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D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Patrick Wetmore on keying megadungeon rooms

I love megadungeons. I’ve often thought it’d be fun to design one, but balked because I’m not sure I have the chops and because of the sheer size of the undertaking. The solution to the first part of that problem is to just try it, but what about the second, the fact that it’s a big project?

Cue Patrick Wetmore, who designed one of my all-time favorite megadungeons, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, on keying the first level of ASE:

So I’ve got 100 rooms to key for the dungeon. Following the distribution in the back of the Moldvay Basic rules, that breaks out as follows:

1/6 monster w/ treasure = 16-17 rooms
1/6 monster, no treasure = 16-17 rooms
1/18 trap with treasure = 5-6 rooms
1/9 trap, no treasure = 11 rooms
1/6 special = 16-17 rooms
1/18 unguarded treasure = 5-6 rooms
5/18 empty = 28 rooms

That’s 17 traps, and 17 specials. That’s where all the real work lies. Sticking a bunch of monsters in a room is easy, it’s the creative bits with traps and specials that’s hard.

And bam, just like that I realized I could design a megadungeon. I read that post yesterday, and I started designing one last night.

It’s that last part, about focusing on just a third of the rooms — the special, weird rooms — that clicked for me. Seeing the whole chart from the B/X Expert Set (my favorite version of D&D) broken out into rooms in need of keying helped, too. It’s a classic “eating the whole elephant” situation, and I’d never thought of it that way.

Categories
D&D Tabletop RPGs

Rythlondar and gaming group size in the early days of D&D

I was poking around on the Basic Fantasy forums when I came across a post by merias about how folks played OD&D, with a link to the Rythlondar Chronicles (originally uncovered and shared on Risus Monkey).

I’m always interested in hearing about how gamers were playing RPGs before I got my start (in 1987), and one topic that’s always fascinated me is player count. From what I’ve read, it was common for D&D sessions in the 1970s to have what would generally be considered a large number of players these days.

That’s neatly illustrated by the Rythlondar Chronicle, which documents the house rules, players, guidelines, and expeditions undertaken as part of a D&D campaign in Michigan in 1976. It started out with two GMs, John Van De Graaf and Len Scensny, who shared their campaign notes — the Chronicle — with Risus Monkey.

What merias pointed out is on page 9, EXPEDITION RECORDS.

That page (which is much easier to read in the PDF!) lists 12 expeditions, along with the player count and the PC death toll for each session. (I’ve included the fatality percentage in parentheses.)

  1. 12 players, 5 PC deaths (42%)
  2. 12 players, 3 PC deaths (25%)
  3. 10 players, 2 PC deaths (20%)
  4. 14 players, 6 PC deaths (43%)
  5. 7 players, 2 PC deaths (29%)
  6. 7 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)
  7. 12 players, 1 PC deaths (8%)
  8. 7 players, 1 PC deaths (14%)
  9. 15 players, 3 PC deaths (20%)
  10. 14 players, 5 PC deaths (36%)
  11. 8 players, 3 PC deaths (38%)
  12. 14 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)

Just look at those numbers: In Rythlondar, seven players was a slow night. The average player count was 11. (Those death counts are something, too — an average of 2.58 dead PCs per session, or 23%. On any given night, there was only about a 17% chance that no PCs would croak.)

I recognize that play style and game system make a big difference in the feasibility of gaming with a big group. OD&D seems like an excellent fit for this; I can see why it would work with a lot of players. Practices like having a caller make a lot of sense in a large-group context, too.

I start getting twitchy at five players, and six feels unwieldy to me. I can’t imagine running a game for 11 players, let alone 15. But you know what? I’d like to give it a shot.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Labyrinth Lord Old school Tabletop RPGs

B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord dungeon stocking

Wayne Rossi wrote an excellent post, Clones and Rules, Inside and Out, about the apparently subtle differences between some retroclones and their sources which, in fact, produce non-subtle differences in play. Here’s an excerpt, from his comparison of OD&D dungeon stocking to Swords & Wizardry dungeon stocking:

An OD&D dungeon designed according to its guidelines is going to have “unguarded” treasure. According to the book it should be hidden and/or trapped. But a S&W dungeon isn’t going to have that, if the referee follows the guidelines in the S&W rule books. Over time the game is going to play differently, since the OD&D group is going to be looking for hidden treasure while the S&W group would be justified in looking for combat.

