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.

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Read Magic Throughout the Ages Pt. 2 (AD&D 1st Edition)

As I don’t have copies of the AD&D corebooks immediately available at my disposal, I’m pulling the text from OSRIC; if the actual text is substantially different and OSRIC wrong on this, by all means, let me know, cuz that seems like a big deal! I know I said I would look at Holmes in part 2, but I think I will make it 1.5, since it bridges the gap between OD&D and AD&D, with B/X kinda off in its own direction.

Magic in AD&D is radically different from OD&D and B/X. A lot of the spells are the same or similar, but there is a huge difference in how mages build their spell repertoire.

In OD&D, and presumably B/X*, wizards can go down to SpellCo and just buy a level’s worth of spells in a single volume. The magic user isn’t going to be able to learn all of those, of course, but they physically HAVE those spells. There’s no need to scrounge towers for lost arcana, because you already have access to all of the vanilla spells for your caster levels.

In AD&D, however, we start to see thematically Vancian magic emerge.

“A beginning magic user character will know four spells. One of these will automatically be Read Magic. The second spell should be chosen by the player from the list of first level spells, and the last two should be determined randomly from the list of first level spells.” – OSRIC, p 16

So, now we have the assumption that a Magic User at 1st level is someone who has completed his apprenticeship and has access to a small assortment of spells that his master has presumably given him; his student’s spellbook will contain Read Magic and 3 other spells.

Here’s what OSRIC says about scrolls:

“Spells are also sometimes found written on scrolls. It is not
possible to memorise a spell from a scroll, although magic
users and illusionists may copy the spell from the scroll into
their spell books, if they understand the spell. This process
always erases the scroll. This is the primary means by which
magic users and illusionists will acquire new spells for their
spell books.
Alternatively, the spell may be cast directly from the scroll, in
which case the scroll is erased as the spell is cast. In this case,
it is not necessary for the caster to know the spell beforehand,
and indeed it is possible to cast a spell from a scroll even if
the caster does not know the spell or is of insufficient level
to use the magic.” – OSRIC, p 35

So, the Dungeon Book from Holmes is gone, but using scrolls to learn new spells is in.  As they’re written in magic, presumably Read Magic is necessary for a chance to enter them into your spell book.

“Read magic is normally the fi rst spell in every magic user’s spell
book, and its mastery is the fi rst task of every apprentice. The
spell allows the caster to read magical writings (other than
his or her own, of course, which are always intelligible to the
original author).
Unless the writings are cursed, reading magical script does
not normally activate the magic formulae described therein—
reviewing a scroll prior to casting from it does not, for instance,
actually cast whatever spell is written upon the scroll. Once the
magic user has read a particular set of magical inscriptions by
use of this spell, the spell is no longer needed to re-read the
writing at a later time.
The reverse of the spell allows the magic user to make magical
writings indecipherable for the spell’s duration, and is cast
upon the writing rather than upon the caster him- or herself.” – OSRIC, p 97

While it is still necessary for using scrolls, the Read Magic’s greater purpose now becomes to translate scrolls and stolen spellbooks and enter those new spells in your spellbook. Magic Users can no longer simply buy a book for 2000 GP x spell level to unlock a new level’s worth of spells as in OD&D or Holmes, and unlike B/X, where Magic Users ONLY know their spells selected when leveling up, Magic Users can theoretically learn multiple spells based on the MU spell Acquisition Table. Since all Magic Users have Read Magic, and since they do not have B/X’s restrictions, it is no longer a question of forever sacrificing a spell slot for the ability to use scrolls.

To learn new spells in AD&D, Magic Users must cast Read Magic, attempt to understand the spell (MU Spell Acquisition Table), and, if successful, scribe the spell in to his spellbook. Finally, magic in D&D is starting look truly like something out of Dying Earth!

 

*Holmes, anyway; in B/X, I believe you can replace your spellbooks, but you do not have access to more spells than those matching your current level’s Spell Per Day table, i.e. you can’t know 4 1st level spells unless you can cast at least 4 1st level spells.

More DCC: Puzzles that Have Your Players Talking Behind Your Back

How do you know that you’ve created one hell of a set piece as a DM?  Well, I guess you might not know it if you’re not actually there, but  if after the session, players are in the parking lot or driveway discussing at length different ways to tackle the problem, something has been done right.  Well, my DCC group has taken it the next step further, and three days later folks are sharing statblocks and discussing options in an email chain.

Our group has been sent by the main library in the city to go retrieve a couple books from one of the branch locations on the other side of the river.  The only problem is that the other side of the river is Kowloon Walled City meets The Old Quarter from Thief: The Dark Project or Carcer City from Manhunt.  Okay, that’s not the only problem.  Once we stopped dithering about in the sandbox (closely placed 6-8 story buildings connected by sky bridges that are full of rats, giant hornets and really creepy scary decay-horror) and made a straight-shot to the library, we encountered the puzzle that we’re still struggling with.

