Monday, March 31, 2014

What Trampier Meant to Me

By now you've certainly heard of the untimely death of David A. Trampier, artist of such works as this one:

Back in the heyday of D&D and Dragon Magazine, he was a major artist for the game.

He was very influential on my young mind, and the things he drew inspired me in my gaming from then on.

Just for starters . . .

- Somewhere I have a handwritten set of stats for 1st edition GURPS for Barbadicus, Acchorath, and their double-bow toting buddy (whose name I forget). The PCs never ran into them, but I had them out there as bounty hunters.

- I'd turn to What's New? and Wormy! first when I got a new issue of Dragon. And the first thing I did when I bought the Dragon archive was to read the Wormy comics from start to eventual drift-off finish (since he'd fallen out with TSR and stop drawing the strip.)

- I even turned the cover image of the Player's Handbook into a set-piece encounter in my current Dungeon Fantasy game.

- And that Trampier picture of Emirikol the Chaotic burned into my head the moment I saw it.

All that art signed "Tramp" or "DAT" - it was all so cool and so evocative. The work of Trampier, Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and David C. Sutherland loomed huge in my young mind.

I'm sorry the man passed at all, nevermind so young. I'd say he'd be missed, but I've been missing him since he stopped doing D&D art all those years ago. It's just a sad mark at the end of the long wait hoping he'd decide to start drawing again.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Party in Miniature

So I got my camera back, so I decided to give it a try out and take a group shot of the Felltower explorers, in miniature. Illness, scheduling conflicts, work, more illness, and so on have torpedoed all of our recent attempts to play, but I'm hoping to get on track next Sunday.

Here they are, and their details. If it doesn't say I painted them specifically for the character, that means I just busted out the appropriate minis and offered them to the player from my previously=painted collection.

I broke it out by:
In-Game Description
Paintjob & notes.

Felltower Party Borriz-Galoob photo FelltowerLineup1

From left to right:

Dwarf knight with mace and shield.
TSR AD&D Dwarf
Assembled by me. Painted by Borriz's player, specifically to be Borriz.

Human scout with longbow.
GW Empire Militiaman
Assembled and painted by me.

Chuck Morris
Extremely tall human martial artist with light horse cutter.
100 Kingdoms Wuxia Warrior (ground mounted).
Painted by me, specifically to be Chuck Morris. Why I had a giant martial artist with a horse cutter just perfect for Chuck in my collection, I don't know. Maybe except for saying 100 Kingdoms minis are cool.

Halfling wizard with stick and shield.
Unknown origin Gnome with Sling and Shield *
Painted by whoever I got them off of, years and years ago.
I think this guy is Minifigs, or Archiv, or some other 1970s minis company, but he's glued down to a base now and that covers his details.

Sneaking in at the end out of alphabetical order is a Galoob Jah WIP.

Galoob Jah
Goblin thief with rapier.
Reaper Bones Gnome
Lightly modified and painted specifically to be Galoob Jah.
WIP - he's only base coated so far, and lacks shading, highlighting, and probably a black or brown wash.

Fellttower Party Galen-Raggi photo FelltowerLineup2

Galen Longtread
Human scout with composite bow.
GW Warhammer Militiaman
Painted - probably - by someone I bought them off on eBay.

Honus Honusson
Human barbarian with morningstar and spiked shield.
GW Warhammer Chaos Marauder
Assembled and Painted by me, specifically to be Honus. Converted from an axe to a morningstar after assembly.

Human knight in mail with greatsword.
WOTC Chainmail line **
Painted by me.

The party leader, aka GMPC (ha), aka disaster waiting to happen?

"Red" Raggi Ragnarsson
Human barbarian with two-handed axe.
Reaper barbarian with axe
Painted by me.

Oh, and those two in the back? They are Created Servants, from the spell Create Servant. Reaper Bones Zombies, painted gray-white and soft-tone Army Painter Quickshade dipped.

You can plainly see some variation in painting quality. For example, Chuck and Vryce came out extremely well, and were meant to be tabletop quality but came out better. Borriz is painted by an art school graduate who felt this was a fair result - and it far exceeds my showpiece minis. A couple of the minis came out as acceptable for tabletop use, but not more (Christoph, Galen) or show an amateur's early work (Dryst).

I hope the folks who've been asking for pictures enjoyed this - and if so, I might do a "DF Henchmen Group Shot" look at the minis for the various hirelings, both the ill-fated and the still-living.

* Dryst's mini was a "here, use this for now" move that turned into a permanent one. This has happened before with Dryst's player and minis. "I have this better one . . . " "NOOOOOOOOOOO!"
He's the same guy who fights "under protest" when I have to swap in minis to represent different troop types.

** The Chainmail line of figures were not very good - they are remarkably flat, generally. But still, they're pretty attractive from the right angle. I have a lot of them as well from when they closed out the line and had these extreme discount sales. This guy was like $1 on sale, and I painted him just for fun and he came out extremely well. When Vryce's player decided on Vryce's design and loadout, I knew which minis to offer him and he picked this guy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

S&W in the Southern Reaches: Session 4 - Castle of the Mad Archmage 1

Last night the S&W B-Team made its debut visit to Joseph Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage. Erik Tenkar polled us to find out which megadungeon we wanted to raid, and we pretty universally chose that one. Turns out a lot of us have run other big dungeons but hadn't read this one.

And one thing before I begin - all published adventures in PDF form need a number-free "players" map the GM can import into a VTT and reveal piecemeal to the players.

Minister, Half-Elf Cleric/Magic-User (lvl 1) (Tim Shorts)
Mirado the Bloody, Human Fighter (lvl 3) (me)
     Redshirt #1 (lvl 0), human hireling (ring armor, spear, dagger, 5 HP)
     Redshirt #2 (lvl 0), human hireling (ring armor, spear, dagger, 5 HP)
     Torch Boy, 14-year old human (1 HP)
Rul Scararm, Human Fighter (lvl 2) (Douglas Cole)

We started out at the gates of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Rul had wisely purchased some healing potions, and Mirado hired some hirelings.

The stairs down were guarded by two guardsman, who questioned us, sold us a license (12 gp for a year's adventuring) under the auspices of his lordship (name unknown to me), and took down our name - "Ogre Heads!" was what Rul shouted out and it stuck. Mirado spoke up and got considered the leader.

Mirado also gave them a couple gold to get some extra information out of them, mostly about a party of marauders* - a six-man mixed group (3 humans, halfling, elf, dwarf), also some dwarves and some elves that have been down there a while.

We took the spiral staircase down to level 1. We could have continued to level 2, and we briefly considered it. Mirado suggested we check around the staircase area on level 1, then head down if we didn't find anything. Later reflection that we had a fragile 1st-level guy with us kept us on the first level.

We started a "always go left" routine which mostly worked out, changing it up mainly to explore doors and take a brief look up side passages. We didn't get more than a hundred feet in when a half-dozen giant rats rushed us. They gnawed on the torch boy and dropped him to 0 HP, and hurt one of the redshirts before we cut them down. So we had to bandage up the boy and take him right back up to the surface. Mirado dropped him off and said to the guards, "He'll rest up here." They asked if he needed healing. Rul said yes, but Mirado vociferously said "NO!" - no way, that's a money grab, not an offer of free help. He'd be fine with rest.

We headed back down and continued to explore. The dungeon was a bit oddly layed out - lots of angled passages, trapped floors, tightly packed rooms, etc. We stumbled across a spear trap that winged one of the hirelings before we found a door at the end of a passage. We forced it open, and there was a rhino facing us!

Hah. No. Mirado didn't believe that for a second. He Disbelieved, make a great roll, and scoffed - "It's an illusion!" Sorry, rhino on level 1, no.

An exhaustive search of the room revealed a secret door, which we opened to find a two-way passage. We turned to the right and headed down, eventually finding a dung-filled room that we refused to search for 2000 cp in. Right after that, we heard marching feet and set up for a fight. Minister recognized the sound of the dwarven language, and we parlayed with the dwarves. There were 7 of them, and the lead dwarf (I forgot his name, it's written down at home) and we spoke in Common. They warned us of kobolds and told us they'd pay 5 gp an ear for kobolds and 100 gp for a chief's head - we'd know the chieftains by their beads. They also warned us about zvarts.

We couldn't get them to team up with us, so we decided to search in a different direction than the one they'd come from - which they said had kobolds in it. Mirado wasn't interested in fighting kobolds, so we headed back the way we came (and they did, too, ducking in the secret door to the rhino room.) We found a door and forced it open, and found 3 zombies.

Two had big sweaters on that read "STATE" and one had a beaver coat and a ukelele. So we attacked. It took a couple turns of fighting (and a 1 on a turning roll by Minister, He Whom The Dice Doth Despise - he'd roll a lot of 1s) we took them down. The ukelele was smashed but the beaver coat was recoverable, so we took it, bundling up a hireling in it. (It was his idea).