Wayne is one sharp dude, and he has a knack for noticing stuff, prying it apart, and being able to succinctly share what makes it tick. (His OD&D Setting PDF, which I blogged about here on Yore, is a marvelous example of this — and a great read.)

His comparison of S&W to OD&D got me thinking about my favorite flavor of D&D, Moldvay/Cook (B/X), and its closest OSR analog, Labyrinth Lord. I wondered whether or not they differed in the area of dungeon stocking, and I realized I wasn’t sure — I’d just assumed they were pretty much identical.

But what if they weren’t? What if B/X and LL diverged in the same way as OD&D and S&W, or in a different subtle-but-significant way? Let’s take a peek.

Dungeon stocking

Both B/X and LL sum up dungeon stocking in one chart (plus a bit of explanatory text nearby), making them easy to compare. Here’s page X53’s chart from the Expert Set above page 124’s chart from LL.

They both use the same four categories: monster, trap, special (which LL calls “unique”), and empty. They also both employ two die rolls: d6 followed by d6 in B/X, and d% followed by d% in LL. LL’s chart is a bit cleaner, both because it uses percentages (which I find more intuitive to assess than fractions) and because of its layout.

Room contents

Broadly speaking, the percentages for room contents are about the same — except in one case:

  • Monster: 33.33% chance in B/X, 30% chance in LL
  • Trap: 16.67% in B/X, 15% in LL
  • Special/Unique: 16.67% in B/X, 25% in LL
  • Empty: 33.33% in B/X, 30% in LL

The chance of a room being empty or having a monster in it are close enough to identical to call them the same — about 30%. Ditto the chance of a trap, about 15%.

What’s different is the chance of a special/unique room, 1 in 6 for B/X vs. 1 in 4 for LL. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s a difference.

What about the chance of treasure?

Treasure

Here are the percentages for the chance of treasure being present in each system:

  • Monster: 50% chance in B/X, 50% chance in LL
  • Trap: 33.33% in B/X, 30% in LL
  • Special/Unique: Undefined in B/X, “Variable” in LL — essentially the same thing
  • Empty: 16.67% in B/X, 15% in LL

For all practical purposes, those percentages are identical.

Conclusions

B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord are essentially the same game with respect to dungeon stocking, the chance for a given room to be empty or otherwise, and the chance for there to be treasure in the room.

The only meaningful difference is that you’re somewhat more likely to encounter a special/unique room in LL than you are in B/X (and, consequently, slightly less likely to have the other possible contents come up).

To me, this is evidence of a shared design goal: Give the players a meaningful choice when it comes to seeking out treasure. Which makes sense, because both systems share the same XP methodology: 1 XP for 1 GP, plus XP for monsters, with the bulk of your XP coming from gold.

Dungeon rooms with monsters in them are more likely to have treasure than any other types of room, but you have to deal with the monster (which is itself worth XP). Empty rooms have the lowest chance of yielding treasure, which makes searching them — and expending resources in the form of time, torches, and wandering monster checks — risky in and of itself, but if you’re lucky you find unguarded treasure.

LL incentivizes the same style of play as B/X, which is a testament to its clarity of purpose as a B/X retroclone.

I also like that the one real difference, special rooms, would give an LL-designed dungeon its own flavor when compared to a B/X-designed dungeon. The party would run into a couple more special rooms, and special rooms are neat. There’s a philosophical difference there, albeit a subtle one.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Dice Tabletop RPGs

How to reduce the value of a Moldvay Basic set by 50% in 7 easy steps

Step 1

Remove box from shelf.

Step 2

Open box.

Step 3

Remove sealed bag of dice from box.

Step 4

Cut open dice bag.

Step 5

Remove dice.

Step 6

Clean dice with soap and water to remove crayon residue.

Step 7

Ink dice with Sharpie.

Bonus step (optional)

Realize your white paint marker hasn’t come in the mail, and save the dark red d12 to ink later because you know black isn’t going to show up well.

Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

OD&D’s implied setting

Via a private share on G+, I followed a link to OD&D Setting, a free PDF by Wayne Rossi of the excellent Semper Initiativus Unum blog. It’s excellent.

