Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Good idea, internet...

So a recent term used to find my blog was "OSR Al-Qadim."

I'd love to see something like this come out of the OSR.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Stars Without Number: The Hydrin Clans

The Hydrin Clans are a loose confederation of tribes that wander the galaxy in a community of scavenged ships.

Most who are familiar with the Hydrin Clans think that they originated in Hydra Sector (because of their name). The Elders have removed the details of their homeworld from the Clan Sagas, a highly allegorical series of poems that relate the history of the Clans. According to the Clan Sagas, they Hydrin Clans are all that is left of their homeworld, which was destroyed after being betrayed by their allies against something called the Dragon. The Hydrin Sagas state that they slew the Dragon and that the traitors suffered a fate worse than death, but that the Clans had to leave their homeworld behind forever.

Although the Clans originally consisted only of refugees from the same planet, they are known to accept vagabonds, refugees, and drifters- even alien ones- as long as they swear loyalty to the Clans and receive their mark. The Hydrin Clans are loyal only to themselves. Betrayal is the direst crime in the Clans.

The Hydrin Clans survive by being professional mercenaries. They are not just warriors for hire, but also engineers, medics, mechanics, and other services. However, Hydrin will not fight other Hydrin, even if they are hired by opposing forces. The Clans will quit the field before they engage one another.

The Clans have spent the last hundred and fifty years wandering Atragon Sector, serving as foils in the unending conflict between the sector's two major polities: the Arcanian League and the Technocratic Unions of Runaris. These two powers also have enough infighting between their members that they sometimes hire the Hydrin Clans in their internal struggles as well.

While outsiders consider the Hydrin to be barbarians, they are actually a fully modern Tech Level 4 civilization. Their code of honor is also far more civil than many of the so-called "enlightened" worlds of the Arcanian League. The Clans also pride themselves on their reputation for getting the job done, and on their reputation for taking revenge on those who attempt to set them up or manipulate their code.

I've used the Hydrin Clans as a great way to start off a campaign. Players from any walk of life could have joined the Clans, and their work as mercenaries can give PCs lots of opportunities to explore a sandbox, plus give them a base to come back to between excursions. Players who want to be a member should take Culture/Hydrin among their starting skills. Any background, class, and even race is permissible within the Clans. 

Two examples of Clans within the Hydrin:

House Raideen- The Raideen are one of the oldest Clans, claiming that their ancestors were among those who organized the exodus from the original Hydrin homeworld. They have a great deal of hereditary wealth and a strong warrior tradition. Elite soldiers of House Raideen, called Danes, are among the fiercest warriors in the fleet.
The Raideen have taken a sacred bird of their homeworld as a totem. Raideen nobles often dress in feathers and their armor is often decorated with avian motifs. Among the Clans ships is an aviary that contains species of birds not found anywhere else in the galaxy. (The Elders say many are species rescued from the original homeworld.)
Although there are not many psychics in House Raideen, they have a strong tradition of precognitives among their number. The Hydrin see psychic abilities as a form of divine sorcery, and much of their psychic training is clothed in superstition. Many Raideen psychics resemble vagabond witches and soothsayers like in the stories of old.

House Sasara- This Clan is composed entirely of ssath (detailed in the SWN core rules.) This particular group of ssath were feral until the Hydrin encountered them. Impressing the Hydrin psyche upon themselves, they were lifted out of their hereditary madness. They took the mark of the Clans and became a Clan unto their own right. Sasara is a small Clan and mostly they keep out of Clan politics. They have a soft spot for alien vagabonds and refugees who seek solace among the Clans. They boast more psychics than any of the other Clans.
The Sasara have a strong tradition of hospitality. When they entertain guests of a non-human species, they often assume the guest's general form as a gesture of welcome and respect.

                                                                                           Artwork by Frank Frazetta

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Used Bookstore Trip

I hit up the used bookstore again yesterday.

I ended up adding Assassin Mountain, a boxed set for Al-Qadim, to my collection. I've heard good things about it, and it was written by Wolfgang Bauer, whose works I have enjoyed in the past. Plus it was less than seven bucks.

Also there was White Wolf's rare and out of print Street Fighter roleplaying game, but the idea was too ridiculous, even for me. (The artwork was also terrible, so it would have added nothing to my collection anyway.)

There was a ridiculously cheap set of GURPS 4th edition core books, and I did actually consider them for a moment...but then I flipped them open and remembered why I hate GURPS so much. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

SWN Broad Milieu Outline

I'm going to be posting more of my SWN stuff. I'm still trying to throw off a nasty upper respiratory infection, and my current workload is brutal (grading mid-terms for five sections), so I will begin with very general outlines  and gradually add detail.

