Thursday, October 31, 2013

White Zombies and Sherlock Holmes

While we're on the subject of Pacesetter (we are, sort of), one of the TSR ex-pats who helped found the company was Stephen D. Sullivan. Sully had been at TSR for about a year when I was hired. He was dividing his time between editing, illustration, and cartography (at that time, maps were drawn by the illustrators; those jobs hadn't been split into separate departments yet). We shared an office above the Dungeon Hobby Shop for over a year and were neighbors in the same apartment building for many more, so Steve is one of my oldest and dearest friends. At Pacesetter, he did game design, editing, and illustration for Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, Wabbit Wampage, and everything else Pacesetter produced.

These days, Steve is one of the workhorses of genre fiction. Most writers can only fantasize about having a body of work like what he’s produced. Steve’s latest is a book adaptation of the seminal horror film White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. I re-watched this movie about a year ago, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, since I remembered my disappointment with White Zombie as a kid. It moved too slowly for a 12 year old who wanted to see hordes of zombies devouring human flesh. White Zombie isn't that story. It foreshadows by about 10 years the work that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur would do at RKO in the 1940s with movies such as Cat People and The Leopard Man. If you're a fan of moody B&W horror, Lugosi, or zombies, and you'd like to know where all this zombie mania came from, then watch the movie and read Steve Sullivan's adaptation and recreated script.

And since I’m making book recommendations today, here’s another: Watson is Not an Idiot by Eddy Webb. The book is a collection of essays, one on each of the canonical Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In them, Webb examines the stories for continuity (something Doyle was notoriously bad about), historical context, running themes, characterization, the “real” Holmes and Watson vs. the myth, and whatever else about a story catches his fancy. If you’ve read Ken Hite’s Tour de Lovecraft, this is a similar approach, but the essays are more extensive. (I found many of Hite’s essays too brief: more tantalizing than satisfying. That’s not a problem here.) Watson is Not an Idiot is a terrific companion to the Holmes mystyeries. Even though I’ve read all the Holmes stories multiple times, this collection of essays has made me start them all over again.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chill, Meet CryptWorld

On Friday the 13th (of September), Cryptworld was released by Goblinoid Games. Readers probably know Goblinoid from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships & Spacemen, and other excellent retrogames. Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures Into the Unexplained is a retroclone of Pacesetter's 1984 horror RPG Chill: Adventures Into the Unknown. Cryptworld isn't exactly the same game as Chill, but it's a darned good imitation--maybe even an improvement, depending on your taste.

CryptWorld uses the (for lack of a better term) "Pacesetter engine." This Universal Table system appeared in three Pacesetter games back in the '80s: Chill, TimeMaster, and Star Ace. Goblinoid has dusted off the universal table for its reprint of TimeMaster and two original games, Rotworld (zombie survival horror) and Majus (magic/noir). If you've played any of those new titles or any of the old Pacesetter games, you know 80% of what's needed to play any of the others.

CryptWorld is not identical to Chill. Most of the differences are minor. CW is slightly more generous with skill points (+1). The skill lists are different, but the changes are minor and mostly for the sake of modernization (CW adds computers, electronics, a variety of vehicle and riding skills, and stealth, for example, all of which were missing from Chill). It loses hypnotism and various arts.

These switches aren't huge or hugely important, but they highlight an interesting difference in focus. Chill was inspired by Hammer horror films of the 1950s and '60s, where Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee frequently portrayed characters like hypnotists and artists in Gothic Victorian settings. CryptWorld's focus is on the horror revival of the 1980s, where computers, electronics, and teenagers in cars were common. Neither list is perfect, but there's no reason why you couldn't combine the two into one master list. CW does keep the odd Long-distance Running skill, which I've never seen used in a game, ever.

Magic (Chill calls it the Art, CW calls it paranormal talent) is also different between the two games, with some overlap. Chill had nine powers in three groups: telepathic sending, restoration, and protection. They were subtle; about the most dramatic was Feat of Strength, which boosted someone's strength. CryptWorld has 13 powers, and the new ones are more dramatic, letting characters set things on fire and speak with the dead, for example. The big change is that in CW, using a paranormal talent always costs Willpower points. In Chill, WP was spent only if you wanted to raise your chance for success with the power.

In Chill, certain creatures always triggered a fear check, and the severity was noted in the monster's stats. CW makes fear checks optional and doesn't specify the severity at all; that's left up to the CM. This is the only change in CW that I disagree with. Leaving fear checks entirely in the CM's hands is a bit too arbitrary. It's true that fear checks in Chill were problematic; they could result in unlucky (or lucky, depending on how things turned out) characters running away from crucial scenes in a very anticlimactic way. I have to believe that the fear rules could have been fixed to achieve a better effect and not simply abandoned to the CM's whim.

