My Trek – Part 3

If I’m going to have a Star Trek campaign, I need some Star Trek rules. Fortunately for me, I discovered a pretty groovy set of rules a few months ago … in fact – the very first set of Star Trek RPG rules, Star Trek – Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, by Grenadier in 1978. I reviewed these rules a few posts back (LINK here).

As I said in the review, it’s a very lean set of rules, and in my opinion pretty nifty. The rules are divided into basic rules, which permit you to play the game using the Star Trek characters we all know and love (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov), and advanced rules that introduce character creation and other enhancements. For my campaign, the rules need just a little bit more.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Commodore Gray and Captain Kirk from Star Trek Continues

One interesting thing “missing” from the game is the idea of rank and command. You get a group of players together, they roll up characters … and so who is the captain. Who is an ensign versus a lieutenant commander?

Here’s my idea for solving this little issue:

First and foremost, each player can decide whether their character is going to be an officer or enlisted crewman, and which division they wish to be in – Command (green shirts*), Sciences (blue shirts) or Operations (red shirts).

At the start of campaign, starting rank is assigned based on the raw ability of the characters. Total each character’s ability scores. The character with the highest total score who is in the command division is given the rank of captain. The new captain is put in command of a scout-class starship of his or her choice.

Using the other character’s total scores, assign them their starting ranks in the following order. Note that whether players choose to be officers or enlisted, there is only one character at the highest rank (commander or chief petty officer), and so on.

  • 2nd highest: Commander / Chief Petty Officer
  • 3rd highest: Lieutenant Commander / Petty Officer
  • 4th highest: Lieutenant Commander / Petty Officer
  • 5th highest: Lieutenant / Crewman (1st grade)
  • 6th highest: Sub-Lieutenant / Crewman (2nd grade)
  • 7th highest, etc.: Ensign / Crewman (3rd grade)

Side Trek – Gold or Green?

According to the William Theiss, who designed those original Star Trek uniforms, the command shirts were indeed avocado green. Apparently, the texture of the fabric and the lighting on set made them look gold. Speaking as someone who is color blind, I honestly could never figure it out. Hell, I only just this year asked my daughter whether Spock had a green cast to his skin or not – when you’re red/green color blind, it’s a tough call. So – command wears avocado green in My Trek.

Advancing in Rank

The Star Trek rules I’m using mention the idea of character advancement, but offer no rules for it. Now that’s what I call old school.

Since a campaign is supposed to represent numerous games with the same characters, it makes sense to allow those characters the chance to advance in rank a bit. Of course, we see very little rank advancement for the characters in the original series – I think Spock goes from lieutenant commander to commander at some point in the series, but poor old Chekov remains an ensign until he got an off-screen promotion to lieutenant. This means, no rank advancement might actually be the way to go, but I know players and what keeps them interested … so here’s my take on the subject.

The simplest way I could have handled character advancement was to introduce levels and experience points of some sort. I decided to try something different. For accomplishments during a mission, a character is awarded a decoration:

For specific acts of heroism, the following commendations may be awarded:

In addition to the commendation to decorate your chest, the newly decorated character may roll once on the following table to receive an upgrade to his or her abilities.

D6 Bonus
1-3 +1 bonus to one skill (tricorder, medikit, psionics, etc)
4-5 +1 bonus to combat ability
6 increase one ability score by +1

After completing five missions, characters are eligible for an increase in rank. The chance of a promotion is 1 in 20, plus 1 per commendation earned since the last promotion. Thus, a character that has earned two commendations during those five missions has a (1+2) 3 in 20 chance to earn a promotion.

This scheme would mean quicker promotion than was seen in the TV series, but oh well – nothing’s perfect. I suppose, using the show as a guide, we had seven principal characters on 79 missions with one rank promotion … giving characters a 1 in 553 chance of promotion even when saving the universe multiple times. If we assume everyone got a promotion at the end of the series, then we’re down to a 1 in 69 chance.

I’m okay with that, though. I’d like to see the players earn higher rank and better starships as they explore the galaxy. I think it would be fun. I like fun.

A master chief that earns a promotion is offered a commission as a lieutenant commander.

Captains earn better starships instead of rank promotions. New captain command scout ships, and might then be promoted to better ships in the following order: destroyers, light cruisers and then heavy cruisers. Naturally, the captain can take their crew with them to their new ship.

A captain that has earned a heavy cruiser can be promoted to the rank of commodore. A commodore can choose any vessel as their flag ship, or can retire to commanding a starbase. A commodore promoted to admiral is retired from starship command (unless they’re Captain Kirk, of course).

Side Trek – The Medals

Viewers of Star Trek will recognize those medals up there, as I got the names and designs from old Star Trek episodes. Naturally, I just had to make up what name went with what emblem, and since my graphics skills are not super strong, I made the emblems the best I could. I’m sure there are better representations of them out there on the web. I thought it would be fun to have a square on each character sheet colored in with the uniform color of the character’s chosen division, with the sleeve stripes of their rank on the bottom and their collected medals above those stripes – thus I took a stab at drawing the medals.

The corollary to the “captains get better ships instead of higher rank” is that captains that violate Starfleet rules (especially that darn Prime Directive) or who royally screw up missions might be assigned lowlier ships. Using Franz Joseph’s deigns (plus one), the chain of ships would start with the Ptolemy-class transports (which I actually think look pretty cool) and then go through the Hermes-class scout, Saladin-class destroyer, Miranda-class light cruiser, Starship (i.e. Constitution)-class heavy cruiser and finally the Federation-class dreadnought. I would start my players in a Hermes-class scout, leaving the transport available as a punishment.

