Friday, April 29, 2016

D&D - We've Been Playing it Wrong, All of These Years....

(pictured here - the end of the game)

Sometimes interesting things can happen before the morning coffee. Today it was a small conversation on YouTube (of all places) over the video "The History of D&D: One Fighter at a Time - 1974"

I had written, "Interesting point about the fighting man's destiny is to be a land-owner and eventually commander of a small army. Maybe that's what's missing from the fighter class which makes it seem so weak at higher levels. Everyone talks of the magic-user being overpowered at higher levels. What about the guy with an army at his disposal?"

And Joshua James had replied, "+JD McDonnell That's a good point. Refresh my memory - does the Charisma score of the Fighting Man in White Box affect the number of followers he can garner, or is that from Basic or Advanced?"

And being before my morning coffee I couldn't think straight so I wrote, "+Josh James I really don't recall. I think Charisma effects the number of hirelings one can have in both games. I will say that this approach now makes AD&D's extensive treatment of morale make more sense.
You really have to wonder about their end game. We tend to see D&D and its offspring as being whole packages, but it could be that Gygax and friends had never meant to abandon wargaming and instead create a system which traced characters from their humble beginnings to their ends as the leaders of massive armies.  It could be that D&D was designed as a prequel to a massive fantasy wargaming system which never came to fruition because players were far more interested in the lives of their characters than leading armies."

And then it occurred to me that this was exactly what it was. The option has always been there, and it was always one we chose to ignore because it struck us as boring. I remembered one of my friends receiving the AD&D Battle System for Christmas. It came in a big red box.

(a very big box)

We picked through it and chose to abandon it all in the same afternoon. It felt like a tack-on, like a supplement - which is a terrible word to use when describing any addition to a game, one that wanders far too close to suppository.

At the time we were only faintly familiar with D&D's origins in wargaming. It felt like something that the game had sprung from and chosen to leave behind like a rock star leaving the small town of ones birth. But in the various different rule sets, right from the beginning, it has always been there. At 9th level a fighter MAY establish a castle or freehold and start to attract men-at-arms. Imagine how different the game could have turned out if that one word had been replaced with a SHOULD

I'm not saying this would have made the game any better. Fourteen year old me honestly found the AD&D Battlesystem to be boring. But. It probably would have cured that general sense of aimlessness one encounters once advancing past the 12th level. It would also have explained why Gygax was so adamant about people playing fighters, the class that most of us derided as being the most boring and useless past the 3rd level. The fighters were the ones most apt to lead armies and the whole schmeal was meant to circle back to the fantasy wargaming which created it.

The whole thing. 
D&D is a prequel to a game that never caught on.

Of course, I can't honestly say that we've been playing it wrong because I believe that any game which leads to fun for its players is one that is being played right, but according to design? Yes. Many of us have been playing it wrong. We never made that leap to fantasy wargaming.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Perception Checks & Traps

Another Thursday another blog post. Damn these things come quickly! Today we get two related excerpts from the Red EFT Game Masters Guide on Perception Checks. This one is going out to Mark Abrams who runs the Elthos web project and he knows why. 
Go check Elthos out when you get the chance.

(not Mark Abrams)

Perception Checks

In many games the perception check is seen as the root of all evil. Characters burst in a room and immediately roll the dice and say, "I make a perception check, what do I see!?"

This gets truly annoying after awhile. 
For the game master at least.

Often this stems from somebody somewhere springing a trap on the players because they failed to voluntarily ask for a perception check. The Red EFT separates the perception check into five senses for two reasons. First, it was done in hopes of agonizing even the most ardent player out of barging into every room and splurting out, "I make a sight check! I make a hearing check! I make a taste check! I make a touch check! And I make a smell check! WHAT DO I SMELL!?!?!"

You smell like a dead trout, Dave.