CW keeps all 14 steps of Chill's complex turn sequence.
  1. CM declares NPC actions.
  2. Players declare PC actions.
  3. Roll for initiative.
  4. Side A (with initiative) uses paranormal talents.
  5. Side A throws or fires missiles.
  6. Side A moves.
  7. Side B throws or fires missiles in defense.
  8. Side A melees.
  9. Side B uses paranormal talents.
  10. Side B throws or fires missiles.
  11. Side B moves.
  12. Side A throws or fires missiles in defense.
  13. Side B melees.
  14. Stamina loss and recovery are recorded.
In practice, it goes quicker than it sounds, because many steps are skipped in many turns. 

A significant change between the two games is the way injuries are tracked.

Chill uses two different systems for tracking damage: Stamina (hit points) and wounds. Every attack chips away your Stamina points, but attacks can also cause wounds. Chill divided wounds into scratches, light, medium, heavy, and critical. Characters can take one critical wound and two of each of the other types. A character drops unconscious when all his Stamina is gone. If he has a critical wound when Stamina hits 0, he dies. Lighter wounds serve only to become critical wounds as they accumulate, or a character can take a critical wound in one shot from a severe hit.

CryptWorld drops the wound categories and instead gives characters 11 to 15 wound boxes, depending on Stamina. Different grades of hits cause different numbers of wounds. A character dies if all his wound boxes are crossed off. When a character is down to 3 or fewer wound boxes, he must make Willpower checks to continue fighting through the pain.

Both systems are quirky. I prefer the original because grades of wounds add some fun color to the combats. It's also the original and I'm an unapologetic purist. BUT, the new system is cleaner and it works perfectly well. 

CW adds extensive rules for armor (along with hit locations if you want them) and vehicles, in case you get into a Road Warrior situation. Chill didn't touch on either situation.

Chill spelled out the supernatural powers of monsters and villains in a 14-page section on the Evil Way that was a sort of villain's spell list. Monster descriptions then noted which Evil Way powers the creatures could use.

CW eliminates the menu of evil powers and instead takes an exception-based approach. Each monster entry describes the monster's unique special powers, which operate like paranormal talents. The CM is further advised that if he wants his own monsters and villains to have supernatural powers, he should give them some. Sample powers are suggested, but they're only suggestions. This is a more flexible approach than the way Chill handled it, and it avoids the awkwardness that developed in Chill when add-on monster books included new Evil Way powers, resulting in the CM sometimes needing to look in multiple books for all the details on a single creature. CryptWorld's monster list is extensive and includes many creatures pulled from Chill supplements. 

Finally, CW adds more options for organizations the characters can belong to than just Chill's original S.A.V.E. Nothing was wrong with S.A.V.E., but options are nice.

All in all, CryptWorld is a sweet package--a complete, stand-alone horror RPG and a well-executed tribute to both the roleplaying games and the horror movies of the 1980s. Do yourself a favor and pick one of these up for Halloween.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Science Fictiony Traps

I like traps. Maybe that's a symptom of my antisocial streak. It's one of the few knocks I'd level against Barrowmaze, which we're currently playing with the D&D Next playtest rules -- terrific as it is, there aren't quite enough traps to suit me, so I plan to add a few more as the characters push deeper into the catacombs. Nothing makes a thief feel underappreciated quite like never getting to spot and disarm a trap.

As a followup to the posts I did some time back on 36 Trap Triggers and 36 Trap Effects, here are 18 triggers and 36 effects for traps in science-fictiony complexes and post-apocalyptic ruins.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Playing At the World

About a year ago, I bought the ebook version of Jon Peterson's Playing At the World. The very next day, I got an email from Allan Grohe asking if I'd like a copy to review.

Just reading the book took a couple of months, and my review has been sitting on my hard drive, about half-finished, ever since. Playing At the World is such an amazing piece of work that I was stymied over how to review it appropriately other than to simply state, "you must read Playing At the World."

But now my good friend Jeff Grubb has saved me from myself by writing his own review, which says everything I wanted to say, if only I could have gotten my jumble of thoughts organized. So bounce over to Grubb Street and read Jeff's review while I lean back with arms crossed, nodding my head in agreement with everything there.

Then read Playing At the World. It's the deepest, most thorough, most revealing book about the evolution of D&D that you'll ever read, and probably that will ever be written.

There. That wasn't so hard.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

  • Astonishingly sturdy box containing:
    • 252-page Player's Manual
    • 235-page Referee's Manual
    • 22 x 28-inch black & white map of Hyperborea
    • 6 character sheets
    • set of 6 uninked polyhedral dice
  • written by Jeffrey Talanian, illustrated by Ian Baggley
  • published 2012 by North Wind Adventures
  • $10 PDF, $50 print, or $20 for just the Player's Manual
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (there are no good abbreviations for this title, but we'll go with AS&SH because that's what the publisher uses) is a game that I wound up not liking as much as I expected to. It's a fine set of rules and a fine setting that make an odd package.