Next Week – Starship Battles!

My Trek – Part 2

I’m finally getting this post up on the cusp of a new year. In this post, I discuss the foundations of my non-existent Star Trek campaign.

First things first – My Trek is all about me. What I like, what I enjoy. It’s not a matter of opinion – of what is objectively good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just about what I like in my Star Trek. The point – you don’t need to argue with me here. Arguing with make what I’m writing way more important than it is or deserves to be.

So – what is My Trek – what elements shall make up my little campaign?

Star Trek (1966-1969)
If it is in Star Trek, it is in my campaign. Star Trek is the basis of the whole campaign, but it’s not the entirety of the campaign, and in fact, some of it is not technically in the campaign. My campaign would start in 2265, as Kirk and crew are blasting off for adventure. Heck, the PCs might even beat them to a few adventures in my campaign.

Star Trek (Animated; 1973-1974)
Since the animated adventures shared many key people with Star Trek – and since they’re fun and I love them (and wouldn’t think of running Trek without the Skorr and a 20-ft tall Spock), they’re in My Trek.

Star Trek Phase II (1977 … sort of)
Although there isn’t much material in the planned sequel series to Star Trek that one could use, especially since it would all take place 7 or so years after My Trek starts, the Klingon material from The Kitumba is all valid for my purposes.

Star Trek Continues
I just love this web series, so I treat it as mostly official in my campaign.

Side Trek I
I’ll put a few of these asides into the My Trek posts. The Klingons in My Trek are the Klingons in Star Trek – sans bumpy foreheads and maybe with a little more individual personality than the later honor-and-war-is-all-we-know Klingons (not including Kheylar from Next Generation, who was fabulous). The Klingons live in a military dictatorship, with ten subject planets under their control. In one of James Blish’s novelizations of Star Trek, he notes that the Klingons are descended from Asian peoples – maybe dropped on their home planet, Ultar, as the Native Americans were dropped on Epsilon Beta.

So that’s the stuff that is definitely in the campaign, but there are other sources as well. Two key sources are James Blish’s novelizations of Star Trek episodes, and Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations of animated Star Trek episodes. They often add in little details and bits of color that I like. I also like the Spaceflight Chronology – with some work done on the timespan it covers – some other early Trek books like the Federation Reference Series, Star Fleet Technical Manual and U.S.S. Enterprise Officer’s Manual, and even some of the FASA material. These are mostly used for gathering little details, like some names of Klingon D-7 battlecruisers, rather than as key pieces of the puzzle. Again – my campaign starts when Star Trek starts, so PCs could create their own legends alongside Kirk and crew.

Outside of these sources, not much enters into my campaign. Just as old school gamers explored the early days of Dungeons & Dragons before so much new material was added to it in the 1980s and afterward, I like the idea of getting to know Star Trek before the Next Generation/DS9/Voyager/etc. rewrote substantial parts of it. This isn’t about not liking the later series, but rather treating them like the pastiches of Conan written by folks other than Robert E. Howard. I want to get to know what the show’s original creators and fans saw in Star Trek.

Side Trek II
I thought Deep Space Nine was okay – didn’t love it, didn’t hate it – until they got into the Dominion War stuff. I just didn’t give a rip about grandiose story lines about fictional people and places. I was reading about the making of the show recently, and came across the idea that the main bad guys in the show were originally going to be the Romulans, rather than Cardassians. That got me thinking about a 60’s era Deep Space Nine, with the Romulans as the antagonists and the Orions replacing the Ferengi as the mercantilists. It might be a location to use in my campaign – Deep Space Station K-9, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

The key thing about My Trek is the overall vibe and ambiance. The campaign is very 1960’s in terms of its design aesthetic and “New Frontier” exuberance. It’s about hope, promise, adventure and exploration, of an alliance of free worlds trying to find new friends in the cosmos while dealing not only with the aggressive Klingons and the xenophobic Romulans, but also their own tortured past – overcoming the unknown as well as the less attractive aspects of what it means to be human.

Side Trek III
Some of the FASA Star Trek material is really useful, in terms of the starships and what they can do. One thing that struck me, though, was the number of space ships they imagined being built by the different entities. Hundreds and thousands of the things! I prefer to make spaceships a little less numerous, for a couple reasons. First, there is some reason from Star Trek to believe that the Federation’s resources are not unlimited. According to Kirk, there are 12 Constitution-class (or Starship-class) vessels active. Franz Joseph’s lists of other vessels lean towards more limited runs of vessels as well. There’s also a dramatic reason to limit the number of ships. If there are only a few big bad starships defending the Federation, losing one really means something. I like that. When devising how many vessels these various space fleets include, I’ve actually used the size of Earth navies in 1965 as a guide. Works great!

With the “Star Trek feel” in mind, there are some non-Trek works that I think work within the overall scheme. The 1959 TV series Men Into Space, for example, has a very similar feel to Star Trek in terms of its emphasis on exploration, engineering and science. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to give it a shot.

So that’s My Trek. It’s about exploration and overcoming our own personal demons and it’s about having fun. It’s colorful and lively – no Beige Trek, no Lecture Trek.

