Saturday, January 24, 2009

Feeding the Inner Geek

One of the things I love about the simplicity of older versions of D&D (and their retro-clone equivalents) is that it is an open invitation to create house rules. Whereas this freedom is increasingly limited as the system becomes more comprehensive in later editions, OD&D actually offers up an example of a house rule — the now familiar d20 system for combat. Originally designed to be used for Chainmail, OD&D invited players to come up with their own rules to deal with in-game situations (like how to do combat when you don't own Chainmail). Recently, James over at Grognardia meditated upon the AC adjustment for individual weapons that can be found in 1eAD&D. Specifically, he invited us to understand AC as a class, instead of as a target number. This got my inner geek excited, because armor doesn't prevent you from being hit, rather it prevents you from taking damage. Allowing individual weapons to be more or less effective depending upon armor worn is a simple way to represent this.

Thus, I have taken the invitation of OD&D and of James and come up with my own house rule. Two problems arise out of the system presented in 1eAD&D that make it too cumbersome — too many weapons and too many armor classes. That latter is taken care of if you differentiate armor and a defensive (dodge) bonus. Dexterity, shields, magic and cover all make you harder to hit, therefore affect the defensive bonus. Once the shield is understood as a defensive bonus, that leaves only 4 armor classes in OD&D — platemail (3[16]), chainmail (5[14]), leather (7[12]), and none (9[10]). For purposes of this explaination I will designate them ACI-IV with ACI being platemail. These will provide a target number to do damage (NOT to be hit!) depending on what type of weapon is being used.

Comparing the AC adjustments for these four armor classes in 1eAD&D results in five discernable patterns in meleee weapons and two patterns in ranged weapns. Thus, there are five melee weapon classes (MC) and two ranged weapon classes (RC). The following table gives the target number to do damage against each armor class with each weapon class:


ACI = Platmail
ACII = Chainmail
ACIII = Leather
ACIV = None
Shields do not affect Armor Class, rather they modify the Defensive Bonus.

MCI = Club, Dagger, Staff, Unarmed, Improvised
MCII = Flail, Mace, Military Pick, Morning Star, Warhammer
MCIII = Sword, Axe
MCIV = Spear, Javelin, Trident, Polearm
MCIV = Halberd, Lance (Charge), TH Sword

RCI = Short Bow, Sling, Thrown Wpns
RCII = Cross Bow, Long Bow, Machine (Catapult, etc.)

A player rolls a d20, adds an attack bonus based on Character Level, Strength bonus (for melee), Dexterity bonus (for ranged), and magic, and subtracts the target's defensive bonus (shield, Dexterity bouns, magic, and cover). If the result is the target number or higher, damage is done.

Attack bonuses for Character Level can be determined by either of the following tables (the first spreads bounses out over each level in a 3e fashion based on 1eAD&D to hit tables, the second more closely follows the to hit tables in older editions of D&D):
Level Fighter Cleric MU
1 +0 +0 +0
2 +1 +0 +0
3 +2 +1 +1
4 +3 +2 +1
5 +4 +2 +2
6 +5 +3 +2
7 +6 +4 +3
8 +7 +4 +3
9 +8 +5 +4
10 +9 +6 +4
11 +10 +6 +5
12 +11 +7 +5
13 +12 +8 +6
14 +13 +8 +6
15 +14 +9 +7
16+ +15 +10 +7

Bonus Fighter Cleric MU
+0 1-3 1-4 1-5
+2 4-6 5-8 6-10
+5 7-9 9-12 11-15
+7 10-12 13-16 16+
+9 13-15 17+
+12 16+

The primary problem created by this system is monsters — what do you use for their armor class, their weapon class, their attack bonuses, and their defensive bonuses? A monster's armor class requires some math. Decide which class best represents the hide of the creature (i.e. leather for mammals, chain for reptiles, plate for insects or dragons). Take the base AC of the monster write-up, take the difference from 3[16] for plate, 5[14] for chain, 7[12] for leather, or 9[10] for none and use the result as a defensive bonus. For example, a Dragon with an AC of 2[17] would use ACI and have a defensive bonus of 1 (3 — 2 or 17 — 16). In another example, a Giant Fire Beetle has an AC of 4. If we determine that the insect carapace is like platemail, the difference is actually a defensive penalty of 1. If you aren't comfortable with a penalty, you can always choose to understand the carapace as more like leather or chaimail and have defensive bonuses of 3 or 1 respectively.

Weapon Classes are easier — just choose a class that best simulates the type of natural attack. For example, claws would act like swords, a rocky fist like a mace, and spikes like a spear. A manitcore's tailspikes would be like thrown weapons and a dragon's breath weapon would be like a catapault.

