Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brendan's 20 Rules Questions

Though I recently suspended the Skype campaign I've been running since 2010, I decided to answer Brendan's questions concerning how I ran my campaign and, hopefully, more or less how I'll run it again one day. In any case, it's likely to reflect the rules no matter where I'm running a table in the near future. Enjoy!

1. Ability scores generation method?

Player's choice between 3d6 down the line or making up whatever they want within ranges of 3-18. Thanks, Jeff, for that idea (and, incidentally, Brendan for bringing it to my attention).

2. How are death and dying handled?

If a major character hits 0 hp, they roll on The Table of Death, Dismemberment and Dangerous Damage. Each time they take a hit and are at 0 hp, they roll on the table again.

3. What about raising the dead?

Nope. The PCs probably couldn't afford it anyway at this stage in the game.

4. How are replacement PCs handled?

They show up, somehow, whenever the player rolls them up. Often they'll wait until the end of the session or the beginning of the next one. That's actually probably because my players usually play two characters at once so it doesn't get boring when one character dies.

5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?

I have this really complicated initiative system that is based off of this. I'm considering replacing it with this.

6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?

Yep. Roll a natural 20, roll on the Arduin Critical Hits table. Roll a natural 1, roll on the Arduin Critical Fumbles table. Same goes for monsters. Combat is deadly (actually, deadlier than Arduin was intended, as the tables were designed to be used with percentile dice and confirmations of criticals).

7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?

They come in very handy when you roll on the Table of Death, Dismemberment and Dangerous Damage.

8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?

Can you ever! If you fire into melee and miss, you roll to hit on another, randomly selected target. I've had characters fire into melee, miss their target, hit an ally, critically hit them and kill them.

9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?


10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

Strictly speaking, no. When the party does encounter monsters that normally drain levels, they will just drain XP instead, per Raggi's idea.

11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?


12. How strictly are encumbrances and resources tracked?

Not as strictly as I'd like them to be… I at least keep my players aware of them and they calculate them. It's just harder for me to figure out how far they can go in a dungeon during a certain length of time, to do that on the fly and actually run the dungeon. Tips on this would be appreciated.

13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?

PCs level up at the end of the session. No training is involved. If an MU is an apprentice, the master will send spells of the appropriate new level; otherwise the MU will have to procure them himself.

14. What do I get experience for?

Coin spent and sessions played.

15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?

100% description.

16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?

Retainers are encouraged but seldom used; another side-effect of allowing players to run two characters at once, I think. Morale is another item I try to include in my games but don't often succeed at. I wish Swords & Wizardry included morale rules so I didn't have to look them up in other rule-sets.

17. How do I identify magic items?

Trial and error, a spell your MU has or taking it to another wizard, probably in a city, who is willing to identify it for you for a price.

18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?

On a roll of 1 on a d6, Shrelft the Pilgrim Peddler shows up at the beginning of the session, selling magical items that you can't get anywhere else. They are usually minor, but are more than just potions and have definitely gotten PCs out of scrapes before.

19. Can I create magic items? When and how?

Yes. According to the LotFP:WFRP rules (and, when the campaign is re-started, according to the ACKS rules).

20. What about splitting the party?

I'd rather you didn't, but it's allowed. I'll bounce back and forth between the two sub-parties. Since this is on Skype, I don't worry too much about isolating players. My players are good players and usually play as if they didn't know what was happening with the other sub-party.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Take on Gender Differences in D&D, Part 3

Real life has been eating my energy for gaming and blogging, unfortunately. I'm going to be away from internet access for much of March, so that should cut down on my blogging as well. I put my Skype campaign on indefinite hold, which was sad, as it's been going since 2010. Hopefully I can pick it up again some time in April, with much more prep done.

Anyway, my momentum's been lost for this series, but I'm going to finish it out. First, as promised, two more points about gender differences in D&D:

Point 1: We can't seem to agree about which attribute scores to mess with. Strength seems to be something people usually agree on, but there are myriads of opinions about just about everything else (well, except for Intelligence; at least everyone seems to agree to leave that one alone). Are women more Dextrous or less dextrous than men? Do they have better Constitutions than men or worse? What about Charisma? And what is Charisma? As the definitions of Charisma have changed from Old School to New, has the applicability of Charisma bonuses based on gender changed? And should female characters receive a bonus to Wisdom, what with women's intuition and their generally higher emotional intelligence?

As you can see, this is all very confusing, and there's no way we'll reach any kind of broad consensus among gamers who are open to gender-differentiated attribute scores. What does that mean? I think it means that there's no point in trying to put forward a universal rule of gender-differentiated attribute bonuses. Do what the people sitting around your table think makes sense (within the limits already described earlier, namely, don't send the message that women aren't welcome at your table).

Point 2: One issue that Brendan pointed out in the comments to my last post in this series is that it's still sending a message to women that they are "other" or at least not normal when male characters roll 3d6 six times, straight down the line while female characters get their attributes tweaked.