Up next, I’ll talk a bit about the supplemental rules and guidelines I have devised for the My Trek campaign to cover promotions and spaceship battles.

My Trek – Part 1

A couple months ago, I was nearing burnout in terms of writing and publishing game materials – and I didn’t even know it. I was working at my normal pace, and although there were a few indications I was hitting the wall, I was still getting things done. When I started goofing around with Star Trek, though, I was soon to diagnose my coming burnout.

It started with my daughter wanting to watch all the Star Trek that had been made in the order in which it was set (more or less). She started with Enterprise, which I watched with her (still frustrated at the close-but-no-cigar aspect of the show), and then we watched Star Trek. Yeah – I just call it Star Trek, because that’s what it is. When you’re the “original series”, you don’t need an amendment to your title. We followed up with the animated Star Trek, the Star Trek Continues (because I like it and think it was worthy of inclusion), then the movies and now on to Next Generation – we’re on season 3 I think.

In the midst of this, I started getting the Star Trek bug, and found a copy of the first Star Trek RPG, which I reviewed on this blog a while back. This got me to designing a Star Trek campaign (hence, My Trek) that I knew I would probably never play, but wanted to do anyways. And here’s where I discovered my potential burnout. I started having so much fun goofing around with Trek, that I just plain stopped working on my writing. I have an issue of NOD that is written, edited and ready to go … and I’ve just let it sit there for a couple weeks. I could publish it today … but I don’t think I feel like it. The writing and publishing, as much as I enjoyed it, was becoming work, and so messing with Star Trek became not just a vacation, but really more like playing hooky. When writing game materials for myself feels like playing hooky for writing game materials for others, you know you’re heading for burnout.

To avoid that burnout, I’ve indulged myself with good old Star Trek. I followed up my Star Trek RPG purchase (and I do love that little game dearly) with an old Star Fleet Battles rulebook (which I found overly complicated – so I wrote my own version, which will appear in future posts), and then the Spaceflight Chronology, Star Trek Concordance, the book about Star Trek Phase II and a bunch of the novelizations of the animated series (though if I’m honest, I prefer Blish’s novelizations of the old episodes to Alan Dean Foster’s animated episode novelizations). I have created massive databases of star systems and starships for my probably never-to-be-played campaign, created my own map of the Star Trek universe, made a nice little time line graphic of Starfleet, Klingon and Romulan vessels (at least, the one’s I think are cool) and have written a handy little campaign guide for prospective players.

The lesson here: Watch for a burnout (of any kind), and deal with it before you suffer it. That way, you don’t lose a thing you really love and value, plus maybe you pick up a new thing to enjoy along the way. That next issue of NOD will be published, and next year I’ll do my Deities book and maybe my Nodian Cosmos book and some issues of Nod, and I’ll do them because I gave myself a well-deserved break.

Next Week on My Trek: I’ll discuss some challenges and solutions to turning Trek into a playable campaign – specifically how you deal with tons of material that contradicts and conflicts (and, honestly, just doesn’t always fit into the same milieu despite being called Star Trek).

Good advice if we’ll only take it

Rainbow Fantasy III – The Champion

I wind up my little Rainbow Fantasy series of tributes to children’s TV fantasy action shows with a class based on probably the two best such shows, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra, Princess of Power.

The Champion

Champions are warriors that draw their power from an oath to defend a Lawful place, institution or divine entity. They often appear as shining knights, and preach a philosophy of mercy, honesty and generosity. Although implacable foes of Chaos, they are not killing machines; a champion would prefer to subdue evil or convert it to goodness if possible, rather than simply slay it.

Requirements & Restrictions

To be a champion, a character must have the following minimum scores: Str 9, Wis 11 and Cha 13.

Champions must be Lawful in alignment. They can use all armors, shields and weapons.

A champion who ceases to be Lawful or whom grossly violates the champion’s code of conduct (see below), loses all special abilities, including the services of their mount (see below). The fallen champion may not progress any further in levels as a champion until she atones by gaining enough experience to gain another level without the use of her special abilities and while acting in perfect accordance with his alignment and code of conduct.

Champion Skills

Champions add their level to the following task checks:

Healing—Champions are knowledgeable about applying bandages, mending broken bones and compounding medicines, unguents and tinctures. They can stop wounds from bleeding, and with a successful check grant a +1 bonus to save vs. ongoing poison and disease.

Riding—Champions are capable of fighting while mounted at no penalty, and can use this task for dangerous (and awesome) stunts.

Champion Abilities

A champion must take a sacred oath to a Lawful cause or entity. Her sword (or other weapon) becomes a symbol of this oath. If a champion comes into the possession of a better weapon, she may transfer her oath to it.

A champion is immune to disease, and can cure disease once per week per 5 levels attained. Her touch can calm emotions (as the spell) three times per day. Comrades adventuring with a champion receive a +2 bonus to save vs. mind-affecting effects.

A 2nd level champion can heal wounds (her own or those of others) by touch. This is called the “laying on of hands”. Each day she can heal a total number of hit points of damage equal to twice her champion level. She may choose to divide her healing among multiple recipients and she does not have to use it all at once.