In 11 pages of logical observations, it pulls apart the components of OD&D‘s implied setting — the encounter tables, the Wilderness Survival map, etc. — and uses them to infer what that setting would actually look like. Wayne’s conclusion is a handy summary:

So this is the setting of original D&D: a frontier land, perhaps with a single state in its center, with wilderness populated by creatures of myth, legend and giant creature films. It is a world of Arthurian castles, knights templar, necromancers, dinosaurs and cavemen. It is wild, and it feels profoundly like the world someone who watched every cheesy science fiction movie about giant monsters and every classic horror film would make. This is bolted onto a world with openly Tolkienesque elements – elves, goblins, orcs, balrogs, ents, hobbits – and other entries that quickly became generic fantasy because they were in the D&D books. The result is far more gonzo and funhouse than people give D&D credit for, and I think it winds up being a good mix.

Here’s one of my favorite inferences, which was confirmed by Gary Gygax (as Wayne notes in the PDF):

But the real weirdness, and this was apparently confirmed in Gary Gygax’s campaigns, is what is there when you start wandering about the wilderness. Mountains are haunted by cavemen and necromancers; deserts are home of nomads and dervishes. The “Optional” animal listings turns swampland into the Mesozoic Era – rather than alligators and snakes it is full of tyrannosaurs and triceratops. Arid plains are Barsoomian, with banths, thoats, calots and the lot, while mountains are outright paleolithic, peopled by mammoths, titanotheres, mastodons, and sabre-tooth cats.

I love this kind of D&D. It’s rawlished, it’s wild, it’s weird, and — most importantly — it sounds like an absolute hoot to play. It also makes me sad that my OD&D boxed set and copy of Outdoor Survival are buried in our storage unit, more or less impossible to retrieve.

Even if you don’t play OD&D, or want to play in its implied setting, Wayne’s PDF is a fantastic read.

Categories
Books Reading Appendix N

Reading Appendix N: The project, the appendix, and the goal

Back in July, I started a project with a simple goal:

Read every book listed by Gary Gygax in Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I started reading Appendix N books because I wanted to gain insight into the roots of the hobby, and of D&D in particular, and kept reading them because this is an awesome list of books. I respect Gary Gygax and his work a great deal, and it’s neat to discover how much our taste in books and some of our childhood experiences overlap. I love that Appendix N includes authors I’d never heard of, and books I’d never have considered on my own, in addition to well-known works and things I’d read before discovering it.

Having a simple, clearly defined goal in mind has already helped me stay on track when I could easily have been distracted by the oodles of other shiny books in my teetering, ever-growing to-read stack. That’s part of why I’m embarking on this project as a project, and blogging about it, rather than just reading these books without a goal and guidelines (which, of course, would also be a fine way to approach Appendix N!).

Delving into Appendix N has been a fun and rewarding experience so far, and it occurred to me that other gamers, readers, and fans of fantasy and sci-fi might also be new to Appendix N and want to take a stab at reading some or all of its referenced works. “Reading Appendix N” is my ongoing series of blog posts about doing just that, of which this is the first.

What’s Appendix N?

At the end of the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary Gygax included a host of appendices — A through P. All of them provide extra stuff for the game, things like wandering monster tables, dungeon dressing, and the like, except one: Appendix N.

That one, as I’ve discovered over the past few weeks, is a treasure trove of incredible books. Appendix N is only half a page long, but it’s jam-packed with goodness. Here it is in its entirety:

APPENDIX N: INSPIRATIONAL AND EDUCATIONAL READING

Inspiration for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerors and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Long. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950. The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. In some cases I cite specific works, in others, I simply recommend all their fantasy writing to you. From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!

Inspirational Reading:

Anderson, Poul. THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS; THE HIGH
    CRUSADE; THE BROKEN SWORD
Bellairs, John. THE FACE IN THE FROST
Brackett, Leigh.
Brown, Fredric.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. “Pellucidar” Series; Mars Series; Venus Series
Carter, Lin. “World’s End” Series
de Camp, L. Sprague. LEST DARKNESS FALL; FALLIBLE FIEND; et al.
de Camp & Pratt. “Harold Shea” Series; CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August.
Dunsany, Lord.
Farmer, P. J. “The World of Tiers” Series; et al.
Fox, Gardner. “Kothar” Series; “Kyrik” Series; et al.
Howard, R. E. “Conan” Series
Lanier, Sterling. HIERO’S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz. “Fafhrd & Gray Mouser” Series; et al.
Lovecraft, H. P.
Merritt, A. CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE
    MIRAGE; et al.
Moorcock, Michael. STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; “Hawkmoon”
    Series (esp. the first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J., editor SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III.
Pratt, Fletcher, BLUE STAR; et al.
Saberhagen, Fred. CHANGELING EARTH; et al.
St. Clair, Margaret. THE SHADOW PEOPLE; SIGN OF THE LABRYS
Tolkien, J. R. R. THE HOBBIT; “Ring Trilogy”
Vance, Jack. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al.
Weinbaum, Stanley.
Wellman, Manly Wade.
Williamson, Jack.
Zelazny, Roger. JACK OF SHADOWS; “Amber” Series; et al.