The Rules

The rules can be summed up very easily. What you have in the AS&SH rules is a spruced up version of AD&D. The departures are many, small, and mostly improvements. A few examples:
  • The "Open Doors" and "Bend Bars/Lift Gates" columns from AD&D's Strength table are renamed "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" and extended to the Dexterity and Constitution tables, too.
  • Clerics have a percentage change to learn spells similar to magicians.
  • Turning undead is done with a d12, and Charisma affects the odds.
  • Thief skills advance on a fixed schedule as in AD&D but are rolled on a d12. Having a score of 16+ in the attribute associated with each skill gets you a +1 on the roll.
  • AC descends but starts at 9 instead of 10. An interesting twist is that medium armor also blocks 1 point of damage from attacks and heavy armor blocks 2 points.
  • XP tables cover levels 1-12. Characters can build strongholds and attract followers at level 9.
  • The combat rules give a knowing nod to Chainmail in their handling of weapon classes and first strike capability.
  • Combat rounds are 10 seconds, not 1 minute.
  • The section on Advanced Combat includes fun options such as disarming, parrying, and shield tricks.
  • There is just one saving throw and it's the same for everyone, but each class gets bonuses in specific circumstances and there are further modifiers for high ability scores. 
  • Characters are unconscious at 0 hps but can be awakened; stable at -1 to -3; dying at -4 to -9 (losing 1 hp/round); and dead at -10.
  • XP are awarded for monsters and treasure as usual but also at a discretionary rate for roleplaying, being clever, attaining goals, showing up for the game, and other "soft" achievements, similar to 2nd Edition. 
  • Task resolution is handled with the "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" columns where the physical attributes are concerned. In other cases, there's a generic table assigning d6 values to simple, moderate, challenging, difficult, and very difficult tasks. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More from Crypts & Things

To wrap up my look at Crypts & Things, I want to post two quotes from the book. These two quotes probably do a better job, in a few words, of summarizing the ambience of C&T than all my meanderings from the previous post.

The first pull is from the section on magic items:
Magic items in Crypts and Things are rare and special items. They are artefacts of ancient wars and demonic summonings, and as a result their purpose is always malign. At most only one is found in a particular Crypt or adventure and they are the stuff of legend and renown. A figurative double-edged sword, magic treasures always endow at least one curse for each blessing they bestow. Often their long-term use is hazardous to the mental and physical well being of the character that possesses them.
Only 20 magic items are described in the book, and all of them bear out that dire prophecy.

The second quote is from Appendix A, "The Features of Crypt* & Things."
The gods have deserted mankind in the dim past and the only magicians left are of the self-serving, amoral or simply just plain bad variety. There is an absence of powerful Wizard Guilds/Schools who police magicians in the field and instil upon their students a code of good ethical behaviour toward their fellow man. Instead you are left with the choice of serving an apprenticeship with evil and manipulative Sorcerers or joining a cult to grab crumbs of magical power thrown down from the table by the Sorcerer/Ranking Priest. Students who rise in power under this system are likely to end up disposed of in some gruesome but useful manner so they never challenge their master’s power.
Exactly right.

* I'd just like to point out that that's D101's typo, not mine. I know the name of the game is Crypts & Things.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Crypts & Things

  • 150-pages
  • By Newt Newport, with Akrasia
  • published 2011 by D101 Games
  • $40.44 in hardcover, $23.59 in softcover, $12 PDF.

Crypts & Things bills itself as a Swords & Wizardry variant. It would be truer to call it a S&W alternative, since you don't need the S&W rules to play Crypts & Things. It's a complete game by itself; the Crypts & Things rulebook contains all the S&W rules needed to play.

Where S&W is a straight-up adaptation of OD&D that stays true to the original game's non-setting, C&T packages those rules with a very particular approach to campaigning. What you get in C&T is an S&W-esque game in the world of Zarth, a setting heavily flavored with great dollops of the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Nehwon, Zothique, and Xiccarph

Right there I've listed the works of four of my five favorite authors, so it should come as no surprise that I like C&T.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Shipment from

A new round of books from arrived on my doorstep last week. Ordering those Swords & Wizardry books a month ago was so much fun that when Lulu sent me a great coupon, I was hooked and reeled in. I don’t know why ordering a book from Lulu is more exciting than ordering one from, say, Amazon, but it is. I suspect it’s because these books weren’t just pulled off a shelf in a warehouse, they were printed just for me. They are mine in a way that other books can’t be.

Like the S&W titles, I’ve had PDFs of these titles for a long time. The fact that I ordered physical books is proof that I have more than a professional curiosity about these games: they’ve already impressed me and I’d like to actually run them around a table sometime.