In my SWN universe, human space in the post-Silence era is composed of four sectors. I shall describe them in extremely brief terms and broad strokes:

Atragon Sector: Decadent Squabbling Technocracy locked in a perpetual semi-cold war with the Greek City States in Spaaaaaaaaace. A clan of wandering space-barbarians fight as mercenaries for both sides. In one corner a small religious tanshuman cult pursues a creepy hidden agenda. In the middle are a bunch of tomb worlds that everyone squabbles over. Atragon sector is considered backwards and anachronistic by the rest of human space. To be fair, death by sword is still a somewhat common occurrence on many of the worlds here. 

Ceres Sector:
Evil Space Empire is trying to steamroll plucky individualist planets. One of the planets is a crazy Chinese Cyberpunk planet that does not want to play nice with anyone. The corporate masters of Guangxi believe that Evil Space Empires are bad for free enterprise, so they're going to have to cooperate with the independent planets to keep things nice and capitalistic. There are also Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace Orcs, but they aren't bad guys once you get to know them. 

Nirvana Sector: Ancient India, Ancient Babylon, and Ancient Africa in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. Slightly more mystical than the rest of space. Home to some strange and esoteric psychic disciplines. This sector of space has advanced pre-tech nanotechnology as well. 

Hydra Sector: Detailed in the SWN corebook...just in case I wanted to use any of that stuff. Hydra Sector is considered the melting pot of human space. 

More details to follow. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No Replacement for the Real Thing

I think I may have lost interest in the MUD I was playing.
While I initially saw it as an approximation of fantasy gaming, I was sorely mistaken.

-As I mentioned, people tend to run their characters through scripting programs. If the game is so repetitive and game play is so unsatisfying that most people run their characters on programs most of the time, there's a problem.

-Zero roleplay. Nobody plays in character and the NPCs have incredibly limited scripts, often that don't seem to work the way they're supposed to. While you can interact with the other players, they speak of the game only in game terminology, and often in such heavy game-related slang that the game, already abstract in nature, become so abstracted as to become a meaningless wall of ASCII text.

-Zero immersion. Players generally name their characters thinks like Mr. Stupidface or Iluv TheLakers or Dark Darkness.

-Quests are few and far between, often level dependent and far apart. You get your first quest at 10th level, but you aren't eligible for another until you reach 15th level. The levels in between generally consist of wandering whatever level appropriate area you can find and just killing the same monsters over and over until you level. To the game's credit, there are at least several level appropriate areas per group of levels. Most of the game consists of an endless grind until you get something worthwhile to do.

Edit: I guess I should add in a bit about what I was expecting. Given the non-graphical nature of a MUD, plus a healthy dose of rose-colored nostalgia, I was thinking that perhaps the player base of a MUD was a more imaginative sort of creature who liked to read descriptions and imagine the game in their head a la tabletop gaming. I thought the MUDs would be a reasonable approximation of D&D and similarly styled games. I suppose it was foolish of me to think that modern games that have graphical interfaces somehow stunt imagination and that textually based games somehow promote imagination. Online games are a different entity than tabletop games, even when they wear the same clothes. You can play an Elf Mage in AD&D and on a MUD, but there really isn't anything in common between the two experiences besides the involvement of the words "elf", "mage", and perhaps "lightning bolt."

I wonder if a certain amount of disappointing play experience at the tabletop comes from players who assume that MMOs and tabletop games are similar play experiences and vice versa. That's another can of worms for another night, however.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Campaigns Without Number

Anyone who has read this blog more than once probably knows how much I love Stars Without Number.
People seem to be doing a lot of awesome stuff with SWN as of late.

Over at Rather Gamey,  Arkhein is running a "Redshirts" style campaign at the local gaming store. (In retrospect, this is probably what I should have done with my unreasonably huge SWN game earlier this summer.)

At  Pilgrims Guide to Zeitgeist, ApisFurioso is running an SWN Space Fantasy game where the players are about to dock at one of the Orbital Gods of the delightful Anomalous Subsurface Environment.

While I do not have the good fortune to be in their neck of the woods, their blogging allows me to be a fly on the wall.

Their games are a bit more gonzo than I run my SWN, though I had considered an SWN game based on the premise of the novel Expendable by James Alan Gardner. Who knows? I've run all kinds of different D&D games. Maybe my next SWN game will be a little more fantasy/gonzo.

In the meantime, it's nice to see SWN get some love here in Blogaria.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Latest Crazy Ass Purchase

Surfing on Drive Thru RPG, I chanced across a collection of house rules used by a college gaming club from 1981-1987. It includes the races, classes, spells, and optional rules they used for a very long running campaign. The purchase set me back two bucks.