After that, working our way back to some passed-up side passages we found:

- a room with five rose bushes in it lit by continual light. Behind adventurers, we had Rul shoot them. Good thing, because under one we found a treasure map. If it's real, it's a quick hike and 3000 gp. If it's fake, it's an easy "yo man, I'll sell you my lottery ticket" sales job.

- a room with giant bluebottle flies in it. Minister flailed around in combat again, sadly (seriously, the dice roller hated him) but we managed to take them out with minimal difficulty. We found a silver dagger in some dried fly scat.

and then we started to search around close to the entrance again, trying to avoid the angled corridors for fear of more traps.

Another room had some 3 fire beetles in it (we killed them easily, and took their glow glands), We also found a gold ring with a ruby worth 75 gp.

After that, we found yet another room, this time with three battleaxe-wielding skeletons. Mirado opened the door too widely, allowing one to cut Rul. Rul retaliated by killing all three in a sweep of his Sword +1, +3 vs. Undead.

We tried the door and it was stuck, so Mirado tried to force it. Once it opened, we found ourselves facing two mail-armored men backed by a man in robes. They attacked, and Mirado ate a pair of Magic Missiles before we could strike back. We did, injuring one of the fighter-types but not the other. Lucky for us Minister chose at this point to reveal his other talent by throwing a Sleep spell, knocking the whole group of them out.

So we moved into the room, and quickly tied them up and gagged the wizard. After looting them - getting a nice dagger off the wizard, and finding a chest with 200 gp (stowed in Mirado's backpack) - Mirado woke up the injured fighter and questioned him. He turned out to be hired help, one of four originally. He rattled off his story about running from dwarves, kobolds, big beetles, maybe other things.Once it was clear he was just a hired hand, Mirado offered him (and his buddy) a job working for him. They'd get 10% of the take from their old boss, but Mirado offered only a bonus. Hey, it was worth asking - them for the 10%, Mirado for their services. But Mirado said then he'd just escort them to the surface. The guy did cough up something like "Why don't you take the boss's spellbooks?" and told us where he'd hidden them. So Minister found them under a stone, and took that. Plus, that dagger we found turned out to be +1, +2 vs. humanoids, so Minister kept that as well. Bootstrapping at its finest, baby.

Then Mirado cut off the wizard's head (no sense questioning him, because even tied up he could try Charm Person, so forget that). I finally remembered to ask Erik what it's like when Woundlicker wicks away a HP and gives it to me. Blood basically flows into the blade and Mirado feels warm. Nice. I said "Mirado always heard those tales of fighters with evil swords, and he never thought it would happen to him." Tim: "He's living the dream." Damn right!

So we escorted the prisoners to the surface, gave them back their weapons, and bid them good day. Then we tried a couple more rooms. One turned out to be to a maze of doors, which closed automatically and needed forcing. Bleh. Some other time.

A little more searching turned up a room with 10 giant rats (quickly slain), and a gold bracelet in their refuse.

After that it was getting late, so we just went up to the surface and called it a day. Rul has the treasure list and needs to parcel it out, and we owe 5% of that to the lordship(s) of Sanctuary.

At the end, Mirado handed out 5 gp bonuses to each of the two redshirts for their help, since they were pretty useful and didn't die. I forgot to mention it but he's also giving the torchboy some extra money, too - 1 gp - with instructions to go buy some milk and drink it. That boy needs HP. He can come back when he's a bit beefed up.

* Marauders - Mirado's term for other adventurers. We are adventurers, they are marauders. We bravely salvage treasure from the evil hordes, they plunder hapless underdwellers of their wealth.


"Headhunters" would have been a better name for us. And I guess being 3rd level and on my fourth adventure makes me senior and thus the nominal leader. Mirado would like that.

Notes: I didn't name the hirelings, but I just didn't feel like I had any good names handy. Next time I will.

I also treat my hirelings less like meatshields and more like valuable commodities. I held them out of battle when I could, because I figured we might come to a time when having them jump in or watch our back might be critical. I didn't want them dying uselessly.

I got to decide on one of my two bonus languages. Mirado now speaks Common and Orcish, and has one more slot to fill. I'm not sure what would be valuable.

The college zombies were kind of funny, but did kind of pull us out of the moment. We did end up talking WG7 vs. EX1 & EX2, and why one sucked and the others were cool. And it turns out Tim Shorts also converted those to GURPS once, too.

Mirado spared the prisoners (and paid out that bonus) with an eye to his future - a good rep for honesty and mercy can't help but get his name out there as a good boss. That should make it easier to find some hired help in the future, and ensure their loyalty.

Overall, this was by far the least productive session for Mirado in terms of magic items and loot and probably experience. But we've gotten a feel for the dungeon a little bit, and we can dare more when we're a bit larger of a group. Better to explore a bit and come home safe than to push too far and die trying to max out the loot. Plus it helps Erik, too, because he can just keep using the same dungeon and change it up a bit to reflect adventuring.

I'll update Mirado's sheet when I get a final tally on gold and xp.

I may have forgotten details, but chances are Doug and Tim haven't. Check their posts:
S&W B-Team Strikes Back: Castle of the Mad Archmage
Discovering the Amount of Poo You're Willing to Dig Through

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game
by Chris Gonnerman
174 Pages
MSRP - Free or see below.

Yes, seriously, the rules are free, and a beautifully done print copy is under $5. I got the entire game system plus four nice-looking adventures for under $15, including tax and shipping. That's because they are apparently selling at cost. At that price, they could have thrown in a buck or two for profits and I'd still have picked up a copy. My only regret is that I got this and it's second edition - there is a more current version of the rules out now. It would have been nice if I'd realize that, I could have waited for 3rd to come out before getting a copy of 2nd edition.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a retro-clone that mimics the D&D Basic set in its sensibilities. Like the other retro-clones I've read, it feels like it's heavily true to the source material but with a few tweaks the author(s) disliked about the original set. In this case, you've got:

- Ascending AC
- different armor and equipment weights/capacities for halflings
- race is distinct from class
- No Alignment! (Not at all, that I can find - not even on monsters or clerics)

But you also have things true to the original:

- 1d4 HP thieves with utterly awful chances to pull off their skill rolls (which are percentage based)
- clerics get spells from 2nd level on
- Morale on monsters
- simple +1 to +3 bonuses for high stats

and so on. Basically, if you like Basic D&D but dislike the same things about it that Chris Gonnerman does, you'll love this. I personally like the removal of alignment - it's actually done so quietly I didn't notice until I was double-checking after a read through. But like any other retro-clone it's got that "house rule changes" aspect to it; if you're unhappy with that you can always go and buy the original D&D Basic Set for a few bucks.

The game is well written, well organize, and pretty closely edited. Tiny errors creep in but it looks like a professionally written, edited, and produced game book. Although some of the art harkens back to the amateurish art of original D&D (before they got real artists to do the art), it's not actually amateurish itself. It feels more like a well-done callback to "remember those pictures Gygax sketched himself to fill space?" with higher quality art. This book looks like I like my own books to look, reads like I like mine to read, and is produced like something I'd happily show people as an example of what my hobby is all about.

It has a minimum of New School Bashing in it, which is also nice. A few things sounded like backhands at whiny players, but nothing really contrasting "old school" vs. "bad" gaming. Nice. It falls under my rule about not telling me what your game isn't, and I like that. It's focused on telling how to play, and makes the basic tonal assumption that you're here to play the way the rules suggest.

Would I play it? Yes. Run it? I'm not sure - while I like it, I could just as easily run B/X D&D and draw on an even larger pool of resources. All in all, though, I really like this rules set. Recommend. Go read it, and if you like what you read, thinking about dropping $5 on a print copy. You won't regret it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Well, That Didn't Work Out - Secondary Skill Checks in GURPS

Here is an optional rule for GURPS for when a skill or attribute check fails, but there is some other skill or ability you can use to try to salvage the situation.

Bailing Yourself Out - Secondary Skill Checks

Whenever you fail a skill or attribute check, if the GM finds it plausible that another skill can help you out, you may roll against that skill or attribute to try to snatch success from the jaws of failure. However, you suffer a penalty equal to the amount you failed the first roll by - plus any normal penalties for the skill or stat in that situation. On a critical failure, you do not get a secondary skill check. This does not apply in any way to combat skill rolls, Active Defenses, Resistance rolls, or Fright Checks. If the GM doesn't agree a secondary skill roll makes sense, a failure is just a failure! If the secondary skill check fails, you may not try a tertiary check to get out of that failure.

Optional Rule: Critical Bail-Outs. On a critical failure, you can still try a secondary skill check. The penalty is equal to double the margin of failure, with a minimum of a -10. If you're good enough, you might manage to pull it off . . . but you might make it worse.