I’m enough of a realist to know that, even with the books living on my shelf, the odds of an actual game happening are less than 50/50. If I get to run even two of these for friends or at conventions, I’ll be pleased. (Maybe next year’s NTRPGCon should be an all-Print On Demand show for me.)

Over the next few weeks, I intend to write actual reviews of these games. Only two of them are D&D/S&W/L&L/LotFP variants, which makes them more interesting (to me, anyway) than titles about which little more can be said than “it’s yet another version of OD&D.” Not that I have anything against those, but they’ve been piling up rapidly over the last few years and I’m nearing my saturation point.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brood Pit of the Frog God

I've been itching to do more Adventure Notebooks for a while, and what better way to mark its return than with a small tribute to the outstanding Swords & Wizardry adventure I played at PaizoCon last weekend, run by Frog God Games' Bill Webb. Regardless of whether you're a fan of S&W or even of the OSR, you should grab the PDF of the S&W Monster Book from or wherever else it's available. If you play S&W, Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or any of the seemingly endless other OD&D/BX-derived old-school variants, then you absolutely want this book. If you play with rules that don't trace their lineage to OD&D, you'll find that while the Monster Book contains a lot of exactly what you expect, it also includes enough oddball entities and familiar creatures twisted into the unfamiliar to make the PDF well worth its $5 pricetag. This Adventure Notebook pretty much leaped full-grown into my head the moment I read the entry for the froglum, and the froglum isn't the only monster that's had that effect.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My Father's Day Present to Me: Swords & Wizardry

While I was at North Texas RPG Con a few weeks ago, I got the chance to play in one of Bill Webb's Swords & Wizardry adventures. The six-hour session was terrific fun. I've read the S&W White Box and Core Rules PDFs numerous times, but this was the first time I actually played them at a table. It wasn't exactly a new experience, since I've played my share and a bit more of OD&D, but it was so much fun and so easy to play (compared to our efforts a few years ago to play OD&D itself from the three Little Brown Books) that I decided to reward Frog God and Mythmere by spending some actual money on Swords & Wizardry.

Almost all of my RPG purchasing these days is PDFs, since I actually like reading them on my tablet. (That's how I write and run most adventures, now too: directly from my tablet using Evernote.) I hit, found suitable versions of the Core Rules and Monster Book, and grabbed Ruins & Ronin at the same time just because it's so cool (I came this close to running a session of R&R at NTRPGCon this year). While I was there, I grabbed the full six-issue run of Knockspell PDFs, too, based almost entirely on their tables of contents that indicated one issue contained guidelines for constructing an adventure using Scrabble tiles. I love that sort of thing ... .

The books arrived from Lulu quicker than I expected. The covers are a bit dark, but that's a print-on-demand thing. (Tip to publishers: if you do POD through Lulu or just about any other service, it's a good idea to not go with severely dark covers, because they'll darken up more in the printing process and look muddier than you'd like. The S&W White Box image is much lighter to begin with, so it probably turns out crisper.) Otherwise, the physical quality is very good, as I've come to expect from Lulu.

What's more, I've been enjoying Knockspell immensely. I've only finished issue #2, and already I consider the $5/issue that I dropped on the PDFs to be money well spent. "Isles on an Emerald Sea #2" is terrific. The Isle of Barzon has more old-school flavor than most of the "this here is old-school" settings I've seen. It could have been lifted directly out of one of Lin Carter's Thongor the Barbarian novels or one of Howard's lesser known, non-Conan tales. I'd have paid $5 for that one article. The rest of the issue is gravy.

Despite the fact that I seldom buy physical books anymore, my OSR bookshelf is getting crowded. Swords & Wizardry joins Labyrinth Lord, Adventurer Conqueror King System, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and Mutant Future, along with an assortment of adventures (Barrowmaze I and II, Stonehell Dungeon) and supplements (Realms of Crawling Chaos, the LL Advanced Edition Companion, The Majestic Wilderlands). Most of these I got for free -- one of the perks of working in the industry. That by no means cheapens them in my estimation. If anything, I value books and games I was sent for review, or as an entrant in the Three Castles Award, or simply as a thank-you, higher than the things I buy for myself.

In the '70s, we mixed OD&D, Holmes, AD&D, and variants from The Dragon, Judge's Guild, Balboa, ourselves, and God-only-knows who else, and somehow made it all work. When it comes to old-school roleplaying, I default to D&D B/X, mainly because it's my favorite edition and I still have the books in good shape. But when you get right down to it, I really don't care whether I'm playing D&D B/X, OD&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Basic Fantasy RPG, Searchers of the Unknown, Castles & Crusades, ACKs, DCC, or something else. In the final analysis, they're all basically the same; they're all basically D&D, and that's what I come to the table for.

Friday, May 17, 2013

D&D Podcast, Random Wizard Interviews

I've had a couple of "interviews" appear online recently.

