Author Archives: Solomoriah

Lemme Tell You A Story…

by Solomoriah

Twenty years ago I started a new RPG campaign. Basic Fantasy RPG didn’t exist yet, and I was running the game using some house rules I wrote which I called “Project 74;” we did eventually switch to BFRPG a couple of years after I published the first edition.

The group was composed of Mike and Alan, two of my oldest friends, people who had been players in my games in high school and college in the ’80’s. Since the group was small they ran two characters each; one of Mike’s characters from that game was the half-ogre fighter Garag Onyg, and one of Alan’s characters was a fighter from a foreign land named Kyron Ristan.

They had other characters, as I said, but some of them didn’t live very long. Project 74 was as brutal to low-level characters as any old school game, after all.

It was in their very first adventure in the tunnels under the city of Lyrwenn in Enterone, one of the countries in my world of Glain, where they discovered Garag’s half-ogre half-brother, Og Onygson. He was abducting children because they were tasty, you see, and Garag and Kyron and their friends had been asked to rescue the last two he’d collected. While they were busy fighting him, Og’s “boss,” a magic-user named Jarvan Margrave, appeared on the staircase and attacked them magically.

Kyron made his saving throw vs. Jarvan’s wand of paralyzation and then pursued him up the stairs, out of the dungeons and into the magic-user’s tower, finally cornering him on the uppermost floor and doing away with him. Meanwhile Garag and the others defeated his half-brother and freed the children. And of course, they looted the tower.

Little did they know that Jarvan Margrave was in fact Lord Jarvan Margrave. His family had him raised from the dead, and with the help of his uncle (the Count) Jarvan swore out a warrant for the arrest of the adventurers. Thus they became fugitives, having many adventures as they wandered the borderlands. Eventually they rescued Vadarin, the “Iron Duke” to whom Count Margrave was a vassal, and the Duke cancelled the warrant and pronounced them innocent.

Jarvan never forgot this defeat. He meddled in their affairs on many occasions before he found a new goal… becoming a king.

You see, the land of Enterone has been ruled by a council of seven people, three high priests and four dukes, since the last king died without leaving an heir. That king, known as Gallus the First, chose this intentionally; he hoped that a democratic form of government would grow out of the change. But though the Regency Council reigned as he intended, nothing else really changed.

Jarvan Margrave learned that there was an heir, descended from an illegitimate cousin of Gallus Oberon. The heir himself did not know he was an heir, and so Jarvan was able to get close to him, capture him, and take what he needed to “prove” himself a proper heir to the long-empty throne of Enterone.

Both Enterone and Roslane, the rival land to the north, had ancient artifacts that could prove a man to be a proper heir to their thrones. Roslane’s founding dynasty had been exterminated long ago, and the Flaming Crown lost; they were ruled by a different family who took power after the fall of the so-called Undying Emperor. In Enterone the device was called the Royal Orb; installed permanently in the old, “retired” Ganelonden Castle in the capitol city of Vallerin, the orb would reputedly glow when touched by a true heir to Oberon the First.

Jarvan was no such heir, of course, but he took the true heir’s right hand, skinned it, and made from it a glove that could activate the orb. He made the glove invisible so that he could use it without it being detected. He did not kill Galen, the heir, but rather cast a feeblemind upon him and released him in the city of Ruonest. Galen, known as a mute half-wit, somehow fell into the service of Duke D’Angelo. He became a stablehand working in the stables beneath Castle D’Angelo, where our heros met him while dealing with a resurgence of the demonic influence that had nearly ended the reign of Duke Vadarin. The entire situation was a setup engineered by Jarvan to keep the most magically-capable member of the Regency Council from attending the ceremony wherein Jarvan would activate the orb.

By the sheerest of coincidences, Kyron Ristan managed to be near Ganelonden Castle just as this entire event was about to transpire, and his ownership of a certain ancient intelligent sword gave him status to attend that ceremony; he watched in amazement as Jarvan’s hand fell upon the orb and made it glow.

Fugitives again, the party began traveling outside of Enterone. We began to add new players, some who came for one or two sessions before disappearing, others who came and stayed. In the land of Derympi they discovered the lost Tomb of Karsma Megalos, and inside they found him not dead but petrified, They chose to restore him, not realizing that he was the Invincible Warlord of the Seren, enemy of the rulers of Enterone, and this decision would come back to bite them later.  And in Kyron’s land of Kel they discovered that the country was secretly under the control of the supposedly-extinct Golden Elves, and they managed to bring them down and free the Kelites.

This turned out to be the last major adventure Alan participated in, as not long afterward he succumbed to the kidney cancer that had dogged him for several years. Kyron Ristan became a high minister in the new government of Kel, and the remaining adventurers moved on to other lands.

They went north, defeating an alchemist who was refining the dangerous aqua lumina made by the ancient Amun-Synites. They learned the secrets of the ancient and powerful wizard known as John of Zor, and visited his tower in that far-off land. They even saved a beautiful dragon from a horrible princess, and delivered that princess into the hands of the King of Roslane.

They returned to Enterone when their ally, Pons III, Duke D’Angelo was declared a criminal by King Jarvan. A council of war was established at Castle D’Angelo, searching for a way to resist the king and eventually overthrow him, but the situation looked dire; not only did King Jarvan have obvious plans to remove Duke D’Angelo from power, but it also seemed likely that Roslane would use this period of unrest on their border as an excuse to attack. Duke Pons presented a two-pronged proposal: Some of the adventurers would go in search of a magic crown they had once found in the dungeons beneath the Roslanian capitol, which they had sold to the king of that land without learning its power. In fact, it was the Flaming Crown which could reveal an heir to the line of the first kings of Roslane. This was an item the present Roslanian king could not allow to fall into the hands of his opposition, which is why he bought it. Stealing it back would give Duke D’Angelo leverage to prevent an attack.