A 3rd level champion gains the ability to amplify her heroic powers once per day by invoking her sacred oath while holding aloft the weapon on which she took her oath. This exact form of this amplification can be chosen by the champion. To simulate this, the champion receives a number of Power Points equal to her level divided by two (rounding up) per day. One power point can be spent to gain a +1 bonus to attack or save or a +2 bonus to Armor Class or damage or a +10′ increase to speed. These power-ups last for 10 minutes. Three power points can be spent on an augury, strength or haste spell effect with duration as the spell’s in question.

A 4th level champion can undertake a quest guided by a divine vision to find and gain the service of an unusually intelligent, strong, and loyal mount to serve her in her crusade against evil. This champion can choose from one of the following mounts: Celestial warhorse, pegasus, spotted lion, tiger or unicorn (female champions only). Treasure Keepers can add other animals to this list as they wish.

The mount and its location appear in a vision. The location is no more than a week’s ride away, and the challenge involved in claiming it should be difficult but not impossible.

For every three levels the champion gains after 4th level, her mount gains one Hit Dice.
A champion wielding a weapon sword can deflect rays, beams and magic missiles a number of times per round equal to half their level (rounding down). Instead of automatically deflecting a ray, the champion can try to aim the deflection. To do this, the champion must roll 1d20 under her dexterity score; if the save is successful, her target must pass a saving throw or be struck by the ray, beam or magic missile. This ability does not work against lightning bolts or fireballs. A 3rd level champion can also choose to convert the ranged attack into a color spray spell. A 6th level champion can convert the ranged attack into a rainbow pattern. A 9th level champion can convert the ranged attack into a prismatic spray.

Swearing Fealty

A 9th level champion can swear fealty to a Lawful outsider, becoming their agent and champion on the Material Plane. The champion is charged to defend a Lawful realm under the protection of the outsider in question. To aid her on her quest, the champion gains the services of 1d4+2 followers. Roll on the following table to discover what sort of followers the champion attracts:

Roll d%
01-08  Automatons (1d6)
09-12  Crystal men (1d3)
13-20  Dwarves (1d6)
21-28  Elves (1d6)
29-36  Gnomes (1d6)
37-44  Hawk men (1d6)
45-64  Men-at-arms (1d6)
65-70  Nixies (1d4)
71-74  Pixies (1d3)
75-76  Shambling mound (1)
77-78  Bard (level 1d6+1)
79-80  Butterfly (level 1d6+1)*
81-82  Duelist (level 1d6+1)
83-86  Fighter (level 1d4+1)
87-90  Magic-user (level 1d4+1)
91-92  Monk (1d4+1)
93-96  Scout (level 1d6+1)
97-00  Sorcerer (level 1d4+1)

* See THIS POST for the butterfly class

Strongholds

A 12th level champion may conquer an evil stronghold and sanctify it for her own use or simply construct a stronghold of her own. The stronghold must be a symbol of goodness for all the land, not just a mere construction of stone and metal. When a champion occupies a stronghold, she adds 1d4+2 more followers to her retinue, plus 60 Lawful men-at-arms of a type determined by the champion.

Champion Codes

Champions live their lives by a code of virtue, and must also abide the following strictures:

• Must always seek to knock foes unconscious rather than killing them – killing is a last resort.

• May not own more than 10 magic items.

• May not retain more wealth than needed to support herself, her henchmen and to maintain her castle.

• May only employ Lawful henchmen. Champions may adventure with non-Lawful characters, but must make at least a small attempt to reform them, and must, at the end of each adventure, explain how that adventure taught a sound moral lesson.

Besides these rules, champions must abide by a code of conduct that demands honesty, mercy and generosity above all things.

Star Trek at Rules Lite Speed

Playing around on the Internet Archive recently, I came upon some old issues of Different Worlds magazine. This was a magazine I was unaware of in my youth, and I’ve enjoyed looking at another take on the RPG world in its infancy. One article in particular, “Kirk on Karit 2” by Emmet F. Milestone in issue No. 4 (1979) brought to my attention the first licensed Star Trek RPG, Star Trek – Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier. I did a little hunting, and found a copy for sale, and I’m glad I did.

Written by Michael Scott in 1978 for Heritage Models to support their range of Star Trek miniatures, Star Trek (which is what I’ll call it from now on in this review to save time and space) is a dandy little game – very old school, very rules lite. In fact, some folks seem to think it a little too rules lite, but not me. I love discovering these little games from the hobby’s origins, because they remind you just how much you can do with a very light rules set.

Here are a few highlights –

The game is very focused on its mission, which is to simulate Star Trek landing parties – I think it does this pretty well. In fact, you could spin this thing into doing Star Trek dungeon crawls with very little trouble.

Being written in 1978, it is all original Trek, including the animated series, which I really dig. This means you get stats for creatures like the K’zin and Skorr.

The rules are really simple – in the basic and advanced versions – and meld pretty well with old school D&D. The six ability scores are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, Luck and Mentality. Not too difficult to track those to D&D. Ability scores range from 3 to 18 (3d6). Characters get a modifier that is positive for every point a score is above 12 and a negative for every point a score is below 9. They also have a hand-to-hand combat value and equipment. In th basic game, you play one of the characters from actual Star Trek – Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc. In the advanced game you can roll up a character yourself.

Sometimes hand-to-hand means butt-to-face

Combat is simple – roll 1d6 to attack, adding strength, dexterity and hand-to-hand bonus to determine total potential damage while the defender subtracts 1d6 plus luck and hand-to-hand modifiers. The resulting damage, if there is any left, is deducted from the defender’s constitution score. If damage equals more than half of the character’s remaining constitution, they are knocked out. Ranged combat is a little different, but just as simple – you have to roll below a number based on your dexterity score, with modifiers for a few common situations. Damage is based on the ranged weapon used.