The first is at the Random Wizard blog. Check out some of his other old-school focused posts while you're there.

The second is the D&D Podcast from May 10 with Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, and Rodney Thompson. We talk about the genesis of 2nd Edition AD&D, Al Qadim, and other topics related to the late '80s and early '90s. It was a fun recording session, and it turned into an excellent podcast, in my biased opinion.

I'm generally a bit reluctant to do these types of things because there's always that part of me that thinks, "aww, people don't really care about what I have to say." If I really believed that, of course, I wouldn't bother with this blog -- yet I constantly prod myself to bother with the Howling Tower more, not less, and interviews and podcasts usually draw positive reactions.

Just two and a half weeks remain until I get on a plane and fly to Dallas for another installment of the North Texas RPG Con. A month ago, my prep work for this show was steaming along at flank speed and I thought I had everything well in hand. Now I'm closing into my usual pre-convention, gotta-get-everything done cram sessions. I'm not hitting the panic button yet; there's still time to get everything finished, if nothing goes wrong and I don't let myself fall into the usual trap.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

3 Castles Award

Last week I mailed in my ballots for the 3 Castles Award, which will be handed out at the North Texas RPG Con in June. The 2012 winner was Stars Without Number, and the 2011 winner was the Dungeon Alphabet.

The nominees this year were

That’s a strong lineup. I’ve done this type of judging before, both for the 3 Castles Award (2011) and for the Origins Awards. Although nominees for awards are (almost) always impressive, in the past I’ve found it fairly easy to trim the list down to just two or three top contenders that really need to be wrestled with.

But this one was a tough call. Every title offered outstanding features offset by a few weaknesses for the others to exploit.

Judging criteria for the 3 Castles Award are pretty well spelled out. The judges’ instructions are not public, but there are no real surprises involved. Basically, the criteria describe six categories on which to grade the contestants and offer some questions to ask yourself as you’re doing the evaluation. It’s a solid system, and because it’s codified, every judge should wind up considering the entrants on approximately the same merits. Of course, different judges can look at the same features and value them differently—it’s still a subjective process—but that’s why you have a team. At least everyone is looking at the same features and, because the scoresheets are mailed to the central committee for tallying, no one can just say “I like this one best” without showing how they graded the competition.

Instead of reading and then grading each product in turn, I started by getting thoroughly familiar with all five. Then I judged all five titles on category A, wrote those scores on an index card, and placed that card aside, out of view. With category A done, I advanced to category B, and so on. My purpose in doing it this way was to prevent myself from seeing how the scores were shaping up before I was completely done with the rankings. That way, my judgment wouldn’t be biased by a subconscious awareness that one title was pulling ahead on points.

After going through that process and scoring everything as prescribed by the 3 Castles guidelines, I did it again with my own grading system, just to see how the two would compare. Only then did I tally the scores from both systems. Happily, the two systems produced almost identical results. The numbers were different, but the rankings were almost identical. Positions 1, 2, and 3 were the same both times, with 4 and 5 swapping places between the official scoring system and mine.

I was pleasantly surprised that the #1 finisher both times was not the title my gut and first impressions told me was likeliest to come out on top. I consider that validation of both the 3 Castles questionnaire and the decision to hide the ongoing tallies from myself during the process.

All I know at this point is how I scored the five contenders. Like everyone else, I won’t know who the winner is until the prize is handed out in Dallas on June 8. I’m as eager as anyone to see who will take home the award. They’re all high-quality efforts deserving of success, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time that I spent with each of them.

Will I continue playing any of them, now that the judging is done? Sadly, time is so limited and games are so plentiful that the answer probably is no. The one exception is Barrowmaze. I ran a portion of it for my OD&D group last year, using the Chainmail combat system. But I'd like to try it again (with a different group) using D&D Next playtest rules, to see how that goes. I just need to find some players ... and some time ...

Friday, February 22, 2013

Class Imbalance

Gamer A: Class balance is a tough problem, but designers must solve it. Without balance between classes, the game is broken.

Gamer B: Class balance is a phantom. It can't be achieved, it can only be imposed, and when you impose things on characters, the game is broken.

As we designed 2nd Edition AD&D, we didn’t fret much over class balance. That’s not to say we didn’t care or didn’t consider it important. The question of class balance was bandied around endlessly in the office, in letters to The Dragon, and at conventions.

We didn't fret over it for two reasons. First, no one could agree on what well-balanced classes would even look like. Second, the effectiveness of any character or group of characters is influenced by so many variables beyond the game designers' control that we concluded issues of balance are best left in the hands of individual DMs and dealt with at the campaign level.

