Chainmailing It In

A couple weeks back, my daughter and I were chatting about games, and I realized that she hadn’t played a wargame yet. I thought at first about brushing up on the old Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules, but then decided it would be fun to use Gygax’s Chainmail rules. I’d never used them before, so it was an opportunity for my daughter and I to both learn something new.

First step – read the rules. Second step – try to reorganize the rules so I could understand them. What the founders of the hobby had in creativity they made up for with a lack of organization! In the process of learning the rules, I discovered some things about old school D&D while I also gained an appreciation for those rules. What follows are a few takeaways for those who dig the old school, and those who have never read Chainmail. FYI – I’m using the third edition rules, which I found online.

Figures in the game are divided into two sorts, each using a different combat table. The lowliest of the figurines are the regular troops. These fellows use one of two combat tables. If each figurine counts as 10 or 20 warriors, you use the mass combat table. On this table, you roll 1d6 (one dice is easier when rolling lots of dice for lots of figures), and have one of six ratings for attack and defense – light foot, heavy foot, armored foot, light horse, medium horse and heavy horse.

The closest thing in later editions of D&D to these figures is the men-at-arms, bandit (brigands), etc. In the first edition of D&D, though, these fellows show up on the character class combat tables – Men, or Men +1.

If each figure represent a single warrior, you use the man-to-man combat table. On this table you roll 2d6, with your chance of hitting based on the attacker’s weapon and the defender’s armor. This isn’t completely different than the mass combat table, but is more fleshed out – lots of weapon types, lots of armor types.

Beyond these normal warriors, you have the monsters, heroes, super heroes and wizards from the fantasy supplement. Wizards get five “levels” – seer, magician, warlock, sorcerer and wizard. Heroes fight as well as four men, and thus in D&D they are fourth level fighters. Super heroes are eighth level fighters, because they fight as well as eight men. Wizards fight as well as two men. There are special heroes called rangers – who are essentially heroes +1 (which is why AD&D rangers have two hit dice at first level).

The hero-types can attack using the mass combat table or man-to-man table against normal troops, or they can use the fantasy combat table to fight other fantasy figures. Against normal troops, heroes take 4 kills to kill, and super heroes 8.

With hero-types, you also see the origin of saving throws. Several monsters have special abilities that the hero-types can ignore if they roll above a number on 2d6.

On the fantasy table, the chances to kill are based on the type of attacker and type of defender. If a balrog is attacking a dragon, it needs to roll an 11+ on 2d6 to kill it. The dragon needs a 6+ to kill the balrog. Elves and fairies use this table (sort of) if they have a magic sword. This suggests that the inability of some monsters to be damaged by anything other than magic weapons or monsters with lots of Hit Dice originates here.

You better leave this one to me guys

OD&D Chainmail Style

If we were to carry these rules over to D&D, we would find some interesting changes. Combat between humanoids would pit weapon versus armor, not attack bonus vs. Armor Class. PC’s above first level would dominate lesser foes by the number of hits it takes to kill them, and by the number of enemies they can attack. This is an important point that often gets  lost in later editions. Melee rounds are one minute long. The number of attacks a figure gets are not a representation of how many times he can swing a sword during the round, but rather an abstraction of the number of potential chances he has to inflict damage on an opponent.

In mass combat, hero-types and monsters can attack multiple targets, but not necessarily make multiple “attacks” against a single target. This is reinforced by the fact that in fantasy combat, pitting heroes and monsters against one another, the entire combat is resolved with a single attack roll by each combatant, and no multiple hits are required to kill – it’s just one and done.

Bringing this concept into D&D could be interesting. A monster with two claw attacks and one bit attack can use them to attack three foes, but can only use any one of these attacks against a single figure.

Levels

The fantasy combat table does include the concept of improved attack ability, even though the mass combat table does not. For example:

Figure Wight Giant Dragon Balrog
Hero 6 11 12 11
Super Hero 4 9 10 9
Wizard 6 11 9 7

This table shows the target number (equal to beat) on 2d6 a figure needs to destroy the listed foes. Comparing the hero to the super hero, you see the super hero effectively gets a +2 bonus on his attacks. This translates into different percentage increases due to the nature of rolling 2d6, as opposed to 1d20. It averages out to a +25% bonus across the board (including monsters not on the table above), or a +5 bonus to hit on 1d20. Interestingly, the wizard attacks wights and giants as well as a hero, but is better than a super hero at defeating dragons and balrogs.

