Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Veterans of the Rusty Blade

Every now and then, I'm compelled to circle back to the early 2000's, to the vast open deposit of D20 material and start poking through it once more for salvage. "There's so much here," I think as I pry apart compacted layers of feats with a geology hammer, "so much meticulously crafted work, all free for the taking. There just has to be something I can make from it." 

As is usually the case, the affair begins with The Core Elements Toolbox, an obscure 2005 work by James D. Hargrove and Butch Curry that tried to distill the d20 SRD down into an intense liquor of fast easy role-playing. It doesn't quite work at that goal, for reasons I can't fully articulate, but that may be why I keep coming back to it, trying to figure where the fix needs to go. Which leads me to searching for material in the standard SRD's (core D20, D20 Modern, D20 Future and the "true romantic" SRD derived from original Blue Rose). And it's usually around True Romantic that the fatigue starts, since even that lightened version of the system is a lumbering mechanical behemoth compared to the systems I generally prefer, and I start to doubt if anything D20 can be redeemed.

So then I bounce out to Mocrolite20 to get some breathing room. Which is refreshing at first, but by laying bare the core bones of D20, Microlite rather starkly forces me to (again) realize the central problems with that whole school of design. Mechanical character optimization and min-maxing as a primary mode of play, lunk-headedly linear resolution and modelling, and constant roadblocks and speed-bumps to player initiative built in to the system by deliberate choice. Somehow, the whole manages to be both burdensome yet insubstantial, a expansive act of running in place to look busy.

Unsurprisingly, I always end my latest D20 tangent frustrated and jumping to some other project to clear my head of the affair. What I'm saying is, this is why I re-wrote Searchers of the Unknown over the weekend. So here's Rusty-Bladed Veterans.

Click the image to download the PDF

There's a lot to like about SotU, but I perceived issues with it. The language was overly casual, and thus at points unclear. And while the stated goal was B/X style play, it introduced several eccentric elements leading to a much more combat-focused experience. Because I'd just been trudging through D20, it was clear that the original writer of SotU had carried over a few D20 assumptions upon creating it. All of which were things I wanted to change. Additionally, I aimed to make the rules thoroughly compatible with B/X resources without conversion; I wanted to be able to send a party generated with the rules through B2 The Lost City using every line of the adventure's text as written. Also, I wanted to be able to run standard B/X classes alongside those characters, if it so happened old-hand players showed up for such a session.

On top of that, I threw in some elements from other SotU hacks I liked, the clever spell-casting system from Microlite20 and a means for characters to learn spells from scrolls (which weirdly I had assumed was already part of the original SotU; wonder where I picked that notion up).

I'm really pleased with how Rusty-Bladed Veterans came out. I dare even say I'd prefer using it over full B/X, since by putting all characters on the same starting foot it eliminates a lot of the disorienting disparities players have traditionally had to deal with (thief skills in particular come to mind, and demi-human abilities), doubly so for new players. Plus I prefer magical abilities earned as a consequence of play rather than as preordained advancements. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out at the table.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

*Poof* Goes the Conversation

Well, that hurt.

Years ago, Google, of which Blogger is a subsidiary, urged me to host the comments for Trollbones on G+. And that seemed like a fine idea at the time. I was very active on G+ so it meant my social networking and blogging would dovetail nicely. Yeah for corporate integration!

Jump ahead to 2018, and G+ is being shutdown on an ever accelerating schedule. The developers behind Blogger and Google are disdainfully non-forthcoming with a way to migrate Plus-posted blog comments to the traditional system, and the longer I hold out for that, the more new comments are made that will just vanish come April.

So, metaphorically ripping off the band-aid, I've just flipped the switch back to the default comments system. I had hoped the old comments would still be preserved in my regular G+ stream, which can be downloaded before the termination date .... but no, they're just gone. Years of insight and suggestions, criticism and insults ... gone. 

To Hell with corporate integration. Particularly, to Hell with Google. I'm seriously considering migrating this blog to Wordpress, or Dreamwidth.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Planet of Infinite Monkeys

Google+, the preferred social network for discussion of tabletop role-playing games, has not entirely unexpectedly announced it will be shutting down, effective August of 2019. While unfortunate, the situation has stirred active meaningful debate about what sort of online space best serves the needs of tabletop gamers, and a desire to actively create such spaces. Some really interesting and progressive options are being worked on. Take a look at the G+ RPG Escape Rocket group to see much of this discussion.