While part of the adventurers went about that mission, the remainder went in search of a hidden castle where King Jarvan had imprisoned the true heir. The trip was difficult, requiring the utmost in stealth, but at last they reached the castle. The courtyards were filled with animated hill giant skeletons, and a dragon and several powerful NPCs guarded the heir himself.

So of course, the adventurers bypassed the whole thing, flying over the castle invisibly while the dragon’s attention was diverted (for in my campaign, dragons can see invisible things) and entering the central tower with almost no bloodshed. Galen was thus freed and taken back to Castle D’Angelo.

Having the true heir and the Flaming Crown at Castle D’Angelo was meant to prevent either king from attacking; it worked, at least in the case of the Roslanians, but King Jarvan was not so easily swayed. After all, to prove a claim as the heir, Galen had to enter Ganelonden Castle in the Enteronean capitol, Vallerin, and place his hand on the Royal Orb. Jarvan reinforced the city and the ancient “second castle” of Enterone, and then he ordered the offensive against the northern Dukes.

By now it was late fall, and the snow was falling; it was clear to everyone that Jarvan’s troops would have to wait to attack until the snow melted in the spring. Still, the usurper ordered Duke Vadarin to be reduced from the high position the Council had given him, and Jarvan’s own uncle the Count raised up at the Duke in his place.

Some of the adventurers, led by Garag Onyg and his wizard ally Aleron Rowentree, left the castle to seek allies in nearby towns. Messages were sent to many whom the party had helped in the past, in hopes that they would come to the aid of the newly-formed Resistance.

One of those messages was sent to Nyalorix, the cloud dragon who they had rescued from the evil Princess Dulcetta. Nyalorix had been held in thrall by the Princess by the simple means of stealing the dragon’s eggs; so long as Dulcetta held the eggs in a secret place, the dragon had no choice but to obey her. The adventurers had found the eggs and restored them to Nyalorix, and she was in their debt. But it was a debt she could not discharge, for her eggs had hatched and she was busy caring for the hatchlings.

A man approached the adventurers in a tavern as they paused in their travels. He introduced himself as Nuridnorix, father of Nyalorix. He told them his daughter had asked him to attend to her debt, and he said he would willingly fight by their side… but if they wished, he could instead direct them to a hidden army of automatons built to fight the Undying Emperor in a long-past century. The army was never deployed, as it was not finished when the Emperor fell by other hands, so the location of the army was carefully concealed and barriers were put in place to prevent them falling into the wrong hands.

Of course, the adventurers chose the army of metal men over a single dragon, and Nuridnorix directed and guided them so that they could find the mountain where the army had been built and hidden away. It was a long series of adventures, including a dungeon containing practically nothing but traps, a city full of kobolds who welcomed them to a feast, a catacomb full of undead horrors, a workshop protected by various prototype metal warriors, and a magical maze of stairs containing a machine that extrudes gelatinous cubes to replace any that are slain therein.

In a secret room they found a portal leading to a small, closed world called the World of Crowns. They knew from the story told to them by Nuridnorix that they were looking for a crown that would control the metal army; in the clearing where they exited the portal they found a tombstone engraved with seven crowns.

There were, in fact, eight crowns. They eventually figured this out and found the iron crown they needed, though they did collect a few others along the way.

It took them a bit to figure out how to work the portal device so that it would give them access to the space where the army was kept, but eventually they found their way and led the army out of the mountain through a wall that had been designed to collapse. They marched them through a bit of Roslanian territory, suffered a turncoat in their ranks who almost stole the army for King Jarvan, and finally arrived at Castle D’Angelo just in time to aid in the defense of the Resistance.

Duke Vadarin held out for a time, but in the late spring that part of his army that was loyal to the Margrave family turned on him, and he took the remaining soldiers westward to Duchy D’Angelo. Combined with the forces of Pons III and the army of steel soldiers, they held the line against the King’s forces.

But he had available five times as many troops as the Resistance could mount. Even with all their magic and six thousand automatons, they knew it was only a matter of time before the Resistance fell.

The fighting had started with an early thaw; the high holy days of the spring equinox, called Festival throughout the world of Glain, were still some days in the future. The council of war met to discuss the situation, and Aleron Rowentree suggested a bold plan.

Leaders and other powerful people were notified by messages sent using the young wizard’s own spell, Aleron’s Express Message, that Garag Onyg would enter Ganelonden Castle accompanied by the true heir on the last day of Festival. In Glain, Festival begins on the last day of the year, spans one or sometimes two days that are “outside” the year, and ends on the first day of the new year, and it was on this day that Aleron’s messages said the true heir would be proven.

This was the most nervous I’d been as a GM in decades. The climax, or rather, the first climax of a twenty year campaign needed to be epic, Hollywood-worthy stuff. Three high priests and their closest assistants, the dwarf ambassador and three members of his staff, the elf ambassador and two members of his staff, Duke Tarkan, his wife, and her bodyguard, and of course Jarvan and his closest allies (and 80 hand-picked fighting men of his army) would all be present, and that only after they entered the castle. First, they had to get there, crossing the expanse of the great Lake Dyasa and somehow getting into the city; this was the focus of our previous session.

Duke D’Angelo loaned them the black pegasi his family bred and maintained in secret, revealing their existence for the first time. Part of the adventurers chose this method of entering the city. They were intercepted by griffon riders loyal to King Jarvan, accompanied by the same green dragon, Rashdenarung, who had been assigned to guard the true heir. They outflew the soldiers, using the greater speed of the pegasi to climb above the griffons, and they simply flew away; some fire was exchanged but neither side suffered major losses.

Meanwhile, however, the true heir himself was to be transported by Aleron using his ring of spell storing (which could hold a single teleport spell). To increase his transport capacity, he drank a potion of giant strength first, giving him more than an hour (in fact, an hour and a half) of such strength.

As seemingly always happens, though, Aleron failed the teleport roll, landing partway to the capitol city. After rolling the distance and looking at the map, I realized he had landed them just outside the city of Lyrwenn, where the campaign began two decades ago.

