Thursday, April 23, 2009

Perception, Senses, and Searching in Roleplaying Games

I've been thinking over perception and searching in gaming. The way I figure it, there are a few ways to go about it:

1. Negotiated: if there is a dagger +1 in the pile of moldering clothes, a character who rifles through them is going to find it. The DM might rule that a character who merely prods the pile of rags with his trusty 10' pole (to make sure that there's no monster hiding in there) might not find it. If there's a key in the third desk drawer, a character who says he's opening said drawer (or says he's searching the whole desk) finds it. End of story. I like this method because it rewards clever players, but it can also become tedious if the party stops to pull and prod every brick, book, and candle in whatever location they happen to be exploring. I've noticed that older games tend to at least partially treat perception like this, as do games that don't address the issue mechanically at all.

2. A flat probability. I'm not sure I've ever seen this outside certain rules in older versions of D&D: characters have a flat chance of finding a secret door, or a party has a certain chance of being surprised. (Which I think it a matter of perception) This tends to put characters on more or less equal footing,

3. Perception is a stat. Games I've seen that operate like this include all the old White Wolf games, "classic" Deadlands, In Nomine, Gamma World 4th edition, etc. I'm sure I could think of more if I tried. I have some misgivings with this method, because players get lazy and just ask if they can make checks with their perception stat. The DM can also get lazy, just setting up rooms and encounters to be contingent on someone passing a stat check.

4. Perception is a skill. This started showing up in the form of Thief skills (Detect Noise, Find/Remove Traps), and mutated horribly in the d20 days to be three separate skills. (My least favorite handling of perception in all of gamedom.) I have the same problems as above with #3, except this also forces the players to spend skill points/levels/whatever and makes them less capable at doing other things.

5. Perception is a roll you make with another stat. The new World of Darkness and it's various offshoots do this. I find that games often co-opt the system's equivalent of "intelligence" for this. I'm wary of game systems that overemphasize certain attributes by making them "too good."

Personally, I like negotiated perception the best, though I do see a need for a mechanical system to determine things such as surprise, and I can see the value of the old rules for finding secret doors. (Lest your session turn into "Okay, I tug every book on every bookshelf. I twist and pull all the torch sconces, I push ever brick in the floor.") I am also not a fan of adventures that hinge entirely on a successful search/perception/cognition roll to find a clue, key, or MacGuffin without which the party cannot progress further.

The more I think about it, the more I find that I dislike a mechanically standardized approach to perception. I think that it simplifies things, but ultimately takes away from the experience. However, there should be rules in place for things like ambush, or a character using "hide in shadows" while other creatures pass by.

I'll have to think on this further.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I Guess I'm Just a Consumer Whore

I was thinking about it tonight, and I realized that, while I would like to own hard copies of the various retro clones, I find that I have little need for them. My copy of the Rules Cyclopedia is quite functional, and I have recently come into possession of a serviceable copy of the Gamma World 2nd edition boxed set, and a few weeks before that I got my hands on all the AD&D 1st edition core books. As much as I like S&W, LL, MF, OSRIC, and all the rest, I find that I have no need to spend money on them.

For some reason, this conclusion makes me feel somehow "left out." Logically, I understand that if you have the original rules, you have all that the clones offer and more. (Well, not quite... some of them are different like M74 and MF, but you get the idea) However, I seem to have entered into some kind of collector's frenzy, buying books for the sake of having them. Perhaps I am so simple that a shiny new cover is all it takes to catch my interest. Perhaps I am some kind of very specialized bibliophile. Gads.

I don't think my recent interest in these "authentic" versions of the old games is entirely motivated by nostalgia, since I never actually played AD&D 1st, GW 2nd, and Star Frontiers when they were in their heyday; I started with AD&D 2, Gamma World 4th, and so on. Granted, I did have the Rules Cyclopedia when it was a current item, but there really isn't a retro clone of that version of D&D yet, and while LL and S&W share the same roots, they are somewhat different animals.