Example: Raggi is climbing down a rope with his effective skill of Climbing-14. However, he rolls a 17 and fails, causing him to fall. The GM rules Raggi can snag the rope with a desperate grab and try to hold on with sheer brute strength - a DX roll for the grab. He has DX 12, and needs a 9 or less to succeed. He rolls an 8, and just manages to grab on. Whew!

Example: Vryce is trying to sneak past some flail-armed stone golem guardians. He has Stealth-14, but is at Medium Encumbrance (-2 to his Stealth). He rolls a 15, failing his Stealth roll. Vryce's player argues that he probably made some noise and he'll hold his breath and hold himself still to avoid being heard further, hoping to get a HT or Will check. However, the GM doesn't buy it, and Vryce's clumsy "sneaking" is clearly visible and audible. Good thing he has Two-Handed Sword-26, he'll need it.

I like the idea of enshrining a secondary roll as an option, and building in the margin-of-failure as the specific modifier for the bail-out roll. It works well with situations that have multiple angles of approach, such as social skill rolls (Fail your Intimidation, so try some penalized Diplomacy, instead) or physical skills (your Per-based Survival fails, so try IQ to recognize the quicksand before you step in it or DX to pull back fast enough). It makes less sense in second-to-second resolution, which is why it's explicitly forbidden in combat.

I'd also note that making this an explicit option gives the players a good tool, too. Instead of feeling like a skill or attribute check is pass/fail, players know they can try to visualize, explain, and justify a secondary check. That keeps you right in the action even as the dice say "No, you didn't pull it off." Think of a plausible option and go for that.

You can probably use this in non-GURPS systems, too - although with percentage-based thief options, margin of failure should probably be a fraction of the margin of failure. Or for games like Rolemaster or FASERIP, shift the difficulty level or shift the results down a color block when you fail.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Gaming in the Classroom: No Sooner Said Then Not Done

. . . so no sooner than I decide to just write up a lesson plan and go for it with an RPG, than I get my new schedule . . . and find I've swapped classes with another teacher. So the class I was considering as the perfect change to introduce RPGs as a test is now gone. Aargh.

Oh well, that means I have more time to consider what I want to do, and figure out another chance to try it out. Maybe as a summer activity . . .

Gaming in the Classroom: More Thoughts on RPGs for ESL

I've been mulling over the RPGs-for-ESL thing some more. I've also been perusing this excellent stuff by Pete Figtree, who has been very helpful. So was everyone who commented on my last post, too. So thanks, and keep the suggestions coming!

Amount of Reading Needed to Play - I took a look at a few games recommended to me last time. Some are very cool, but a few would require a lot of ability to read, understand, and articulate fairly advanced English. The operative term is "ESL" - English as a Second Language. For some students, it's more like EFL - English as a Foreign Language. As interesting as, say, Lady Blackbird is, imagine reading that in your 1st-year Spanish class. It's a bit much, and my Japanese skills aren't equal to the task of translating or explaining bits they don't get.

My GM Skills - I also think I need to be familiar with the game end-to-end, and have real mastery of it. That argues for a stripped down D&D clone or GURPS Lite pared down by myself, or something home-brewed and easy to run (something I could give out for free.) That takes care of other systems I'm not deeply familiar with - even pretty straightforward ones like T&T. I'd like the only unknowns to be how it works in class not how it works, if you follow me.

Minimum Setup - I've been thinking that part of what I need is an role-playing activity that takes very little setup. I think I could do a dungeon, or a rescue-the-captured-children, or a find the pirate's treasure kind of game pretty easily. They'd take very little pre-game setup, especially given my tendency to run games with dungeons and/or pirates. I'd also be able to keep the motivations really simple, allowing the kids free rein to just do what they'd like to try.

Homework For Me

I also have to think more about:

- how to ensure it's an educational activity.


- the logistics of ensuring second-language speakers are able to play.

A lot of the rules stuff is more secondary. It's the structure of how to play, what I need to bring to the table, etc. that is trickier. I may have to try doing a very short adventure or set-piece that I can bust out and run at the end of one of the longer classes for slightly more advanced students, and see how it flies there. Then I can use the experience to see what else I can try. If I do that, the first part - ensuring it is educational, is simple. All I need to do is get them to speak and listen for a while, since the class I have in mind is all about improving their comfort and usage speaking.

I still need to sit down and outline just what I'd want to hand out, how many PCs I need, how to explain the idea, etc. but the discussion from last time really helped me get more thoughts more from "what if-" to "when I do this . . . "
Basically, I need to draw up a lesson plan, and figure out how long it'll take . . . and then try it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Puzzles - Players & Characters

So Beedo wrote a nice post about puzzles in his Mad God megadungeon.

I got to thinking about how puzzles fit into a game. Beedo's posts are generally like that. I figured I need to keep something in mind when I put in puzzles - just like when I put in traps, monsters, etc. It's a continuum between two extremes - purely player-centered and purely character-centered.

On one end of the spectrum, a puzzle is purely player centered. A player-centered puzzle is one that depends on the knowledge of the players. Chess match puzzles that depend on the players knowing chess moves are like this. Factual puzzles (like the golem number puzzle in S2 White Plume Mountain), logic puzzles, riddles, jokes missing punchlines - all of those things generally purely test the player, not the characters. It doesn't matter if your wizard is a genius if you don't know how to recognize the mathematical progression pattern in that door combo, or whatever.

On the far end of the spectrum is the character-centered puzzle. A character-centered puzzle is pretty much like any other skill check, combat "to hit" roll, damage roll, etc. - do you roll well enough to accomplish your goal of getting past it? You roll the dice, you compare your IQ to the Mind Flayers' puzzle box's required IQ score, whatever. No amount of player skill impacts the results any more than player skill impacts how that d6 lands when you roll damage - discounting cheating, of course.

Of course, you can mix these anywhere along the spectrum. You can place a minimum required character aspect, or require a character-based roll, in order to solve a problem that is otherwise player-knowledge required. The players might need to figure out what to do, but their characters must execute in-game tasks successfully to manage it. (Actually, that also describes combat in almost every game I've played.) Or you can have a puzzle that only needs to be identified as such before a character roll solves the whole thing.

Let's try a few examples.

Purely Player Knowledge: A statue-moving puzzle. Put the statues in alphabetical order by name, and a magic door opens. No character ability matters.

Mainly Player Knowledge: A statue that utters a complex math puzzle, which requires the players to do the math to succeed. However, the statue only speaks to those with a minimum level of Magery and/or Thaumatology skill (or minim levels in Magic-User, say). Others are just not worthy of the challenge, and the statue will ignore their words even if they speak the answer.

Minimal Player Knowledge: A chasm blocks your way and has a magical gust of wind that blows when you try to cross it. Player knowledge can identify the problem and the solution, but character skills such as Climbing skill or a Dispel Magic spell are needed to resolve it.

Pure Character Skill: A magic door will only open when a complex magical puzzle lock is opened. All it takes is an IQ-based lockpicking roll to open it.

There are plenty of wayposts on the continuum, from either direction. But I think it's worth remembering that pretty much all game systems abstract some things to player ability, and some to character ability. Puzzles are just another aspect of it. You need to consider when you put it down if it's primarily a character challenge or a player challenge.

Of course, remember that players treat puzzles the way Alexander treated the Gordian Knot - they might find an option you weren't expecting . . .

Monday, March 24, 2014

Gaming in the Classroom: Thoughts on RPGs for ESL

One thought I keep mulling around is playing RPGs with my students. I teach ESL at a private school. My students are almost all native Japanese speakers, with a small mix of native bilinguals and the occasional English-primary Japanese-secondary speakers. I keep thinking, I'd like to run an RPG for them. And that RPGs are a great way to engage with the language, use it, and give you a direct and consistent need to learn it.

First, you might want to plow through this article on the subject:
Collaborative Non-Linear Narrative Tabletop Role-Playing Games in the ESL Classroom

Some of what I discuss below is covered a bit in that article.

The main obstacle, really, is making it an educational activity. I wouldn't be running the game for free, and thus parents would be paying tuition/class fees for each and every game session. Education would need to be primary. In simpler terms, the game must be worth paying to play, and the game must directly benefit the English skills of the players each and every class. It would be different if I was running the game for free, but then the parameters change greatly - not the least of which is that I'd be running the game for my fun, not their education. The rest of this post assumes running a game as a school/ESL/learning activity that costs money to participate in.

I've tried games in the past that were fun (Awful Green Things, for example) but didn't require a lot of English to succeed, and thus weren't very educational. I've also some that require a surprising amount of English to master (Fluxx 3.0 is my favorite, but Go Fish is exactly like this). I've run games that needed no English (Chess), but taught them with English. RPGs require a lot of English and have a bit of a learning curve - you can probably add English-weak students to a group but not start an English-weak and gaming-inexperienced group and expect to get much.

Below is a mix of ideas, quandaries, and other issues I'm mulling over. This is very early drawing board type stuff; I have no plans yet to present this as a school club or after school class.