See, the main library is guarded by these stone golems on the first floor.  I’m sure they didn’t bother us there because we were somehow under the protection of the librarians, but on the far side of the river in no man’s land, the protective golem seems set on keeping everyone out of the main foyer.  Everyone except me, that is.  My street urchin thief stole a library card from some patron shortly before we were given our quest (to some of the exasperation of our DM, perhaps).  See, my creepy homeless girl had it in mind that it would be easier to check books out of the library with someone else’s library card and sell them to a rich person than it would be to go on some adventure into an accursed part of the city.  Unfortunately, looking like a ragged and dirty Emily the Strange or Sunako from Wallflower, she wasn’t really able to convince the librarian that she was the wealthy aristocrat cardholder’s niece.

"I would like to check out these priceless illuminated manuscripts.  Not my name on the card?  Oh, I'm his niece and certainly not a level 1 chaotic thief with a 9 Personality score."

“I would like to check out these priceless illuminated manuscripts. Not my name on the card? Oh, I’m his niece and certainly not a level 1 chaotic thief with a 9 Personality score.”

On the plus side, the librarian didn’t confiscate the card.  So when the golem starts coming off its pedestal towards anyone coming through the wooden security gate, my character holds up the copper card she stole and is all “Library card!”  Amazingly it works, but only for me and for one character touching her.  The problem is, being DCC, there are 12 PCs, and my character sure as hell isn’t going to let anyone else “borrow” her card.

At one point I figured that I could tie up the golem and it would fall all over itself and ignore me when anyone else came across the threshold, but while my thief hid, 10 of the other characters derped around until it managed to get the ropes off its legs while another character rifled through some offices.  At least it didn’t seem to hold a grudge?

It’s hard to tell how much of this was planned and how much of it just turned out the way it is by coincidence.  For all we know, this was just some crazy murder piece that was supposed to kill us one by one and we just threw a monkey wrench in it by having that library card in the first place.  The library is 8 stories and there’s no way that my thief and one other character are going to be able to find 3 books in this place by ourselves (and I don’t know that the other 4 players who’d have to stay behind would be thrilled with the idea).  Now, we’re debating strategy, best courses of action, looking at various Stone Golem stat blocks (doesn’t matter if it’s 3e or AD&D, it can one-hit any of us and has something like 70% accuracy) and trying to figure out how the heck we’re going to tackle this with more ‘down-time’ discussion and strategizing going on than in any other game I’ve ever been in.

Now, one point I’d like to bring up on a separate matter.  Though our DM is letting new players have 3 level 0s to start with even though we’re no longer in the funnel, anyone with a level 1 character is going to just have that level 1 character, with any other survivors being ‘reserves’.  Those of us who made it out of our first session with level 1s got a few extra level 0s in our second session, mostly because we didn’t have enough folks to have a party balanced for how deadly this guy’s city is.  I ended up with someone who would have made a pretty decent spellsword (elf, but we’re not using non-human races).  Even though I could’ve played him, I still went with my thief, even though she’s net -2 on her stats.  I’ve grown partial to her because despite having all sorts of disadvantages, SHE was the only one who made it out of the meat grinder.  I feel like she earned being my main for this game.  Character death in this game has been in the double digits; I’d like to see her, with all of her 7s and 9s, be the one “hero” to make it through this adventure.  Or at least to level 2.  If anything, I think she’s a testament to why rolling for gender and alignment, especially in a game like DCC, is a neat idea.

Why Did Everyone Oversell 5e’s Old School Appeal?

I don’t actually answer this question, but if someone wants to speculate below, go ahead!  I mean, it stood to benefit Wizards to try to bring in the OSR community and convince those folks to drop coin on yet another D&D edition, but I don’t really see why anyone else would make this claim.  What am I missing here?

Saturday was Free RPG day. The actual free RPG offerings were somewhat scant in terms of things that grabbed my interest. Or anyone else’s, for that matter, given just how much stuff was left unclaimed by days end despite the crowd. I ended up picking up a Dungeon Crawl Classics screen and something called Hellas. The former will probably be cut up and stuffed into my binders if my friend who actually has some DCC stuff doesn’t want it. The latter I grabbed because it looked pretty and had nice art, but I doubt I’ll play it.

There was some Pathfinder stuff, Shadowrun, a 3rd party 5e adventure for absurdly high level characters and a bunch of other stuff that didn’t really interest me.

Having just read PMS’s rather scathing assessment of Apocalypse World, I politely declined the opportunity to join a session of that, but I did get a chance to try out Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, which I’ll admit, I have been curious about.

My curiosity has been sated.

A lot of people have written about 5e has somehow brought OSR into the fold, there’s a lot there for fans of the oldschool and it’s going to bring everyone back together. I have no idea what those people are talking about. 5e is 3.5 with the 4e skill list and an incredibly wonky XP scale. It played exactly like 3/3.5 and nothing like 1eAD&D/B/X.