Perhaps the cure for this condition is less thinking and more playing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Martial Arts in OA it me, or does this shit need some serious re-working? If the tables speak true, why would anyone ever bother using a weapon? You can easily make a martial arts style that attacks twice a round for 1d8 damage and gives you AC equivalent to studded leather. Unless, of course, you are playing with the weapon type vs. AC rules, because I'm fairly sure bare handed attacks get a nasty penalty to hit any type of armor.
In all likelihood, since I never play with weapon type vs. AC mods, I will adjust the damage of martial arts down by one point each and say that the total damage rounds down, so that the only way to do 1d8 is to take a purely offensive hard style. (Since even a striking hard/soft combo style would only net you a 7)

Another thing to think about, however, is that I don't think you can do martial arts in armor... and those high offensive styles are going to leave the fighter with an AC of 7-8. (Unless he's using a soft style, in which case he's going to have high AC but do very low damage and have only one attack per round, the horror.

Yes another thing to consider is that, unless I missed something, only monks and some kensai start out with martial arts... monks it is obviously built into their class, and kensai can specifically choose a martial art as their weapon of choice. The only other rules about martial arts, from what I read, involve a long and arduous process of courting a master, plus the willingness to drop proficiency slots, which don't come around that often.

Perhaps martial arts rock so hard because your chances of learning them are fairly slim.

If anyone out there has played with the OA martial arts rules as written, please feel free to leave feedback. This isn't going to become an issue anytime soon, but I like to have my house rules for a game nailed down before I ever run it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Boxed Sets Arrive, Nostalgia Sets In

Fact: The narration of the events of any given Gamma World play session is indistinguishable from the narration of an acid trip.

A Website Worth Checking Out

If you haven't, dear readers, (all three of you) I recommend checking out Philotomy's website for some musings on OD&D. While I might not agree with every point or thought, the musings are well worth your time.

Philotomy's Page

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hats off to Dave Arneson


Holy cow, it seems that rumors of Mr. Arneson's death were greatly exaggerated, so I have retitled this post, but it remains a thank you nonetheless. It's good to have a chance to thank someone who has contributed positively (if indirectly) to your life before it is too late! The rest of the message remains the same:

Thank you, Dave, for contributing to the foundation of my very favorite hobby for the last 17 years or so. Gaming is part of my everyday life, and it might not have turned out that way if not for your contributions.

Age in AD&D

One thing I never paid much attention to was character age. Basic D&D didn't pay any attention to it, and it was/is largely fluff in editions 2, 3.x, and 4. However, a quick look at the age tables in AD&D1, and you will see that many characters start out in the Mature age bracket, and thus have altered stats. The elven cleric's base age is five hundred years, and if he rolls high enough on his variable, he will end up in the third age bracket with even further modifications to his stats.
I tried to see a rhyme or reason in the age ranges (because I read far too much into this lovely game of ours), and the only thing I can guess is that elven society must move at a really slow pace. I also find it kind of amusing that magic-users and illusionists have to train until they are in their thirties just to be able to throw a single spell a day. Fighters, on the other hand, should just be thankful that they live in a society without a legal drinking age.

Monday, April 6, 2009

On a lighter note...

I have cheerfully abandoned my vow not to buy any gaming products this year that I don't plan to immediately use. Thanks to the mad deals to be had on Ebay, I am now expecting boxed sets of Star Frontiers and Gamma World 2nd edition. The price for both: eight bucks.

Boxed sets. Oh yeah, I'm psyched. I haven't played either of those games since I was about twelve or thirteen, and they were relics even then.

I Am Extra Articulate Tonight

You know what?
Fuck Wizards of the Coast. Fuck them in their stupid asses. I'm never going to spend another cent on one of their products. Thanks for taking my favorite game and fucking it up beyond recognition. Twice. (Or is it two and a half times?)

Oh, and Magic: the Gathering sucks.

I'm out.

Friday, April 3, 2009

On the Subject of Magical Writings

Here's something I just learned about illusionists in 1st edition that doesn't sit quite right with me: they don't have to use read magic to read illusionist spells in books and scrolls. According to the AD&D1 DMG, illusion spells are written in a secret tongue taught to all illusionists during their apprenticeship.


I never knew this because, in my entire gaming history, nobody I've ever played with has rolled up an illusionist, and I'm pretty sure that specialist wizards in AD&D2 all work exactly like normal mages when it comes to read magic. (2nd edition illusionists included)

For some reason, this little tidbit just doesn't jive with me. (Of course, maybe that's why the minimum starting age for an illusionist is 31 years old vs. magic-user's 26)
I also find that the concept is somewhat contradicted in the DMG's section on scrolls, where all scrolls aside from protection-type scrolls require a read magic spell to decipher.