One of the highlight efforts: Alex Schroeder has put together two "planets," one-stop aggregators of blog posts, one for OSR material and another for Indie writings.  Go check them out and, if you're a blogger yourself, submit your blog to be included.

Old School RPG Planet

Indie RPG Planet

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Howls of October: the Blue-a-Jeun

It's October, and I've got a bunch of fearsome monsters for Swords & Wizardry: White Box I've been looking forward to sharing. Here's the first!

Sobbing in desperation, the scar-faced man fled over the twists of the dark forest road, a heavy vermilion gem clutched in his trembling hand. He could hear the wolf pack rushing through the brush on both sides now, despair swelling as he realized only moments were left until he was entirely surrounded. But far worse was the lupine beast snapping at his heels, racing just behind with manifestly cruel glee, a living shadow so black it seemed to flash blue with every move. The man’s mind reeled from his manifest doom, wondering what cursed god had led wolves out to this normally placid country where their like hadn’t been heard in a generation. It wasn’t fair, he’d been so careful, planning the theft, choosing the escape route … he’d even shrewdly eliminated Geoff after the job a week ago, his long-time partner who’d grown too familiar, pushing him off the path when it looped around a cliff-face, if not killed by the fall to be helplessly devoured by the beasts of the forest … Suddenly the scar-faced man had a terrible realization and glanced back, only to see the blue wolf return the stare with hate redoubled as it lunged forward.


Armor Class: 6 [13]
Hit Dice: 3, 4, 5, 6
Attacks: Bite (1d6+1)
Special: see below
Move: 18
HDE / XP: 4 / 120, 5 / 240, 6 / 400, 7 / 600

Original image by Nathan Siemers, modified by me,
When a wolf of jet-black pelt chances by fate to devour the flesh of one given over to hate, that spirit of ire takes hold of the wolf and turns it into a instrument of cruel retribution, becoming a Blue-a-Jeun.

This monster hunts at night, singling out one victim per evening, someone who the spirit driving it feels betrayed or wronged them. Possessed of man-like intelligence, the Blue-a-Jeun will stalk shrewdly, easily bypassing traps and obstacles that would confound normal wolves. 

The creature’s deep midnight blue-black pelt renders it nearly invisible at night, in shadowed forests or similar settings, granting it a 5-in-6 chance of attacking with surprise in such dimly-lit locations.

The Blue-a-Jeun gains an additional permanent Hit Die for each intelligent being it slays and feasts upon, up to a maximum total of 6 Hit Dice. Additionally, the Blue-a-Jeun gains the memories of those it devours, which it will exploit in future hunts. 

The Blue-a-Jeun is accompanied by a pack of normal wolves, 2 per Hit Die, who will sense and obey their master’s wishes.

Use in the campaign: The Blue-a-Jeun may be an old foe of the party, impossibly returned to inflict misery upon them. Or perhaps the adventurers will hear tales of a beast terrorizing a small village, picking off peasants as the antipathies of its spirit dictate, in which case the challenge is as much figuring out who to protect next as it is facing the monster itself. It is key for the Referee to express both the Blue-a-Jeun’s intelligence and obsession; it won’t risk its life carelessly, but neither will it  forget it’s chosen prey.

White Box doesn’t have stats for normal wolves in the main text, so here they are translated from the Monster Book

Normal Wolf

Armor Class: 7 [12]
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: bite
Special: none
Move: 18
HDE / XP: 2 / 30

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Journeyman Class

This is a follow-up to my previously posted "Genius" rules for Swords & Wizardry: White Box. In that post, I referred to the Journeyman class, which is built to take particular advantage of Genius, so here are the particulars.

Clearly, this is just a modification of the White Box Thief class (as first presented in James Spahn's White Box Companion and then adopted fully into White Box: Fantasy Medieval Adventure Game), and it's intentionally designed so that players looking to play a traditional thief can easily use this class for such. However, there are some changes that may need explanation:
  • I'm generous with XP bonuses, thus every class in my campaign has two prime attributes rather than just one.
  • Back-stabbing is an option for any character, thus why it's not specified for this class. To backstab, a character must successfully position themselves to attack the target unaware. A backstab grants a +2 bonus to hit and if successful the character rolls damage twice, inflicting the higher result +2.
  • I moved guild establishment to 8th level from 9th. Partially this was so certain demi-human races with level limits would have a chance at establishing domain-level bases. But also my impression is that guilds are a softer, more subtle power base than strongholds and temples, and a town-based redoubt serves as a good stepping stone for other members of the party before hacking a stronghold out of the wilderness. 