Improvement in “level” is more obvious for wizards in Chainmail than for heroes/super heroes. There are the five levels of magic-user, from seer to wizard. In D&D, seer is a title for 2nd level magic-users, magician for 6th level, warlock for 8th level, sorcerer for 9th and wizard for 10th.

With each level, you gain more spells, a greater range for your spells, and your chance to successfully cast spells increases. Yes – chance to cast spells. Spells come in six compexities, with a target number that must be rolled on 2d6 for the spell to happen immediately. Failure by 1 means the spell goes off in the next round. Failure by more than 1 means the spell casting fails completely.

When Chainmail became Dungeons & Dragons, they combined the idea of improved attack ability from the fantasy combat table with the multiple attacks/kills concept in the form of Hit Dice/hit points. The weapon vs. armor idea survived in AD&D as the weapons vs. Armor Class table that most of us ignored as kids, and as the combat system used in Gamma World.

In retrospect, the introduction of levels (and experience points) was a very cool idea, bringing a facet to the game absent in Chainmail. Rather than just being a “hero” wandering around a dungeon looking for treasure, you got to play out the building of a legend, from humble origins as a man-at-arms to eventual super hero status. That innovation is probably what helped build Dungeons & Dragons itself into a legend.

The Fruits of Evil

The idea of alignment – a mishmash of ethics, morality and game play – is probably familiar to most role playing gamers of the D&D persuasion – I’m not sure how (or if) the newer versions of the game use it. Whether its Law vs. Chaos (which was always really Good vs. Evil by another name) or the nine-alignment schmeer, alignment was much more integral to the earlier versions of the game than to the later.

Oft evil will shalt evil mar … and it doesn’t do good will any favors either!

In Chainmail, Law – Neutrality – Chaos was a fantasy version of the army lists you would see in many wargames. For those unfamiliar, an army based on the Normans would be chosen from a list of the kinds of soldiers common to a Norman army. For a fantasy game, lists based on Law and Chaos, with Neutrals serving in either army, made sense. This is the earliest version of alignment.

When the wargame became a role playing game, alignment was retained but became a bit more than just a cosmic allegiance, although it would still have had that role to play for characters who were building strongholds and armies for the endgame that was assumed/intended for older editions. Hey folks – that’s what all that dang treasure was for – building a stronghold and recruiting an army so you could play Chainmail!

Alignment now governed how your character behaved. This was just a simple description in Moldvay/Cook, but in AD&D it also governed access to certain tactics – i.e. evil can use poison, good cannot – and helped determined how expensive it was to gain a new level. Again, for those who do not know how AD&D worked, to reach a higher level you required training, and the cost of that training was more expensive if you had acted outside your alignment while earning your experience points.

Later editions took a path more like “good guys are supposed to be good, evil are supposed to be evil … but then what is evil really?” Sort of like “alignment relatavism”.

What if evil simply corrupts a character and ruins his or her plans? I don’t mean a supernatural corruption here – like the taint of Chaos in Warhammer. I mean, by committing an evil act, a character begins a chain of events that eventually overtakes and destroys them unless they find their way back to the path of good. Here, you don’t really even need a character to have an alignment, you just have to know what is good and what is evil, and no that by accomplishing goals with evil methods, that evil is going

He eventually made his point

to come back to haunt you eventually. We find this theme in many stories, especially the folktales, fables and fairy tales that form part of the foundation of D&D.

I just recently watched Majin: The Monster of Terror (or Daimajin in its original title), and its one representation of this concept. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t seen it – and I do heartily recommend it – but if you watch it you will see how the bad guy ultimately screws himself. You can create a tragic and powerful storyline as characters find success by employing evil tactics and then gradually find themselves corrupted, choosing evil over good to get out of bad situations they have precipitated, until all seems lost.

“So we used poison to kill the orc king – so what? The orcs are evil, so what’s the big deal?”