My solution to that is simple: use only bonuses or penalties. Let's say, for the sake of simplicity and argument, that we decide that male characters should have a Strength advantage over female characters and female characters should have a Constitution advantage over male characters. Instead of giving female characters a +1 to CON and a -1 to STR, give female characters a -1 to STR and male characters as -1 to CON, or, the other way around, give female characters a +1 to CON and male characters a +1 to STR. Both genders get tweaked; neither gender is the mechanical default.

Finally, I promised to describe a situation in which you shouldn't ever use gender-differentiated attribute scores at your table. That situation is simply this: it makes one or more of your players uncomfortable.

See, sending messages is a complex thing. It isn't enough to simply intend well and put work into a message; the sender isn't the only variable when it comes to messages. There is also the receiver of the message, something the sender can't control.

In certain parts of the world, like the US, certain hand gestures are congratulatory or happy or simply signify greeting. The "thumbs up," the "ok" sign and the "peace" sign, especially, for this argument, with the back of the hand facing the recipient, all are happy, congenial ways to shape your fingers and gesture at someone where I currently live; all of those gestures are liable to get you punched out in other areas of the world. Sometimes it's a good idea to learn what gestures mean to your recipients before you gesture, and sometimes it's an even better idea to just leave well enough alone and keep your hands in your pockets, because you'll hurt someone's feelings and it's just not worth it.

It's possible to talk this kind of thing out with everyone in your gaming group, and discuss gender politics at length and share all our hang-ups about gender and how this or that rules tweak makes us feel as a person, as a man, as a woman. It's probably a really healthy conversation to have, actually, except that it's around a gaming table.

See, gaming is, at least the way I play, supposed to be generally lighthearted fun, an escape. While intimate, vulnerable and safe discussions about gender political theory, practice and our daily lives are great, I don't think that gaming should be sparking them on a regular basis. That would both cheapen the very valuable discussions and weigh down the airy gossamer fantasy that gaming is. Have those discussions start because of something else, something that isn't trivial and something that isn't one person imposing rules on others.

If someone at your table doesn't want gender-differentiated attribute score modifiers because of their personal hang-ups and hurts and feelings about gender, gaming isn't the time to work through them. Just go back to rolling 3d6 down the line, or however you roll in your games. It isn't worth it; just stick your hands in your pockets, don't make any well-intentioned hand gestures and enjoy yourselves together around a gaming table for a few hours.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Joesky's Carcosa Adventure: A Play Report

I wasn't planning on running a game last Friday, but my plans to be out of state fell through, so when one of my players asked whether we were gaming, I said yes… about an hour before we started gaming.

I've made progress on this list, except that I've done very little mapping, and the mapping I've done has been on a continental scale, when what I really needed to run my next game was more dungeon mapped. What to do?

Joesky to the rescue! Earlier that day I had read his Carcosa adventure and thought it was really good, so I decided to use it. Instead of sending my players to Carcosa, though, I decided that the White girl was a kobold from my megadungeon and rolled for the other colors on my Carcosa Race Conversion Chart. The Jale men turned out to be lizard-men, the Purple man became a satyr and the Bone woman became a human.

The PCs began the session like they normally do: heading to the megadungeon entrance, expecting to be met by a few well-armed kobolds requiring a toll to enter. Instead, they found a few hundred kobolds preparing to destroy the local village, their home base. The PCs have made a few attempts at cultivating good relations with the kobolds before, which paid off now; the kobolds were accusing the village of stealing a kobold girl but agreed to delay their attack on the village until sun-up the next day, giving the PCs time to find and return her to the kobolds.

Heading back to town, they found that an old man who lived out in the hills had come to town complaining of his daughter being kidnapped as well. The PCs asked around to try to find out if anyone knew anything or had seen anything suspicious and were directed to "the old ruins," where, of course, Joesky's adventure was.

I really like the tree Joesky has outside the ruins. Unfortunately, I messed up when running it, so the tree became a much harder obstacle. This did serve to warn the players that they were up against an adventure that was more challenging than the 1st level of the dungeon that they've been hanging out in, though.

After the players killed the tree, the lizard-men who had been watching attacked. The 1 HD lizard-men were relatively easy for the two dwarves in the party to kill, but the hard-core orange-painted ones proved more of a challenge; one character ran away in fear for a few rounds and multiple rolls on the Death, Dismemberment and Dangerous Damage Table were made for one dwarf. I really do need to figure out a way to introduce my players even more to the idea of combat as war…

As the combat raged, the PCs saw that the cult boss and his consort were watching from the other side of the river (the orange-painted lizard-men had crossed the river). To prevent them from attacking or escaping, the party MU used Stinking Cloud, the first time she's ever used a level 2 spell, she said. It worked to keep those two choking and distracted until the dwarves reached them and killed them.