The trade off is that you as Game Master have to be vigilant in cluing in your players to all they perceive. As is said in the player's handbook a character's senses are going all the time. If characters smell something out of the ordinary - tell the players this – then have them make a Smell check to see if they can place that scent. Just be sure to never penalize them for not asking to make a smell check.

The second reason the sense attributes exist is to remind people that they do actually exist. All too often using nothing but a perception check leads to a whole lot of sight and a little bit of sound but almost no taste, touch or smell. By putting the five senses on the page this reminds us of that characters do have them. Tasting an ogre is generally not a good idea, but if an ogre tastes a character, spits him out and wanders off – that makes for an interesting game.


Long ago in the days of yore, everyone carried a ten-foot pole no matter where they went – dungeons, taverns, dance-halls, churches, forests – there was always the possibility that a pit trap lie in wait, one that could only be detected by either falling into it or by constantly tapping in front of oneself with a ten-foot pole. It was utterly moronic and often slowed many a game to a crawl, so much so that it sprouted its own name - The Ten-Foot Pole Problem.

The real problem was not the pole but the way early games handled traps. If a player stepped on a square containing a pit trap, it opened below them and they took damage, glossing over the fact that players cannot see anything a GM does not clue them in on. Like a blind man with a cane the only safe way to get around it was to constantly tap out in front of oneself, or send forth a small army of fanatical hirelings to clear the path.

Later on the perception check came into being to replace the ten-foot pole. The problem remained but with a new look that actually made matters worst. Instead of having to endure players saying they were constantly tapping out ahead of themselves with a ten-foot pole they began rolling the dice and declaring a perception check with every step they took.

Traps are fun, devious fun for everyone. Nothing wakes people up quite like a pendulum blade slicing out of nowhere. It not only increases the danger of the situation but it also tells players that they are probably getting close to something interesting. Otherwise there wouldn't be all these traps scattered about.

It truly cannot be said enough: do not penalize your players for failing to make an action they did not know they needed to make. Once you do this it will set a precedent that will cause them to instinctively make that check whenever they encounter anything and it will drive you crazy. On the whole it is best if your players forget about the mechanical side of the game and let you tell them when a check needs to be made.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Remaking Morale

After the "white male terrorist" fiasco of last week I think we need a change of pace. Let's talk about morale, no not the die roll you make every now and then to see if a monster decides to flee during combat. I mean actual morale and how it works in the Red Eft.

In truth I have never liked the way D&D's handles morale. Whether it be AD&D's byzantine code of conduct and how it might effect retainers or BX D&D's simple roll of 2d6 to see if a creature sticks around or flees - morale - more than anything else seemed to me like proof that 70's/80's D&D was secretly meant to be more of a pencil & paper based video game rather than an actual role playing game. Morale is what separates a Dungeon Master from a Referee. A good DM actually thinks about the situation at hand and has the monsters react as they should. A Referee looks up rules and figures out what dice to roll. A Referee does whatever the rules say, about as much of a player of the game as an actual referee in a football game.

A Referee is a 16kb computer in human clothing.

Well, anyways, the Red Eft's treatment of morale isn't anything like that. It's about actual morale. I started thinking about this a few months back while watching a documentary on USO shows during WWII and how important they were to the war effort. Morale wasn't seen as a matter of fight or flee on the battlefield. When someone's life is in jeopardy they will fight to the best of their ability to survive. Decent boots matter more to soldiers than USO shows. Instead morale was about getting people to do a good job with everything else leading up to the front. People who weren't happy or had anything to look forward to generally did a crappy job on the day to day grind.

Differentiating between in-battle morale and out-of-battle morale seemed to be asking a bit much so what I came up with was this simple system for keeping track of character enthusiasm, aka Morale. On a character sheet it looks like this....
And in a game it works a bit like a gauge with extreme reaches at either end. Everyone starts with a pencil slash through the circle beneath zero. When something comes along to improve the character's morale that pushes the needle off to the right, but only if it can best what the character already has. A character at +3 morale would be moved to +4 morale by a +4 morale mover but unaffected by a +2 morale mover. The same also goes for morale killers that try to push morale off to the left. If at -3 morale it takes a -4 morale killer or worse to push that character further into a flunk.   

