, to fold up tables at a convention. I've played on round tables, square tables, even once played in a game that used a pool table for its surface.

I suppose it's inevitable that at some point we start looking for tables to suit the game rather than suiting the game to the table. There are a couple cases online of folks building their own tables here and here. There's even a company that sells a custom RPG table. I've put some thought into what I'd want if I built my own table. It changes frequently, but here are my current thoughts.

First, shape -- I'd want it to be semi-circular. I know, kind of strange. The idea is that the GM would sit in the center of the straight edge, while the players would sit around the curved edge. This has two advantages. First, each player is equidistant from the GM. No player should feel like he's stuck far off in the corner, out of sight of the GM. Second, the GM will have substantially more table edge than any player. The GM usually needs a bit more space than the players with all his paraphernalia.

I've never played on a table of this shape, but I have played at a rectangular table where I as GM took up on entire long end of the table and forced the players to sit at the opposite long end or on the short ends. This was pretty close to ideal for me, though the layout of the room and table in question made it a bit troublesome. I suspect the half circle shape will be perfect, so long as the room can contain it well.

Next, the surface. I like the surface to be pretty much flat, and there to not be too much bulk to the table. But I also want to maximize both space for players to have their various books and papers at hand while still having plenty of play space for battle mats and the like. So I'm going with a two layered approach. The top layer will be standard wood, either finished nicely or with some kind of felt or similar surfacing. On top of this at various points will be small supports at strategic points to hold up the second layer, hopefully small enough to be out of the way and give the general illusion of the top layer floating about 3-6' above the bottom. The top layer will be clear glass or plastic (probably plexiglas to keep the cost down).

This should give enough room to put a variety of things between the layers. Perhaps a large flat panel monitor in the center of the table for my digital battle mat. Or a simple riser to put maps upon that will hold them up close to the transparent layer. Something that can be swapped out would be ideal. For the players, there should be enough room to put a book underneath and be able to flip the pages without too much trouble. The idea is to be able to look through the top layer down to the bottom layer as needed, but still be able to stack things on top as necessary. This strikes me as the most adaptable system, giving players double their normal surface area. Plus, by it nature, the top layer will support wet and/or dry erase marker.

That's my plan. I'd probably have to experiment with the height between layers, and the total size of the table to get it right. The latter would probably be more heavily influenced by the size and shape of the room I have to deal with.

For now though, it's the dining room table for us.
April 20th, 2009 - 11:49 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

eBay Sniping
I discovered an incredible collection of D&D modules on eBay recently. I couldn't help but bid on it, though I was sure it would go higher than I was willing to pay. I counted a good 25 modules in there I don't own, plus a handful I do, plus all the Mentzer rule books. The end price of $256 seems to me very reasonable. Still, that's a lot of money to be tossing on old D&D books. I'm not sure whether to be bummed or relieved that I didn't win.

And I admit, I did use sniping software to place my bid. When I was new to eBay, I used to hate snipers. But the fact is that if you use eBay without getting sucked into the emotional bidding nonsense, it shouldn't matter if there are snipers or not. You place a bid for the most you are willing to pay, and the system bids for you automatically up to that point. So really there should be no difference if someone outbids you 2 seconds before close or 2 days before close.

The fact is, sniping makes it easier to avoid getting sucked into the bidding game. 'Hmm, was that really the most I want to spend? Surely it's worth a few dollars more.' That's the road eBay wants you to go down. And it makes sense, they get a cut of the final cost, so of course they want the bids to go as high as possible.

I've used sniping software several times, and honestly, I've yet to win a single auction with it. Sniping isn't an automatic win, it's just a way of bidding dispationately.
April 19th, 2009 - 11:16 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Ahead of the Anti-DRM Curve
Look at that, I scooped Defective by Design. They just posted today an article about Amazon banning customers, which I posted about 6 days ago.

I win!
April 16th, 2009 - 08:55 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Elves in Armor
For some reason, the idea of Basic D&D Elves running around in plate mail bothers me. There's nothing in the rules that precludes it, but for some reason it rubs me the wrong way. I am tempted to add to my house rules that Elves cannot wear plate, only leather or chain. I'm hesitant though to make a house rule based solely on gut feeling without considering the mechanical impact.

Elves are powerful -- they can both wear armor and cast spells, combining the abilities of both fighters and magic-users. This needs some kind of counter balance, and one does exist in the form of slowing and capping leveling. If you look at the XP charts, it takes significantly more XP for an elf to reach higher levels than a fighter or magic-user. Furthermore, elves are limited to 10th level, and will thus never gain the highest level of skill in magic or fighting. Thus elves are the ultimate dilettante class -- dabblers in all abilities, masters of none.

I suppose I could argue that in magic elves never attain the most powerful spells, thus they should also be limited to never attaining the most powerful armors. Then again, the level cap already limits them from reaching the highest attack chart row for fighters, so they are already sort of limited from being the best fighters that way.

Hmm, anyone out there got a reason for or against restricting elves from using plate?
April 14th, 2009 - 10:50 am | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Find and Remove Traps
In Dan's OD&D game, he made sure to point out to us that thieves only had a special ability to remove traps, not find them. Finding traps used a standard mechanic for all character types. I'm not sure if this was Dan's house rule, or is as written in the Greyhawk supplement, I still haven't read the latter. I liked it though, perhaps enough to float it into basic if/when I get to run a game.