The advanced game has more hand-to-hand weapons, which involve rolling more d6’s for the attack, and armor to reduce damage suffered.

Skill checks are a roll of 3d6 which must be less than or equal to whatever ability score makes the most sense. If Spock is trying to use his tri-corder to pick up signs of life, he makes a roll against his Mentality. Easy … but I would personally change it to a d20 roll rather than 3d6.

Psionic powers work basically the same way – roll under Mentality.

There is no experience point or leveling system in the game, but the author mentions that as characters succeed in adventures their hand-to-hand rating can improve or they can get bonuses to certain tasks. I like the idea of advancement being kind of arbitrary, though you would need a good Mission Master to keep things from getting out of hand.

The game has stats for all sorts of Star Trek monsters – again, a Trek dungeon would probably be lots of fun. Given that Kirk and Spock had to deal with ancient Rome, the Roaring ’20s and the Old West, a dungeon crawl would not be too outrageous … and nicknaming the hirelings “red shirts” would be entirely appropriate.

Spock: “I use my tricorder to scan for life forms on the other side of the door.”

MM: Rolling … “You detect no life forms.”

Kirk: “I bust open the door and somersault into the room.”

MM: The room contains four Klingon warriors – roll for initiative!

I really grok how simple this game is – you can pick it up and get going within minutes if you have players who understand the basics of role playing games and Star Trek. I especially love that it instantly lit a fire in me to play it and play with it – why not work up quick stats for Doctor Who characters and creatures, or Star Wars or Next Generation or whatever – it would be so easy!

If you get a chance, check it out. Expect simplicity, “rulings not rules” and lots of thinking on your feet, but also a game that you can get up and running quickly.

Also – check out that article I mentioned above – Emmet F. Milestone came up with a dandy little scheme for characters falling in love with one another – a must if Kirk is in your boarding party, though as Emmet often remarks, “Kirk has no luck in love, so his Luck modifier is never added in a Romance Roll”. I instantly want to use this in my next D&D dungeon crawl.

Heritage Star Trek miniatures – image found at Noble Knight Games

Rainbow Fantasy II

While rainbow fantasy has warriors and weapons and swordplay, it also avoids killing (except for robots – you can bash them up and not get in trouble) and doesn’t seem to care much about treasure. In other words – it is far removed from the “kill things and take their stuff” genre of fantasy gaming.

In rainbow fantasy, the point is about promoting, for lack of a better term, “goodness”. Evil must be stopped, but should not be killed, for to kill is evil. Moreover, some monsters that appear to be evil turn out to be misguided. In rainbow fantasy, the goal is to stop the evil without taking life, and thus experience points are handed out for exactly that. Killing a monster in rainbow fantasy does not get you XP – and in fact, it should get you something like a cumulative 10% deduction for XP earned on an adventure for each creature purposely killed.

To help this sort of fantasy along, it is important for the GM to do three things.

The first is to make sure that adventurers can choose to stun a creature when it reaches zero hit points rather than kill it. A stunned monster remains unconscious for 1d4 rounds and then awakens with half of its lost hit points restored. The monster must immediately make a morale check to remain in the fight. And speaking of morale checks …

The second is to institute strict morale checks for monsters, perhaps using a modified scale that makes each successive check more difficult. In rainbow fantasy, the bad guys lack courage because they lack goodness, and thus they will run away before it is necessary to kill them.

Finally, they must understand why the bad guys are fighting – what motivates them. They may be agents of “Evil” who are driven to be evil for the sake of it. They may be laboring under a misunderstanding – twisted into aggression by the bad guys through deception, or simply acting out of an innocent misunderstanding. They might also turn out to be far from evil, but in fact potential allies on a quest once everyone has had a chance to get to know one another. This means that talking and dialogue are very important in a rainbow fantasy game, as are reaction checks. Adventurers can earn experience points by understanding their enemies, apologizing for accidental slights and forgiving misunderstandings, and finding a way to live in harmony.

This might not be popular with lots of gamers – there is after all some therapeutic value in pretending to be Conan the Barbarian – but there might be more value in roleplaying solutions to problems that do not involve violence. In the real world in which we live, you cannot solve every conflict you have with swordplay – in fact, you can solve very few problems legally with violence. Practicing the resolution of conflict without resorting to violence and argument can come in pretty handy, as can making sure that the conflict you think you have really is a conflict and not just a misunderstanding.

What it comes down to at the end of every episode of He-Man and the Master of the Universe and She-Ra, Princess of Power is a moral. The challenges faced should be built around a morale, and the key to winning the adventure is identifying the moral and putting it to use to overcome the challenge.

Image found at He-Man.org

Slumming Once Again

After having reviewed David Lewis Johnson‘s fine Gathox Vertical Slum recently, I was delighted to be given the chance of reviewing a recently released adventure for the setting called Quake Alley Mayhem.

From the introduction:

“GVS2: Quake Alley Mayhem is a tournament-style module set in the world of Gathox Vertical Slum, for use with Swords & Wizardry White Box or a similar old school system, focusing on a team of fresh gang members and their attempt to retrieve an artifact for their boss.”