In 4th Edition, D&D tried to take control of those variables. The trouble is, once someone “takes control” of a variable, it ceases to be a variable. It becomes a constant. One of the regular complaints against 4E is that all characters wind up being copies of each other, number-wise, no matter what the players do. Going up a level takes on aspects of “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”

Keeping a tight rein on the numbers that way has a positive payoff—largely for the DM and the game's designers, whose jobs become simpler. It comes at a cost in verisimilitude and free choice, and the cost is borne largely by players. Some players are unwilling to pay it.

From a game designer's standpoint, creating a system that establishes balance between characters without interfering in the relationship between the character and the player is a very tricky and difficult problem.

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean game designers should throw up their hands and surrender. As my Nuclear Engineering 101 professor liked to say, "this is a technical problem, and it has a technical solution. We just haven't found it yet." Given enough time and money, engineers will find the answer. Seen in that light, the question is revealed to be, "how much time and money are you willing to invest in the search for balanced character classes?"

Before pressing on, I'd like to define two useful terms: "wide" balance and "narrow" balance. To define them, refer back to the previous post on Class Balance. In it, I outlined two simple roleplaying games. One assigned the numbers 5-3-1-0 to character abilities, and the other assigned the numbers 4-3-3-2. Narrow balance is typified by the 4-3-3-2 game. Wide balance is typified by the 5-3-1-0 game.

Narrow balance is relatively easy to achieve. The simplest approach is when the game tells you what your characters can do, and they can't operate outside those bounds. Chess is narrowly balanced. Characters in the D&D boardgames (Castle Ravenloft et. al.) are narrowly balanced.

Wide balance is difficult to achieve. It must leave characters great latitude to specialize in innumerable ways, yet somehow ensure that the character-building resources I invest in Diplomacy skill are as valuable as the resources you invest in combat. Balancing such disparate concepts is like trying to determine which is rounder, an idea or warmth.

That's enough definitions.

The point of the first Class Balance post was that some people like a narrowly balanced game, and some would rather play a widely balanced game. Neither is "true D&D," but one or the other is almost certainly the D&D you prefer.

Whether you want widely balanced, narrowly balanced, or completely unbalanced classes, I think most people can agree on this: If class balance could be achieved in a way that did not impinge between players and their characters, that would be a good thing. That type of balance would help players and DMs who want it and remain invisible to those who don’t want it or who don't care.

Narrow, 4E-style balance is not invisible. The limits are always present, and certain players will forever strain against them.

Wide balance, on the other hand, can be so invisible as to seem nonexistent. That's what led to so many arguments about balance in AD&D. Some players felt it had no balance whatsoever while others argued that it was excellently balanced, but the effect was so subtle it was easy to miss, like leanness in wine or the humor in Howie Mandel's standup routine.

Can Wide and Narrow Balance Coexist at the Same Table?

They can, except … those who reject the notion of wide balance prima facie will never accept that the situation actually is balanced.

A problem with wide balance is that it's so easily abused. It allows for the creation of “dump abilities.” A dump ability is just like a dump statan ability your character has the potential to be good at, but since you don’t intend ever to use it, you invest no resources into it. Who cares if your Charisma modifier is -4 if you arrange things so someone else makes all the Charisma rolls?

Let's look at it in the context of our wide game example, where a character's four abilities add up to 9 points. The standard character spread is 5-3-1-0. The gap between 5 and 0 is substantial, but the character excels at one thing, is average at a second, is familiar with a third, and is incompetent at the fourth. If players are allowed to distribute 9 points however they want, it will take about 6 seconds before an optimizer presents the DM with a 9-0-0-0 character. His combat ability is off the chart, but everything else about the character is a disaster. In fact, we’ll call him the “ability disaster.”

If the game allows this, a player can feel completely justified in creating such a character. Why not? Most players know that the DM won’t let a bad skill roll bring the campaign to a screeching halt, but they suspect or know that the DM will let characters die in combat. Under those conditions, putting everything into guaranteeing that you won’t die in battle and relying on the kindness of strangers for everything else is a logical, if selfish, strategy.

This is the diametric opposite of the optimizers’ frequent complaint that characters who aren’t optimized for combat drag down the whole party, because someone else has to pick up their slack on the battlefield. In a balanced campaign, where characters face challenging episodes of combat, exploration, and social interaction, ability disasters like this character also drag down the party, because someone must pick up this character’s slack off the battlefield. If the other players don't do it (maybe they've all optimized for DPR, too, or they're sick of this player's single-minded self-centeredness), then it falls on the DM, who all too often winds up softening the game's noncombat biscuits so toothless characters can chew them.

What's the solution? Ultimately, I still think we had the right philosophy in 2nd Edition, even if our underlying math was off. Every character ability in the game, whether it relates to combat, exploration, or social interaction, is only as useful as the DM allows it to be. The most awesomely optimized slayer in the Ten Kingdoms is just another chump if the DM gives him nothing but kobolds to fight. All that excess power is wasted and he'll look like a fool every time he's challenged with witty repartee or a locked gate. The same thing happens to the cleric who poured all his points into battling the undead if the DM keeps the dead in their graves, and to the ranger who's all about fighting giants when the adventure trail leads to the land of pygmies. Even less fortunate is the rogue who's a master trap-spotter when the fighter finds a magic shield that detects traps automatically.

