An Experiment in Adventure Design

Awhile back, I made the bold and audacious claim that the sort of fiction you read in the pulps are the sort of thing that you can easily translate into one off adventures with a couple of stat blocs.

Tomorrow night, I will be running Raiders of the Second Moon by Basil Wells as a one-off adventure using a stripped down version of D&D.

In this post, I’m doing some “Show your work”. I had a couple of stat blocs I threw out in my original post, but I wanted to do a little bit more with the idea, so I’ve cooked up a few things.

Major change is that instead of a lone American astronaut pursuing the Nazi mad scientist, it will be a squadron of soldiers who crash land in the Jungles of Sekk.

I’ve rolled up several pre-gens, given them a full fighter’s Hit Die +/- con mods, and written down range and melee bonuses. I’ve also unified saving throws to Reflex, Endurance, and Psych. Everyone will have AC 12 (7) to represent basic gear, though I’ve thrown in a couple pieces of medium body army that will give a slight bonus. I’m actually going to be using the Charisma stat in this – it will represent the soldier’s rank and spot in the chain of command. Captain of the expedition will be the Caller and can also veto particularly bad choices his soldiers suggest. If he dies, a lieutenant will take over and become the new Caller.

I’ve set up a hex-crawl of about 30 hexes (using sticky notes; most of them are just jungle, but I have one for the crash site, the ape-man village, the skull temple, etc.).

Here’s the fun part. I wanted to give the part a small supply of world war 2 weaponry plus a Banning ray (the large semi-portable stun weapons from Brackett that could be used as defensive anti-infantry weaponry) that will dwindle away as they spend up ammo and may eventually have to rely on bows and spears.

So, I statted up some gear that the Captain will be able to dole out to players.

Colt M1911 3 7 round clips. May shoot twice to add +2 to attack roll. 1d6. A couple of players will have extra magazines, but most who have these pistols will only have one magazine. Players can’t reload a partially spent clip or a magazine in the middle of melee, but they can quickly switch out a spent magazine for a full one and reload a spent magazine with clip. If they have few minutes, they can thumb-jam in some bullets into a partially spent magazine, but none of that vidya game reloading after every shot.

Smith & Wesson Revolver 20 bullets (6 chambers)/ can reload 2 bullets per round. 1d6+1.  The advantage and disadvantage of the revolver is its reload speed.  You can pop in a couple bullets and fire them off without having to deal with the magazine, but it’ll take you a couple seconds to fully reload.

Browning Auto Rifle 200 rounds (10 20 round magazines). (may attack multiple targets, -2 per target). 2d4+1 Each attack uses up a full magazine.

Thompson Gun (3 50-round drum magazines) – fires at a 45 degree arc, hitting all targets in area. Save for half damage. (3d4+1 secret) Each attack uses up a full magazine. Basically, this will be treated like a breath weapon. They won’t know how effective they were until they see the bodies; and there will be bodies!

M1917 scoped Enfield (1 6 round magazine) – Sniping: spend one round aiming or during a surprise round. Moving Target, roll under dexterity at disadvantage, stationary target, roll under dex. Instant kill. 1d8 normal.

Grenades – 2d6 blast save for half damage.

Bottles of whiskey – Restore a character’s HP to full

Packs of government issued Lucky Strikes – Restore an Earthman’s HP to full/ +1 dex in next encounter. Ape-men will not smoke the human’s fire sticks!

Emergency medkits – Restore a character’s HP to full/Recover character with no less than -2HP

Once they burn through their bullets, they’ll still have some trench knives, but the idea is that they’ll run out of ammo after a few big encounters with monsters and cultists and it will be a near run thing when the Nazi mad scientist shows up; hopefully they will have secured the friendship of the Ape-men who can help them.

All I have left to do is give the story one last refresher read and stat up a Spotted Narl!

How to build a Bard in D&D

You really don’t need a Bard class in D&D, but some folks really like the flavor it adds to their game and setting.

Even without a class, it’s actually easy to build a playable bard in Basic.

Start with a Magic User class. Thieves don’t really get spells or magic items (high level play doesn’t count; you’re not going to play through over half a dozen levels of not being able to cast spells if you’re wanting to play a magic class).

But bards are rogues! What about the stealing stuff?

Play as a Magic User who steals stuff. Stealing is an RP choice, not a mechanic.

If you have a decent to high Dex character with moderate intelligence, go Magic User instead of Thief.