Entering the city in a hurry, they asked around for a magic-user who could recharge their ring. Time was of the essence, because there were no more potions of giant strength at hand. They were told that a wizard had moved into the tower once occupied by Jarvan, and so they went there and bargained with him.

In return for a favor to be named later, the wizard recharged the ring, and the party quickly teleported away. But Aleron’s player failed the roll… again. This time the result was “similar location,” and as they were trying to land just in front of the elvish embassy in Vallerin, I decided the nearest “similar location” was the elvish consulate in the city across the river. That city, Jacinta, lies in the country of Derympi, which under the control of Karsma Megalos is hostile to Enterone.

They discussed many options for crossing the river, and chose to do so while flying (using the obvious spell) invisibly. But the dragon had returned to Vallerin, having just arrived in fact, and he saw them and flew toward them with murder in his eyes (and breath).

Garag quickly drank a potion of dragon control he had traded for quite a while back… and the dragon failed its save! It greeted its new friend warmly, but said it really shouldn’t let them land; the drinker of the potion talked the dragon into turning away from them and leaving them be, and then they were able to land and hide within the great city.

One of the members of the pegasus-riding party was Irithiel Kelquirrelle, agent of the Elf King, Order of the Leafy Crown. She had been captured, interrogated, and killed by order of King Jarvan after she was discovered snooping around the castle of Duke Tarkan by his wife Duchess Evaine. By a peculiar twist of fate she had been raised from the dead by one of the party members who had himself been slain by an agent of the king and then interred beneath Ganelonden Castle for later interrogation via a speak with dead spell. Jarvan had collected a number of potions of alchemical waters of sulfur, also called potions of raise dead; poured into the mouth of a corpse, they had the same power as the spell. A mad thief trapped in the dungeon had found them and used them to restore a single one of the dead characters, the gnome wizard Bannan, one of Mike’s characters. Their escape a month or so earlier had itself been epic, and it was after this that the Elf King assigned Irithiel to join the adventurers.

Emily played the part of Irithiel, previously an NPC in my online game, and at the end of that adventure chose to continue playing her.

The party of pegasus-riders landed outside the city, and simply walked in; Irithiel was the only member of that party who might be recognized so she was made invisible to prevent this.  The two parties had agreed to meet at noon in front of the elvish embassy, and this at least went off without any further hitches.  After some discussion, though, they took shelter in a temporarily-abandoned warehouse, bribing the guard to let them have it for the night.

Meanwhile, the pegasi were returned to Castle D’Angelo by the “decoy heir” that party brought with them; a terrified young soldier pressed into service at the last moment, and only too relieved at being allowed to return to his home.

Somehow despite the party being warded against scrying, the Elf Ambassador had learned of her presence in the city and sent for her; she would join his party in the morning, the first day of the year and thus the last day of Festival, as they went to the ancient castle to witness whatever might transpire.

Another player character, Jeanne’s gnomish cleric Einsturzende Altbaten, a devotee of the god of death, Mors Cain, went to the Triune temple that morning to ask their aid in protecting the true heir. The three high priests were already in procession to Ganelonden, accompanied by their assistants and a number of temple guards, but they stopped when the gnome mentioned the name “Garag Onyg.” “Unfortunately,” said High Priest Faber, of the order of the god of wisdom, “we can’t help you. To take a side would be to violate the law, at least until such a time as the heir is proven.” But after some negotiation the three high priests agreed to wait outside the castle for two hours before entering, to act as witnesses to anything that might happen.

The dragon rested atop one of the gate towers of the outer bailey, watching for invisible interlopers. A grassy, tree-dotted park lay between the wall of the outer bailey and the last street of the city, and a crowd of commoners lined that street. Scattered groups of city watch, commanded by officers from the Royal Guard, were in the park to hopefully quell any insurrection that might arise. The adventurers simply had to walk across the park to the gate to enter the outer bailey…

So, they did. Two party members who would not be recognized as such stood among the crowd sowing discontent, and when Galen appeared at the edge of the park and began advancing toward the gate the crowd was aroused to action and surged forward; but the dragon leapt down from its high place and faced off against Galen, and the crowd turned tail and ran back to the relative safety of the buildings at the edge of the park. Two player characters were with him, invisible but seen by the dragon, and at his instruction they appeared. He knew Aleron Rowentree, and began preparing to attack.

Garag Onyg had approached at a different angle, keeping the trees between himself and the dragon’s perch. When it came down and prepared to fight, he broke into a run, drank a potion of speed, and then drew his greatsword.

Aleron cast slow upon the dragon, and it failed its save; it was attacked, and suffered significant damaage, while not being able to hit with its claws. Badly injured and with Garag Onyg running toward it, the dragon took flight, but slowed by the magic it could not fly far nor rise very high.

Garag used the magic of his boots of traveling and leaping to soar upward and slice into the dragon’s belly, slaying it. Even better, he managed to avoid having its entrails spill down onto him.

With the resistance to their advance thus defeated, the adventurers went with the heir and the priests into the outer bailey, and then entered the inner bailey through the open gatehouse without opposition. In the huge foyer of the keep they found the elf and dwarf ambassadors and their parties waiting, and together they entered the corridor leading to the court.

The great court room was lined with pillars down either side, with long balconies overlooking the room; at the far end were several sets of steps leading up about eight feet to a raised stone platform holding the thrones of the King and Queen of Enterone. In front of them, firmly attached to an ornate stone pillar, was the pale white marble Royal Orb.

It was not the architecture that commanded attention, but the occupants. Forty guardsmen with halberds stood in rows behind the pillars, beneath the balconies. Forty more armed with crossbows lined the balconies themselves, able to fire twenty at a time and then rotate each round to reload while the other half fired. At the top of the steps on the left side, a woman warrior in black armor holding a very black sword, while the right side steps were guarded by a strikingly orange half-elf in plate mail attended by a huge black hound. Standing on the floor before the platform were Duke Tarkan, his wife Duchess Evaine, and her steel-clad bodyguard.