The PCs then proceeded to loot the bodies, finishing off one of the lizard-men who was lying on the ground, clutching his leg because his Achilles tendon had been severed. Suffice it to say no paladins were in this party. (Incidentally, there's a campaign idea: a party of paladins and clerics gets sent to Carcosa…)

They then explored the rest of the ruins, except for rooms 4 and 5, looting as they went. Joesky gives out a lot more treasure than I usually do, so the players were very pleased. They couldn't figure out a way to get into the room behind the metal door, since they haven't met any space aliens or dinosaurs or explosives; they didn't even try their laser-rifles, but I would have ruled that they wouldn't work if they had; this is, after all, space alien technology. The only room they ended up never exploring is the Ankylosaurus stable; I'm sure they'll get to meet him at some point, though, as I'm sure he'll get fed up with being all chained up and break free some time before the next session.

They found the two cowardly, "maybe-killing-young-girls-(kobold-or-not)-and-summoning-monsters-isn't-such-a-good-idea" lizard-who promptly surrendered and offered to guide them to the prisoners, the beat-up satyr, the young kobold girl and the old man's daughter, Gertrude. The MU picked the locks on their chains, calmed the kobold girl down before she got stabbed for her trouble (it's nice to speak Low Draconic as a result of Arduin's Special Ability Charts), they said goodbye to the cowardly lizard-men (just like that?! yep, just like that; my players' moral compass confuses me) and headed off to return the kobold girl to the kobolds before the sun came up and hundreds of raging kobolds killed all their friends in the village.

If you've read Joesky's adventure, though, you'll know that poor Gertrude actually died before the party found her, eaten by a shape-shifting Spawn of Shub-Nigurath, which replaced her. I asked for marching order and who should be in front of this monstrosity but the dwarf who had already made a few rolls on the Death, Dismemberment and Dangerous Damage Table! She changed shape and started to strangle him, doing 6 damage to our buddy the dwarf on her first hit (and auto-hitting every round after), making every round into a fun roll on the table for the dwarf, as he'd only gotten something like 6 hit points back from first aid in the first place.

The MU had her hands full with the kobold girl and supporting the beat-up satyr, and the other dwarf wasn't having much success attacking the spawn-thing. The newest character, a sprite, had a blow-gun, which he decided to use on the spawn-thing… and missed. In my games, when a character fires into melee and misses their target, I assign a number to every other character that could possibly get hit, roll a die to choose one and have the player roll to hit that character instead. It's a fairly harsh consequence for firing into melee combat, and I always check that, yes, my players actually want to do this, but firing into melee happens way more often than you'd think it would. Anyway, I roll to see which character gets a chance to be hit, and roll the kobold baby, which has 2 hit points! The sprite's dart does 3 damage!

Perhaps this makes me a poor referee and a softy, but I gave the kobold a roll on the Death, Dismemberment and Dangerous Damage table, seeing as she was important to the plot of the session. Part of me wishes I'd just ruled the kobold dead right then and there; the party couldn't say they hadn't asked for it. The kobold made her roll and only lost consciousness, though.

In the end, the satyr took the sprite's maul and finished the spawn-thing off, getting to save the day. The PCs returned the kobold baby to the kobolds before sun-up, the satyr went off to find a forest where he could recover and frolic with wood-nymphs and the PCs went home significantly richer and built a cottage for themselves. The fact that they got off relatively lightly, considering the tactical errors they made, is perhaps tempered by the fact that they realized, from interrogating the lizard-men cowards, that there's a good bit of weird fantasy/cthuloid horror in this setting… they've already encountered a few spawn of Shub-Nigurath, but without quite realizing what's going on. Now they're starting to see that there may be a price their characters have to pay for living in a fantasy world with laser guns and the simplest psionics system ever, and they are far worse than just running into guys who look like MUs but don't cast spells and try to cut you with big swords (which also caught my players off guard)…

Joesky's adventure is a great adventure and I thank him for it. Not only did it save my hide, it was a lot of fun for me to run, what with the creative mechanics for the tree and the Ankylosaurus and the classic Joesky surprise face-stabbing style of the Gertrude-eating spawn-thing. It also proved just how easily Carcosa adventures can be used in a more standard setting with less than 20 minutes of re-working, which is nice to know when you want to give your players a taste of Carcosa but don't want to actually take them there. (Thought: since this isn't on Carcosa, should the metal door lead to Carcosa? What an evil thought!)

One of the coolest things about this adventure is how it includes the reactions of the NPCs. They cower and bide their time when the PCs are fighting the tree, but they hear fighting noises and join in otherwise. The bosses hang back, but the boss' girlfriend tosses flaming oil. The Ankylosaurus is mad and will break through the wall if he hears fighting. Carrying action into surrounding rooms is something I'm really weak at and Joesky's adventure gave me a chance to practice that; Joesky's adventure, then, isn't just great because it has great monsters that want to stab you. It's great because it taught me, as a referee, how to be a better one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Take on Gender Differences in D&D, Part 2

Except for the last two sentences in the passage I quoted from Paul Jaquays' article in my last post, I would argue that he puts forward a principle that is much fairer than what I understand AD&D to propose. In AD&D, women have a limit on their Strength score, plain and simple (at least, that's what I understand from reading multiple blog posts and comments about this; if I'm wrong, please correct me). In contrast, Jaquays' proposal puts forward the idea of a trade-off: basically, decrease the maximum of one attribute score, but receive a bonus to two other attribute scores.