In fact, I suspect it's as written in Greyhawk, because I see some odd discrepancies concerning the issue my Moldvay/Cook B/X books. In the basic book, under thief skills, it clearly states:

Find or Remove Traps is a double ability. The thief has the listed chance of finding a trap (if there is one) and the same chance (if the trap is found) of removing it. Either attempt may only be tried once per trap.

OK, that's pretty clear. However, later in the general description of thieves it says:

A thief's training includes learning how to pick pockets, climb steep surfaces, move silently, hide in shadows, open locks (with a set of lockpicks or burglar's tools), remove small traps (such as poisoned needles), and how to hear noises better than other humans.

Huh, it only mentions removing traps, not finding them. Furthermore, the chart listing percentage by level in the Basic book says 'Find or Remove Traps', while the same chart in the Expert book only says 'Remove Traps'.

I wonder if the find portion of the rule was a new concept here, or perhaps a contentious one? Personally, I don't much like that there are two totally different mechanics for finding traps depending on whether you're a thief or not, and I really don't like that 1st level thieves are actually worse at finding traps than other 1st level characters (10% vs. 1 in 6 or 16.667%). So, I think I'll decide that the part in the Basic book about finding traps is an error.
April 13th, 2009 - 09:32 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

Writing an Adventure
So I started writing my own Basic D&D adventure using the system described in the back of the basic book. I rolled randomly on the list of scenarios and got a rescue scenario, and I'm hoping it's not too close to the OD&D game Dan ran at Helga Con.

I found this random dungeon generator which was very nice for creating a map to start with. I was also really excited to discover the 'classic' style that can be applied to the final image. The resulting blue graph-paper like image looks straight out of the old modules. That along side this site of D&D fonts means my final product should look like a real old school module.

I'm thinking I may print it out booklet style, and print the cover with map on the inside on a separate piece of card stock. Should make the thing look like an honest to God module from back in the day. Awesome.
April 13th, 2009 - 09:25 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Digital Battle Mat
Here's a little project I've been working on recently -- I delayed posting about it simply so I could get some pictures to go with the post. Anyway, I've been enamored for a while by the idea of using a digital projector as a battle mat. The problem with the project really is hanging the projector over the play surface. I'm pretty sure Jenn wouldn't be too fond of me hanging a digital projector from the dining room ceiling. Also, those projectors aren't exactly cheap.

Then I realized, I have this 17' flat panel monitor sitting the basement unused. It's quality isn't great, it only supports 1024x768 resolution, and it doesn't update fast enough for gaming -- all reasons I bought I new one and retired this one. However, like many of its type, it does have a flat back mounting system to hang it on a wall. Why not just take the thing and lay it flat on the table?

I originally envisioned building an entire box around the thing. I see I'm not the only one to come up with that idea. Though my reason was really just to get some means of putting a piece of plexiglass over it to protect the screen from getting scratched up by the miniatures. Now I'm thinking all I really need to do is rest an appropriately sized piece of plexi on top of the monitor -- or just buy a replacable screen guard.

Anyway, with the idea planted in my brain, the next issue was software. What I want is one screen on my laptop that shows the map, and another displaying it on the digital battle mat. The player's side should be blacked out, and I should be able to slowly reveal sections from my side. There's a lot of software out there that already does this, called virtual table tops They usually have some means of map sharing with a fog of war feature. I looked into a bunch of these, and they all had the same problems. They all included a lot of features I didn't care about (chat, dice rolling, etc) and not enough features in their fog of war system.

I wanted to be able to overlay a grid on my maps, either square or hex, and be able to reveal the map on a per grid cell basis. Most of the existing virtual table tops only supported free-hand revealing. So, it was time to write my own software.

I wrote a python app using wxWidgets for the GUI, PIL for painting the mask layer, and LXML for saving the state. It works pretty well. I can load up a map and display a square or hex grid over it. It supports three kinds of paint brushes for revealing the map: square, round, and grid based. The player side display full screen, and can be scrolled and zoomed to adjust the map to the size of the miniatures.

The only real downside to the end result is that the 17' monitor is pretty small. Perhaps if I like the system well enough, I'll go hunting on ebay for a cheap larger monitor. I don't need any fancy bells and whistles, just a larger screen. I can also envision building something much fancier, if we ever move and I have dedicated gaming space. I'm thinking some kind of table with the monitor recessed into the surface. Then I could use a truly huge monitor that takes up much of the total table space, but still allow players rooom for their books and papers. They'd basically just lay their stuff on top of the surface, obscuring part of the screen, but move their stuff around if needed to see the screen below.

Anyway, it was a fun experiment. I've used it once in game, both when the players were exploring overland just to reveal the map as they explored, and once in a combat situation. The overland part worked great, as we used only a single mini to represent the party moving around. The combat part did get a bit cramped.

Well, check out the pictures. They probably explain the thing way better than my attempt to describe it in text.
April 11th, 2009 - 10:55 am | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

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