How might that act come back to haunt the adventurers?

Well, where did they get the poison – perhaps some evil organization or creature who will become a bigger threat than the orcs. Maybe the use of poison negates the protection provided by a good entity to a kingdom – the short cut in fighting evil then ushers in more sorrows for the kingdom, and gradually the king and his people find out who is responsible. Maybe the orcs had friends who would have accepted their defeat in combat as fair, but figure poisoning requires vengeance. You destroy 100 orcs only to raise the ire of 10,000 orcs living deeper underground. There’s also the issue of trust. Can the player characters trust one another when they’ll use any means to get what they want?

Can the adventurers find their way back to the path of good? Role playing of this variety can add another dimension to a game about adventuring, fighting and treasure hunting, and reveal the philosophies behind “alignment” in a way that arbitrary rules about who can use poison and how much gold it takes it get to 5th level do not.

Hit Points and Armor Class

As soon as I wrote that title, my brain went to “pork chops and applesauce”.

Brady Bunch-isms aside, I recently had an idea about hit points and armor class in D&D-esque games. In terms of combat, hit points and armor class combine to form a sliding scale for determining how long a character or creature can last in combat. Armor class determines how hard it is to “deal damage” to a target, so it is impacted by the form of armor worn (or natural armor) and by dexterity. Hit points represent how much “damage” a target can suffer before it dies, with damage in this context meaning not just physical injury, but also exhaustion and your skill in avoiding telling blows. In other words, there’s a whole lot wrapped up in the hit points concept.

This is all fine and dandy in the context of combat, but hit points are used outside of combat as well. Damage from traps, damage from falling – and that is where it gets a little goofy.

Fighters have more hit points than thieves, for example, because they are more skilled at combat than thieves and should therefore last longer in combat than thieves. But why should that help them survive falls better than thieves? Shouldn’t thieves be better at falling than fighters? And perhaps they are, depending on the system used, via the saving throw system, but even then – a character’s ability to withstand physical punishment outside of combat should have more to do with their constitution score than their fighting ability.

Some games introduce multiple kinds of hit points, or shifting non-combat damage directly to the constitution score, which is fine, but does create more book keeping. I thought of another way to go that is simple and doesn’t require any additional rules or statistics.

First, equalize hit points across classes. Everybody rolls d6 for hit points at each level, and still add their constitution bonus to hit points.

Second, un-equalize the character’s base Armor Class. Using the ascending version of AC, fighter types have a base AC of 12, cleric and thief-types of 10, and magic-user types of 8. Monks use the system they’ve always used. For barbarians, who usually roll even more hit points than fighters, go base AC of 14.

The base AC now represents fighting skill, while the hit points are a representation of one’s ability to survive injuries either through sheer physical endurance and toughness or luck (or both). Fighters can’t take more falling or trap damage than anyone else, but they can survive combat better than everyone else.

Into the Unknown

Happy Fourth of July folks! Remember, it’s not enough to value your own liberty, you have to love other peoples’ liberty just as much as your own.

And also remember – two or three hotdogs is probably sufficient unless you want to put on a fireworks display in your gut to rival the one outside tonight.

Now then … I’m busy working, as I’ve mentioned before, on an Old West supplement for Grit & Vigor. I love working on things like this because they give me a chance to learn about things about which I only have a passing knowledge. A couple days ago, I started working on something like random encounter tables for PCs wandering around in the wilderness. I wanted to keep them relatively simple – just suggestions a VM could use to spice up an overland journey. I started out with some general categories of “encounter”, and then realized that I had no idea how frequent these things should be. What to do?

Then it occurred to me … Lewis and Clark kept a diary!

So now I’ve spent a few hours going through the diary and making notes on what they encountered each day, both while traveling in the summer and fall, and camping in the winter. Pretty interesting stuff – I highly suggest giving it a look – and here are the results, according to my encounter definitions (with the definitions following):

Encounter Travel Camp
No Encounter 01-46 01-31
Danger 47-57 32
Ruins 58-67
Herd 68-76 33-34
Predator 77-84
Warriors 85-91 35-40
Settlement 92-96
Travelers 97-99 41-00
Omen 00

Danger: This is a danger of some kind that strikes a person unawares, such as a snake bite, illness, a fall that results in injury, pests, etc.