Jeff Rients, whose opinion I respect immensely when it comes to treating players right, has this to say (brought to my attention by Brendan's post here) regarding this issue:
The gender limit rules as written send a message. And that message is "You are all equal in the eyes of the Great God 3d6, except for you icky girls." If you want to send that message, that's fine. I don't and I stand by that position.
I take that very seriously; I also think that giving bonuses along with lower minimum attribute scores is a way to keep this message from being sent while also including different attribute score ranges for different genders.

The author of the second article in The Dungeoneer that addresses this issue is Judith Preissle Goetz. I don't recognize her name, nor does it appear that she wrote anything else for The Dungeoneer. Her article consists of a single paragraph reaction to Jaquays' attribute score suggestions quoted in my previous post and is quoted in its entirety here:
Criticisms of the character attributes assigned to fighting women: I would accept the assumption that women have a higher charisma as far as men are concerned, however, you have ignored the complementary phenomenon that men have higher charisma as far as most women are concerned. Second, I vehemently protest the deletion of charisma points for women whose strength scores are 17 and 18. Most outstanding female athletes are often more sought after than other women. Finally, some suggestions of a more positive nature. Comparative studies of males and females on both strength and dexterity show that: 1) women perform less well than men, on the average and 2) there is a smaller percentage of outstanding female performers. To represent this, female characters should take a -1 on dexterity and strength unless a score of 1-4 is made on a D6. This disadvantage can be balanced by the +1 on charisma and a +1 on constitution in general (not just against adverse weather conditions). The latter phenomenon-a female's greater resistance to environmental stresses of all types-has, also, been well established.
I really wish that Goetz had written a longer article, expounding on her reasoning. I'm interested in the studies she's talking about. For one thing, I would have given female characters a bonus, not a penalty, for Dexterity. For another, I'm curious as to why, after arguing against Jaquays' suggestions for Charisma, she proposed a bonus to Charisma with no explanation.

More broadly, though, it's interesting to see what Goetz is suggesting here: all female characters get bonuses to two attribute scores while only 1/3 of them lose two points from other attribute scores (or, if you roll once for both Strength and Dexterity, 1/9 of them lose two points and 4/9ths of them lose one point). Over-all, then, this actually gives a mechanical advantage to female characters; what's more, except for the Charisma, I think she's made a pretty good case for it!

Even if we left the Charisma bonus off, Goetz's system would create a system where female characters would, on average, have 1/3 of an attribute point more than male characters. Turn-about, my friends, is fair play!

As I mentioned in my last post, I take the comfort and emotional safety of my players very seriously; call me chauvinistic or chivalrous, patriarchal or feminist, but that goes double for my female players. My female players have, over the years, included my sister, my blood-brother's wife and several very close friends; the last thing I want them thinking at my table is, "I'm not welcome here," or, "I'm only welcome as a second-class citizen," so I take Jeff's position about sending messages very seriously. I also think that it's possible to use gender differences in attribute scores to send messages other than, "women are looked down on here;" I'd argue that Goetz presents a very good example of that in her response to Jaquays. I would consider using her system at my table (though I'd probably take off the Charisma bonus, especially since Old School dogma is that Charisma isn't about good looks but is about being able to lead and inspire loyalty, something that I'd argue men and women do differently but strike me as doing just about as well as each other), and I don't feel guilty about that.

There's a few more loose ends, though, before I finish this series. Next time I'll point out two problems with gender-differentiated attribute score ranges and explain why sometimes it will still be wrong to use gender-differentiated attribute score ranges at your table.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Take on Gender Differences in D&D, Part 1

*This post mentions rape (and condemns both rape and making light of rape). If you don't want to read that, please don't read this post; to summarize this series of posts for you, I take a middle-position on gender-differentiating attribute score maximums, with the idea that for every attribute maximum that is lower for female characters there should be a different attribute maximum that is higher for female characters, and that attribute maximums shouldn't be gender-differentiated if anyone at the table has a problem with it.*

I have yet to read the passages and tables in question in AD&D, seeing as how the reprints haven't been released yet, but, from what I understand, the issue goes thusly:

In 1e AD&D, as written, there are maximum Strength score limits for different races and genders, and, in every race, females get a lower Strength maximum than males. Some people think that's wrong and unfair and others think that's OK because it's realistic; in real life, the strongest men are stronger than the strongest women.

I recently, on Tavis Allison's recommendation, bought a compendium of Judges Guild's The Dungeoneer, which has issues 1-6 in it. I don't know a lot about The Dungeoneer's history, so I'm not going to expound on it; suffice it to say that I'm generally quite pleased with it and that it has two articles that touch on the issue of gender-differentiated attribute scores.