All of those conditions and a thousand more like them are beyond the game designers' power to control, no matter how symmetrically the numbers are polished in the rulebook. Again, that's not to say game designers should throw up their hands and declare surrender. Certain aspects of characters can and should be controlled. But the moment you place a limit on a number, you create a situation where the player who finds a way to exceed that limit gains an unfair advantage over everyone elsethe limit comes with built-in incentive to break it. Changing the limit only shifts the target without correcting the situation.

Either players accept absolute, narrow limits for the sake of well-tuned balance, or they accept that "balance" means characters are going to be approximately equivalent but never equal, like two shapes with roughly the same surface area but completely different angles and numbers of sides. And whichever way they choose, everyone needs to understand that the system's balance begins tilting out of whack the moment it collides with the "real world" of an ongoing campaign.

This square and triangle have equal areas. If they were characters, and their height, width,
and number of angles represented distinct abilities, would they be balanced?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Class Balance

Let’s try an experiment – let’s design a simple RPG.

Characters have four abilities: Fighting, Spellcasting, Healing, and Thieving (covering all noncombat skill use). One of four numbers is assigned to each stat: 5, 3, 1, and 0. To use an ability, you must roll its number or less on 1d6.

Here’s a sample gang of adventurers.


To hit a foe in combat, Braggo must roll 5 or less on 1d6. To heal someone, he must roll 3 or less. To perform any sort of thieving (or use any other noncombat skill), he must roll a 1. He can’t use magic at all.

Every attack, regardless of whether it’s made with a sword, a spell, or your bare hands, causes 1d6 points of damage.

In combat, Braggo and Blippo will dominate, causing an average of 2.9 points of damage per round with Fighting and Spellcasting. Baldwin and Biggie average only about 60% of that at 1.75 points of damage per round. Instead of attacking, Baldwin can heal 2.9 points of damage per round. Outside combat, when the group needs to get across a chasm, negotiate with brigands, or find their way through the wilderness, Biggie takes the lead with his Thieving of 5.

I'd call that a balanced game. Everyone’s numbers are equal. The differences are in where they choose to put their strength and their weakness, and the spread from top to bottom is significant.

Now here’s a second game. It’s identical to the first in all ways but one. Instead of assigning the numbers 5, 3, 1, and 0, characters get the numbers 4, 3, 3, and 2. The gang looks like this.


Now the strongest characters in combat cause 2.3 points of damage per round with Fighting and Spellcasting and the weakest cause 1.75, a considerably narrower spread than before. Away from combat, the gap between the most skilled and least skilled characters is similarly narrow.

Both games are equally “balanced.” The rows and columns have identical sums within both games. In game 2, no one is ever left completely out of the picture, but likewise, no one shines so brightly at their specialty that they eclipse everyone else.

This is the question that gets debated endlessly in discussions over class balance. Can classes be balanced if someone must take a 0 or a 1 where someone else has a 5? Is such a broad spread inherently better or worse than limiting the range to 2-4? Game 1’s rows and columns all equal out, but can it be said to be “balanced?”

My answer is an emphatic “yes, but …”

I also say it’s the wrong question.

The right question is, which game do you prefer? Neither of them is true or false; they’re just different. As some people prefer soccer over football, some people will prefer Game A over Game B, and vice versa. If you like classes with rigid walls around them, you’ll probably prefer Game A. If you want classes that claim specialties without fencing off monopolies, you’ll drift toward B.

OD&D and AD&D are pretty clearly in the Game A mold. 4E follows the Game B mold. 3/3.5 starts out like Game B but quickly morphs into A as characters specialize through the stratosphere. Where will D&D Next land? More importantly, where would you like it to land? Which type of game do you find most satisfying?

Is it possible to have both types of characters at the same table? Absolutely ... maybe. It's actually a trickier question to answer than it appears. I'll delve into that next time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

An Amazing Find

Jon Schindehette, the D&D Art Director at Wizards of the Coast, had this painting in his office on Friday. It had been found in a WotC warehouse during a clean-out of old boxes. This was in a box with other paintings, most of them only around 10 years old. Fortunately, the warehouse folk know that before disposing of art, they need to alert someone up the chain and wait for instructions.

In case you don't recognize it, this painting was created by Dave Sutherland and used as the cover of the D&D introductory set in 1977. It's one of the most iconic images in the history of D&D.