 

  • Magic Users can’t use bows, but they CAN use daggers. So, what you do is get a LOT of daggers. Throw some knives, take that Dex bonus on your attacks! If you’re using Holmes or a variant that uses weapon speed, you’ll even get an extra attack, meaning you’re able to dish out some damage as a ranged support character.
  • If you’re using Holmes’ magic system, treat your spellbook like a song-book. Your scrolls are your fake book – it’s not the full spell/song, but because you know it, you can use it to brush up.
  • If you’re using B/X’s magic system, spell imbuement is a flat cost. Costs the same to make a scroll as it does a single charge magic item. So, what you can do is imbue your instrument with charges. Just simply pour all of your ill-gotten wealth (you ARE stealing, aren’t you?!) into putting Sleep, Magic Missile, Whatever into your instrument.

 

You’re not going to get backstabs, and your hit dice and To Hit numbers are going to be crap, because you’re a Magic User, but this is about playing a Bard in a system where there’s no Bard class. (Perfect if you’re playing with a DM who hates Bards – you can be all “Aha! I fooled you! You said there was no Bard class, but I’m playing a Bard anyway!”)

If you want more flexibility in your weapons and armor, you can play as an Elf doing the above. Just enjoy never leveling up ever.

Big Monster Fight

Well, we may have found the solution to the balance issue we’ve begun to encounter in Gutters, Guilds, & Grimoires: bigger monsters.

Most of what we’ve fought has been fairly close to man-sized. Even the bigger things have been between bear and small elephant sized.

Last session, we fought something three stories tall.

Well, okay, some of us fought it, while many of us ran like hell.

We were completing a quest in someplace that was a pocket dimension, a moon, or some other part of the world (we never really figured it out), which meant freeing a celestial or demonic creature we called Jeff. We found Jeff in the middle of an abandoned village located between a fork in a stream surrounded by megalithic wards.

Since Jeff couldn’t talk (he could only sign yes or no), we had a hard time getting a complete picture of what was going on with him and the weird abandoned village. We found that he was trapped, the person who trapped him was nearby, we could free him, the villagers had not trapped him, he had not killed the villagers, he would help us if we freed him, and he would not hurt us if we helped him. We got a nice one point stat boost to luck for freeing him.

We set off to see if we could find the person who’d trapped him and we eventually found a wizard’s cottage. It was locked from the inside, empty, and had a hole in the roof. We dicked around way too long debating whether we should loot the cottage, wait for the person to come back, or decide that Jeff (or someone) had pulled the wizard straight through the roof of his own house.

Then we heard some crashing sounds.

Poking around the village was a thing described as being over 30 feet tall, having a three-eyed Cthulhu head and long spindly Salvador Dali Elephant legs.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention the other complication – the area was filled with obscuring mist and unless you had one of the sage torches with you, you could neither see in the mist nor were you safe from the mist folk who would tear you apart in four rounds tops. We’d left several torches lit along the path back to the mirror, but had only taken three with us. And the bridge across the stream consisted only of a series of rotting logs propped up by piles of rock, and several of the logs had already broken loose on the way over.

When the thing noticed us, we started running like hell. A few of us barely made it across. Others got swept down the stream a bit as the fell in, landing further down the shore out of the light and safety of the torches. Others eventually had to try to jump and swim for it, with most of the bridge gone, losing at least one torch in the process.

The thing used its tendrils to snatch up and try to eat people. Those who couldn’t get away ended up badly mangled and one was eaten. While they figured out that they could hurt it (a couple characters managed to cut off a few of its mouth tendrils and one guy even managed to tie its legs like an AT-AT) the thing was NOT going down easily and there was little indication that it was being more than really annoyed. After it had staggered a bit and fallen into the stream, the characters who’d stayed to fight saw more of them coming –they had just barely managed to convince ONE of the things that they were not worth trying to eat, but there was absolutely nothing they could’ve done once more of them showed up.

Eventually, everyone except for the character who was eaten had either run back or was carried through the mirror portal which we immediately sealed before they could come through. Hoping we don’t have to fight those things again any time soon.

The one really funny thing is that in the big battle against Lord Brinston’s armed guard awhile back, just about everyone in the party ended up with an open-faced helm, so everyone had really good head armor (4); were it not for those helmets doing damage reduction, everyone in the party who did not just run like hell would have had their heads popped off in no more than two hits and been eaten.

