Sunday, 17 March 2019

Clerical Errors

I don’t hate clerics, I just think they’re limited as an archetype. Fighter, Magic User and Thief are much broader in their application, Rogue even more so (to use the new parlance,) but the existence of the D&D cleric in your setting implies quite a lot about it that the other classes do not. So, in the right setting the cleric is great. However; if we accept that I like to run games that generally follow either a low fantasy or sword & sorcery theme then clerics, with their magic powers direct from the gods, do not appear thematically appropriate.
Aleea, refusing to accept she is not thematically appropriate 

However the clerics access to healing magic and the ability to turn undead is baked into the game. A low level D&D party’s chances of survival are greatly increased by the presence of the cleric to hold off the dreaded level draining wights and produce cure light wounds spells, especially as those “light wounds” are often near fatal. Even if we examine TSR’s ultimate our D&D is different world, Dark Sun, they’re still plugging away with the cleric even though “there are no True Gods of Athas” is one of the stated tenets of the setting. I could digress about how Dark Sun is the biggest false alarm in gaming but staying on the cleric they are now the worshippers of elemental beings (these are not GODS though, no freaking way) who provide them with spells and the power to turn the undead.

The slightly maligned AD&D 2edition rules allowed for a fair bit of variance in the class with the Priests of Specific Mythos. This could end up being a lot of work though as you tailored the class to fit each God from your setting but also doesn’t solve the problem if your approach is one where direct godly involvement in the PCs’ lives is limited.
Basically, my sister’s first D&D character 

And so what do I do with this big chunk of the rules, if the religious nature of the class does not fit my gaming aesthetic? Be less pretentious is certainly a valid answer. 

However if you are aware of Crypts and Things, Newt Newport has a tasty little answer for sword & sorcery games. In those rules, based on Swords & Wizardry with tweaks from Akratic Wizardry, the cleric and magic user are combined into a Magician class. The Magician has access to spells from a combined magic user and cleric list divided into white, grey and black magic. White magic contains your healing spells and so forth, grey has illusion and similar, Black is destructive or morally dubious. This is nice and I really like it. In fact I really Crypts and Things in its entirety and I recommend you check it out if you have not done so.

My solution to clerical issues in my Grim North setting was to reskin them. I didn’t want any sort of organised spellcasters existing outside of small cults and cabals. A powerful series of Churches with magic at their disposal didn’t suit the ideas I had for religion. I declared clerics were now “mystics.” Their powers were virtually the same but were psychic in origin rather than bestowed by the gods. We were playing S&W White Box and the only real mechanical difference I made was to remove the ability to turn undead and instead advance the spell progression so that they had a spell at 1st level. I also reskinned the spell names so they seemed more like psychic powers than clerical spells. I mean I’m not sure what the overall effect on the game this tinkering had but it certainly made me feel better about the whole thing. 

Also Paul C, better known these days as The Wizard of Macke Town, wrote this up into a tidy little pdf for Mystic players to refer to, available here.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

On The Isle of Dread

The Isle of Dread is my favourite old D&D module. This isn’t a review, it’s a self indulgent nostalgia post. My copy of the Isle of Dread arrived one Christmas along with the D&D Expert set. You see I was getting quite good at D&D by this point and Basic no longer applied. I was definitely more of an expert. If you weere a child of Mentzer Basic like me then there was no module included in your Red Box, just an intro adventure in the DM’s book. However once I had the Expert Set I owned an honest to god real module, and it was good too.

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure... and dinosaurs

If you’re not familiar with the Ise of Dread it’s a hex crawl set on what amounts to Skull Island from the King Kong films complete with pirates, lost civilisations and dinosaurs. This type of pulpy, sword and sorcery adventure is exactly what I want from my D&D games. The only thing really missing from this is a gargantuan ape of some kind.