Logistics of Play

Rotating Player Pool. I'd need to deal smoothly with missing players, changing players, one-try drop ins, etc. Death of a PC would need to be smoothly handled with a replacement or repair because the goal isn't a challenging play experience but learning English though use. "You die, next time do better" is the same as "Stop using English, class is over for you." Ever been in a spelling bee and got knocked out early? Not very productive. In a one-on-one class, I could do it that way - simply start over - but not with a group.

Naturally this would also mean I'd need to deal with totally new player with no game experience. I'd have to assume that at any time a new person might join.

Rotating Caller. I think a caller would be a good idea. This allows those with strong speech to shine, and those with weaker speech to have to talk. It would also organize the game a little - it wouldn't be many-on-one teacher. The teacher/GM can assist the caller or players, but the caller would be responsible for passing on what happens.

It also feeds into the Japanese cultural tradition of student-directed activities.

I think a rotating caller - every X minutes, say - could be a good approach. This would both allow those who speak English better to assist those with weaker English. Rotating may also prevent those with poor English from being shielded from speech.

I'd allow the caller to parrot speech from better speakers - basically, being a mouthpiece for things they don't know how to say. Especially for children, I've seen this work wonders. I've taught games and had teachers or other students coach kids on what to say line by line or word by word . . . and they start to pick it up by rote at least and then catch the meaning and usage. If other students do the prompting, it's even better - it gives confidence to the prompter and the kids seem to pay attention more and try harder to remember it. Peer pressure beats superior pressure, I guess.

How about the system?

So what about the rules?

Point Buy

If you're worked with kids, fairness is their primary concern. They define fairness differently than adults, too. In my experience they like fairness of results more than fairness of chances.

I've had a kid get really upset because I gave everyone a chance to read one sentence out loud, and then opened it up to volunteers to read more . . . as he saw it, dividing 15 worksheet sentences amongst 9 kids meant some people got 2 tries and some didn't, and it bothered him. Not only that, one kid went twice before he went twice, but he'd read sentence #1 and she read #3, so to him she was going out of turn. From a teacher's perspective, it meant everyone got to try reading, and I was able to dish out an extra challenge to the better readers and to the ones who really needed extra work. I've had kids cry because someone going first wasn't fair because that kid got to go first during a previous teacher's class so it wasn't fair that I let the kid go first, too.

So "It's fair that everyone rolls 3d in order" sounds like a great way to get crying kids who didn't roll that well. "Everyone gets 100 points" or "everyone gets an 18, a 16, a 14, a 12, and two 10s to put where they want" is going to save me a giant load of tears and arguments. And vastly speed up chargen!

If I run GURPS, I'd probably use very simple templates (basically, nearly complete characters with a series of A or B menu choices) or the Buckets system from Alternate GURPS III.

System Mastery Isn't An Obstacle.

I'd like a relatively simple system, so I'm split between an old game (Basic D&D, say) or stripping down a new game (GURPS Lite). A lot of rules isn't a big issue, though, because to master the system they'll need to master English. Rewarding players who demonstrate reading comprehension by finding rules that benefit them, or knowing the good rules option - that's no different that scoring kids higher for reading, writing, spelling, etc. I'm fine with rewarding kids who put extra time into learning the game rules.

Still, the basics of the game must be simple enough that "mastery" is "getting better" not "learning how to play effectively in the first place." That's why I'm thinking GURPS Lite or Basic D&D or something of that sort. Both require extremely minimal explanation.

Easy to Consistently Implement. It would be nice if I could quickly and easily teach other teachers how to run the game. That way they could cover my class when I'm away and run their own RPG-based classes. The consistency aspect would mean that we'd be running it in a close enough fashion that the classes were accomplishing the same things and not establishing a different standard for use of English or acceptable levels of native language usage for a given grade level.

Cost. Ideally, the materials would be cheap or free, so I don't need a layout or a big reimbursement request.

Kid-Safe Materials. Sorry, no nudity, guys doing bloody Mortal Kombat death strikes, cursing, murderous rages, etc. in the illustrations or examples. I work for a school, so this is non-negotiable. I'd want to be able to encourage the parents to look into the system without worrying that they might find something adult-oriented in their kid's class materials.

Non-Confusing Game Name. This might make D&D a no-go, unless Next is so awesome that I run that. If I play D&D with the kids and they like it and go to the store and buy D&D, it's going to be a different edition. If I play Swords & Wizardry, they might end up with Complete or White Box or something else. This is pushing me towards something like GURPS Lite - there is only one extant version of GURPS, and finding 3e stuff is harder than finding 4e stuff. It makes games like Basic Fantasy Role-Playing slightly worrisome because there is also Basic Roleplaying, and it's not the same game at all.

Good Grammar! Seriously, games with weird writing styles or grammar/spelling errors are out. It's an English class! I love Labyrinth Lord but it's got some odd phrasings in the book. I love AD&D but Gygax makes up his own words sometimes, and uses oddly stylized tones occasionally. Vancian English is great, but it's not ideal for ESL.

Those are my thoughts so far. I'll keep digging at this until I feel like I've thought through the issues enough to make it worth proposing and trying. I think it's an activity with an enormous upside for the students who participate, but it's not without its complications and problems.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

XP for Treasure with a Floor, not a Ceiling

In my Felltower game I hand out XP for treasure, which is unlike GURPS in general but which came as an option in Dungeon Fantasy 3.

I was thinking about that system and the system I grew up with in games like D&D. Not that we played it right (we often ignored the levels-per-trip thing) but sometimes we did.

A Treasure Floor, Not A Value Ceiling

In my system, I chose to put in a floor - you must find and take home at least $X per person to earn maximum XP for the session. Miss that by even a hair, and you get a penalty. Miss it by a lot, and you suffer the same penalty. It's pass/fail. We've scaled the X along with the improved power of the PCs, so you can't maximize XP by bottom-feeding. The awards are at the end of the day's gaming, too, regardless of how much in-game time passes.

The old D&D systems and D&D-based systems I'm familiar with have a ceiling. You can't earn more than one level in a single adventure. So you are restricted in maximum benefit from treasure & exploits to 1 xp less than needed to go up 2 levels. If you're got a 0 xp level 1 fighter and he scores a colossal 5000 xp payday (from all sources combined), he earns 4,000 xp - 1 xp shy of level 3, and promotes to level 2. Sure, the extra money is useful, but he's capped.

This can result in subtly different play, in my experience. With a ceiling, your goal is to hit that ceiling if at all possible . . . and not much higher. You want to earn as much as you can benefit from, at least in theory. There is such a thing as too much treasure for right now. XP can get, basically, wasted (especially with low-level guys earning a share from a treasure-filled high-level trip.)

With a floor, you want to earn at least enough to get the maximum benefit, but once you do, you're really going to benefit more from cherry picking what gets you the most value for the trouble. You don't really get short little trips just trying to get past the floor, either, because it's per session, not just per trip. Even so, since XP is earned individually, all you need to do is ensure everyone hits the Treasure Floor to ensure everyone gets the maximum XP, too.

Also I find it's much easier to eyeball a floor - going into the trip you know you need to exceed X value in loot - than a ceiling. You can grab enough and say, yes, this is profitable. It's like shopping with "with an additional purchase of $25" versus "I can only spend $50" - much easier to figure out you're over and then move on.

Is That New Loot?

Another twist that makes this work is the need to discover new treasure, not just take home X amount of loot, means you can't just stash some money for later and come back or keep hitting the same places again and again until you take all the value out. Well, you can, but you're wasting valuable game time that can earn you XP.

So that's part of the subtle difference in how I reward XP now versus how I did it back when I played D&D. It ends up with some equally subtle differences in how people think about hauling back treasure. My players still haul back just about everything, though.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Painting Minis & Paints

The weather finally turned for the better for a few days, which means one thing for me: painting season begins!

Painting Minis

I've made some progress on a mini for Galoob Jah, our newest addition. Tough to find someone that could work because goblins with rapiers are a non-existent portion of my collection. We ended up with a gnome I found looking through my Bones Vampire set.

I also did some work on a an orc war boss with way too much fiddly detail, knocked off four orcs (now awaiting quickshade), did a couple of monsters (ditto), knocked off a big dude, painted a dog (now awaying matte finish), started on a Pathfinder Goblin for a test run on some colors, and did 90% of the work on a mini just sitting around (a lizard dude I just couldn't mentally color - then, suddenly, I could). Finally I did a Bones skeleton, with a super-quick base coat job. I didn't like how the last set came out (they look actually bad), so I want to try one guy with simple colors plus quickshade and see if that works. The previous technique I tried looked good on paper but I couldn't execute it well.

I also started working on some "easy" paint jobs. Candelabras, a quick-and-easy monster, a treasure chest, etc. - just stuff that doesn't take a lot of attention or color decisions. Even two really big monster minis I've got that are really just basecoat/drybrush/wash/highlight guys - maybe 4-5 layers of paint, and literally no decisions about what colors because it's obvious what they must be.