The adventure is nicely done, with a tidy set-up that meshes well with its setting, plus the bonus of being a tournament module – you don’t see many of those lately – and with an emphasis not on fighting, but on dealing with traps. In other words, like the Gathox setting as a whole, it’s not the same old thing.

Quake Alley Mayhem centers around a machine that one gang, the Kermen, stole from another gang, the Purple Rockets. They have this item hidden in – appropriately enough – their hideout. The adventurer’s task is to get it back, and it will not be easy. The chambers through which they must pass are trapped – not all of them, but most of them – and are sometimes guarded by monsters. In addition, the hideout is in a quake-prone area; every 20 minutes there is a quake, and every quake has the chance of altering the hideout’s layout or even dealing damage to the adventurers.

The room descriptions in the 40 page module take up 8 pages, and are well laid out for easy reading and use. The module has a brief introduction, rules on running the quakes, a guide to tournament scoring and random tables for rumors, random encounters, reactions and death and dismemberment. There is a list of three contracts the adventurers can take on to earn additional points in the tournament scoring and to spice up the mission a bit with extra goals. There are also seven pre-generated characters with character sheets so that players can get right down to business. The module also provides a Module Tracking Sheet for the GM and a blank character sheet. And, of course, the module has lots of nice art by David.

Quake Alley Mayhem is a nice introductory adventure for the Gathox setting, and at only $6.99 I heartily recommend it.

Gathox Vertical Slum – A Review

I have recently been given the priveledge of perusing Gathox Vertical Slum by its author and artist, David Lewis Johnson. For readers of this blog who also read my NOD magazine, Johnson should be well known, as his art has graced many issues of NOD (and will grace many more, God willin’ and the crik don’t rise).

I approach game materials in two ways – as stand-alone, run-as-written products (i.e. can I grab it off the shelf and run with it) and as tool boxes. David’s book, I am happy to say, works well in both in capacities.

As a “module”, it is fantastic. A well-developed city, incredibly imaginative with new things around every corner, that can play host to all sorts of adventures. Explorers will not be bored in Gathox, and players who like mysteries, puzzles, interaction and, of course, fisticuffs, will find plenty to do in Gathox provided their referee knows what he or she is doing. While Gathox is fully fleshed out and ready to go, I think one could also make modifications as needed for their group.

I also appreciate the fact that Gathox, as designed, can be dropped (almost literally) into any campaign and a wide variety of games, from pure fantasy to sword & planet to post-apocalyptic to sci-fi. The city is a wandering entity, you see, and it could show up in the World of Greyhawk just as easily as my Nod campaign world or wherever you happen to play.

As a toolbox, Gathox has all sorts of goodies between its covers. There are new and very imaginative monsters, a pretty boss little mutant class and clever rules for running competing gangs in a city setting. The rules as written are compatible with old school games of the D&D variety, so it should be as easily converted to other systems as other old school games.

Gathox Vertical Slum is published by DIY RPG Productions (just look for the sign of the flipping bird), with chapter fiction written by Josh Wagner and editing and layout design by Mike Evans. It is a well designed book – easy on the eyes, easy to read and well organized. Johnson’s art is great (but hey, obviously I’m biased there) and the fiction does a great job of conveying the intended feel of the setting.

Folks, I give David Lewis Johnson’s Gathox Vertical Slum my highest recommendation. It’s a great book – so great that I’m going to shell out some hard currency for a physical copy. I have some 5E D&D-ers that might get a fun surprise if they walk through a shimmering portal one day in the depths of Stonehell.

You can grab a copy (and I recommend you do) HERE.

Dragon by Dragon – February 1982 (58)

The Clyde Caldwell cover to the February 1982 Dragon Magazine is chock-full of fantasy tropes. You have the warrior woman in weird, revealing armor and a gnome fighter mounted on a giant lizard. You also get a Clyde Caldwell trope, namely lots of feathers. That said, I adore Caldwell’s work, and consider it fundamental to 80’s D&D.

We’ll begin this rule with the editorial – which is rare for me. This one deals with “assassin” and “killer” games, and is written on the subject due to an incident in December 1981 in which a college student playing Assassin was shot by police. I bring it up because I played a game of TAG (The Assassination Game) in junior high school. Well – briefly. I managed to get assassinated while walking from first to second period, but remember that by lunch period we were informed that the school had put an end to it due to one idiot performing an assassination during class. I suppose these days the entire school district would be put on lockdown if some kids were playing “assassination”.  What odd memories we nerds have of youth.

The first big article this month is by Len Lakofka, who is “Beefing up the Cleric.” This article introduces a multitude of new cleric spells that will show up later in official AD&D product. They include ceremony, combine (a neat idea), magic stone, magic vestment, messenger, dust devil, enthrall and negative plane protection. One spell I didn’t immediately recognize – readers of this blog might have better memories than I – Death Prayer (2nd level). This spell reduces the likelihood of a corpse being animated at a later date.

The Dragon’s Bestiary includes the sull and beguiler by Ed Greenwood and Magenta’s cat by Roger E. Moore. These last monsters are the descendants of a cat familiar who was made psionic by its mistress, Magenta, and in the process freed from its obligations as a familiar. It went out and made babies, and they inherited the psionic powers. It’s a very cool idea – a psionic cat causing trouble in a village, trouble blamed on some legendary menace the adventurers try to hunt down.