The first article is by Paul Jaquays; it's a four-page article, all but one half-page of which is devoted to multiple female-exclusive classes and sub-classes. One quarter-page deals with attributes for female characters, however:
STRENGTH-as a rule of thumb, women are not built on a similar size scale as their male counterparts. A woman may have up to 18 strength, but never naturally, beyond the first category [I'm understanding this to mean that an 18 is possible, but no 18%.] Women of 17 strength suffer the loss of one of their charisma bonus points. Women of 18 strength will lose both of their charisma bonus points. There are no charisma penalties for points of strength gained through magic or by a gift of the DM (see Charisma).
INTELLIGENCE-no modification
WISDOM-no modification
DEXTERITY-no modification
CONSTITUTION-+1 against adverse weather
CHARISMA-There are no two ways about it, most women have a slightly higher charisma as far as men are concerned. To adjust for this, +2 is added to the charisma score of female characters. This bonus gives them a range of 5-20 on their charisma scores. This bonus is in effect ONLY when they are dealing with male creatures. Females will use the unmodified score against other females. Elven women receive an additional +1. Charisma penalties for strength have been dealt with under strength. *A warning to female characters should be made, though: a lot of those monsters in the dungeon have been down there a loonnng time, so be wary if you still want your unicorn to continue to associate with you! The more charisma you have, the better the target you become.* [Asterisks mine.]
The first thing I want to address in this series is the last two sentences, which I put between asterisks. To paraphrase what's being said, "If you send a female character into a dungeon, there's a chance that she'll be raped by monsters; the prettier she is, the higher her chances of being raped."

I generally don't try to tell people what they should or shouldn't get offended by, especially when I'm not the one being offended. For example, should female gamers be offended by different attribute maximums for female characters? I'll let female gamers, as individuals, decide that for themselves, and I won't tell them they're wrong either way. I figure that they're competent to make that decision for themselves and I think they should, like other human beings, generally be listened to instead of told how to feel. I figure this is a difficult issue that reasonable people can disagree on, and whether someone else should be offended about this or not is none of my business.

On the other hand, there are issues that aren't difficult to suss out morally and which are everybody's business, like rape. Rape is bad and doesn't belong at most gaming tables because most gaming tables don't take themselves seriously enough to treat rape in a serious and responsible manner; most gaming tables don't take themselves seriously because they are about fun, good times with friends, creating an enjoyable story and, usually, escape from the mundanity of life, and that's the way things should be. The sentences I put it asterisks are bad, though, because they treat rape - which should only be treated in a serious way - in the spirit of most gaming tables, that is, lightly. Rape has no place in games that are primarily about fun; rape, could, conceivably, have a place in some kind of somber, serious game that explores the effects of trauma on people or something like that, but I find it incredibly hard to envision that game being even distantly related to D&D. I realize that that's taking a stand against the way it could be argued that D&D was originally played, and I'm OK with that. I'm an Old School gamer because it's the way I like to play, not because it's how things were done before I was born.

I say this because it's important, I think, that we look this kind of thing in the face and say that it's wrong, instead of sweeping it under the rug. As a referee, my top goal is to make my players feel safe and comfortable, able to enjoy themselves while playing in my games, and I couldn't look my female players in the face if I didn't confront jokes about female characters being raped by monsters in my gaming material. Joking about rape is wrong, and including threats of rape in jokes is even more wrong.

This isn't a philosophy or ethics blog; it's a blog about gaming, so I won't be allowing comments on this post. I'll continue this series tomorrow with reflections on the mechanical aspects of Jaquays' article and the second article in the Compendium.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Frustrations in Map-Making

One of the many contributions that roleplaying has made to my life is that it is a form of escape. When things aren't going well and I want a break from reality for a few hours, I can immerse myself in a world of dice, tables, magic and evil sentient mushrooms that are 1000 times nastier than whatever I'm going through.

Today I wanted an escape for a few hours, so I decided to work on beginning to create maps for my campaign. It hasn't gone so well… quite frustrating actually.

First off, I decided I'd use the ACKS hex-maps. The four levels of zoom is really cool. I go to the ACKS section on constructing campaign settings. The text of ACKS only calls for two levels of zoom; it's frustrating to me that the ACKS hex-maps and the ACKS text aren't, as far as I can tell, strictly compatible; that is, the ACKS text's directions are for a "standard sheet of hex graph paper, 30 hexes wide  and 40 hexes long," while none of the ACKS hex-maps have exactly those dimensions, though two of them come close with 32x48 hexes. I do wish the ACKS text was written to fit hand-in-glove with the ACKS hex-maps.

So I print off the two hex-maps that have the middle two levels of zoom, as they seem to correspond to ACKS' campaign map and regional map sizes. The first step, ACKS says, is to come up with a map, so I go to Fight On! #2, where there's a set of terrain generator tables. I grab some colored pencils and start rolling on the tables. I get about four columns of hexes colored before I decide that too many types of land are looking like columns oriented along the North-South axis and scrap that idea. To be fair to the tables in Fight On!, the articles that accompany the tables indicate that these tables are intended to create settings on much smaller scales than I was generating; still, frustrating.

So then I remember that Trollsmyth has this really cool series on creating a hex-map for a sandbox campaign, and that I'd been meaning to use it whenever I got around to, well, doing what I'm doing today. I go over and check it out. First step, Trollsmyth says, in creating a map is to get the shore-line. Hmm.