I ran this in 2017 in the bar at Dragonmeet for about six hours. I could’ve gone way longer but people had trains to catch. I did tease the presence of a huge albino ape but the PCs never actually met one. Instead they befriended the cat people, fought with the spider possessed locals (in a slight change from the original text I made the Aranea fist sized, mind controlling spiders that rode their human slaves as mounts), were on the receiving end of a triceratops rampage and loads more.

What this module delivers is encounter tables and adventure locations. Some are simple lairs but there’s a proper dungeon on Taboo Island too. Exploring the Isle is enough fun on its own but it’s possible to add whatever you like to this framework, develop the various factions, go pulp adventure crazy. I mean the cover to my copy (the orange one) has a Viking, a mongol warrior and a wizard fighting a T-Rex. That’s some good D&D right there. Throw a few five room dungeons in there and you’ve got the makings of a short campaign.

This is, for me, where D&D games shine. Play styles are exactly that and you can do anything with almost any game and it still be a good time. Pulp sword and sorcery is retro D&D all day for me though.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Expressing the Setting Through Play

I have this tendency to approach RPGs in a top down fashion. I generally decide on an aesthetic for a setting and then make lists of elements to include that match that setting, consider religion, cultures, ancient history, that sort of thing. Now I’m not talking about developing any of this things to any particular extent. I do not have for example reams of notes on any of this material but probably about enough to fit on the average blog post or sheet of A4 paper.

Then generally what happens is I will run games in this setting that do not really relate to any of the material I originally planned. For example if the woods are full of ruins from an ancient civilisation now overrun with beastmen of sorcerous origin and the players spend six sessions in the woods and over fifty in the city then they aren’t going to get the experience you had originally planned (and so I hang my head in a modicum of shame.)

Being beastman positive can only help the setting

I wholeheartedly accept that this is often a function of prep meets play, or no plan survives contact with the enemy... I mean players. However, for example if in my Grim North game there are ancient cultures that are the source of nearly all modern magical learning and I have magic user player characters that do not even know the names of these cultures then I have probably failed them in some way as a GM. Not to any great extent but nonetheless I at least should be doing better. After all, I don’t really expect that the players will be as interested in the nature of the GM’s carefully crafted basis for a game as they are in its gleeful destruction (I jest of course, I do not actually view the players in my games as the enemy, or as anarchic toddlers who only wish to destroy what I have painstakingly built.) However setting information can enrich play for those who are interested. If you want your players to be self motivated sand box protagonists, and this is to be encouraged (Dragonlance be damned,) then they need a flow of information on which to act.

Just say No: Metaplot and railroad ahoy.

That flow coming from rumours is good but the discovery of previously unknown setting elements provides hooks that tie the PCs closer to the game and allow them to interact better with what is out there. They need to know what’s on the table. Information dump is a poor way to communicate this. Show, don’t tell as the old RPG axiom dictates.

Therefore I should perhaps express my setting through the adventures that the players discover right from the off. Instead of the meta lists of setting elements to incorporate at a later date, these should immediately be turned into things the PCs can encounter. For example I like the idea of dinosaur men in the wilderness so I should write a big dinosaur men encounter. Maybe stick it in a prominent place on the encounter tables. Or have them be the antagonists in a dungeon or mystery or whatever adventure I’m planning for the next session. I should be getting my setting aesthetic front and centre through the challenges the PCs face. I mean I don’t want to beat them over the head with it but to hark back to my previous example, if they want to learn resurrection magic and they don’t know that the majority of necromantic wizardry originates with the ancient death magicians of accursed Xidia then they’re off to a bad start. However if they’ve bashed up a dungeon of Xidian origin and encounter all sorts of necromantic shenanigans then at least they know where to begin.

This way hopefully I’m better translating the feel I had for the setting to the players through their actual adventuring experiences than by just lecturing them about it in some GM soliloquy that sounds boring to me even before I’ve delivered it. Never mind having to sit through it as a player.

I guess the TL:DR version for me is, setting wise: top down creation, bottom up expression.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part four

The continuation of my Dragon Warriors inspirational media posts. I recommend starting at the beginning.