Michael Parkinson offers up “Medusa’s Blood”. This article details the many creatures that were born from Medusa’s blood, including old fantasy favorites like Pegasus, the Lernaean hydra, the chimera, Cerberus and the Theban sphinx. Some new monsters from the lineage of Medusa include Geryon (the three-headed and three-bodied giant, not the demon lord), Echidna and the Blatant Beast.

The Medusa article is followed up by “Four Myths from Greece”, with stats for Atalanta the huntress (9th level fighter), Daedalus (sage/engineer), the Sybil of Cumae (16th level cleric) and Chiron (15th level centaur ranger).

Dragon 58 has a special section all about dwarves, featuring “The Dwarven Point of View”, “The Gods of the Dwarves”, “Sage Advice on Dwarves” and “Dwarven Magical Items”. Dragon did a few of these series, and elements of them became standard parts of Dungeons & Dragons in later days, especially the dwarven pantheon. Roger E. Moore’s “The Dwarven Point of View” is one of those articles that represents the inflection point of the original DIY days and the middle phase of “explain it all”. It’s a useful article for folks new to fantasy gaming, but I suppose some folks didn’t like the Dragon magazine doing articles that might tie their creative hands, what with it being “semi-official” in D&D world.

I liked this bit from “Sage Advice”:

“Why aren’t ettins mentioned among the bigger creatures which attack dwarves and gnomes at -4?

Ettins may be big and dumb, but they don’t suffer any penalty “to hit” against dwarves and gnomes because of the most obvious difference between ettins and other big humanoids: their two heads. In the words of the Monster Manual, “One of the ettin’s heads is always likely to be alert, so they are difficult to surprise.” And, presumably, also difficult to sneak up on in any other way.”

Now let’s be honest – the answer here is “crap, we forgot to include the ettin”.

Another question that struck me is one that shows a clash of mindsets that I’ve seen myself in our hobby. The question writer asks:

“What would be a reasonable spread of races and sub-races for adventurers and NPCs? For instance, what would be the chance of a PC dwarf being a mountain dwarf?”

An interesting question, and one that would be answerable in a particular campaign, or if there was really such a thing as dwarves and we have solid demographic data on  them. I appreciate the answer:

“The chance of a player character dwarf being a mountain dwarf is 100% — if the player wants to be one, and if no circumstances of the campaign prohibit such a choice.”

I’ve fielded a few similar questions from people reading my games, as though I had some special right to tell them what they could and could not do in their own homes. Some folks have the mindset that there is a “right and wrong” to these games we play, and they seek answers from “authorities”. This isn’t a dig against these folks – it’s just a way of looking at things that differs from mine that I find interesting.

On the topic of “The Gods of the Dwarves” – I really loved Moradin when I was a kid. The demi-human pantheon was another case for me, as a young man, of being amazed that you could make up pretend gods and goddesses for a game. This article also introduces a new undead monster – the rapper.

This issue of Dragon also has a bit of fiction from J. Eric Holmes called “The Bag”. It involves a character of his called Boinger. I haven’t read this one, but I’ll include the first couple paragraphs as a taste for those who might want to delve deeper:

“Perhaps the small master is looking for something special?”

The muscular young halfling put down the leather backpack he had been examining and looked at the person who had addressed him. He was worth looking at, Boinger decided. For one thing, his species was not one the adventurer had ever seen before. The creature was obviously not human; his complexion was slate grey and his face was covered with wrinkles so that it looked like a folded piece of linen with a long, pointy nose sticking out. He was shorter than Boinger himself. Some sort of gnome, the halfling thought, out of the north, I suppose. Shorter than a dwarf, taller than a Lilliputian …”

In Robert Barrow’s “Aiming for Realism in Archery: Longer Ranges, Truer Targets” you get another article trying to make the game more realistic. This one has a useful little table about archery accuracy derived from medieval tournament data:

This article is followed up by “Bowmanship Made More Meaningful” by Carl Parlagreco. This one introduced the idea of minimum strength scores for different bows – a 16 for composite longbows, for example, or 8 for short bows. Using a bow without having the strength required presents a -2 penalty to hit per point of strength deficiency. There’s more – so check it out if you like more realism in D&D.

David Nalle presents “Swords – Slicing Into a Sharp Topic”, which gets into the weeds on that fantasy staple, the sword. You get information on its history and construction. No game stats in this one, but good information for folks new to the topic.

There is also an article by Glenn Rahman on the Knights of Camelot Game. I’ve never played the game, so I cannot review the article, per se, but I love the bit on “Acts of Villainy”. These include:

  1. Distressing a Lady
  2. Imprisoning Persons
  3. Looting a Shrine
  4. Piracy
  5. Seizing a Castle by Storm
  6. Slaying a Good Knight
  7. Slaying a Goodly Hermit Man

This is a great checklist for Chaotic/Evil characters in any game – try to do three or four of these things in every game. The article also has two awesome little tables – the kind of random fun that screams old school gaming to me. The first deals with the merchant ships you might run into while being a pirate:

The second is a random table of dying curses from goodly hermits:

It is so hard to keep track of things like this, but I love the idea of using them during play.

Speaking of useful stuff, Jon Mattson’s “Anything But Human” is for Traveller, but could be useful to anyone. It is a collection of random tables for creating aliens. As always, my review of this article consists of using it – here’s my random alien:

It’s a mammal, feline, average of 67 inches tall, that has a bonus of +1 to education and a penalty of -1 to strength and social standing (which in D&D-esque games would be a bonus to intelligence and a penalty to strength and charisma). The creature has a -3 to their psionic rating. It has no special abilities.