Fighting big monsters should be very different than fighting small and medium sized monsters, and it shouldn’t just be reflected in hit points. PCs typically won’t even be able to hit most locations on such creatures (I’ve always thought that if a DM has something like a dragon go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, with the PCs he’s running the encounter wrong). A big monster should keep its vital locations out of reach as is reasonable. Really big monsters absolutely should have subparts which could be crippled or destroyed; definitely makes things more interesting than the old Critical Existence Failure at 0HP.

A Special Message to the OSR & Gaming Community

Kickstarters have been a staple in the OSR and Game Blogging community since well before I became a member. Crowdfunding has been used as a platform for countless bloggers and game devs to get everything from their latest module & supplements to their complete fantasy heartbreakers off the ground and into people’s hands. Even big name publishers have been using it as a tool to get new projects and new printings funded with quick investment capital.

There is, however, a downside that has been seen all too often in our community. It seems like much of the content at Tenkar’s Tavern over the years I’ve been following him has been a litany of failed and delayed Kickstarters. Sometimes life got in the way, other times dishonest folks took the money and ran. Even great companies with established track-records for success sometimes bite off more than they can chew, resulting in some pretty significant delays. The Skinny DM had an excellent article on the situation with Goodman Game’s DCC 4th printing Kickstarter which, despite my fondness for Goodman Games, I absolutely agree with.

So, why do I think you should back our Kickstarter?

A Proven Track Records – In 2016, Cirsova ran 3 successful Kickstarters – one for our first issue, one for our second issue, and one for our third and fourth issues. In all three cases, backers received their rewards almost immediately* after the money cleared through Kickstarter and Amazon Payments. There may have been one or two individual hiccups or items lost or damaged in the post, but I am confident that anyone you’d ask would say that we resolved all issues as quickly and satisfactorily as possible.

We Are Gamers – Before we started the magazine, Cirsova  was a gaming blog. We came out of the RPG Blog Alliance and the OSR community. Many of our contributors are fellow gamers, and the stories we all love and that shape our content are the same stories that shaped our games. Many of the stories we publish are the kind that could be run as a one-off adventure with nothing more than a couple of stat blocs; in fact, that’s almost an unspoken acceptance criteria!

We Exist to Support Writers – More than anything else, Cirsova exists as a Semi-Pro Market to support writers of exciting fiction. There are people out there still writing stories in the vein of Burroughs, Brackett, and Vance, but they need places to sell and publish their stories. Many of the big-name magazines and publishing houses are simply not interested in the kind of adventure fiction that inspired the games so beloved in the OSR. By supporting Cirsova, you allow us to stay open as a market for these writers and to continue paying in the $75-$100 range for short fiction.

Please consider checking out our Kickstarter. It costs only $1 to get both of our 2017 issues**, if you’re just curious. You have to admit, that’s hard to beat. We also offer softcover and hardcover editions of our magazine.

If you have a gamebook, module or other product coming out, or even if you just want to get word out about your blog, consider supporting us with some advertising space. In 2016, we had over a hundred subscribers and ended up selling over 500 copies of our magazine.

*:Needless to say, they received the winter issue when it came out, rather than in September when the money cleared and we sent the fall issue.

**:PDF and eBook.

both-covers-small

Gutters, Guilds and Grimoires

We’ve finally got a “rulebook” for Gutters, Guilds & Grimoires, with a few tweaks and a few things which had existed but weren’t written down anywhere so never got used all that much, and the playtesting continues!

I dare say, our last session may have been one of our most awesomepic yet.

We didn’t really have any major storyline quests going on, since our last session not only resolved a major arc, it also cut off a handful of other plots because of certain PCs dying. But we did still have a favor we could do for the Rat King. When he’d said, though, that there were rats who weren’t obeisant to his authority, we hadn’t been thinking heavily armed rat-men…

The party lost two PCs, an arm and a leg.

We cleared out the nest of rats, but one PC died and another almost died, getting his arm cut off at the shoulder by a ratman with a Zweihander.

::ratman crit succeeds on his attack:: “Wait a sec, we’re fighting in a 5-foot corridor, surely the rat can’t use a Zweihander to maximum efficiency in these circumstances!”

::DM relents, rolls again to give the ratman disadvantage on his attack and crit succeeds again::

Despite being somewhat tanky, my character still had kinda lame armor and a crossbow bolt to the leg from the rat sentry forced me to play it cautiously – I’d just lost a nearly 4000 XP character, I wasn’t going to lose a 400 XP character on his second session. Ranged attacks are a bitch in this system, as at least one person is bound to get hit while closing the distance, and crossbows, the most common weapon, ignore a point or two of damage reduction from armor. So, after killing all of the ratmen except for the one with the Zweihander, I sold most of my belongings and begged 10 silver off two other characters so I could get a chain hauberk, upping my armor/damage reduction to 4. That means that Jonthony, newly promoted Corporal of the Watch on Special Detachment, is going to be only susceptible to ping damage except against the heaviest hitters. My tank is finally tanky, and it’s gonna be awesome.