By a quick count I've put 14 minis into the "ready to shade or seal" pile and made significant progress on 8 more and minimal (but actual) progress on 4 more, plus some assembly. That last part took some time, because I am capable of losing my super glue in 1.2 seconds flat. I needed to go buy more, and then find someone at the arts & crafts store to unlock the super glue from the rack.

Oh, and I found and finished the two mini demons from the Nurgle set. I really should have just finished them and mounted them to their boss's base, but I got the urge to mount them together on their own base, making them a bit more useful in actual play. Now they can shuttle around doing these for their dread master, who they hate and love and fear and wish to replace . . . Hail Nurgle!


Speaking of that lizard I suddenly started to paint - I base coated him in purple, then Ral Partha Mind Flayer Mauve, then hit him with metallic purple highlights. I bought that paint at least 10 years ago, and it was dusty and old when I bought it - it's the oldest paint color I have. I have another pink (er, mauve) that's almost identical, but I love the consistency and pigment depth of this extremely old paint. And I shake it in frustration at the newer paints I bought and had go dry in no time even in sealed containers in a dark, cool place. I'm looking at you, Reaper Pro Paints.

Color Wheel

Yes, I'm finally learning how to use one. I just don't have any clue what colors go together. I tend to copy color schemes for my minis and adapt them. Or just copy color for color from other people's painted minis. I need to learn how to couple colors together in the same way I learned to couple exercises together in complementary or contrasting ways.

My sister is an artist and passed this site on to me: Color Wheel Artist. Still, I'm wondering if there isn't a good video tutorial aimed at miniature painting. Anyone know one?

In any case, I might get a chance to pick up my good camera this weekend from where it's been quietly languishing at my mom's house. If so, I'll get a few picks of the non-secret minis I've painted and get them posted up.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Drop-In Gaming: Megadungeons, Rails, and Sandboxes

Yesterday Erik Tenkar, who suffers mightily as my GM, posted about sandboxes and drop-in gaming. Before you read this, go read his post here:

My Sandbox Failure - Not a Good Fit For a "Once a Month Drop in / Drop Out" Campaign

I threw in a comment there, but I'll expand a bit here.

One reason I think a notionally pure "sandbox" doesn't work so well in a drop-in game is that you need time to interact with the environment. The players must be able to engage with the environment regularly, with a cumulative impact, and engage on a larger scale.

It doesn't work so well if you're exploring the Eastern Wastes or taming a small area of Krail's Folly but can't make it to the next game. It's hard to do something that is multiple sessions worth of work if you're playing once a month, nevermind if you miss a month here or there due to scheduling conflicts.

Well, it can, in that Gygaxian "STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT" kind of game with everyone on different time lines, but seriously, tracking that is like project management. If you want a simpler approach, it's easier if time just flows along and missing a session means missing a chance to do something.

A sandbox can work, if it's the right size.

A megadungeon is the right kind of environment. Well, so is any other small-ish, bounded or limited sandbox. It can be a big dungeon, like Jeff Rient's Wessex game from a couple years back.

One reason a big dungeon works well is the whole cumulative and immediate nature of exploration. There is stuff to do right now, so no sandbox project is bigger than a single session on its own. But they can all add up. A large change in the play area in a sandbox can mess your plans up -"Sorry, Mirado and Rul cleared that hex you started clearing while you were out with the flu last month." "Oh . . . I'll start a new project I guess." A large change in a megadungeon is typical - "Sorry, Mirado and Rul cleared that level out last week." "Okay, I head to the stairs to level 3."

I'd also recommend starting and stopping at a convenient end point. I use town and enforce the need to return to town before the session ends. This allows swapping PCs by the same player or adding or removing players without any disruption or gonzo "suddenly, a wizard beams in and the dwarf and gnome disappear!" stuff. You can easily make the PCs all part of a loose grouping and easily explain a new PC in a way that a wilderness sandbox makes trickier.

It's also easier to restock plausibly without messing up the PC's plans. It's also easier to let one-time trips go in without essentially changing the sandbox in some way that throws off the folks not devoting steady play time to the game.

In short, I'd say for a drop-in game, a megadungeon is really useful if you want a sandboxy experience.

But what about rails? Can't I just plunk a dungeon of the week in front of the players? Yes, absolutely you can. Train to Adventure, next stop, Dungeon of the Week! This is our final stop, everyone please vacate the train. It's totally fine. We did that for three sessions in Erik Tenkar's game, and it was really fun. It just means more prep session to session for the GM than doing one big megadungeon. My original plan for my current DF game was dungeon-of-the-week, but a megadungeon turned out to be so much easier . . .

(PS - we'll be exploring a megadungeon soon in Erik's game . . . )

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Making Poisons Deadlier in GURPS

One thing about poisons in games - and GURPS is one of those - it's generally not as scary as in reality. Pass a resistance check and you're okay. Deadliness varies, and although not all of them have resistance rolls (basically, not save or die, just . . . die) they generally do, and you usually get HT rolls not to die even after all of this.

So what if you want poisons to be a bit more systematically deadlier in GURPS?

First, don't forget the . . .
Rules As Written

Know your poisoning rules.

- Not all poisons have a resistance roll. Don't drink cyanide (B439).

- Some have HT roll penalties upwards of around -6 - don't get hit with curare (Low-Tech, p. 129).

- poisons often have multiple effects, such as damage and paralysis, or damage and a secondary chance of a heart attack, etc.

- Doubling a dose gives a penalty to resist and increased damage and reduced cycle times, per B439, Varying the Dosage, but makes it (much) easier to detect.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons has a Practical Poisoning rule for when you want to double or quadruple venom doses for maximum effect - based on that same rule from Basic Set.

- Positive Size Modifiers delay poisons. They don't actually increase the needed dose, but they slow down the rate of the cycles. It takes longer to get to your heart, I'd guess. Negative size modifiers make them work faster!

- Persistent poisons hit you over and over while you're in the area, regardless of your success on resistance rolls. Lesson #1: When mustard gas comes in, you should go out.

- Delivery agents aren't always about skin contact or skin penetration. Don't forget sprayed venoms (usually Blood Agents or Contact Agents), Respiratory Agents, or sense-based (horrid smells, eye irritants, etc.).

But what if that's just not enough? Here are three ways you can make poisons deadlier, or at least more worrisome.

Deadlier Venom

#1) Secret Resistance You can change how you run them, simply by not telling people the results of checks. Roll them secretly and just describe what happens. They'll have to assume the worst because they don't know if they made it or not. After all, "You take 3 damage" can mean a successful HT roll against a strong poison, or just a lucky damage roll.

This makes poisoning a bit more of a concern, but not actually deadlier. If anything, it might make it safer, but more expensive - not knowing if you've resisted or not, if you've taken the incidental damage of a successful roll or just got lucky on the effects of a failure, might drive you to use antivenins or magical cures in a fantasy game.

#2: Resisting Doesn't End Cycles - This is a big change. Right now, you make a resistance roll every time a poison comes up with a chance to affect you. If you resist, the attack ends and all further cycles are nullified.

I'm not a big fan of how this makes poison a lot less scary - all it takes is one good roll (or one of three, with Luck) to end its effects. Cobra bites you, you roll an hour later and resist and that's that. It has a tendency to make non-penalized HT rolls to resist poison not so scary. Most PCs get 12+ in this area, 14-15 or so with Fit, Very Fit, and so on, and may even stack Resistant to Poison on top. They normally resist right away, and if not, it's rarely more than 1-2 cycles before they do.

Changing it so you always apply all cycles, and must resist each as if it is was a new attack all over again, makes poison much scarier. Keep some antivenin around, because even a good HT roll early on only means you've bought some time to get help. It makes poison less "cobra bit me, make a roll and I'm okay" and more "cobra bit me, I'm going to suffer even if it doesn't kill me." This should affect the cost of Resistible, since part of the cost assumes success breaks the cycle of damage.

This will also make the more dangerous venoms (curare, cobra venom, nerve gas, fugu toxin) extremely dangerous, because even the rare success you get won't end it.

Optionally, you can make this an enhancement to certain venoms - persistant cycles. Cosmic is probably the way to do this, and the fairest cost wise.

#3: Multiple Hits Are Multiple Doses - This one might in fact be what the rules sort-of intend. Treat every single dose of venom as part of a unified whole, not separate attacks. So if you get stabbed with Caustic Tar with 4 doses at once, you resist at HT-4 or take 8 damage. If you get hit 4 times in the same second with 1 dose at a time, you roll at HT-4 or take 8 damage. Bit by a snake with HT-3, 2d, 1 hour onset and 6 cycles venom? At one hour roll HT-3. Bit three times? That's more than 2 but less than four, so it's HT-5, 4d, 30 minutes onset for 6 cycles. Suddenly, a pit full of spiders with weak (HT+4 to resist) poison isn't a trivial series of rolls, but a cumulative buildup towards a series of terrible rolls.