Black Death

This film, brought to my attention by Dave Morris blog, is referred to only partly tongue in cheek as the Dragon Warriors movie. It has a suitably dark and downbeat feel to it. Pagans in the fens, the ruthless and powerful church, the plague, masses of associated suspicion and superstition, dirt, grim battles and the walking spoiler Sean Bean stars so no one is expecting a happy ending here.

Some additional media of note:

Fictoplasm is generally a good listen regardless but the two episodes below relate directly to this blog series:

Lyonesse (Click here) with Dave Morris and Tim Harford

The Chronicles of Prydain (Click here) with Tim Harford

The Grognard Files, another recommended podcast, this time discussing..

Robin of Sherwood (Click this bit), with a promised part two to follow.

And of course saving the most relevant for the Dragon Warriors curious until last: Dave Morris’ blog posts with the label “Legend” (and click) Find here discussions of the nature of magic and of faeries, some play reports from his games, Legend scenarios and loads more great stuff.

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part three

Three more media offerings for that authentic Legend feel.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Excellent tale of ordinary folk amongst the plague. No fixation upon the armed gentry here. Eerie and character driven. Negative points for clumsy use of anagrams though.

No knights in shining armour here

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Saxons and Danes for your Elleslandic games. The TV series as useful as the books if you can get over the shapes of the Saxon shields. The beliefs of the characters are what makes this important to me. Belief in a curse or the words of an oracle or sorcerer seems to change reality or the perception of it. The importance of the church is prominent here too. Plus there’s decent battles and drama and so forth.
Getting your shield wall on


John Boorman’s very atmospheric film about the eponymous blade. We get a spot on depiction of the costs of sorcery here. Merlin pays a heavy price for the magics he employs in the service of the family Pendragon.

Being a knight, not all it’s cracked up to be.

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part two

Continuing my discussion of useful media as it relates to Dragon Warriors RPG, part one located... well, these posts are sequential so, it’s the one before this..

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s short stories set in the same world as her more successful novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel. These really capture the whimsically dangerous nature of faeries. Also it’s the protagonists’ understanding of the rules of these interactions that allows them victories as opposed to any superior force of arms or similar.

The illustrations aren’t half bad either

The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Essential non fiction. What we get here is a book about the day to day life of medieval folk from a qualified historical perspective. It’s emminently readable with none of the dryness associated with scholastic history books.

Also check out the reviews. People love this book.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Interesting take on the Arthurian myth. The depiction of Merlin is particularly good. No one can be sure if his magic is real or not. Or is it that his trickery, wisdom and secret knowledge are a kind of magic in themselves?

More helmets should have cool intrinsic war masks

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part one

At the back of the original Dungeon Masters Guide amongst the tables for random harlot encounters and suchlike was the much discussed Appendix N. This being the literary antecendents of the Dungeons & Dragons game. For the modern reader/consumer of multi media I have tried to compile a short list of useful media for the running of Dragon Warriors type games based in Legend or a reasonable facsimile there of. These are less influences on the game as it was created but more influential in how a modern GM might run Legend, as I see it at least. We’re generally talking theme and atmosphere here, these are the things that inspire in me in the mood appropriate for DW. This is in four parts because of image size and tiny editing windows on blogger..

Robin of Sherwood

The classic British TV series. This is the definitive Robin Hood for me. It still holds up well to these eyes. There is magic here but it’s low key, perhaps due to special effects limitations. However it is all the more creepy because of it. The whole thing drips atmosphere. Excellent.

Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Cracking stuff based in Welsh myth. Fantastic but not overly so. These are children’s books, so not as grim as we might like for a Legend game. However the Cauldron Born and the Huntsmen of Annuvin are perfect. Like a Mabinogion in easily digestible form.

Straight outta Jewelspider 

Lyonesse by Jack Vance

Particularly his handling of fairies. Depicted as capricious and callous, albeit a bit rapey in places and thoroughly whimsical throughout. The adventures of Dhrun and Madouc are all about what we want here. The nature of wizards is very interesting too.

A classic