Confident from our victory over the ratmen, we roped two other newly rolled up rubes to go back into the sewer with us to look for that last ratman (we wanted his sword, damnit!) Ratman was long gone, though we busted down the door he’d locked himself behind the day before. We sent in one of the new PCs first; just a friendly hazing, “don’t worry, we’ve got your back!” New guy was nearly killed by a ghoul-thing, and one of our other heavies got paralyzed. Luckily, my new armor kept me safe and I was able to slice it to bits.

We spent a little too long playing Morrowind with the crates hoping to find precious liquor or other vendor trash, and we ended up having to fight a sewer mutant chimera. It proved pretty damn nasty and bit the leg off one of our other fighters, but we managed to kill it, too.

Low HP Fights

Because this is such a low HP system, all of these fights were incredibly skin-of-the-teeth. But, just as my guy getting taken out a bit early put a real damper on our combat strength, the same can and has happened to enemies we’ve fought. Unless you can secure some sort of real tactical advantage, there’s a very real chance in every fight that you’re getting a broken nose, a lopped off limb, or outright killed. I’d say we were closely matched against the ratmen: 3 fighters, a magic user, and a rogue against 6 ratmen (2 pikers, 3 xbow, & zweihander). The magic user in our party was probably the equalizing factor, and he’s the one who got his arm cut off and very well could still die from it (it happened in a sewer, so I would not be surprised if he dies of sepsis).

Armor as soak

The very low player HP in this system (Grit), represents not actual wounds, but minor dings, bruises, and stamina lost in a fight. Most characters who’ve died or been permanently maimed have been done in by fewer than 4 hits. Getting chainmail for my character was a big deal – with damage reduction of 4, I was able to take 3 hits and still have more than half of my grit. It’ll be interesting to see how finally having a heavily armored character in this system will change the combat dynamics.

Regaining HP/grit vs Healing

While there are “healers” and magical healing in the system, they have more to do with reducing the number of weeks it takes for broken bones to heal or keeping severe wounds from getting infected. Fun tidbit: the character who got an arm lopped off was just about to have his leg, which had been broken in one of our first sessions, finally all healed up. No amount of magical healing will let the character regrow his arm, but there’s a chance that diabolists can grow him a new one for some exorbitant fee.

Part of the incredibly low HP/grit is somewhat mitigated by the ease in which it can be recovered. Consumable vice goods restore half of one’s missing points rounded up – it is not entirely unlike Popeye and his spinach, where the fighter can pull out a flask of bourbon, take a couple swallows and get a second wind. This has given my character a chance to develop his identity – after a fight he can smoke a victory cigar to regain a chunk of his missing HP. His “Hearten Ally” ability he got when he upgraded from Watch Recruit to Man-At-Arms also means that after a fight he can slap somebody on the shoulder, tell em they did a good job, and go get back into the trenches, so they can recover 2 points of grit. At this point, he’s going to basically turn into ‘the Old Sergeant’ character from every WW2 movie ever, which is gonna be awesome.

Economy

One thing I’ve noticed is that part of the glue that holds the system together is keeping the characters in perpetual penury. It’s a silver based system, but unlike many silver based systems, copper is not only common, it’s the primary coinage one will earn and spend on everyday items. Weapons and armor costs are silver, while food, lodging, and most simple amenities cost a few coppers. There are mechanisms in place that keep characters from jumping straight from poverty into the middle class from one or two successful adventures, but a DM would have to use them. We haven’t really seen the effect yet of a massive influx of treasure, so there’s no telling how a Monty Haul DM could break the system.

We’ve played for months, and our party has amassed power enough to be an influential part of our city’s ecosystem, but no one has freewheeling cash spending money. The 5 SP each the other two fighters loaned me for armor was no small sum, and only a fraction of the 75 SP I needed for my chainmail. I think that the way we’ll need to test the system next is to see what happens if we are able to actually sell every scrap of equipment and vendor trash we come across. Too bad we’re getting out of the organized crime business, because a single hit on a merchant or noble with more than a few hundred silver could be game-breaking. We’ve just never been in a situation to find out.

Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

When a Plot Related PC Dies

Last Friday, my character was killed in a near TPK fighting against fungal hounds and a fungal goat; the party had been cornered in a sewer tunnel and picked apart; if I’d left them behind, I probably could’ve survived (I’d previously gotten out of a worse-looking scrap by doing parkour over the heads of nearly a dozen two-foot tall demonlings; hey, Cecilly was an acrobat with 18 Dex). But I didn’t, and we almost all died. One of the two surviving characters stopped berserking just before he killed the other.

It really sucked losing Cecilly; I don’t know what equivalent level she’d be in D&D (we’re using a levelless system), but she had nearly 1200 XP sunk into stats, classes and abilities in a system where we’ve averaged about 70 XP a session. Superficially, she was a lot like my previous character (a quirky waif from the streets), but while Elyse would hide at the first sign of danger, Cecilly was a combat monster; she could hit with ranged attacks on anything lower than an 18, and could roll at disadvantage for an extra d6 damage*. Plus, she was fast enough with her knives that she could almost always get two attacks per round. In a party as large as the one we frequently roll with, though, losing her combat strength is not a game changer. The fact that she had become a plot relevant PC in a high-casualty sandbox game is.

Much as I loved playing Elyse, she was as unimportant as she was weird and creepy. Cecilly, on the other hand, had become the “face” of the gang we’d started, was largely responsible for recruiting, managing finances, planning expansion and enterprise, and had connections with nobles, street people, and various revolutionaries. A couple PC gang members from early sessions as far back when we were still associated with the Blackbirds are either on the lam or dead. With Cecilly dead, there are only two “heavies” in the gang being run by players interested in the gang stuff, and those players don’t have the in-game connections with their current characters**.

So, what does this mean for the game? New opportunities, of course! A couple players had been uncomfortable with doing gang stuff, but for the longest time, a majority of our group (myself included) were both loving the River City Ransom hijinx and considered fighting street gangs for turf was less dangerous that mage owls, mystic mice, grease dogs, fungal beasts, deep ones, golems, feverlings, demonlings, human faced centipedes, and bone beasts.***

The new character I rolled up was a “zealous” member of the watch; he ended up helping solve the murder mystery by helping in another bloody fight against cultists where we managed to take one in alive. The irony was, we realized, that none of the characters who ended up solving the mystery were ones who’d been particularly invested in either the gang or the mystery the gang had staked its reputation on****; “so, the people who thought we should come down here are both dead; we should honor their memory by solving the mystery!” With half of the NPC gang members killed after an extraplanar demon invasion during the night of a festival and two thirds of the PC gang members dead or in hiding, it looks like the Stone Cats are on their way back down after a brief, meteoric rise. Perfect opportunity for the party to go legit.

So, instead of things falling apart, significant PC character death allows for a chance to try new things in the story. Sure, we may wonder where things would’ve gone if we stuck to the gang of performers who were securing turf and were on the verge of getting a noblewoman’s support as benefactor. But now, we’ll have new opportunities opening up to pursue that we wouldn’t have had before. Plus, the players who are less comfortable with doing the gang stuff can have a chance to move the game in directions they’d like. In the meantime, I look forward to playing a character who will be less important.

*: The system has a pretty hard limit on PC HP, with the typical range being between 5 and 9. The upside of this is that our DM doesn’t have to worry about encounter balance and can simplify his monster creation process. He can throw a mob of something at us with 8 hit points and one unique ability, give it a description like “It has mushrooms growing in its fur, its head is a goat’s skull and the body of a dog”, and we’re terrified of it, even though we’ve fought several things before that are more or less the same mechanically. Even though my combat abilities were kind of an exploit, and some rounds did upwards of 15 damage, two solid hits from anything would, and did, kill her. The chances of getting a character with a +5 initiative bonus and that good a hit chance again are slim to none.

**:three gang characters are for real dead, including one who was our main contact with the less radical of the two revolutionary groups, and at least one or two characters are semi-retired because they can’t be seen alive on the inhabited side of town.

***: and our DM wonders why we’re unconcerned about the Deep Dwarves…

****: One player did have a character who was a gang heavy, but that night he was running his character who had been turned into rat to better serve the Rat King as a liegeman; he can’t adventure in the inhabited part of the city often, since he looks like a giant rat man, so this sewer dive was a rare excursion for him. Another player is relatively new to our group, so his character doesn’t have as much history with the group (especially since his first couple died).