And of course, sitting in the king’s throne was King Jarvan. He stood and challenged the ambassadors, who all said they were present only as witnesses. But Irithiel stood among the elves, wearing a gown which actually indicated (in its traditional quilting and colors) that she was a victim of someone from whom she planned to exact payment. Jarvan did not address her, but whether or not he knew how to read her gown, he certainly knew what she had come for.

The ambassadors mentioned the true heir, which angered Jarvan; he arose from the throne and stepped forward, laying his right hand on the orb and causing it to glow. “There is a true heir, and he is me,” he said in reply.

The high priests pointed out that the three of them and Duke Tarkan together formed a quorum of the Regency Council, should such a body need to be seated again. They moved forward toward the right-hand stairs, even as Garag Onyg advanced toward the left-hand stairs; the guardsmen moved to block the way, using their polearms to barricade the way.

The black-clad woman looked at Garag Onyg as he entered the room, and called out, “Captain of the Guard!” and that officer replied, “Aye!” She smiled and continued, “Send a page to the temple of Mors Cain. Tell them they’ll need an extra-large coffin.”

“Shut up, Sirella,” said King Jarvan. Just then Galen entered the room from the corridor, and King Jarvan pointed at him and yelled, “Fire!”

Twenty guardsmen on the balcony raised their crossbows and took aim. Garag noticed that there was a gap, and determined that he could make a running leap with his magic boots and he would be standing beside the orange half-elf. For Garag Onyg, to have a thought of an offensive strategy is to enact it, and so he leapt, and as he flew in front of the orange man and his dog, the dog breathed seven dice of fire upon him. Garag failed his saving throw, but has so many hit points that he was still in relatively good shape. Under the effect of the potion of speed he began trading blows with the orange-skined cleric.

Duke Tarkan would not leave flee, of course, but sent his wife and her bodyguard up the steps to one of the doors out of the court. Serella, the black-clad warrior, ran across toward Garag, cursing the “damned dog” for being in her way (and of course it was a “damned dog” after all). And at that moment the gnome cast a silence 15′ radius spell in the area of the dais, affecting Jarvan and his allies.

King Jarvan walked toward the left side of the dais, out of the silence, and cast a spell which seemed to have no effect (a shield, of course). Then the guardsmen fired. Twenty crossbow bolts flew toward Galen, but every one missed, for he was wearing a cloak of displacement loaned to him by Aleron. The players actually kind of cheered at this.

We began another round, and most of the initiative numbers were close. The gnome rolled well and cast a hold person on the orange-skinned enemy cleric, who failed his save and fell to the floor. King Jarvan and Aleron Rowentree were tied. Jarvan saw that he had a good line on Galen and Aleron, and realizing that a fireball would take out too many of his own men, chose instead to fire a lightning bolt from his staff of power. But Aleron was simultaneous, and cast dimension door to transport both himself and Galen to the area beside the Orb. The lightning bolt could have struck them or not depending on the exact order of actions, so I made a roll and determined that Aleron was just a bit faster. The lightning bolt struck only the gnome cleric, who failed her save and fell, unconscious and dying.

Now standing beside the Orb, Aleron waited for Galen to touch it; but the heir stumbled, unprepared for the sudden teleportation. (He rolled a 1 for initiative.) Chris’ fey mage Talas dispelled the silence so Aleron and Galen could be heard. At almost the same moment, Cody’s magic-user Zorel stepped out from behind a pillar and unleashed a lightning bolt on Jarvan, injuring him significantly.

Meanwhile, Irithiel asked the ambassador if helping a friend would constitute a violation of their vow to observe, and he said, “Under the circumstances, no.” She moved toward the gnome, even as the high priestess of the goddess of life also did so, and the gnome was saved.

The guardsmen on the ground floor were ordered to block the way to the stairs, and except for Garag getting through they had done so; they were also ordered not to attack the high priests unless they took some offensive action, which they did not. So a significant part of Jarvan’s fighting forces were unable to act. As for those on the balcony tasked with slaying Galen? I rolled percentiles to figure out how many of them saw where he went, and basically none of them had, so they wasted the round trying to figure out what to do.

Garag hacked and chopped at double speed. The hellhound obeyed Serella, moving down a couple of steps as it bit Garag, doing him little harm. Serella swung but missed, and Garag chopped at her, inflicting major wounds. He had a bad feeling about the black-bladed sword she was wielding.

Then at last Galen’s hand fell upon the Orb, and it glowed. Brilliantly, brighter than the sunshine streaming through the skylights above, far brighter than it had for Jarvan. Aleron proclaimed loudly that Galen was the true heir.

In the following round Jarvan rolled badly for initiative. I honestly hadn’t decided what he would do on his turn, but it didn’t matter as Zorel blasted him with another lightning bolt, and ex-King Jarvan fell.

But the fight went on, though the guardsmen were thrown into disarray and took no further action. Serella used a spell from a ring, which she (in other words, I) had forgotten to use earlier… haste. But it did not help her as Garag cut her down before she could attack him again.

And then, it was over.

When Jarvan lay dead at last, Duke Tarkan proclaimed “Long live the King!” and bowed toward Galen. He called Tarkan and the high priests forward and informed them that he intended the Regency Council to continue running the country on a day-to-day basis, as they already knew what they were doing; he also indicated his intent to leave no heir, as Gallus Oberon did before him, restoring the country to the rulership of the Council upon his death.

In the following days, many arrangements were made, much rest was had, and numerous XP were distributed. I’d like to say it was a good time, but honestly it so much more than that!

Are Magic Users Too Weak, Part II

by Solomoriah

Back on January 11, 2014, I posted Are Magic-Users Too Weak? about the persistent notion that, by the book, Magic-User characters are too weak because they get just one spell per day. payday loans online in florida.   I thought my post had dispelled that notion, but evidently not, as it has come up several times on our Facebook page.