I end up printing out and staring at the most zoomed-out ACKS hex-map for at least 15 minutes, which felt like half an hour. Then I remember the awesome Free Map Monday maps over at the Labyrinth; I look through the ones I've downloaded and settle on this one, as it seems like it would fit on an 8.5x11 piece of paper pretty well. I print one off in grayscale at 40% the size of the actual image and hold it up alongside the most zoomed-out ACKS map- looks like they'll fit together really nicely!

How to do that, though? Unfortunately, I have absolutely no experience with Photoshop or GIMP or anything of the sort. A low-tech solution, though, is to print the ACKS map out on a transparency, then scan/copy the map with the transparency over it. Should work great, right?

Off I go to Staples to buy a few transparencies; I know I won't be able to buy just one, but I figure buying 10 transparencies won't be so bad, since I'll probably come up with more uses for them in the future. I get to Staples and find the transparencies… and they only sell them in 100-packs and 50-packs. And the cheapest cost $50… yeah, not worth it… very frustrating.

So now I'm back at home, typing this out. While I've been typing I've figured out that the best plan is probably to tape the map to the back of the hex-map and trace the map onto the hex-map. I'm not a very good tracer, so I'm not happy about that, but I'll give it a shot.

Anyway, sometimes game-prep can be frustrating. I shudder to think of what I'd be up against if I didn't have all the resources I've mentioned in this post, and I think it's important to point out that the reason I've been encountering frustrating delays isn't because these are bad resources (quite the opposite; they're great!), but just because I haven't ever really done this before and so I'm figuring out what works for me, which is slow and difficult work. On most days that makes things like this "hard fun," but today, when I really wanted to be able to distract my brain from problems by following directions and rolling dice, because I wasn't in the mood for "hard fun,"it was just frustrating. Thanks for reading.

Also, if anyone has any suggestions, I'm open to them, as I'm still trying to figure out what works for me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Initiates of the Acerbic Crystal

The Initiates of the Acerbic Crystal is a secret cult populated entirely by nobles which worships alien cthuloid entities and the principle of Chaos. Members wear translucent, dark brown crystals that are bitter to the tongue, and wear richly decorated tunics made with fine fabric for their meetings (and the rest of the time, too, for that matter). They will not shake hands with any non-Initiates, as it would pollute them and make them ineligible to attend the next meeting of the Initiates. Generally spoiled, unused to rigorous exertion and inept in combat, Initiates do have one advantage in a fight: pyrokinesis, the ability to start, put out and command fires through mental effort.

The Initiates meet underground monthly for services which include a homily, ritual dancing and group meditation for the alignment of purpose. During meditation and dancing, members strip to finely scented loincloths. Each month, one initiate is chosen (randomly, it is made to seem) to sacrifice his or her crystal to the cthuloid Scaled Tree which they worship. The sacrifice is accomplished by dropping the crystal into the pool in which the Scaled Tree sits, where the crystal dissolves. This initiate must then perform a quest assigned by the cult leadership; upon completion, the initiate is awarded a new crystal.

Every ten years, in the dead of winter, on a moonless night, a high ceremony is performed in an ancient stone circle. This ceremony involves a homily, meditation and extended ritual dancing, but involves an evocation instead of a sacrifice. The leader of the cult summons a cthuloid entity by means of a vile and murderous ritual made possible by the connections and resources of the noble cultists; it is rare for the same ritual to be used more than once or the same entity to be called up in more than one ceremony. The entity will then be sent to wreak some devastation which will not be equalled in the popular mind until the ceremony is repeated in another decade.

The Scaled Tree's stats are as follows, but it should be noted that the Scaled Tree will not reveal its motile capabilities unless credibly threatened; otherwise it will remain still, not even defending itself against ineffectual attacks.

Scaled Tree
Hit Dice: 3
Armor Class: 4 [15]
Attacks: 4 branch swipes (1d6 dmg)
Saving Throw: 14
Special: Immune to normal weapons
Move: 12/6 ground/fly (4/2 in metric)
Alignment: Neutral (ironically enough, seeing as this cult worships Chaos)
CL/XP: 5/240

This black, scaled, tree-like thing has no eyes nor any mouth. How it perceives the world around it is unclear; it has roots which absorb nutrients from the pool it sits in. The tree emits a constant, very low murmur which can only be heard if all else is silent. This murmuring is interpreted by the cult leader and is claimed to be the instructions concerning the quests of the cultists who sacrifice their crystals.

The cult is all that remains of the previous dynasty, overthrown a thousand years ago at the height of its decadence and self-inflicted weakness; it still ostensibly has the goal of overthrowing the current dynasty. Over 500 years ago, however, the cult was infiltrated and co-opted by those loyal to the reigning power. The current leader of the the cultists is an 18th level Magic-User loyal to the sovereign of the land. The cult is used primarily to divert the energies of those nobles disloyal to the king. The quests given to cultists usually are meaningless diversions, genuinely helpful to the people of the realm or are secretly for the benefit of the crown, though in the months before the decennial ceremony the quests usually involve acquiring the components for the rituals. The cult leader despises the noble cultists but relishes the free time leading the cult provides him, as he continues his studies in magic, especially concerning rituals to control cthuloid entities.