Your morale is a modifier which applies to everything the character does. If your morale is at +3 then you are psyched and rearing and ready to conquer the world. Everything gets a +3 bonus. At -3 you can barely drag your lame ass out of bed. Everything sucks and takes a -3 penalty.

Where do these morale movers and killers come from? They come from all over the place and anything strong enough to influence the mood of the character. The classic clerical Bless and Curse spells both work through morale. Characters can inspire and depress each other. They can even do it to themselves by indulging in things they love or having to deal with things they hate. 

Making morale as widely applicable as possible is something else that I love about this system because something which has always bugged me about RPG's is what I call modifier glut. Games get bogged down when you have too many modifiers coming from too many directions and each with a different amount of time that they can last. By funneling them all into the morale bar you end up with a place to keep them on the sheet, a way of keeping them from adding up to too much, and ultimately a way of getting rid of them once it's over. Morale naturally deflates on its own, drifting back to zero when nothing is happening.

At +/-5 & 6 the character will lose/gain one point per minute. 
At +/-3 & 4 the character will lose/gain one point per hour. 
At +/- 1 & 2 the character will lose/gain one point per day.

I almost wish I could come up with a more original name for it. Morale as a word carries a lot of baggage, just like Initiative and Attacks of Opportunity, but I can't think of anything, and I kinda like what it stands for. It might just open up a new dynamic on the world of gaming. As I found myself writing in the guidelines for Indulgences, aka ways in which your character can move your own morale.... 
In the grand scheme of things, life can be boiled down to two activities: what we do to survive and what we do to feel better about our survival. RPGs have a long history of being very survivalist. It's all about hit points and doing as much damage as possible to whatever is trying to destroy you. While there is nothing wrong with this, matters of personality often become window-dressing that is easily pushed aside.

But life is not like that.

In real life, people play the piano during a bombing raid because it makes them feel better. People need to drink and they need to dance. They need to think seriously about why they do what they do, and sometimes they even need to sip mojitos on a beach in the Bahamas. In real life we often concern ourselves more with the quality of survival rather than our actual survival, so consider morale your secret weapon to making personality mean something amidst all the number juggling and die rolling that go into a game.

(Just to refresh your memory)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

What Not To Be - Removed!

By me.

Nobody removed it on me, but after some consideration I decided to take that section out of the players handbook. Why?

Because just this past weekend my sister and her family came down from New Jersey for a visit. We decided it would be fun to take them to St. George Island for a picnic on the beach. To get there you have to drive through the quaint hamlet of Carrabelle, FL, where in the center of town a new billboard has gone up...

It wasn't discussed.

I'm sure we all saw it and I'm sure we were probably left thinking the same thing - glad I don't live here - which is sad because Carrabelle is actually a pretty nice place. I know a few people who live there and I'm pretty sure they are not getting drunk and raping their daughters on the weekend. Still though, something must be going on to warrant this huge PSA billboard in the center of town. Is there something in the water? Are all the hundreds if not thousands of homes of people I don't know actually housing some demented hillbilly rape cult? Carrabelle is a predominantly white place. Could it be that the sign only pertains to black people? They chose a black girl to be in the picture, maybe this means that if you're white you're alright, but beware of the black people in the area - they are not who they seem to be.

The imagination reels.

Or it could just be that someone somewhere received enough funding to make the world a better place by bringing awareness to a problem with a billboard. They may not live in Carrabelle or even know of the place.

Now, I don't doubt that this sort of thing happens. This is Florida after all. However, the problem is a matter of perception and frequency. Studies have shown that smoking leads to cancer, and so the warning label on a pack of cigarettes is warranted. But the warning label on this town - and that is what it is no matter what the original intention may have been - I highly doubt has been backed up by a serious study. Undoubtedly there have been cases reported and the people involved should seriously seek help, but when compared to how many people live in Carrabelle it probably represents a fraction of less than one percent.