I honestly don’t understand it.  I explained all the same things to those folks that I explained in the blog post, and they still said things to the effect that the magic-user was useless because he (or she) could only participate in one combat before running out of magic and therefore being unable to do anything.

Now certainly, if you want to run a more heroic game, and you’ve beefed up the other classes in some way, giving the magic-user more magic might be entirely appropriate, and I will neither judge nor question you if that’s the game you’re wanting to run.  But the question of whether or not magic-users are “too weak” by the book still comes up, and I still do not understand it.

First of all, magic isn’t all you can do.  Classic games of the old days, the ones that Basic Fantasy mimics, expected that a first-level magic-user would start play with a handful of daggers for throwing.  It was also expected that, since that character needed no armor and only cheap weaponry, his or her expenditures would be for party-useful items like rope, spikes, and maybe a ten foot pole.

But the blog post linked above shows a more important truth:  By the book, no first level character is prepared for more than one battle before retiring to a safe place to recover.  I did the math and presented a valid answer, and thought it was over.

It wasn’t.

Last night and this morning I wrote a simulation script.  The parameters are simple:  One each fighter, cleric, thief, and magic-user, all first level.  Each character has a +1 in his or her prime requisite attribute, and is otherwise average.  The magic-user has one spell, magic missile, the number two choice for magic-users (as sleep is generally the nuclear option for first level parties, ending an encounter almost before it starts).  The opponents are a group of four goblins, of average nature.  I assume the fighter and cleric, being beginners, had only enough money for chainmail and shield, giving them AC 16, while the thief has AC 14 due to leather armor and that +1 DEX bonus.  The magic-user is, of course, AC 11.  Everyone gets to roll hit points twice and take the higher result, while the monsters are stuck with a single roll; this is the only advantage I gave the players, and I did this specifically because most GMs won’t make a player suffer with 1 HP at the start.  The fighter has a longsword, the cleric a mace, the thief a shortsword and the magic-user has a dagger.  Ranged weapons are omitted on both sides, and the fight takes place in a 10′ wide corridor, so initially the fighter and cleric are the front line facing a pair of goblins; if either the fighter or cleric dies, the thief moves up, so the magic-user is in melee only if two party members die.  Also, surprise and morale effects are ignored; everyone fights to the death.  This is the “cold steel” option, the harshest one, which should nail down the power level of the party as a whole as well as the magic-user’s place within it.

After 10,000 combats were fought, I had results.  The monsters won the fight, killing everyone, 1,664 times; the players won 8,336 times.  Though ties were possible (as I modeled the standard initiative rules), there were none.  So the players were 83.36% likely to win… but what did winning look like?

All four player characters survived in 3,805 of those battles, or in other words, in about 46% of battles where the PCs won, all four walked away.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  The average damage taken by the entire party in these situations is about 2.8 points, which sounds a lot like one hit from a goblin.  Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?  But even so, at this point one of your front-line characters has taken about half of his or her hit points in damage.  Fighting on is not a great idea, but many would go ahead.

This is, of course, the situation when all four party members survive the combat.  What about when it doesn’t go so well?  In 32% of the battles where the player characters win, one of their number falls; in 17% of those winning battles, two party members are down (the fighter and the cleric, of course).  In just 6% of combats, only one walks away, by the skin of his or her teeth it seems.  Sensible player characters absolutely will withdraw to safety if even one of their number dies or is rendered noncombatant (if you use the negative HP rule, for example); if both front line characters go down, there’s just about no other sane choice.  Thus, in about 46% of battles, it might make sense for the party to fight on, and in those cases the magic-user has “nothing to do.”

I’m not convinced that is true.  Throwing daggers is always a good option.  I’ve actually had people tell me that magic-users should never be reduced to using non-magical combat options, which is silly.  A first level magic-user is just starting out (we used to call them “apprentices”) and thus is not yet ready to depend on his or her magic nearly that much.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember I said the magic-user had magic missile?  What if that weren’t so?  What if the magic-user didn’t do an automatic 1d6+1 points of damage in the first round of combat?

Let’s find out.  I modified the simulation to omit that spell, and here are the statistics:  The PCs win just about 74% of the time, rather than 83% as above.  All four PCs survive their winning battles just 37% of the time, instead of 46%… 33% of the time, three survive, 21% of the time two survive, and only one survives just 8% of the time.  Without that one spell, outcomes are significantly different.

There is one rule I find interesting… many GMs apparently allow magic-users to use a “magic dart” attack of some kind that does 1d4 points of damage, and requires an attack roll to hit.  This obviously does not unbalance the game significantly, as the character could just as easily be using daggers to do this, so it’s just for flavor.  While it does not appeal to me, I see nothing “wrong” with it from a game balance perspective.  I still think, though, that the apprentice magic-user who is not yet sure of his or her magic and so is armed with a collection of throwing knives is a more interesting archetype than one who shoots off sparks of magical energy whenever he or she gets cross with someone.

But again, I believe I’ve successfully shown here why the first level magic-user is not, in fact, “too weak” by the book.  I hope, anyway.

The Companion Question

by Solomoriah

I’m frequently asked about why there is no “Companion” rulebook collecting races, classes, items, spells, and other rules that are presently supplements.  Sometimes the questioner asks for an “Advanced” game combining the current Core Rules with those same supplementary rulesets.  I’ve answered this question many times, but yet it still crops up regularly, so I’m writing this blog post as a permanent answer to the question.

In the 2E era of the “world’s most popular role-playing game,” one of the things that began to appear in great numbers were so-called splatbooks: rulebooks containing supplementary classes, races, items, spells, and so on, put out by the same publisher who created the original rules.  The 3E and later eras of that game continued this tradition.  Players would buy these splatbooks because they appealed to them, naturally, and then they would show up at a game session and tell the GM “I want to play THIS.”  If the race or class didn’t fit well with the GM’s world, he or she was naturally permitted by the application of Rule Zero to say “No, sorry, I’m not allowing that in my world.”  But just because the GM could do so did not mean that he or she would… the player might say, “But, but, this is official!” and the GM would feel pressured into allowing it.  3E and later books had, if anything, even more power over the GM, since that game sharply curtailed Rule Zero.