Beyond a doubled dose, just follow the rules on p. B439 and simply extend it out - every doubling of the doses applies another -2 to the resistance roll and adds another iteration of damage.

Run correctly, poison can be deadly, but those three optional rules are ways to make it a bit worse for the victims.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Other People's Loot

Speaking of Loot . . .

So I've been writing about loot for days. So has Jason S:

"We Search the Dead God's Body"
"We Search the Dead Emperor's Body"
"We Search the Lich's Body"

All of those count as "interesting treasure" (except for the divine lice, which aren't really treasure) in the best possible sense - they are useful and spark new adventures. Take some time and check those out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Places to Rob Adventurers, from Best to Worst

Naturally, when I brought up hauling away treasure, the idea of thieves stealing it came up.I tend to think this is a bit iffy, if only because in my experiences players worry about it. This means they hold back some reserves for the trip home, and take extreme precautions in self-protection. It's not unusual in my games for PCs to use a defence-in-depth mix of magic, guards with night vision, traps, noisemakers, caltrops, etc. to secure their camps. And yes, they sleep in their armor with hands on their swords. Discomfort beats death.

Nevermind adventurers being both prone to violence, possessed of unusual resources, and extremely enamoured of revenge. Which means even if you do pull off a heist, expect them to remember this forever, and to be willing to expend resources - even well in excess of what you took - in order to get back at you for it. Like the mafia, they generally care more about you being perceived as getting away with it more than they care about the loss itself.

But you can still try. If you do, where to go for it?

Worst Place: The Dungeon. In the dungeon, wilderness, or other danger area. Much like the worst place to try to sneak up on someone is when they are at maximum alertness, the worst place to try to rob adventurers is in the dungeon.

Not only are PCs at their maximum alertness in the dungeon, but generally we're talking about people who are making it their profession to kill things for their possessions or for the treasures they guard. They're ready to deal death and expect to have zero consequences for doing so - and even if they are wrong, you are still dead. Robbing adventurers in a dungeon is like mugging a cop in a police station or conducting a stickup at the firing range. Ballsy, but stupid.

Sneak thieves might grab something, but it's hard to sneak in a dungeon without supernatural powers . . . and there are better places to use those powers.

Second Worst Place: The Trip To The Dungeon. They're not likely to have any loot yet, besides their gear. They're loaded up for battle and not only are keeping an eye out for trouble but are actively seeking trouble out. You have the least to gain, and the PCs are at their best. Bad idea. It's only better than in the actual dungeon because it's going to be slightly easier to sneak, and they might be worried about distraction from the real loot to chase after you . . . at the moment.

Third Worst Place: The Trip Home: This is better than the previous two because it's not uncommon for adventurers to be dragging themselves home half-broken. They'll (hopefully) have been successful, and hopefully have won their loot in a Pyrrhic fashion and be unable to fully guard it.

Again, though, these are professional killers with a tendency to settle things both putting Xs across your eyes and turning your remains into loot-carrying zombie laborers. Expect that they have some resources you don't. You are taking the least risk of the "wilderness" area robberies, here, although if the lands are even semi-civilized you're probably running afoul of the law, too.

You have to be careful of the fake-out, too - adventurers in good condition in bandit-infested areas tend to see bandits as mobile loot carriers, and thieves as a good source of petty cash. Just because they look hurt doesn't mean they are hurt. Even Gary Gygax did this (as recounted in Dragon, Sept. 2002), purposing seeking out bandits for their treasure.

Best Place/Least Bad Place: In Town: In town, the adventurers will partly let their guard down. They will be the most restricted in their retaliation, too. They still might stick you with a sword, but it's less likely. It's easier to pull a sneaky purse cutting than to stab one and grab his stuff, as well, putting the emphasis on your sneakiness vs. their watchfulness instead of your sneakiness or skill at arms vs. theirs. It's the best place, although the reward is the lowest - only what you can stealthily take away.

Honestly (pun intended) the best approach isn't to steal money, but to offer goods and services to the adventurers. They're loaded and generally want something in return. They tend to bargain less hard when they're loaded and you have something interesting and unique to offer. Adventurers lose more money to merchants willingly than to all thieves everywhere for all time. Sell them stuff. And if they're coming home staggering under the weight of their money, you can absolutely ensure a piece of it by offering to help carry it . . .

Now, a lot of the above assumes somewhat skilled PCs and not-as-skilled thieves. If your (game) world assumes 1st level PCs and 15th level thieves with a parcel of allies along, yes, you can rob them anywhere. But it's a wonder how you got to high level robbing violent killers instead of folks unwilling to pay the cost of retaliation. Being a successful thief, like being a successful adventurer, means looking for loot where once you get it the primary danger is already over (dragon is dead, orcs are slain, etc.) and not the beginning of your problems. Adventurers forgive being beaten, but not being robbed, and they have a reputation to protect. Bandits and thieves - the successful ones - might want to keep in mind who they want to rob, and where, or they'll likely end up as just one more encounter.

* By "dungeon" I mean, broadly, any place your typical fantasy adventure game delvers are exploring for treasure or to accomplish some goal. It doesn't literally have to be a dungeon, just a place of danger where active adventuring is going on.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How much treasure do the PCs haul away?

When you run D&D-style or dungeon crawling fantasy, how much treasure do the PCs haul away?

I don't mean get, I mean take?

Do they pick through and take the choice bits, or do they haul away every possible scrap and then come back again for more if they can?

My GM Experience

In my experience players want to squeeze every coin of value out of an environment. They'll haul away captured weapons, bits of armor for scrap, every single piece of coin and piece of salable material they can get, and then sell a map to the deserted ruins as a treasure map.

Nevermind people with Portable Holes. They'd keep their life savings in that napkin and keep it folded close to their bodies wrapped in protective layers of material. And then they'd haul everything from furniture to whole dead monsters back to civilization.

In the past I had guys who would make a quick calculation - find 10,000 gp in the AD&D dragon's hoard? That's 1,000 pounds of gold! A few mules costs a fraction of that, so bring some mules or send someone to go get some. They might ignore the copper pieces at first, but come back for them later (especially if they'd cleared the dungeon entirely.) They might give them away, but only after getting the XP value out of them.

This was especially common before I changed to a smaller, lighter coinage system - in D&D clones you generally find more treasure in your first couple of adventures than you need for gear, so you have spare you can use as seed money for mules and laborers. If mules cost a handful of gold pieces but can haul hundreds, they make perfect financial sense. If gold weighs so little relative to its value that you can carry a fortune in a box, they're just an expense.

My current players have gone as far as carving the locks off of doors to sell as scrap metal. They've taken a broken dagger handle back to town as loot. Nevermind coinage - and since they only need a certain minimum of wealth to maximize their XP gain, they don't even need to do this. Buy every coin counts when you need to buy things later.

My Play Experience

As a computer RPG player, I take everything I can carry - then I come back for more. Every game starts with a real dearth of money, so I start scrounging for everything of even the smallest sale value to sell. It takes a long time to get over that once I've reached the point where I don't need the money anymore. That's true even when taking treasure has no impact on XP/leveling/etc., as is common in computer RPGs.

As a tabletop RPG gamer, it's pretty much the same. My goal is to maximize the value I get. Mirado takes everything that isn't nailed down, and invested in a crowbar in case things are nailed down. The fact that most of our XP comes from treasure only makes taking every damn coin more important to me. 20,000 cp? That's 100 XP! Carry it out. We've done what seems like SOP in my past games, too - haul treasure to a more convenient point (like, near the entrance) for a final magical examination and to ease shuttling it up to the surface.

I suspect if wandering monsters were more of an issue, we'd be a bit more cautious about it. But generally that's not the case, and if it was, I'd just consider hiring guards and more hirelings and laborers part of the cost of the treasure. Heck, give them a percentage and I'll bet they'll find a way to get even more out. Plus the wandering monsters might have some coins and salable weapons, too - unless wandering goblins and orcs oddly leave their purses at home.

So how is it with your players, or with you? Take everything they can sell? Pick and choose the choicest bits and leave the rest?

(And PS - for those of you who want to rob the adventurers on their way home . . . keep this advice in mind.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

DF Felltower NPC: Arn Ulfgard

A rare double post today - because I had a Felltower guy I wanted to post, as well.

No game this week, so it's another Felltower NPC this Sunday.

Arn Ulgard was a volunteer hireling who died in Felltower from the hobgoblins' weapon blows and monster drool doses. He was based on the Brute template from Dungeon Fantasy 15 but didn't quite measure up to a full 125 points - basically he doesn't have any optional points spent on advantages, and an extra -1 to IQ (but +1 Will), pushing him down to about 85 points.

For more pre-made henchmen from my game, check the DF Henchmen page.