Herd: This is an encounter with numerous large her-bivores, such as bighorn sheep, elk or bison.

Omen: This is an event that has spiritual significance to one or several of the adventurers.

Predator: This is an encounter with a large predator capable of killing an adventurer, especially if it achieves surprise. In the American West, this is probably a bear, cougar or pack of wolves.

Ruins: The remains of a settlement, such as mounds left by the Mississippian Culture, or an abandoned settlement (see below).

Settlement: A settlement appropriate to the region and time period. This includes trading posts and forts.

Travelers: An encounter with a small or large group of travelers. These people may or may not be capable of defending themselves, but their purpose is not one of violence and the group probably includes women and children. This could be a wagon train, a migration of American Indians or a prospector and his mule. There is a 1% chance that they are accompanied by a famous person appropriate to the time and place.

Warriors: An encounter with a relatively small band of armed men. It could be a hunting or war party of American Indians, a troop of U.S. Cavalry, a gang of outlaws or European fur trappers. There is a 1% chance that they are accompanied by a famous person appropriate to the time and place.

That’s enough for today – I have to prep the dog for the horrors of fireworks tonight. Be good to one another folks – love each other – it’s the only way forward!

Notion – One vs. Many

Here’s an idea I had today while walking the dog. It’s about combat with multiple attackers in RPG fights of the B&T variety.

When a character is facing more than one opponent, they can make a choice on how many of their foes they want to “actively engage” each round. For each foe they actively engage beyond the first, they suffer a cumulative -1 penalty to their attack. Any foe they do not actively engage gets a cumulative +1 bonus to attack the character.

For example: A fighter is facing three goblins. If he decides to actively engage one goblin, he gets to attack that goblin with his normal chances. The other two goblins, because they are not actively engaged, attack with a +2 bonus (+2 because there are two goblins not actively engaged).

If the fighter actively engaged two of the goblins, then he suffers a -1 penalty to his attack that round (-1 because there is one “extra” goblin he is engaging). The one goblin who is not engaged gets a +1 bonus to hit the fighter (+1 because there is one goblin not actively engaged).

If the fighter actively engages all three, the goblins get no bonus to attack, but the fighter suffers a -2 penalty to his attack.

If you use a rule wherein the fighter class can attack multiple opponents, you can still use these penalties, but apply them to each of the fighter’s attacks during a round.

Note – I planned to use an image from Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) where he was fighting several men, but couldn’t find it. I stuck with Cyrano anyways, because he’s my hero.

Godzilla, Hitchcock and Disaster Games

I was recently thinking about my love of good old-fashioned Godzilla movies, and that led me to thinking about using giant monsters in RPGs.

The most obvious way to incorporate giant monsters in a game is to make them a monster that the PCs are supposed to slay. I say obvious, but I think I mean “wrong”. It seems like a cool idea to fight Godzilla … but how interesting is combat in games really? Combat in games (and movies, really) should serve something bigger than itself.

Giant monsters are flesh-and-blood stand-ins for natural disasters, like the jotuns in Norse mythology or all those skeletons running around in old paintings of the Black Death years in Europe. This idea offers a way to run a disaster game – symbolically. The characters cannot fight a plague germ itself, for example, but they can swing swords at zombies (or wights, if you want an undead monster that can spawn, which would be a better representation of a disease). With the disease made symbolic, you also need to make the discovery of a cure symbolic – i.e. the PCs have to track down the demonic artifact or evil high priest that launched the plague and destroy it to stop the danger. You might consider going the route of many cartoons and have all those horrible undead monster turn back to normal if the originator of the plague is stopped – depending on whether you’re aiming for hopeful or hopeless in the tone of your game.

Still, a disaster made flesh-and-blood is really what I was writing about at the beginning of this post. Another way of incorporating disaster – be it from tsunami, virus or giant monster – in your game is to use it as a backdrop to the action. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for the post-apocalypse. The disaster sets the stage and creates some new obstacles/challenges to overcome as the PCs attempt to accomplish their goal. The PCs might be on the trail of a murderer in a pulp detective-style game, and have to deal with flooded streets and downed power lines due to a hurricane.