To determine the attack bonus of a monster, simply use their HD as their bonus with a max bonus of +15. HD less than one receive no bonus. For creatures with HD+X, such as HD 1+1, you can choose whether not to have them fight at one HD higher.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Being There

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski wrote:

I don't think pre-fab campaign settings need to be impediments to creation through play. Indeed, in some cases, they can be great spurs to creativity. I do think, though, that there's a danger inherent in such settings and that's the false perception that there's a "right" way to play in T├ękumel or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Once this pernicious idea takes hold, you close yourself off to many terrific possibilities and contribute to the reduction of roleplaying games to an activity of passive consumption rather than active engagement no different than watching movies or television. This is the reason why analogies with those media tend to raise my hackles. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wanting one's campaign to be as exciting and "alive" as the best movies or TV shows; it's that I don't think that worthy goal can be achieved by looking to those media as models rather than inspirations for good gaming.

This reminded me of an incident that happened back when I went to a tiny little college that was settled in the middle of a tiny little town of about five thousand people. While I was there, the local community tried to remove the book Being There by Jerzy Kosinski from the shelves of the school library. Amazingly, Kosinski came to town to defend himself, his book, and his understanding of freedom. I was privileged enough to be present when Kosinski made his defense, and his argument not only deeply moved me, but actually affected the way I understand the world.

He made the observation that fiction is the most democratic form of media. I can pick up any work of fiction anytime and anywhere I wish. I can read it at any pace I choose. I am the one who controls how I envision the world described in those pages. In contrast, newspapers determine what content I am to read. Non-fiction limits the pallet by which I can imagine what I am reading, because these are real people, in real places. Photography and painting determine exactly what it is that I am to see. Television and movies are the most autocratic of all. They determine virtually every aspect of the experience — when and where, what I see, what I hear, how I see and how I hear. Once I turn on the TV, push play, or sit down in the movie theater, I have given up control to the media. I attribute my utter refusal to see any movie on opening day weekend and a preference for watching movies and TV shows on the web or on DVD to this argument. By doing so, in some small way, I am taking back some of the control over the experience.

This argument is quite relevant to the world of RPGs and adds a layer of nuance to what James is trying to say. As James has so eloquently pointed out on his blog, RPGs used to list books to read in order to find inspiration. Now they list TV shows and movies. There is a direct correlation to the amount of freedom players have in the way these games are presented and played to these influences. Campaign settings are a unique form of media. They can act as literature or television in terms of their democracy vs. autocracy that Kosinski was speaking about. This relationship is determined entirely by how it is used. We, as gamers, can choose to use it as inspiration in order for us to freely create our own worlds, taking what we like and discarding what we don't. Or we can use them as canons to restrict not only what we ourselves do, but what anyone else can do with the material.

I am not at all surprised that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on creativity, house-rules, player freedom and sandbox campaigns is solidly rooted in literature. I am also not surprised that as TV and movies became increasingly influential on RPGs that campaign worlds became instruments of autocracy and that modern RPGs emphasize plot, story and adventure paths over creativity and player freedom.

I would be remiss if I did not reflect on how this reminds me of our own relationship with the world and sin. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we are free beings. However, we exist in a fallen world overwhelmed by sin and death. When we ignore God and freely choose a world of sin, we concede control of ourselves to sin, in much the same way we do when we turn on a TV. It has the illusion of true freedom, but in reality we are slaves. However, when we take creation, and use it to bring it and us closer to God, we are taking control of both creation and ourselves. Our creative spirit is set free and we get to taste true freedom. Indeed, this is one the very reasons I write this blog and it is the model by which I play my games.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Erimia Campaign

I have been working on a campaign that satisfies a desire to pay homage to three influences — Pulp Fantasy, Christianity, and the Retro-Clone. I want to share some of my thinking on this campaign, and briefly outline how it interacts with its influences.

Pulp Fantasy

Alternate World: This campaign takes place on an alternate earth that shares the same basic timeline as our own up until the fall of Rome. At this point our paths diverge.

Battle in Space: The Fall of Rome coincides with a battle between two Chaotic factions of inter-galactic/inter-dimensional beings within the solar system. Several ships fall to earth as casualties in the battle.

The Great Cataclysm: During the battle, a device is used in the proximity of earth that causes a violent reaction in its crust and its energy fields. Immense earthquakes, flooding and volcanic activity devastate the planet as the crust shifts almost 90 degrees. Civilization collapses, whole environments change over night, life as we know it is forever changed. An energy field surrounds the world, flowing in constantly changing rivers of energy and pooling in more permanent energy nodes. This energy, when tapped, allows survivors to use what we call magic. The nodes provide beneficial magic, and survivors flock to the few that exist. The rivers are forces of chaos. They sweep across the earth, transforming the natural world and causing all kinds of mutations. The world is now a very dangerous place.