Arn Ulfgard

Arn is a veteran warrior from the northern wastes. He's a veteran seaman, but he found his way inland (and upriver) to Stericksburg over the course of a few years of mercenary work and bad decisions. He's not desperate so much as confident of his abilities, and will volunteer or hire on to expeditions to earn himself some cash.

ST 14 HP 14 Speed 6.25
DX 13 Will 10 Move 6
IQ 9 Per 9
HT 12 FP 12
Dodge 8 Parry (Axe) 11+2 DB Block 10+2 DB

Axe(15): 2d+2 cutting; Reach 1.
Large Knife (16): 2d-1 cutting Reach C,1; or 1d impaling; Reach C.

Traits: Bloodlust (6); Overconfidence (12); Stubbornness; Unattractive; Wealth (Struggling).

Quirks: "I'm a warrior, not a laborer! You carry it if you want it carried."

Skills: Armoury (Melee Weapons)-9; Axe/Mace-16; Brawling-13; Carousing-12; Climbing-13; Knife-13; Seamanship-12; Shield-15; Thrown Weapon (Spear)-14.

Gear: Axe; Heavy Leather Armor (DR 2) inc. helmet; Large Knife; Medium Shield (DB 2); Personal Basics; Pouch; Sack.

Notes: He can throw a spear but doesn't have one. Refuses to do laborer stuff - he sees his role as heavy combat.

Interesting Non-Magical Treasure, Part III

This is really an appendix to the other two parts (one and two) of this series.

Only the players' opinions matter

In other words, only the players determine if they are interested or not. All the GM description in the word, all the clues, all the signals - it doesn't matter. Treasure that interests the players is interesting.

You can't always predict what that will be. You can try - the "clue forward" approach I mentioned last time is at best a strong signal.

You can even go as far as writing out the description and printing it out, attaching a picture, and handing it to the players and say "This is important and interesting!" but it won't guarantee they are actually interested. They still might not care.

And that's fine. The goal is to make it possible for a treasure to be interesting for more than its sale value, but you can make it so anyone cares. If you do all the tricks I mentioned last time and they still write "comb, 1500" on their sheet, so be it. Let it go and move on, and try a different item or a different approach next time.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Interesting Non-Magical Treasure, Part II

Following up on yesterday's post, here are some ways I think you can make treasure interesting from a "does" perspective instead of an "is" perspective.

Some of these are more sketches than completed ideas - I'm as much thinking out loud as offering solutions. I struggle with this as much as anyone else - my players have more than once disposed of something I put some time into without a second thought.

The key is to find a way to fundamentally change the value of the treasure from its money to its description and use.

Make It Inherently Functional

One way to make a treasure useful is to make it something worth keeping. That's trivial with magic items, but you need to put some thought into it for non-magical loot. An interesting piece of gear can fulfill this sometimes. This is hard, because it usually means it must have some game-mechanical effect similar to magic to be worth keeping. Otherwise, it's just normal gear that is too valuable to risk but isn't any better than a magic item or a mechanically better piece of gear. Even "treated better socially for using this gear" ends up being mechanical or it's better used for money.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy does this with the Ornate (and to an extent, Silver) prefixes. A +1 Ornate Rapier isn't just worth $3000, but it's also a +1 to reaction rolls for carrying such an ornate sword. Get a sufficiently awesome weapon and shield and suit of armor and you'll be rocking some ridiculous reaction rolls.

Still, "well crafted" just means "more valuable on the market." It might (and probably will) still be sold, but it's got some usage potential.

Clue to More Treasure or More Adventure

This kind of treasure is interesting because it's clearly a way to get more treasure. For example, a hunk of silver is a hunk of silver, even if you pretty it up. It'll get reduced to value and sold. But a silver key? Hmm . . . what does it open? A comb, who cares - but a comb showing men killing those snake-headed dudes the party has trouble with using some special weapons . . . don't sell it, let's keep it around and find someone who knows where those weapons are.

I gave the PCs a brass key once - they put more time and effort into figuring out what it did than they did into caring about the provenance of coinage. I think my notes said something spare, but they interrogated me about the details of the key and I had to fill in the details from my mind's eye picture of the game. It did lead somewhere - it was a non-magical trigger to a magical door - and nearly to a TPK, but also to exceptional loot. Non-magical or not, it was a key and keys open doors. Doors conceal treasures. Offhand, it seems like keys, maps, things that are clearly pieces of puzzles - they add more value if kept and investigated than just disposed of.

One thing I've found useful is to be really obvious tying the clue treasure to what it connects to. A key with a web in the form of a special sigil that's on that unopenable door, a sword with the same logo as that tomb, gems that match the size and shape of the empty eye sockets of a statue, etc. - hey can all point to something bigger. At the least, they reward those who pay attention to something other than the money.

Collect Them All!

A partly-complete set of something might be interesting to players, too - especially if the final, complete set is a) more valuable than the sum of the parts and b) they feel they can actually track down the pieces. Pieces of a rare chess set possessed by a king or something, now its pieces scattered - maybe held one by one by individual monsters, or individual members of some secret magical conspiracy? Hell, they'll search every chessboard they come across and check each piece to see if it's a "special" in disguise. They'll capture random bandits and put their feet to the fire and ask them if they know where the Black King's Bishop's Pawn is.

Sets are even better if they also do stuff, or also lead to a new place.


Sometimes the thing about the treasure is the challenge of turning it into actual value. This is more "treasure as adventure complication" than "technique to convince the players to listen to your spiel." But still, it does make it interesting.

Weight is one way to do this - something valuable, but heavy enough that turning into cash becomes a logistical challenge.

D&D pre-bakes this in with 1.6 ounce coins - enough gold for a suit of mail can run you a few pounds of weight. So enough to really make a serious dent in the cost estimate for a castle can run into the tons. Of course, pack animals and hirelings aren't terribly expensive and cost a fraction of what hauling this away does, but at least it means the PCs need to invest in mules and not just belt pouches.

Still, this just privileges portable wealth like gems and jewelry, and also makes it more likely the players regard it as just money with skippable text because regardless of its "extra" value their real concern is the coinage (and possibly XP, in the right systems) represents.

Size can also make it a challenge. A big statue can be pretty heavy, even if it's only man sized (check here for weight-to-size thumbnails).

Nailing it down means the PCs have to spend some time prying it up. They may ultimately regard it only as money, but if will make them interested in the story of why it's so hard to get at. This includes any and all sorts of traps and guardians, especially if they seem to match the theme of the treasure.

Making the recovery a challenge is also a good teaser for intricate and useful detail on the treasure. Making my players gather coinage one funerary urn at a time (my Barrowmaze homage) certainly made them interesting in disposing of all of the coins but saving a few to investigate further. They didn't seem to think that the passage coins they found were totally unrelated to stone golems and undead ash guardians. It made them look harder at the treasure.


None of the the above are particularly hard to implement - just start sticking stuff like this out there. Don't worry too much about making non-coin treasure sound interesting if it's just going to be reduced to coins and not mean anything even if they do pay attention. If that comb I mentioned yesterday is merely just some nice color . . . odds are they won't care and be quickly bored when they find out it's not a clue.

One approach I haven't tried is a "clues forward" or "clues only" approach. Basically, only give extra description to treasure that has some kind of clue, cue, extra benefit, or whatever. In other words, only describe the special stuff, and always describe it, even if the players don't ask. Do that and you're tell them outright "This is a freaking clue to information, treasure, adventure, or awesomeness. Or it's 1500 in cash. You decide." They still might not care, but that's their decision.

In any case, I think those things make the treasure interesting from a player perspective. From my own point of view running Mirado, the challenges impress me the least and Clues impress me the most. But all of them will make me at least consider writing something down other than "comb, 1500."

I hope this helps, and I sure hope other GMs have some more ideas on how to make things interesting from the player's perspective.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Interesting Non-Magical Treasure, Part I

What you say:

"You find an exquisitely carved ivory hairbrush, sized for a small human woman or perhaps an elf. There are floral patterns in it, including several different kinds of flowers, each picked out in a different inlaid precious metal. It's not radiating magic, but it's worth 1500 silver, easily, by your estimate."

What the players hear:

"Blah Blah non-magical comb worth 1500 silver."

and all they write down is:

Comb 1500 silver

Why do they do that?

Because the kids today just don't appreciate what we all went through, mapping the levels, statting the monsters, writing up detailed treasure, only to have them bash a hole in the wall, kill the monsters, and take the stuff and write it down as "comb, $1500."

Thing is, while equipment and magical items tend to be useful, non-magical, non-gear treasure tends to be seen as money. And treasure that is ultimately just useful as money is fungible. The description matters about as much as telling people in a modern-day game the exact breakdown of 20s, 10s, 5s, and 1s they find and who was Secretary of the Treasury and thus has signed the bills. Unless that information is plot-useful ("it's a fake!" "it's a clue to the killer" etc.), it's just extraneous detail to the players.

You might be thinking "But if I describe all the treasures this way, they will have to decipher for themselves which are the special ones, or use Player Agency to decide which ones are!"