If you go this route, make the disaster or its aftermath a key aspect of the action. If Alfred Hitchcock was going to set a movie in Paris, you can be dang sure he was going to use the Eiffel Tower as a key set piece – probably the climactic set piece. After all, he reasoned – why bother setting a movie in Paris if you’re not going to use settings and things that are only found in Paris. Likewise, why set a game in a flooded city if those flood waters are not going to loom very large in the action and resolution of the game.

Make sure you also use the emotion that goes with a disaster scenario – fear, confusion, sorrow, hope. Introduce emotional choices for the players – hunt down the murderer OR help victims of the disaster; hunt down the murderer WHILE worrying about their own loved ones. This forces them to play their characters, and not their character sheets.

I can think of three ways to introduce a disaster into a game. The first is to begin the game with the conditions already in place. With the city under lock-down due to a pandemic, the detectives seek out a man who stole a formula that might stop it. The PCs go into the game knowing the hazards they’ll face, and can thus prepare for them.

A related scenario to the one above is the count-down to a known disaster. The weather service says that the hurricane is going to make landfall in 24 hours – 24 hours in which the PCs must find and apprehend a fugitive from justice. This scenario and the one before it are also useful for historic games and historic disasters – the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina, the sinking of the Titanic. The player know, so there’s no point in trying to surprise them. Use their knowledge against them to create tension – again, I bow my head to Hitchcock for this advice.

“Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”

This suggests a third scenario – the surprise disaster. The players know that their characters have to apprehend a fugitive from justice and begin the game with that foremost on their minds … and then an hour into the session Godzilla rises from the sea and the game changes dramatically. No time to prepare – just a fight to survive in a city suddenly turned upside down … and maybe a chance to accomplish their original mission that may put them in even more danger. Remember, games are interesting because of the choices we must make in them – figuring out how best to utilize limited resources.

Just a few ideas for incorporating disasters into games – and I hope my readers are staying safe from the current disaster sweeping the globe. I don’t know if people are over-reacting or wisely reacting at this point – but I do hope we all come through it suffering as little damage as possible.

Of Beans and Baggins

Sad news lately, as another three folks I dig shuffled off this mortal coil. Of course, I’m speaking of Kirk Douglas, Orson Bean and Robert Conrad. This post, if you couldn’t tell from the title, is inspired by Mr. Bean (okay, that’s funny – didn’t occur to me until I just wrote that).

For those who like geeky pop culture, Orson Bean is best known as the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit. That film has its detractors, but I’m not one of them – I love it. I love the voice work and the character design, and … well, maybe not all the singing, but that’s okay.

I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was maybe 13 years old. I found a copy of The Two Towers at my grandma’s house – it was owned by my Aunt Karen, she of the Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom, who was only 16 when I was born, so she was the young, fun aunt in my life. I had just gotten into D&D in sixth grade, so Tolkien was a real revelation – I honestly had no idea that “fantasy” existed as a genre. It was all new and cool to me. After reading Two Towers, I went back and read Fellowship, and then Return, and it was all so adult and complicated and grown up and cool. Then I discovered the Hobbit, and well, obviously that was a kid’s book, and being a junior high school student, I was well past things like the Hobbit and fairy tales.

Of course, the reality is that I was past fairy tales, and also not yet ready for them.

In college, I was lurking around a used book sale at UNLV hosted by the library and the college radio station (KUNV). I picked up a cassette tape of the China Beach soundtrack (loved it), a vinyl record of Adam Ant’s Manners and Physique, and a really cheap hard-cover of Hobbit. I read it, and took a step towards wisdom. I mean the wisdom of simplicity, as in simple > complex.

It was after reading the book that I sought out the film. I was working at the Video Park (World’s Largest Video Store – no joke), so getting a copy was no problem. It knocked my socks off. The voice work, by such luminaries as Bean – just the perfect hobbit voice for my money – Otto Preminger (legendary director and my favorite Mr Freeze), Richard Boone (absolute legend from the days of radio, and as Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel), John Huston (my favorite Gandalf voice), Hans Conried, Paul Frees, Thurl Ravenscroft, Don Messik and Brother Theodore. Just great voices. Voices like that are pretty much unknown in this day and age – I think it was the smoking that gave them that quality, so honestly, it’s better that we don’t have those voices anymore, but they’re really a beloved part of my childhood.