And now a word from our sponsors:

  • The name of the Initiates of the Acerbic Crystal was generated with the first part of the excellent Arcane Order Generator.
  • The cult itself was partly generated with an awesome two-page PDF by Nicolo Maioli called Unspeakable Cults and Secret Societies. I'm not sure if it's available anywhere, though it should be. Nicolo runs the Tower of Zordaz and The Yaqqothl Grimoire.
  • The second part of the meat of the cult was provided by the excellent Mark II Weird Cult Generator, written by Brendan.
  • Carcosa's Spawn of Shub-Niggurath tables provided the Scaled Tree.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ACKS Proficiencies

… are really cool and they deserve more attention and praise. They're not exactly skills, and they can work easily in a system with no skills or a stripped-down skill system like I use. Some tweaking would probably be needed if it was used in a system with an extensive, complex skill system like what is used in Type III, as there would be overlap.

My three favorite things about ACKS proficiencies are:
  • These are really easy to understand due to brevity and limited choices. The explanations of all proficiencies takes up less than eight pages, and, in actual use, no player would have to read all of that, since every character class has access to only a fraction of the proficiencies. This trimming down of choice means that 1) choices become meaningful again and 2) a newbie can easily use the system without feeling that they are missing something or at a disadvantage to veterans of the system who are familiar with the esoteric ins and outs of the system (what some gamers call "system mastery").
  • The number of proficiencies a character can "take" is also very limited. At maximum, a 1st level character can have six proficiencies, and most characters (those without above-average Intelligence scores) will only have three; on top of that, one of those proficiencies is automatically Adventuring, which is just ACKS' way of formalizing the assumption that every Old School game I've ever heard of already has: the PCs are competent in the basics of adventuring. At the pinacle of a PC's career, the maximum number of proficiencies a PC could have is 13, and that's in the unlikely case that the PC is a Fighter, Assassin, Dwarf, Elf or Explorer with 18 INT.
  • The proficiencies don't require a "build" mentality. They don't need to be carefully chosen to interact with each other for maximal benefit; in fact, most of them can't, and when they can, it's spelled out for you. They all have both concrete, in-game explanations and mechanical consequences. A player who wants to build characters and a player who is just interested in the narrative growth of their character should both be equally comfortable using these.
I'll try to write more on this at a later date; I'm rushed for time right now, but this needed to be said, I think.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gaming Survey

So, I was on Mike Monaco's site today and saw that JB of B/X Blackrazor is doing a survey for gamers. It's 125 questions long and took me about 20 minutes. JB is hoping for hundreds of responses; I'd like to see him get them because I'm interested in the opinions among hundreds of gamers.

If you are interested in the survey, go here and download the Excel file, fill it out, save it and send it to gamingsurveyresults AT That address is conveniently linked to at the end of the survey.

Looted Libraries

The PCs spent most of their time in the Mews of Methas yesterday poring through a library, searching for useful books. They found quite a few books that could be useful to them, but elected to take only those below. They were generally uninterested in learning things like cosmetology.