While some adventurers rely on their battle prowess, and others their magical might, Journeyman get by on skill and cleverness. Having just completed their apprenticeships in their craft, Journeymen take to the road to hone their skills and find fortune, hoping one day to be recognized as Masters. A Journeyman may be a professional surveyor, architect, troubadour, apothecary, shipwright, scholar or any of a hundred other trades, including such dubious vocations as thief, assassin or spy.

Yes, you can even be a Barber.

Prime Attributes: Dexterity, Intelligence.

Weapons and Armor Restrictions: Journeymen may wield any weapon, but magical weapons are limited to daggers and swords. It is frowned upon by the guilds for Journeymen to engage in martial posturing, so they may only wear leather armor, and may not carry shields.

Enhanced Genius: Journeymen acquire points of Genius faster than other classes, 1 every two levels rather than every four.

Secret Technique: Once per session, a Journeyman may throw twice for a single Genius use, and keep the better result.

Decipher Languages: Journeymen are familiar with a great variety of documentation, so can figure out the gist of most mundane writing. They comprehend the general intent of foreign books, treasure maps or other text on a throw of 3-6 on 1d6. This does not mean they automatically decipher codes or solve riddles, although they understand a riddle's phrasing. A journeyman may attempt to apply this ability to magical writing, to identify what spell is written on a scroll, but only succeeds with 5-6 on 1d6 in such a case. Once identified, they may attempt to cast the spell from the scroll, but again only have a 5-6 on 1d6 chance of success, and the referee is free to apply dire consequences for a mis-read casting.

Saving Throw Bonus: Journeymen gain a +2 bonus on saving throws against devices, including traps, magical wands or staffs, and other magical mechanisms.

Establish Guild Hall (8th): At eighth level, a Journeyman may be declared a Master by the guild elders, and granted right to build a chapter hall in a city or large town. The hall will attract students of the craft and others seeking the master’s endorsement, and give the Master influence over the town's affairs and politics.

To Hit

Friday, September 21, 2018

Genius: Yet Another Approach to Skills in OSR Play

Recently the G-Plus OSR community has been talking a lot about skill systems. So here's my current take on it.

Skills are a thorny subject in the context of old school gaming. Learning to embrace the freedom that comes from forgoing codified action resolution is one of the major experiences of old school play, and yet it can't be denied that delineated skills show up early in role-playing's history. And it can't be ignored that most people, when role-playing, expect to have defined skills on their character sheets.

Skills are definitely utilitous, from a purely procedural perspective. They offer quick clear means to resolve events and to define the capacities of characters. Unfortunately they tend to take the narrative away from discussion and negotiation, turning it over to the dice instead. And they curtail player initiative by discouraging any action that doesn't have a clear numerical advantage behind it. Players blanch at trying anything they can't calculate the odds on, designers try to get over this by expanding the skill list, until the track leads to something like Basic Role-Playing as implemented in Runequest where even such specific actions as drawing a map and appraising the value of gems are defined skills.  

But still, it's tempting to add skills to the game. Class options can be expanded handily simply by adding some skill to the regular classes. Rangers and Druids are pretty much just Fighters and Clerics with some Wilderness Survival training, after all. And it allows for slight variations without having to build whole new classes to accommodate them. No need to figure out a "Sailor" class when you can just add Semanship to any character. The trick is adding an option that by its presence doesn't imply everyday-incompetence in characters without the skill, nor demands that a whole host of numbers be added to the character sheet just to address edge cases.

Well ... I'm out of preamble chatter, so here's what I've got. I call my approach Genius, as in "He has a genius for weaving tapestries."

The core mechanics I've built Genius around I first saw in Christopher Cale's Backswords & Bucklers, his reinterpretation of S&W: White Box for urban adventures in Elizabethan England. I've since found it earlier utilized in Rob Ragas's alternate White Box thief class, the Treasure Seeker, published in Knockspell issue #2. I've yet to see it in an earlier source, so I assume, until shown otherwise, it's Ragas's invention.

Regardless of origin, the approach immediately appealed to me because it put the focus of resolution not on pass/fail, but on time, the most important resource of an adventurer, the passage of which is the danger intensifier of any adventure.  It doesn't really matter if you can unlock the door, so much as if you can unlock it before being discovered by somebody with reason to stop you.