That's true. But they equally might just do what I do, and my players do - write down the value and use their player agency to decide if everything could be special, nothing is special, and it's easier to just sell the crap and buy a new sword and some rations with it and look for magical stuff. Enough of that and you start describing only the special stuff, and we're back to square one.

So you want to break out of that fungible nature of money and make some of it special - make it something the players have to or want to deal with differently. That means it has to has some kind of value aside from money to be interesting.

How to make it interesting?

Think "does," not "is."

Interesting treasure is interesting not because it is well-described or unique, but because it does interesting things from a player perspective.

It has to be interesting in the sense of utility or in the sense of being a clue to something else valuable - whether that is more money or information.

Or there can be something interesting about how the treasure is used, sold, or transported.

It might have some kind of challenge to toting it, lifting it, or disposing of it.

If it comes down to just something to turn into coinage and split, it'll get turned into coinage and split, in my experience. So next time (possibly tomorrow), I'll take a look at some of the ways I think you can do this and keep the players interested in your "interesting" treasure.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: GURPS Zombies

GURPS Zombies
by Sean Punch
160 pages
$19.95 (PDF)
$29.95 (Hardback)

I have to say this right out up front - I'm not a zombie fan. Oh sure, I like painting zombie minis for my fantasy game, and I'm fine with walking corpses as cannon fodder bad guys. But zombies movies? Eh. Zombie apocalypse? Not interested. I had a little fun playing AFMBE a couple times but it was only really entertaining as a one-shot. I liked Doom, and I love Army of Darkness. But I'm not a horror game fan. I'm not the target audience for a book on zombies.

But I do love well-crafted rules. And I am a long-time friend, frequent editee, and occasional co-author of Sean Punch. That biases me because I like his style and he green-lights my stuff, but again, zombies . . . eh.

So all that said, how is this book?

The book starts out with a chapter all about the history of zombies. It traces their development historically (actual beliefs), fictionally (beliefs in stories), and in combination (since they influence each other in a circle.) Movies, historical sources, games, comics, reality (zombie fungus!) - they all get their zombie due here. Again, I'm not a big zombie fan, so although this is well-written I'm not that excited by zombies.

The "Victims and Killers" chapter is all the chargen details. It covers the living characters in a zombie game - hapless victims or zombie hunting survivalists and everything in between. The advantage and disadvantage section deals with knotty problems like resistances and immunities (are the heroes immune? What if they aren't?) It also deals with extremely low-point Ally Groups in GURPS, handy for necromancers with a horde of negative-point walking corpses as allies.

The zombie section is excellent. First, you get all of the rules you need to build your own zombie templates from the ground up, with solid advice on how to do so. Each stat gets picked out for what giving ST+3 or HT+1 to a zombie means in practical terms. The real nice bit of this chapter is that once it gets on to example zombies, you get both a template and a "just the stats" worked example of a generic version of that zombie, ready for play. This makes it both easy to customize or to apply the template to an existing character or set of stats, and to just pick out zombies to deploy in hordes. And there are a lot of them - 26 fully statted zombie types ready to go.

The Zombies in Play chapter is outstanding, too. For me, this is the really valuable part of the book. It starts out with Biting 101, a section that covers in every detail how zombies biting in combat works - it's as if the whole combat system was pared down to just biting, so you never had to look anywhere else for the detail. A similar bit is later in the chapter - a table outlining the effects of injury on the (very common) Injury Tolerance (No Brain, No Vitals, Unliving) variety of zombies. Very handy.

It also includes rules for zombie hordes. The horde rules make applying resisted effects, disadvantage rolls, major wound/stunning effects, etc. to a large group of zombies a cinch. It's a nice extension of the existing rules and probability. It's nicely worked out and makes it easy to decide when to apply them and went to just say "it works" or "it fails." This would work really well for DF games featuring massive fodder swarms, too, and a rough version of the horde rules will be familiar to my PCs in my DF game. So I can vouch for them working in general, and the specifics in GURPS Zombies improve on the concept of "horde as one big monster" nicely.

The rules for cumulative damage are nice, too - for figuring out the time it takes for a horde to pound through barriers and for how much shoring up you need to do to keep your anti-zombie defenses up. As always for GURPS books, the rules work across the board - you could use these for anything, not just zombies, trying to work through defenses over time. There are also rules for driving through zombie hordes which are quite good, and you realize why buses and tractors and tanks are the way to go and why sportscars just turn into mush.

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to zombie campaigns. Like any other GURPS book, it aims for generic and universal - so you get a very broad but very helpful look at all sorts of zombie campaigns. If it occurs in zombie fiction, zombie games, or zombie movies, it's covered here. It's not just high level advice but also practical specifics for different campaign types.

Overall, the book is really good.

How about for non-GURPS players?

It's rules heavy in big chunks of it, but both the zombie background chapter (p. 5-25) and campaigns (p. 137-152) would be useful for zombie games in any system. And like I like to say, you have GURPS Lite for free as a Rosetta stone for GURPS.

Is there a Zombie Apocalypse Setting?

The book doesn't come with a setting, and I've gathered that is sometime some people found kind of bothersome. Personally, I'm glad - I find settings to be page-heavy and utility-light, since I never just run something as written anyway. But I do agree GURPS could use a Zombie Apocalypse setting. I hope sales of this one justify Sean Punch sitting down and banging one of those out - I'm curious to see what options he'd pick for a widely-appealing zombie nightmare would be. I still wouldn't run it, because, well, zombies . . . meh. GURPS Zombies - for me, a big book of useful monsters and excellent rules for dealing with hordes of splatter-infecting creatures.

For other reviews, please check out my reviews page.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Female Gamers in My Games

Reading Douglas Cole's interview with Stacy Dellorfano, it reminded me I wanted to write about my experience with female players.

Over the years, I've had a few female gamers. Not a lot, actually, compared to male gamers, but not zero either. Just from memory, we had B~ (older sister of two of my current gamers), MC (who honored game session attendance more in the breach), a girl whose name I can't remember now (girlfriend of one of my gamers - and a good player - but I haven't needed her name in 20 years, so I forgot), J~ (wife of one of my gamers) . . . and a number of others who played once.

I played with a few female players - my cousin (whose dad basically introduced me to gaming and Tolkein) for one. My older sister played in one of my games once, and like Greg's mom in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, she had some crazy ideas of how to play . . . killing monsters for their stuff wasn't part of it. I didn't take that well and she didn't play again. Too bad, really, because she was onto something.

I've played under a female GM once, I think - a GURPS Goblins playtest at a con. It was entertaining enough, and a female gamer I met there came as a one-shot drop-in in my regular game while she was temporarily living close by for work.

But the female gamers are vastly outnumbered by the male gamers I played with. To be expected when I was younger, for sure - 4th to 6th grade is all about girls having cooties, and you don't play with them - but the ratio has pretty well kept up. As we got older and people starting dating, or got targeted for dates by girls, we started to have female players who weren't relatives.

My games depend heavily on personal recruitment. They always have - it's always been "bring your friends" not "advertise the game on a flyer." Naturally we ended up with a few girlfriends or would-be girlfriends - who played briefly and then stopped when the relationship ended. We had non-girlfriends join, too, but our most consistent one was infrequent at best - gaming was something she did when nothing else better was going on. We also ended up with one fiance-then-wife who played with us for 10 or 11 years. She was fun to have in the game - she stood a lot of the "women gamer" advice I'd gotten from women gamers on its head . . . she wanted to stab stuff, kick ass, and buy cool stuff for her character with the loot. She only stopped playing with us when the campaign ended. - and it's impractical for both her and her husband to play the same time these days. She was the most recent female gamer we had.

So as it stands right now we're an all-male group.

Now, I don't go out of my way to attract or involve female gamers. To be fair, I don't go out of my way to attract or involve male gamers, either. My game isn't female-unfriendly as much as it's stranger-unfriendly, and most of the women I know closely enough aren't interested in gaming. Yes, I've asked the ones I thought we'd want to play with. I do occasionally invite people I know closely to come game with us. The last two I asked were co-workers who found out I gamed - one man and one woman. The man lives too far away, and the woman hasn't yet taken me up on the offer. If she does she's got a Knight waiting for her - these days I keep pregens around just in case, so we don't spend play time making up PCs. But again, it was a "come try the game and see if you like it and if you mesh with the current group" invitation, and gender wasn't an issue.

It's really more of a question of, do I think you'll fit into the group? Do I think you'll like playing an imagination game with little miniature figures and whacking orcs in the head for cash? If so, gender doesn't matter, you're a potential recruit. But I don't make much of an effort to diversify the group, either. It's "gaming with my friends" at its core, and so my gamers are a subset of my group of friends . . . and these days it's an all-male subset. That may change if my co-worker ever does decide to show up at a session and give us a much-needed extra front-line fighter. Heh.
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