I don't know.
I don't have the time or money to do a credible study either.

To get back to gaming. I pulled the "What Not To Be" section from the PHB (you can still read it here on the blog) not because I disagree with it but because I feel it may be sending the wrong message by being in the core rule book. This is just too prominent a position for it to have.

Over the years I have encountered all of the denizens mentioned, often inhabiting actual friends from both in and out of gaming. But here's the deal. Nobody filled those roles all of the time, and it is all from back in the 80's when we were young irascible munchkins just looking to make dicks of ourselves. During my next big bout of gaming in the 00's I encountered none of this. We had a small group of players who were just looking to have fun and at nobody's expense. Not once was the matter of "not being a dick" brought up, because it didn't need to be.

So I still think that you shouldn't be a dick and you should always use deodorant, and there will always be some asshat just looking to make a splash by being the dick who never uses deodorant, but most of us are grown ups. We're good people who never needed to hear such advice in the first place.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Vile, Puerile, Slander of the Worst Sort

No, I'm not writing about this....

Or this....

Or even this....

Actually, I'm writing about the Campus Voice the student newspaper of SUNY Delhi which I once was editor in chief of back in the early 90's. Don't be too impressed by the title, I acquired it by being willing to show up on a regular basis and do a lot of typing. We were a small paper in a small town servicing a two year college where nothing news-worthy ever happened. It was rumored that we would print anything and some of the pieces, especially a two-column story about new change machines in the student dormitories, pretty much proves it.

One story I never wrote about was how every other week or so the Voice would receive a letter with no return address post-marked from Binghamton, NY that always contained photocopies of some of the nastiest most fetid racist, sexist, anti-Semitic propaganda you could possibly imagine.

There were never any instructions included, no little notes in demented scrawl asking to be published. They just kept sending it to us like clockwork and I kept shredding them without question. We had no policies on the matter. The question of publishing any of it was never discussed. I mean we only had three solid staff members. Mike was black, Greg was Jewish, and I'm a red head. I was never bullied in K-12 possibly because nearly every after-school special produced during the 1980's had someone like me playing the role of the guy who laughs maniacally after stuffing the hero in his locker, and the one thing you don't do is pick on the guy who has been typecast by Hollywood to be the high school locker stuffer. Yes, I do know a thing or two about negative stereotypes.

Okay. Once a guy tried to bully me in the 7th grade. Don't worry, he survived.

Shredd. Shredd. Shredd.

Still, I often wondered what our miserable mystery man was thinking by sending us this crap. Was it a group of people? The Klan? Neo-Nazies? Was it some Charles Manson wanna-be hoping to change the world by inciting a race riot? Was it someone who had once been beaten up by black people and was now doing this as a form of revenge? Could it have been sent by someone who was actually Black or Jewish and wanted to remind us that racism was alive and well in America's heartland? Could it have even been secretly sent by our paid supervisor who was often just as dismayed by Delhi's lack of news as anyone else?

I don't know and never will.

Shredd. Shredd. Shredd.

What I do often wonder about is whether I made the right decision by choosing not to write about it. Sure it would have been sensational. It could have sparked fires of interest and conversation all across campus - far more than any squibb about new change machines installed in the dorms - but would it have actually done the world any good? Would it have helped end racism forever or just given people more reason to distrust those who do not look like oneself?

Bad things happen. Make no doubt about it and I feel for anyone victimized by them, but we have been reporting on bad things since the dawn of time and those bad things just seem to keep on happening. At this point I feel obliged to say something uplifting about all the good that can come from bringing light to corruption, but in our apocalypse-obsessed world run by car-wreck fascination I'm no longer sure I can do that.

Maybe that is why I never went into journalism after college.