One of the things I feel strongly about is that this should not happen.  Players should be allowed to have a good time, of course, but the GM should never be forced to allow something he or she doesn’t want.  It is for this reason that the supplements on the Downloads page will never, ever be compiled into any sort of official book, whether a Companion supplement or an Advanced rulebook.

This doesn’t mean such a book is impossible.  In fact, I have plans to publish my personal compilation, the Glain Supplement, in print at some point in the future.  But it will not be an official Basic Fantasy Project publication… it won’t carry the crenelated border that marks all our works, nor will it appear on the Downloads page, ever.  It’s my personal house rules, and house rules compilations are not permitted on the Downloads page nor as official print publications, for the same reason I just gave above.

One of the curious, and very pleasant, side effects of doing things this way is the shorthand it allows the GM when starting a new game.  The GM can simply say, “I’m running a Basic Fantasy game with the Half Humans, Gnomes, and Thief Options” and everyone knows exactly what options are available in that game.  It’s easier to do it that way than to say “I’m running a Basic Fantasy game with just some of the Companion Supplement items.  Here’s a list.”  This might seem just as easy, but done this way the players may end up having to figure out what pages to print from that Companion book, or might buy the book only to use a small part of it.  When our standard supplements are used, the player need only print out the supplements relevant to his or her character.

The Non-Problem with Skill Dice

by Solomoriah

Today a snippet of a blog post showed up multiple times on my Facebook wall, posted by several of my friends.  A little Google-fu allowed me to find the actual post, which is here:

Go read it, and then come back.

OKAY, so, I’m mainly commenting on the part after the subheading “The Problem with Skill Dice” (which you probably guessed given the title of this post).  Michael’s opinion of the “n in d6” mechanic is pretty clear:

This is unintuitive, clunky, not uniform, and scales oddly, implicitly preventing attributes from doing what they normally do.

I disagree with this part in general; I use this mechanic all the time.  Typically it’s used in places where the odds of success are normally low, and the character’s ability score is the only significant modifier.  Opening doors, for example, is successful on a 1 on 1d6, with the Strength bonus added to the range of success (so a Strength bonus of +1 makes the roll succeed on 1-2 on 1d6, a +2 is 1-3 on 1d6, and so on).  This is a standard mechanic in Basic Fantasy RPG.

Personally, I extend this mechanic in two ways:  First, an ability score with a penalty bumps the die size up (so a -1 Strength penalty makes it a 1 on 1d8, a -2 is 1 on 1d10, and so on).  Second, if the difficulty is greater than normal, I bump up the die size; the best example of this is when a character tries to lift a portcullis or bend some bars.  In that specific case, I bump the die all the way up to 1d20 (so a character with 18 Strength succeeds on 1-4 on 1d20, a 20% chance, while an average character has only a 5% chance of success).

Michael says this mechanic “scales oddly.”  I don’t see it that way… rather, I see it as a specific choice in scaling, one that makes a typical task difficult for an average person but relatively easy for a superior character.  Where that type of mechanic makes sense (i.e. when opening a door), I think it’s fine.  One of the most important elements of the old games is the use of whatever mechanic seems to fit the situation… a sort of game mechanical pragmatism that stands in full opposition to the idea of a “core mechanic.”

Michael goes on to say:

Skill dice discourage imaginative, descriptive play in favor of using a skill from a sheet.

This assertion is not really related to his earlier statement.  First, he describes how he doesn’t like “Skill Dice” as a mechanic, and then he says he doesn’t like how the mechanic affects play.  They really are separate things.

The short answer to the question is, how else do you do it?  When I play a thief, I’m playing someone who knows how to do something I don’t know how to do (and if you ask my wife, it’s not Open Locks that I fail at, it’s Move Silently).  It won’t do me any good to describe HOW I’m doing a task, when I’m doing a task the character knows better than I do.  If my success is keyed to how well I can describe the action… folks, I’m screwed.  And that’s not what the game is about.

I do believe in rewarding players who go the extra mile.  If a player says, “I check the door for traps” then I make the roll and tell the player what the character discovers (or does not discover).  If that player says, “I look all around the doorknob, and before I look under the door, I want to slip my dagger in there an inch or so and slide it around to make sure there’s nothing there” then I will adjudicate that action however I see fit; probably, I’ll still make the same roll, but I might very well grant a bonus.

You have to have some way to resolve actions.  Keying them entirely to the character’s ability scores is very limiting; it becomes hard, for example, to have a character who is good at one part of his or her profession and bad at another.  And, depending on what mechanic you choose, it may make ability scores too important (or too unimportant).

So I guess I’m arguing both points too.  You do need “Skill Dice” of some sort… some way to resolve actions.  And you do need multiple ways to do such resolution, so each situation has an appropriate chance of success.

How I Write Adventures

by Solomoriah

Probably close to two months ago (in real time) I was needing a game-time-filling side quest for some of my player’s characters.  So an NPC told them a story about Thaumerion Daelant, a wizard dead for almost two hundred years; his tower, they were told, had been raided repeatedly by adventurers over the years, but no one ever found the wizard’s personal treasures.  Besides his spell books, a thing always worth having, the stories told that Thaumerion had been the owner of a Staff of Power.

That was enough of a hook to get them moving.  I didn’t have the tower detailed yet; indeed, all I knew about it was what I just wrote above.  They spent a session traveling overland to the locale, and still I didn’t have the dungeon done, but no problem… I just put J.D. Neal’s Insect Valhalla from our AA1 Adventure Anthology 1 multimodule between them and the tower.  I’d wanted to run that adventure for a while anyway, so it seemed like a perfect time.

They finished it (as in, got from one side to the other) in a session, and due to scheduling issues I had a month to get the tower done.