“What’s New? – with Phil and Dixie” covers love magic in D&D. I had a crush on Dixie as a kid … and probably still do.

This issue also has cut-out counters of all the magic-user spells to aid magic-user players in keeping track of what they’re doing.

As always, I’ll leave you with Wormy …

Grandeur from Tramp

Sniffing the Flowers in No-Man’s Land

The concept of “Edition Wars” never really struck a chord with me. I started my D&D life with Moldvay/Cook, and then bolted on all the cool stuff from AD&D (classes, races, monsters, spells). I later went to 2nd edition AD&D, ignoring anything I didn’t like and using the things I thought were cool (kits – at the time – being one of them). In 3rd edition I got tired of all the rules and hour long combats that would have taken 10 minutes in older versions of the game and ultimately abandoned it, but I never hated it and there were things in 3rd edition I thought were pretty clever.

And so it came to last Saturday night, when four of my daughter’s friends – aged 17 to 22 I think – gathered around my dining room table to learn D&D. To be more precise, they wanted to get their own game going, but since none of them have ever DM’d, and they knew I was a D&D-er from way back, they wanted to see how I ran a game. My daughter asked me if I was willing, and I was, and so the date was made.

Just a few weeks ago, I had started another D&D game because the wife of an old friend (and D&D player) wanted to try the game out. This game also included my daughter (who had played a couple times with me when she was younger), my friend (as I said, an old pro) and our wives, who had never really played. For this game, I decided to use Moldvay/Cook D&D for two reasons. The first is that I had just bought vintage boxed sets of both and wanted to play with my new toys. The other reason was that I wanted to use a game with few options and few rules so that people could ease into the game playing aspect without being overloaded with rules and regulations. We’re now three sessions in, adventuring in Jeff Rients’ Under Xylarthen’s Tower and I’ve only killed three characters … all of them belonging to my buddy, the most experienced player at the table.

So, having just successfully launched a game for novices with Moldvay/Cook, I figured that would be the best way to go with this new group. But then a complication arose … the kids had all gotten together (no including my daughter) and rolled up characters. With what version of rules I asked? D&D 5th Edition. Hmm.

The problem was that I didn’t have 5th edition and, frankly, I wasn’t going to get it. Nothing against it, but I just didn’t need another version of D&D and I didn’t have time to learn those new rules. I could have nixed the characters and required people roll up new ones for the session I was going to run, but I hate to quash youthful enthusiasm. I could have converted the characters to B&T, but since I knew they were ultimately going to play 5th edition I wanted this training session to be as useful to them as possible. My ultimate solution – I decided to wade into the No-Man’s Land between editions and cling to the faith that D&D is D&D and I could make these different editions work together with absolutely no preparation on my part.

It worked!

What did I end up running? I ran Michael Curtis’ Stonehell dungeon, which was written for Labyrinth Lord with my Blood & Treasure rules behind the DM screen and characters created in 5th edition D&D, except for my daughter, who ran a valley elf fighter named Moon Unit done in B&T. And – I want to stress – I went in 100% cold, with no knowledge of 5th edition other than the fact that lots of people think it’s pretty close to traditional D&D.

How did I handle the rules clash? If I was rolling it behind my DM screen, I was using a blend of Blood & Treasure (surprise, skill rules, saves) and a little old-fashioned D&D (listen at doors checks and reaction checks). If the players were rolling, I let them use what was on their character sheets, sometimes interpreting it through an old school lens. The first thing that took me back was the presence of more bonuses and higher ability scores in 5th edition than in old school games – not a shock, though, since I had played 3rd edition. To make up for the stronger fighting ability of the 5E crowd, I decided to bump monster Armor Classes by 2 points, and I rolled d10 for their hit points. This was after it looked like the characters were going to cut through the monsters like a hot knife through butter. After I made the change about halfway through the session, the fights got tougher and more fun.

I allowed the 5th edition healing rules and death rules to function as-is. If we were playing by old school rules, I killed three characters (including my daughters), two of them with a zombie who rolled really high on damage and who had as many hit points as he could have. Boy, did that zombie scare them. Since we used the new death rules, nobody died – which is fine. I’m not a killer DM, and hey, just getting knocked out scared the crap out of them and made the fights more fun.

The only hurdle I’m not 100% sure how to handle is XP. By 5th edition’s character XP chart, it seems like the group would advance very quickly through levels, making Stonehell too easy for them quickly. The group wants to stick with me as DM for a while longer and they want to explore the dungeon, so I need to keep it viable. For that reason, I think I’m going to use Blood & Treasure’s XP system, which they can then translate into 5th edition’s XP values when I hand over the DM’ing to the player who is planning to become the new DM.

So – moral of the story. Do not fear different editions. Though I can’t speak for 4th edition, which was a departure from the norm, I can say that different editions can work together IF … and this is important … IF you don’t care about getting things perfectly right from a rules standpoint, and just want to have an enjoyable, engaging, exciting game. Work with the players to make a good session, regardless of the rules, and you’ll all have a good time.

Oh – and I found an online character creator that allowed me to turn my daughter’s B&T elf fighter into a 5th edition elf fighter in about 5 minutes, with the exception of picking a feat or feats.