Alien Survivors: The ships that crashed to earth had survivors. Most of their technology is lost, and they are stranded here on earth. So, they make the best of it, and begin burrowing deep within the earth. Sometimes they wait, sometimes they conquer, sometimes they cooperate with each other, sometimes they wage the same war that brought them to earth. They are always alien, and always hate their terrestrial prison. At least one of the factions will be inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. I also love the idea that one of the aliens used to look like this.

Human Survivors: What remains of humanity lives around the few energy nodes that exist. They have built great walled cities to protect themselves from the chaos that reigns in the world outside. However, the journey through the chaos to the energy nodes has left its mark. There have been many mutations, and humanity is much more diverse than it used to be.

We are in the Future: It has taken a couple thousand years to recover from the Great Cataclysm. The technology available is akin to Medieval Europe. This allows for a fantasy setting within a classic pulp fantasy future when compared to our own earth time-line. It also ensures that all of the various elements surrounding the Great Cataclysm are distant memories, the stuff of legend, and ancient.


The Geography of Eden: For the land of Eden, the Book of Genesis gives us a basic geography of concentric circles. At the center is the Tree of Life. Around that is a fenced garden. Around that is the plain of Eden. Beyond Eden is the the land of Nod, also known as the Wilderness, where demons live.

Metaphoric Geography: The campaign world is modeled after the concentric circles of Eden. At the center is the energy node, which gives life to those in its proximity. Around the node is the City, a walled metropolis ever watchful for attacks from the outside world. Around the City is a plain, kept open and free by the soldiers of the City to enable a clear view of any invading monsters that crawl out of the Wilderness. This Wilderness, where monsters, demons, and creatures of chaos live, lies beyond the plain.

Monasticism: The name of the campaign, Erimia, is derived from the Greek for wilderness or desert. It is also the origin of the word hermit. In the Christian tradition, the first monastics were hermits who wandered out into the desert in order to combat demons where they lived. To carry the metaphoric geography to the PCs, they become these hermits — they are the first adventurers who seek to confront the monsters where they live.

St. Basil the Great: At the time of the Fall of Rome, the liturgy of St. Basil was commonplace in Eastern Christendom. The Anaphora of St. Basil makes this statement:

Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.

I wish to highlight the words every rational and spiritual creature. This demonstrates that Christianity is easily adaptable to include beings that are non-human into its fold and is immune to destruction in the face of intelligent life from another planet. Thus, as humanity mutates, Christians are the most likely to welcome those who are different. Historically this is demonstrable. When plagues hit major population centers in the ancient world, pagans with the means to do so fled, leaving the poor and sick to die. When the plague ran its course, they returned. In contrast, Christians stayed and nursed the sick no matter the race, color or creed.

Thus, it is the Christians who come out of the Great Cataclysm in the best shape. It is Christianity that forms the foundation upon which the City is built. It is Christianity that has allowed humanity to survive in all its mutated diversity.


Mutant Future: This campaign is in many ways inspired by Section 9 of Mutant Future. The controlled gonzo effect of this attempt at making it possible to place Mutant Future characters in the middle of a fantasy setting is very much the tone I want for this campaign. Both Mutant Humans and Replicants will be available as PC classes, and Mutant Future's rules on exposure to radiation can be easily adapted for use with exposure to the chaotic energy rivers of the Wilderness. Additionally, with all of the various mental mutations available, Mutant Future makes it easy to create Psionic special effects without having to come up with or use a Psionic system.

Labyrinth Lord: Although I prefer the simplicity of Swords & Wizardry, which invites the use of house rules, for this campaign I will use the Labyrinth Lord rule-set. Mutant Future was built upon these rules. Thus, using large chunks of Mutant Future material will require little or no conversion.

Sandbox: This campaign is designed very specifically to be a classic hex and dungeon crawl. The Wilderness is vast and ready to explore. Housed within the Wilderness are dungeons — ruins from past civilizations, abandoned outposts of alien survivors, and dwelling places of things dark and evil. In order that the metaphor of monasticism and Eden be consistent, the City must remain a safe haven without conflict or adventure possibilities. There are no politics to be had, no plots to uncover, no puppet master pulling strings. The adventure is always out in the Wilderness. The adventurer is always fighting the monsters where they live.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: This is one pf my favorite modules of all time. The way this module blends genres is exactly the pulp feel I want for this campaign. The retro-clone movement allows me to ask the question, what if this kind of adventure was more popular or common in the D&D universe? Though not representative of every dungeon that lies in the wilderness beyond the City, there will be more than one opportunity to encounter the remnants of the space battle that created this age.