A week ago, I still hadn’t done anything, and I knew I was down to the wire… they were literally at the outer door of the tower.  I had to get it finished.

Tuesday I was driving down the road on the way back from visiting a customer, thinking about the tower, when I suddenly saw it all in a kind of a flash… how to build the dungeon so it could be repeatedly looted and still have significant challenges, and present an enemy who is not what it appears to be at all (subverting one of the oldest RPG tropes in the process).

Tuesday night I sat down and drew the maps, then converted them to MapMatic +2 format.  Wednesday I laid out the basic document format, wrote up a first draft of the GM’s introduction, the main encounter and roughly a third of the other dungeon rooms.  Thursday I filled in all the remaining rooms, and had James Lemon start taking a look at the adventure.  I’ve redone some of the maps and touched up the text a bit since then, and as far as I’m concerned it’s almost ready to publish.

Seriously, I don’t normally write adventures that way.  Most of the time, filling in the last 50% or so of the dungeon is a slog, and I rarely am able to fill in the mundane contents of the dungeon, or the flavor text, so easily as I did this time.  Writing the adventures I publish, or revising those submitted to us, is almost always a slow process.  Sometimes, though, inspiration hits… just in time, in this case, as I will be running the adventure in an hour and a half.

Thaumerion’s Tower will appear on the forum soon (after my players have been through it and I fix up whatever issues they expose) and I have plans for it to appear in AA3 Adventure Anthology 3 when we begin work on that document.

UPDATE:  Thaumerion’s Tower is now part of BF3 Strongholds of Sorcery, which with any luck will be in print before Christmas!

Response to “Read-Aloud Woes”

by Solomoriah

Over at Angry Hamster Publishing, Liz wrote about her love-hate relationship with read-aloud text (what we call “Boxed Text” in Basic Fantasy adventures).  I tried to post commentary on her blog about the subject, but it thinks I’m a robot.  (Can you imagine?)  So first, visit Angry Hamster for her perspective on the situation:

Read Aloud Woes

And next, you can read mine:

For adventures distributed by the Basic Fantasy Project, I always require what we call “boxed text.”  As a GM, I only use it sometimes, and when I do I paraphrase what’s there.  Why do we require it?

Because of secrets.

See, if you write fluffy descriptive text in the middle of the GM’s bit, and the GM is describing the room to the players, it’s tempting to just read what’s there.  But imagine this bit appearing in the GM’s description of a room:

This fine parlor contains two large comfortable chairs toward the right rear of the room with a table between them.  The table has a single drawer, and inside it is a dagger +1, +3 vs. undead.  The back wall is covered floor-to-ceiling in overloaded bookshelves; there are several scrolls and one rare book, as listed below, scattered among the other books.  Each turn spent searching yields a cumulative 10% chance per character searching that one will be found; the GM should roll randomly to determine which one is discovered each time the roll succeeds.  On the floor is a large, ornate rug, somewhat moth-eaten but still impressive.  There is a fireplace roughly centered on the right-hand wall, and that wall is covered in paintings depicting different members of the Baron’s family.  Behind one of them (the painting of Hilda, the Baron’s third cousin once removed) is a small wall-safe containing 122 PP and a ring of fire resistance.  The left-hand wall is dominated by a huge mirror centered on the wall; on either side of the mirror is a painting of a pastoral landscape.  The mirror is, in fact, a secret door, opened by means of a slightly-protruding brick hidden behind the right-hand landscape painting.

Okay, now try to read out just the parts the players can see from that description without giving away the locations of the treasures or of the secret door.  Unless you are more skillful than me, you’ll naturally pause as you skip over those bits, giving away that there is something there.

Breaking it apart makes it much easier to avoid giving things away, and as a bonus, you can also break up the different interesting bits into separate paragraphs so that all relevant info is easy to find.

Like this.  First, the boxed text:

This fine parlor contains two large comfortable chairs toward the right rear of the room with a table between them; the table has a single small drawer.  The back wall is covered floor-to-ceiling in overloaded bookshelves.  On the floor is a large, ornate rug, somewhat moth-eaten but still impressive.  There is a fireplace roughly centered on the right-hand wall, and that wall is covered in portrait paintings.  The left-hand wall is dominated by a huge mirror centered on the wall; on either side of the mirror is a painting of a pastoral landscape.

Next, the GM’s part:

Inside the drawer of the small table is a dagger +1, +3 vs. undead.

There are several scrolls and one rare book, as listed below, scattered among the other books on the bookshelf.  Each turn spent searching yields a cumulative 10% chance per character searching that one will be found; the GM should roll randomly to determine which one is discovered each time the roll succeeds.

The mirror is, in fact, a secret door, opened by means of a slightly-protruding brick hidden behind the right-hand landscape painting.

The paintings on the left-hand wall (around the fireplace) depict different members of the Baron’s family.  Behind one of them (the painting of Hilda, the Baron’s third cousin once removed) is a small wall-safe containing 122 PP and a ring of fire resistance.

… and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done exactly what I just did here to a dungeon room description in a submitted adventure.  Usually the author of the adventure has provided all that is needed for the boxed text, but has just not organized it.  Even if you NEVER read the boxed text literally, isn’t it nice to have the non-secret part boxed out for you to use in creating your own description?

Why not add X to the game?

by Solomoriah

This is an answer to a question I get a lot, and I’ve answered a lot… and saying the same thing over and over is inefficient.  So from now on, when I get the question, I’ll point the questioner here.

One of the secrets of the success of Basic Fantasy RPG is the fact that I had a clear vision of what the game needed to be.  Four classes, four races, brief equipment list, manageable spell list, enough monsters to keep you busy without getting too weird, and so on.  I had what I called a “coverage target,” that is, a list of things that the game had to have.  I made a point of adding very little that was not on that list.