I was loaned a “guest” character (a 4th level Half-Orc fighter) and was joined by a thief, a ranger and a monk. The 3+ hour session consisted of 2 encounters on the way to some place in a shared Greyhawk(?) setting they had a few games in. The first was against a Stonemelder and the second was against a druid, his body guard and some mephits he summoned.

A few things I observed:
-Despite the DM’s remarks about the simplicity of low-level play, everyone had pretty substantial combat packages at level 4.
-5e is such a high HP game that combat is kind of cartoonish. At 37 HP, my orc was tougher than most B/X dragons. He survived a combination of being punched by a mephit, stepping on a stone rose, getting burned up by a wall of fire, parched, and even then, because of some feat, he was able to stand back up and bash the hell out of the evil druid with his warhammer. The druid, on the other hand, had several arrows and a javelin sticking out of him and got brained several times for full damage with the orc’s warhammer before finally going down; he had to have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 HP.
-The mechanics of the Thief’s combat package struck me as fiddly and annoying. Move attack move roll for hide and cover, move attack move roll for hide and cover. All the tedium of a cover-based shooter, but with dice!
-I don’t think I like the save vs. death mechanic. While I’m admittedly not a fan of death at 0, I think AD&D’s negative HP is a fair compromise. I almost think it was wrong that my orc was magically desiccate by an amount that should’ve put me at -17 and then, because of a feat, I was able to stand back up at 1HP, attack the druid, get an AoO when the druid ran away, and then stand back up after a potion is poured down my throat after I’m knocked down again and make my saves vs. death. If bad guys get the same opportunity, it would be a wonder if anyone could die in 5e.

The XP curve for low level characters seems to exist to shove characters to mid-level as quickly as possible; then again, 5e is not a GP for XP system. Not having played in an extended game, I can’t really assess how well or poorly this works out. The notion of characters having such high HP doesn’t sit well with me, especially when weapon damage is kept relatively close to the same except for crits. Quadrupling HP averages but only increasing weapon damage by about 50% results in some really long combats with some strangely resilient opponents. And very long encounters. I think the only time I’ve had encounters as long as these were the boss-fight against the corrupted elf and that absolutely nutso encounter at the zombie farm.

I can’t remember who said it about which edition (it was either 3.5 or 4), but someone had once joked about “Dungeons & Dragons: My Precious Encounter” in reference to how the later editions are so heavily focused on players using their combat packages as a means of encounter-related problem solving (of course with a note of snark in regards to the twee-ness of a lot of high powered systems). That was very much the impression I got of 5e. While there was some fun roleplaying stuff we did among ourselves, the game itself seems more of a case where a group of variously powered individuals are thrown against a puzzle in the form of an elaborate encounter drawn from the monster manual. Players must figure out how to use their powers effectively against the monster to solve the puzzle of beating it (the riddle of steel? Nah) before time(HP) runs out. It feels like a supers game dressed up as a heroic fantasy. It is maybe the right system for the wrong genre, but it doesn’t feel like the Dungeons & Dragons I enjoy.

This is not a criticism of the group or the guy running things. They were great, and I would enjoy playing with them again. Hell, I’d even play 5e with them again. I’m just saying that if the pacing and simplicity of Old School D&D are things about OSR that appeals to you, 5e isn’t what you’re looking for. If someone tells you that if you like Old School D&D you’ll love 5e, you don’t have to take my word for it; check it out for yourself and see why they’re wrong.

After Almost Two Years, MYFAROG Will Finally Be Out!

I’m pretty stoked about finally getting to read the full version and checking out that map.  My only concern will be getting people to run it with.  Once my B/X game is over, I’ll see if I can wrangle some people to try it out.  I’ll probably run a stripped down version of it, since most of my players have enthusiastically embraced the simplicity of B/X (the older member of my who had played it before has mentioned that B/X is about the crunchiest system he’ll still play these days).

Most of what I want to do is experiment with the setting and the roles.  I could see something like Altars & Archetypes being welded to the class system in MYFAROG; instead of allowing players to just make up whatever Archetype they want, they’d use some of the many roles available  in MYFAROG.  I’m probably going to do some tinkering with it; even if the degree of crunch involved in the system isn’t to everyone’s tastes, I don’t see why the setting can’t be adapted in such a way that it’s a useful sourcebook no matter what your preferred system is.

While MYFAROG’s system is inextricable from its setting, I really think that it’s a setting that could be extracted and used with any system.  Well, that may not be entirely true.  The superheroism of most non-basic editions of D&D wouldn’t really jibe with the gritty hard-fantasy feel where any brave soul can be mercilessly torn apart by an ettin at any moment, should he be caught unprepared in the wild.  For instance, if I were to translate the introductory module to something like Holmes, I’d probably fudge all monster hit dice and make them unkillable outside of some really clever strategy and roleplaying.  I don’t know.  I’ll be sure to report back on what I come up with once I get the full version.

Edit note: The buy link isn’t up on the site yet; when it is, I’ll throw it up here.