Genius, a System for Character Excellence

Every character has aptitude in a non-combat, non-magical field of expertise. All characters start with 1 point of Genius to define as they choose. Characters of the Journeyman* class gain an additional point of Genius every two levels, all other classes gain 1 point every four levels. Points of Genius gained after the 1st level may be added to an existing field of expertise, or used to start ones new to the character. 
*The Journeyman is my take on the role typically filled by the Thief

Some potential types of Genius:
  • Wilderness Travel
  • Ancient Lore
  • Masonry & Construction
  • Religious Ceremony
  • Weaponcraft
  • Politics & Statecraft
  • Seamanship
  • Trade & Barter
  • Burglary
  • Taxonomy of Monsters
  • Forgery & Counterfeiting
  • Brewing & Cooking
  • Music, Dance & Theater
  • Alchemy

Defining Genius

A Genius should entail broad related areas of endevour, any one Genius enough to qualify as a full career in itself. A good rule of thumb is that any single Genius should imply at least two distinctly different kinds of activity. For instance, Seamanship entails knot-tying and ship-building, and Burglary entails stealthy movement and maintaining underworld contacts. Goals of action cannot be forms of Genius in themselves (Persuade, Intimidate, Deceive, Climb, etc.).

Casual use of genius always succeeds; a sailor can tie a quick knot, a ranger can find fresh water in a forest, a sage can name an ancient queen, all without needing to throw dice.


Resolving Challenging Use of Genius 

To check genius in a challenging situation, throw 1d6 twice. The first throw determines how many units of time the effort takes. This can be days, hours, turns or rounds depending on what makes sense for the situation (maybe even years!) but usually it’ll be turns.

The second throw determines positive or neutral results. Add the points of a character’s relevant Genius to the throw, and the relevant attribute modifier if the referee allows it. If the total is 6 or higher, the effort succeeds. Characters may subtract 1 from the initial time result for every point a successful throw exceeds 6. If after modification the time throw is zero or less, the effort requires only one unit of the next lower time increment (hours down to a turn, turns down to a round, and so on)

Characters only know if they succeeded or failed after the determined interval has passed. Conditions permitting, they may keep spending time to make further attempts at the same effort until they succeed.

If the attempted effort would require less time than is relevant to the current context of play (rounds when exploring a dungeon, turns when crossing wilderness) then don't bother rolling, just call it a success and move on.


Miraculous Results

If a character has enough of a bonus between Genius, attribute modifiers and magical benefits to guarantee success (+5 or more) they may try for miraculous results, literally fantastical feats beyond the ken of normal mortal arts. Simply subtract 5 from the total bonus and otherwise resolve the attempt as described above.If the character succeeds, they have performed a miracle, fit for legend.

A Miraculous use of the Textiles Genius; she's sewing together a cloak literally made from the laughter of children.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Stupid, Stupid Luck

I rather like stories where serendipity plays as much a factor as skill and strength to win the day, and a growing amalgamation of mischance looms over all until something prosaic resolves it unexpectedly.

For example, I'm currently watching The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, a satirical anime poking fun at the heroic space-battleship genre, with a lead character who gets by mainly through blind fortune and refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of any situation.
By the way, this series is legitimately free to watch on youtube.
So of course I eventually mused how to implement this in an OSR fashion. Here's one possible approach.

Add a trait called Stupid, Stupid Luck. Every session, it begins with a value equal to 10 minus the character's current level. Yes, "stupid" being stated twice is vital to this mechanic. Vital.

In any given situation or encounter, the character may attempt to roll against their Stupid, Stupid Luck by throwing a d20. if the die lands greater than the current value, luck is against them and things get worse (probably in a non-lethal but embarrassing way) but they get to raise the value by 1d3 points.

If the die lands less than or equal to the current value, luck is on their side and things align in their favor, preferably in a way that is non-violent and paradoxically mundane. The dragon that was about to breathe on them develops a distracting case of hiccups, the sprung trap turns out to have been accidentally loaded with harmlessly pleasant lilac powder, the ogre gang boss turns out to be an old football buddy. However, after the success the value of Stupid, Stupid Luck is halved.

In practice this should lead to a progression where the character depending on luck suffers several indignities only to end up on top at the end, smelling of roses ... or lilacs.

Ways to implement this could be as a character class for whom it's their main ability. Call the class, say, the Blessed Idiot using the Cleric's advancement tables. Or as a communal resource the whole party can make use of. For a truly bonkers game, every character could have Stupid, Stupid Luck, possibly even monster's and NPC's.