The rule I used was simple.  Many people would send me email messages that said “Your game is really good, but it would be great if it had X in it” where X might be sorcerers or half-dragons or whatever.  Very few people repeated the same request; when I saw a request being repeated, that was an indication to me of something I should consider adding.  Consider carefully, mind you… very few things got added that way.  It’s why we have (brief) wrestling rules, for example, rather than none at all as was common in the 1981 era that BFRPG seeks to emulate.

Any X that was requested by just one guy?  No, not getting in, sorry.  Even when several people asked, I was really careful.

One thing in particular I am always careful of… new classes.  It is so hard to create a new class that is not objectively better or worse overall than the core class it is closest to.  Balance is hard, people, especially in a game that embraces the “linear fighter, quadratic wizard” situation (look it up, it’s interesting reading).

The Basic Fantasy RPG Core Rules will probably never include more than the four classes and four races you find in the current edition.  Keeping the game compact, and providing those “cool” bits as supplements, helps to keep the feel and style of the game consistent and familiar.

My Reply to “Who’s Afraid Of The OSR?”

by Solomoriah

I honestly don’t remember how I ended up reading Smiorgan’s post on the Department V blog, but no sooner was I reading it than I felt compelled to reply.  At first I planned to post a comment there, but those who know me, know that brevity is not my strong suit.

So here I am.

First of all, let me say that it is an interesting post.  One of the first things that stood out to me was this quote by Ron Edwards:

I suggest that the systemic differences among many OSR games, even the retroclones, are so profound that they exceed the community ideal of compatibility, which then must be papered over by claims of some kind of homogeneity.

I know Ron is supposed to be some kind of gaming expert, but honestly, what the heck is he talking about?  I routinely use materials (primarily adventures) written for Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry (not to mention the classic games on which they are modeled) in my games, converting materials on the fly.  Claims that the systemic differences are “profound” is, well, a profound overstatement.

More to the point, though… Smiorgan provided a list of things he (I think it’s he) says could be changed to make D&D-like games more palatable to modern players.  Let me say that I tried pretty much all of those things, and found the results wanting.

Back around 2002-2003 or so, about the same time Castles & Crusades was being developed, I wrote a set of core rules intended for use with spells and monsters from any edition of the classic game.  I called my rules “Project 74” and my plan was to achieve compatibility with classic materials, much as I just now described, while including modern features.  I didn’t go after Smiorgan’s list, of course (as it was just now written) but rather followed along with the list written by Mark “Kamikaze” Hughes titled “What’s Wrong with AD&D.”

I took his list of complaints, which surprisingly after more than ten years is still at the same URL, as a list of things to correct.  I boiled the rules of those classic games down to a sort of mechanical ideal, “refactoring” (to use a programming term) the rules to make them more “sensible.”  I addressed Mark’s list with my own philosophical statement, still available on my website.

In my opinion, I did a very usable job of creating a rules-light, semi-modern game system that managed to retain D&D-isms like class and level while having a full skill system.  I made an effort to make all game mechanical systems properly “first class” (in a programming sense) so that the rules would have few special cases.

The game was not satisfactory.  Oh, I ran my ongoing campaign, set in the world I created back in 1982, using those rules, and things went along well enough.  But there were things that just felt wrong.

I could give an exhaustive list, if I felt like racking my brain long enough (remember, I last played with these rules around 2007), but I’m not going to that much trouble.  Rather, I’ll point out the one thing that really stood out to me.

Opening doors.

My game had a unified skill roll system.  Every “difficult” action other than combat was resolved using a standardized core mechanic; this was similar to the D20 method, but arguably the same thing as in games like RuneQuest, where percentiles are rolled for everything.  The end result was that the party half-ogre with 17 Strength was actually not a lot better at knocking down doors than the party dwarf, also with a +2 Strength bonus (Project 74 used a similar attribute-to-bonus mapping as BFRPG).  Yeah, I gave the half-ogre a bonus because he was big, but I also had to assign bonuses or penalties (for easy or hard doors) using larger numbers than I generally assigned as “situational modifiers.”

I could have messed around with the numbers, sure; but it was by far simpler to switch back to the classic 1d6 roll to open a door.  Each bonus was worth 16.7% instead of 5%, and the adjustments were very obvious.  I wrote down in my last version of Project 74 a new rule that even allowed for changing the die size as an indicator of difficulty.  Though it’s not in the BFRPG rules, it’s exactly the method I use now, as it works beautifully.

Why didn’t I write it down?  See my post on this blog entitled “Metarules” for an explanation of that.

It might be tempting to think I’m a true grognard, i.e. a grumbler, one who loves the classic games with a religious zeal.  I’m not.  I’m working on a game called “Realms of Wonder” right now, a fantasy game set in a world that differs markedly from the kind of world defined by games like Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC, or of course BFRPG.  Mechanically the game is a lot like the kind of game Smiorgan seems to want, and I expect it to be a lot of fun… breaking the player’s expectations usually is.  I wrote another game, shared on my website but never actually published, called Variant V; it owes more of its DNA to RuneQuest than anything.  I ran that campaign for several years.  The point is, I like the classic class-and-level games for their own merit, not because they are the only kind of game I want to play.

Do I have a point?  Yeah, I think I do.  Trying to “fix” the classic rules is a mistake.  They aren’t broken… they’re just different.

What Changed in the 3rd Edition Core Rules?

by Solomoriah

I keep getting asked that question… so… here’s how I answered on Google+ earlier:

The 3rd Edition Core Rules add two magic items, a handful of monsters, a page of sample traps, and one additional official combo class (Elf Magic-User/Thief) which was in the Gnomes supplement previously.  Besides that, a bunch of new art was added, a number of errors corrected, and a couple of things clarified.

The most important thing to understand is that new editions of the Basic Fantasy RPG Core Rules do NOT make older editions “obsolete.”  I know there are some people with 1st Edition books who still use them, and they are playing the same game as the rest of us.  My players all have 2nd Edition rulebooks, and they don’t need new ones… the 2nd Edition books will work just fine indefinitely.