That leads me to scrolls in general: all scrolls require read magic to decipher except for protection scrolls (which can be read by any character). How is it that classes without access to read magic would be able to create scrolls that can be read by no other means?

A final nitpick on magical writings is that rangers can eventually learn to cast druidic and magic-user spells, but cannot read them from scrolls. Likewise, the thief cannot cast spells, but may read magical scrolls. I suppose the partial education of those classes is sufficient to at least hand-wave the matter.

Since I anticipate tinkering quite a bit with AD&D, I intend to address the issue of magical writing and the use of read magic. My initial idea is thus:

Magic-users will have a secret set of written language much like illusionists do. This allows them to decipher magical scrolls and writings, but only up to the level they can cast. A 3rd level magic-user who finds a scroll with web can read the scroll without magical aid, but he cannot comprehend a spell with fireball on it because his understanding of magical writings is insufficient to comprehend a 3rd level spell. The old read magic spell becomes something of a translator-type spell: the magic-user can use it to reveal the nature of spells beyond his comprehension. He could then read scrolls or even copy a higher level spell into his spellbook, although he'd still be unable to memorize it until he reached the proper level. Read magic would also allow him to determine the nature of an illusionist, clerical, or druidic scroll, including what spell it is, though of course he would still be unable to use it.

Druidic spells would be written in the druidic language. Characters who have somehow managed to learn that secret tongue (an assassin, for instance) would be unable to cast the spell regardless because they have no connection to the powers of nature.

Clerical scrolls are written in a church dialect that all clerics learn during their seminary, something akin to Latin in the medieval church. While non-clerical religious scholars or curious academics might be able to learn this language, they lack to training to connect to the divine and thus the scroll can't be employed as a spell.

Illusionist spells will remain written in the secret illusionist language, readable and usable only by illusionist characters.

An additional rule I am contemplating is that the reverse of read magic, undetectable magic, be made permanent in duration, or perhaps it lasts one year per level or is particularly long lived. It renders magical writing unreadable until read magic is employed.

It occurs to me that the format of a spell is most likely different on a scroll than it is in a spellbook: the writing is charged with energy and I see it as a sort of "magical shorthand." (For magic-user and illusionist scrolls, that is...the idea isn't applicable to clerics and druids as they lack spellbooks.) Magic-users and illusionist still have to make a "chance to learn spell" roll if they desire to copy the scroll into their book, because they have to essentially reverse engineer the true version of the spell from the magical shorthand. For copying a spell of higher level than what one can cast, I would impose a penalty of -10% per level difference.

The spell comprehend languages cannot be used to decipher a magic-user or illusionist scroll, as I see those languages as more of a system of mathematics or scientific formula than I do an actual language that one could communicate in.

I think we've got ourselves a workable system, folks.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Special Reference Work, Indeed

I have kind of a history with the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide. When I was in fifth grade, I used to check it out from the local library over and over. Much of what I thought D&D was in those days what I managed to extrapolate from that book, Oriental Adventures, and the book Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Eric Holmes, which contained a simple little fantasy adventure and rules in it. Yeah, from those sprang a bizarre homebrew D&D that persisted in our group until one of my buddies got the AD&D 2nd Edition books and I got the D&D basic set with the red dragon on the front. Earlier this week, I finally got my own copy of the DMG.

Man, what a hot mess this book is. No chapters, information provided in an order that I'm sure makes sense to someone, but not me. It also contains a lot more information on the "True Way" of doing things than I remember, and some of the information seems to contradict the supposed tenants of old school play. Consider that the book actually advocates skipping wandering monster tables if the dungeon is well stocked or the players are eager to get to the heart of things. One of the thing about our recently ended game of S&W I often found frustrating was just getting from the damned dungeon to town and back. The wandering monster dice rolls punished us again and again with trolls, a cockatrice, and (on two separate occasions) adult dragons. This, for first level characters. In fact, ol' Gary says that the most important part of the game is "action and drama."

Zounds! Drama? Isn't that for all them new-fangled White Wolf games*?

I'm enjoying reading through the book, and it is making me think that maximum lethality is not something strictly "old school" and not an inherent part of the game. Hell, at one point, the book even refers to the player characters as "larger than life heroes and villains", which also contradicts the boot-camp, "you are nobody" feel that is often evoked in the name of retro play.

Plus, you know, it had that comic strip about Papers and Paychecks, and that shit was golden, baby.

*I actually like, run, and play White Wolf games, but I can't help but disparage even the things that I like.