The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.”

The project

Appendix N lists 28 authors, 22 specific titles, and 12 specific book series. With regard to the authors, Gary recommends “all their fantasy writing,” and he includes “et al” for some authors — which I take to mean Just go read all of their books, they’re excellent.

Once I had bought and read my first book from Appendix N explicitly as part of this project — Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld — I realized I needed some guidelines to keep me focused and on track. Here’s how I’m approaching this project:

  1. Read every book cited by name
  2. Read every book in every series cited by name
  3. Where no titles/series are cited, read at least one book by that author
  4. If the first book in a series, or by an author, is godawful, consider skipping the rest — but it has to be really bad

I haven’t broken out every series by title to see how many books this actually is, but my guess is around a hundred. But where to start?

Tier one of Appendix N

Because my initial goal was to learn more about the origins of D&D, I came up with a “Tier One” reading list based on Gary’s closing paragraph: the works he cites as having “helped to shape the form of the game.”

Here’s Tier One:

  • de Camp & Pratt. “Harold Shea” Series; CARNELIAN CUBE
  • Howard, R. E. “Conan” Series
  • Leiber, Fritz. “Fafhrd & Gray Mouser” Series; et al
  • Lovecraft, H. P.
  • Merritt, A. CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE
        MIRAGE; et al
  • Vance, Jack. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al

This has proven to be a great starting point for me. I’ve already read everything H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote, and all of the Conan yarns. I read The Eyes of the Overworld, Dying Earth, and the first Lankhmar novel, Swords Against Death, before writing this post, and I’ve already bought a couple of the other books in Tier One.

If you want to give this project a shot yourself but are intimidated by the number of books in Tier One, you could always truncate the list a bit further: Just read one book by each of the Tier One authors. I can vouch for the awesomeness of Howard, Lieber, Lovecraft, and Vance, and skimming suggests that de Camp & Pratt and Merritt will also be enjoyable — so as short lists go, this seems like a good one.

The little banner

Given the number of books listed in Appendix N and how little free time I have for reading these days, this project could take a while. It seemed like a good idea to create a graphic for this series to make it stand out from other posts here. Behold my amazing graphic design skills!

I chose the books that appear in the logo based on their significance to me. Left to right, top row first, they are The Dunwich Horror and Others (H.P. Lovecraft), The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Robert E. Howard), The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien), The Three of Swords (Fritz Lieber), The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien), the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (Gary Gygax), Nine Princes in Amber (Roger Zelazny), and Dwellers in the Mirage (A. Merritt).

I started reading Appendix N before I knew there was an Appendix N, and long before I became a gamer and bought a copy of the 1e DMG, by reading The Hobbit in second grade. I was introduced to Lovecraft in high school, and he quickly became one of my favorite authors. I got into Zelazny’s Amber series around the same time, and loved his work as well. I tried and failed to read The Lord of the Rings several times as a kid, and eventually succeeded in my 20s; its volumes are now among my all-time favorite books.

In January 2012, Troy Taylor blogged about running red box D&D for his kids on Gnome Stew, sparking my interest in delving into the roots of gaming as a hobby. That led me to Appendix N, and in turn to Conan. I’d never read any Conan tales, and they were excellent — as well as totally not what I had expected. By the time I read the last Conan story, I had decided to read all of Appendix N.

When I finally carved out time to write this post, I was midway through the second Lankhmar book, Swords Against Death, which is part of the omnibus edition in the banner. A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage was acquired when I narrowed my initial reading list to Appendix N’s Tier One, but I haven’t read it yet — a nod to the long road ahead.

What’s next?

For me, what’s next is a whole lot more reading. In terms of this blog series, what’s next will likely be a couple of posts about the Appendix N titles I’ve already read. Going forward, I suspect I’ll post every time I start on a new author’s work, or whenever I have something Appendix N-y I think is worth sharing.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading this post! I wanted to cover all of the foundational stuff up front, and put the basics in one post I can link back to later, which is why it’s so long.

Happy gaming — and happy reading!