It looks like the board has shifted down and to the left in the frame, but I didn't see any damage to the painting itself. The colors are amazingly vibrant.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Brigands of the Web

Not having written any of these Adventure Notebooks for a couple of months, I'd forgotten how much effort goes into one. At least I hadn't forgotten how much fun it is working with almost 100% random elements. This one feels a bit rough around the edges, but I strive to stick with the features that chance drops randomly into the mix -- that's largely the point, when these are considered from a mental exercise perspective. Plus, I've learned from long experience that I'm an unreliable judge of my own work. It's better for everyone to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wending My Way Back Home

I had a long journey, but I'm back home in the tower and ready to start howling again.

My hiatus was not caused by a lack of writing but by an overabundance. I've finally wrapped up two adventures for Wizards of the Coast that together totaled over 80,000 words, not counting rewrites. The first of them, "The Blood of Gruumsh," just came out in Dungeon online this month. You can't get it if you're not a subscriber, of course, but if you are a subscriber, I'm always interested in hearing reactions. Though the adventure is written for 4E, it isn't dependent on 4E to work. You could run it with minor alterations in any edition of D&D or whatever other fantasy RPG you favor.

The mandate for "The Blood of Gruumsh" was to write an adventure using all the miniatures from the just-released "Blood of Gruumsh" expansion to the Dungeon Command miniatures game. During the planning process, the phrase "the blood of Gruumsh" came to mean something entirely different from where it started (and from what most people will expect), in a way that gave the adventure a whole new twist. That sort of thing pleases me greatly when it happens.

Here's the quick and dirty setup from the adventure:

Somewhere in the deep forest lies a derelict elven religious colony. Vines and overgrowth now obscure its elegant beauty, and brush chokes its soaring halls. This colony thrived quietly for generations before a sudden, brutal raid destroyed it. No survivors escaped to tell the tale, and those outsiders who did know of its existence blotted all traces of it from the records—or so they believed.

This idea of an elven settlement sculpted from living forest, then abandoned -- essentially a dungeon suspended in the branches of trees instead of carved underground -- is one that I've carried around for several years waiting for an outlet, so I was happy for the chance to finally put it into action.

The second project was a Forgotten Realms adventure that will be published as a standalone product as well as being used as a D&D Encounters season and as the basis for the D&D Game Day adventure. It's called "Murder in Baldur's Gate," and it's very different from anything that's been published for 4E. The characters arrive in Baldur's Gate just as the fuse gets lit on some really bad business, and it continues burning no matter what the characters do. They can get involved in the unfolding catastrophe to whatever extent they choose. There are events they can prevent, events they can interfere with, and events that are simply too big for them to alter significantly, even if they choose to get involved.

The schedule on this was grueling, and the only way I got through it was by bringing in my son Alexander as a co-writer. Aside from the obvious gain in having four hands pounding out words at the keyboard instead of two, it was invaluable to have another head that was intimately wrapped up in this complex plot so we could kick ideas back and forth. I can't think of any adventure, for any edition or game, that's structured quite like Murder in Baldur's Gate. It's not exactly a sandbox adventure -- there is some essential structure and there are scheduled events -- but it takes a unique approach to the setup, as far as I know. That uniqueness was a problem during writing, because we experienced several false starts before the pieces clicked together.

If you're a fan of film noir, the mob, and hardboiled detective action, you'll probably find a lot to like in MiBG. We packed as much corruption, crime, decadence, and duplicity into Baldur's Gate as could fit in one Medieval city.

The writing process was further complicated by the fact that the adventure is meant to be equally playable with the 3rd, 4th, or upcoming 5th editions of D&D. Since no one even knows what form D&D Next will finally take, we wound up writing in a way that was largely edition-agnostic. In some ways, that made the writing easier, but in others, it made the writing much more difficult. In the end, I'd say that the total amount of work was substantially more than it would have been if the adventure was for just one edition, because doing it this way demanded so much mental overhead. And that doesn't account for the couple of weeks that were "lost" to just figuring out how this idea could be put into action. In the end, the solution we adopted was not ideal -- that is, I'm sure a better solution could have been devised if we had another six weeks to experiment and putter and rewrite again -- but as we always said at TSR, "a writing project never gets finished, it just gets done."

Which should not be taken to mean that I'm in any way disappointed with how Murder in Baldur's Gate turned out. It was a tough assignment with a grueling schedule, and I'm very pleased with the final product. Reactions from DMs and players promise to be interesting.

So that's what I've been doing for the last several months while Howling Tower was on hiatus. I still have other writing projects going on, but they shouldn't dominate my time the way those two did. Regular updates will resume with a new installment of Adventure Notebook on Monday. Here's a list of topics that are in the hopper:

  • Why monster stats don't matter
  • Rules porn -- Are we addicted to rules?
  • Dungeons = Mystery
  • Death, failure, and feelings of inadequacy
  • You get XP because the world is a dangerous place
  • The emergent climax
  • Ruleplaying
  • A review of Playing at the World by Jon Peterson