Below are the PCs' haul of books, plus two more to round out the list; hopefully you'll find them useful in your own game. Roll 1d4-1 and 1d10 to randomly select one:
  1. Commentary on The Court of the Omniscient Illusion, sacred text of the Initiates of the Acerbic Crystal, an apparently evil cult none of you have ever heard of. A month's careful, devoted study, along with the text itself, gives a character knowledge of the Initiates' jargon so that, if the jargon is used in an encounter with the Initiates, a +2 is granted to the reaction roll.
  2. Darm's Guide to Hard Liquor. If using this book as a reference, 75% chance to identify and appraise the value of any distilled alcoholic beverage.
  3. Manual of Maladies, Murmurs and Measles. If used as a reference, 25% chance to identify a disease and, once identified, 25% chance to identify and acquire cure.
  4. Tasty Brains, cultural anthropology text on Mind Eaters. Using book as a reference will allow character's player to ask 7 questions about Mind Eaters.
  5. The Transmogrifakticon, magical text on Transmutation magic. Contains spell Massmorph.
  6. Benevolent Edicts of Tworma, book on ethics which seems to advocate execution as the only moral response to societal discord. Vigorous study for a month will give a character 10 point advantage in securing a desired outcome in a court that uses the Edicts as law.
  7. Map of local area. Very old, and so out of date.
  8. The Book of the Hadeharians of the United Faculty, an Alchemical text worth 62 silver towards a library. (Libraries worth over 1000 sp halve research and transcribing times.)
  9. Enchantments for the Common Man, adds three pips to Ancient Lore skill when used as a reference by non-Magic User to identify a magic effect.
  10. Foriglorn's Condescension to Mortals, adds three pips to Ancient Lore skill when used as a reference by non-Magic Users to identify Nature Magic (Druid spells) effects.
  11. The Soldier's Medical Manual, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 10 questions about ways to cure diseases with herbs and potions.
  12. Lead to Gold: An Introduction, if used as as reference, allows character's player to ask 7 questions about alchemical effects encountered.
  13. Wizards: Nasty People Who Steal Your Brain, adds three pips to Ancient Lore skill when used as a reference by non-Magic User to identify an enchantment effect.
  14. The Chirurgeon-Soldier, a month's careful, devoted study allows 2 extra attempts to stabilize a critically wounded creature before they die.
  15. Tzu-Zun's Pacificator, if used as a reference before a battle, 20% chance to predict a portion of the enemy's strategy; if that is successful, 5% chance to predict most of enemy's strategy.
  16. Gwarba's Opus, adds three pips to Ancient Lore skill when used as a reference by non-Magic User to identify an Illusion effect.
  17. Plussing and Minussing, if used as a reference, allows 25% chance to be able to do own accounting.
  18. Chills and Shivers: Nasty Things Wizards Do Two, adds three pips to Ancient Lore skill when used as a reference by non-Magic User to identify a cold or poison magic effect.
  19. Quarg's Rules, allows +10 towards obtaining desired outcome of court case in a Troll court that uses the Rules, if used as a reference.
  20. Sparkles and Burns: Distractions of Vile Wizards, if used as a reference, allows reader to treat magical burns as if they were mundane burns for the purposes of healing.
  21. Engines of War, diagrams reduce cost of building 5 types of siege engines by 10%.
  22. MAGIC!!, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 8 questions about alchemical creations or effects. Surprisingly helpful.
  23. Nasty Places and How Wizards Send You There, if used as a reference when examining a magical gate, allows character 50% chance to know whether the destination will be generally benevolent, malign or neutral towards them.
  24. Boogah-Boogah-Boogah!, a month's careful, devoted study will give a character a second chance to save against magical fear and confusion effects.
  25. The Attendants of Bwerm, a month's careful, devoted study will give a character a chance equal to 10% times character level to increase their Wisdom score by one.
  26. Woody Flora, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 8 questions about trees and wood.
  27. The Annotated Book of Greshcanth the Obstructor, a month's careful, devoted study gives a character a 25% chance to correctly provide all passwords demanded in an encounter with a cultist of Greshcanth.
  28. The Healing Art, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 10 questions about ways to cure diseases with herbs and potions.
  29. Keepin' Power!, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 3 questions about goblin political workings and psychology.
  30. The Court of the Omniscient Illusion, sacred text of the Initiates of the Acerbic Crystal. Useless without commentary.
  31. Maps of a city none of you recognize called "Thelak-Nu"
  32. Flame and Siege, teaches the building of siege engines which are able to fire flaming projectiles for an extra 10% of the cost.
  33. Sizzlin' Serfs!, contains Fireball spell
  34. The Cohorts of the Cogent King, sacred text of Dwarves
  35. Giving Voices, contains Magic Mouth Spell
  36. Flowers, text worth 42 sp towards your library.
  37. Vile and Terrible Beasts, if used as a reference, allows character's player to ask 6 questions about creatures of unnatural origin.
  38. The Ways of the Fair Folk, a month's careful, devoted study will give a character a +5 on reaction rolls by elves.
  39. Selected Theatre of the Lizard-Men, an anthology of some of the very best Lizard-Man plays; a month's careful, devoted study will give a character a +5 on a reaction roll when conversing with educated Lizard-Men.
  40. Rough Eatin', if used as a reference, gives a character a 25% chance to find food in environments where no obviously edible animals or plants exist.

Friday, February 3, 2012


My players didn't do a whole lot this session; we even ended early because one of my players is sick and the other was fading. The players found a library, which they looted about 40 books from (using the library tables from Vornheim) and then were ambushed by dopplegangers, which they defeated disappointingly quickly. While the characters themselves didn't do a lot, I've got a lot to do before our next session:
  • Start mapping the second level of my dungeon; they found a stairway down to it today.
  • Map another section of the first level that they explored close to today.
  • Define the mechanical benefits that the books they looted can give.
  • Determine Thoth Razylym's response to her assassins' deaths. I've already determined that she's sending an intelligent 6 HD creature after the party; she may make things even more difficult for the party too.
  • Roll up another dragon, since the party was noticed by another dragon for killing the dopplegangers.
  • Figure out building cost rules; the players want to build a house where they can keep their books and their Magic-Users can do experiments and research. This may be my first chance to incorporate ACKS into my game.
  • At least start mapping the area around the dungeon, as they discovered a local map in the library.
  • [Edit] Also, I need to come up with two evil cults and a few gods, as many sacred texts and commentaries were discovered in the library.
  • [Edit] Also, I need to finish working on fleshing out Thoth Razylym. This doesn't have to be finished before next session, though, as my players don't even suspect that anyone powerful has taken notice of them.
Well, looks to be a busy game of game prep; better get crackin'!