Then there’s the design. Great stuff all, but can I tell you how much I love the elves in that cartoon. So alien, so weird – much better than the pretty boys running around in most fantasy stories. So bloody cool.

Now for the game-able pay-off.

I was thinking about plotting out how many XP old 0-level halfling Bilbo Baggins managed to earn in the Hobbit. He manages to sort of defeat the trolls, so that’s worth a few XP, and he gets a magic ring off Gollum (ring of invisibility / major artifact), but what he mostly does is save the dopey dwarves from danger. How do you award XP for saving things? Something like that would be pretty useful for chivalric campaigns, too, since knights in shining armor are supposed to do lots of that work.

Let’s consider really old school D&D for a moment. I remember reading some interviews with the original players of D&D, and they made it clear that the point of the game, early on, was treasure. Treasure is where you earned the big XP. Monsters gave you XP, sure, but they also had a tendency to kill you. Smart player wanted to find a way to get the treasure without fighting the monsters – or without fighting them fairly.

Back to rescues. When you’re out rescuing dwarves or maidens or singing princes (NO – NO SINGING!), the rescued party is like the treasure you’re seeking. So what’s that treasure worth?

My first thought was to make rescuing a person worth as much XP as you’d get fighting them – which kind of works for a bunch of dwarven fighters, but not so much for innocent children and other 0-level types. What we need is an effective level (or HD) for rescued people without a bunch of class levels of their own. Here’s an idea:

We’ll start with 1 HD for everyone. We’ll add +1 HD for Lawful/Good creatures, +2 HD if they’re effectively helpless, like children, and +1 HD if they’re mostly helpess (i.e. no spells, no weapons training). If we’re doing chivalry, maybe we add something for the religious – like nuns, religious hermits, etc. – and maybe for being part of the noble classes. I guess folks can come up with other bonuses based on their own campaigns.

So, if a band of adventurers set out to rescue a Lawful princess who has given her life to God, she might be worth: 1 HD + 1 HD for Lawful + 1 HD for religious + 1 HD for noble + 1 HD for being mostly helpless (no spells, no fighting ability as such) = 5 HD.

So, RIP Orson Bean – God’s speed, sir.

Less Than Ideal

Here’s a little idea that just popped into my head that I thought folks might find useful when one needs to generate a NPC personality on the fly with very little to go on. It works on the idea of, for lack of a better term, stereotypes.

In D&D – heck, in so many things – there is a general conception of what an elf or dwarf or magic-user (etc.) should be. Maybe these ideas come from the game books or other pop culture, and maybe they change over time, but they do exist. Take elves, for example. Lots of RPG’ers have an idea in mind of how an elf behaves and what they look like. Consider this as, rather than a stereotype, an ideal. The ideal elf in old D&D was 5′ tall, Chaotic Good, came from the woodlands, etc.

How many elves, though, live up to this ideal? Perhaps, when an elven NPC shows up, we can roll a dice, perhaps a good old fashioned d6, to find out how close the NPC is to the ideal. Maybe a “6” means we have the perfect elf in front of us. But for every point lower than a “6”, we dial that elf one step from the ideal.

Here’s where we get free-form with this thing. The ways in which the NPC differs from the elven idea is up to the DM. Say we roll a “5”. We have an almost ideal elf, but he differs in one particular way. If we think of elves as having happy personalities, maybe our elf is morose. Maybe he doesn’t come from the woodlands, but instead the coasts. Maybe he’s a step away from Chaotic Good – Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral. Maybe he’s stout instead of lean, dresses in scarlet instead of green – whatever your conception of an elf is, this guy doesn’t quite live up to it.

Roll a “3” for a dwarf, and he differs from he dwarven idea in 3 ways – he’s Lawful Neutral, lean instead of stout and is funny instead of dour … or he has auburn hair, prefers the woods to being underground and thinks elves are groovy.

A simple d6 roll, an idea of an ideal, and a little imagination to get a memorable NPC.

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

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.