Holy crap this stuff is nuts. They seem to be the quintessential DIY Old School gaming group: stables of characters, gods with silly names, bizarre classes (some culled from Dragon Magazine, some likely from a night of binge drinking), inside jokes... it's a very interesting artifact to study.

Some of this stuff is definitely worth a look: they revised the monk class in a way I found pleasing, and they presented a simplified AD&D weapon table. They also created a psionicist character class, though they seem to still use the AD&D1 psionics rules. There is a critical hit table that greatly rewards the wearing of helmets and the use of shields, often negating the horrid anatomical side effects of the crit.

On the other hand, this bundle also contains what is essentially a prostitute character class, and samurai who can cast illusionist spells. A mixed bag, indeed.

I love seeing how other people do things. I might print some of the pages out to put in a binder.

Monday, October 15, 2012

SWN House Rules (Advanced)

Being a collection of house rules I intend to use for my SWN campaigns. Races will probably be different for every campaign.

Character Creation
1.) Players may play Warriors, Experts, or Psychics. (Artificial Intelligence PCs are not allowed at this time)
2.)In addition to humans, the following alien races are available as PCs: hochog, ssath (SWN core book), qotah (Mandate Archives), and three races of my own creation: eldreth, ti'zi'ri, and solii.
3.) 1st level PCs begin with maximum possible hit points.
4.) Experts may treat Dexterity as one of their Prime Abilities if so desired.
5.) Warriors and Experts may take a variant special ability in lieu of their class' default special ability.
6.) Psychics receive a bonus based on their chosen primary discipline.
7.) Players may use material from the following SWN supplements to create a character: Skyward Steel, Darkness Visible, and the Mandate Archives (Martial Arts, Qotah, Red Sangha Mercenary Corps.) Material from any other source must be cleared by me first.

Character Advancement
1.) Additional hit points are determined by rolling a single Hit Die, modified by Constitution, and adding it to the character's previous total. (In other words, we roll hit points like standard D&D instead of SWN's rules.) Warriors may re-roll a 1 or 2 on a Hit Die. If a second 1 or 2 is rolled, it stands.

2.) Every character may have one skill at which they are a natural, chosen at character creation. The character does not need to train in order to increase this skill. Note that this must be a specific skill: a character who is a natural at Combat/Projectile still needs to train Combat/Energy, etc.

1.) The roll of a natural 20 may be a critical hit: on such a roll, the PC makes a Luck save. If successful, the attack inflicts double damage and a setback (determined by GM fiat: lose next round, armor damaged and AC worsens by 1, weapon disarmed, movement rate decreased, etc.)
Note: if the PC ordinarily cannot hit an opponent mathematically, (due to negative armor class, etc.) a natural 20 manages to hit the target, but there is no chance for a critical hit.

2.) The roll of a natural 1 may be a critical fumble. The PC may make a Luck save to avoid catastrophe. If the saving throw is failed, the character suffers some kind of setback determined by the GM. Typical examples including falling over and losing the next combat round, accidentally shooting a friend near the target (a separate attack roll should be made, as the comrade's armor may save him), the weapon jamming (requiring a 2d6 skill check of the appropriate Combat skill to clear), etc.
Note: If the attack would hit the target automatically (a very high level character shooting an unarmed opponent, for instance) the roll of a natural 1 is still a miss, but there is no danger of a critical fumble.

3.) Unarmed damage is only 25% real, with the rest being "subdual" damage that fades at the rate of one point per ten minutes. Characters using a martial art should consult the GM; some martial arts are far more brutal. Characters using kinesis wraps or armored gauntlets inflict ordinary damage.
At the GM's option, some weapons may be used to subdue instead of kill. This typically imposes a -4 penalty to the attack roll, and some weapons may inflict 50% real damage or just be impossible to subdue with. Ranged attacks cannot typically be subdual attacks.Stun rods (described in the rulebook) inflict 100% subdual damage, and similar weapons may exist.

Experience Points
1.) Points shall be awarded for combat: 100 xp/HD die, with special abilities (multiple attacks, poison, extremely low natural AC, psionics, etc.) adding an extra 25/HD/ability.
Example: 1HD space pirate- 100 exp
               3 HD transhuman cultist with psionic ability and two attacks per round: 450 xp.
Creatures that surrender or are otherwise "defeated" without being killed are worth xp.
Creatures that are no threat to the PCs are worth nothing.

2.) Points shall be awarded for artifacts taken from ruins: 1 xp/credit sold for. Ships are not worth any xp.
3.) XP shall be awarded for "quests" or major goals completed; typically expressed as a percent of the "average award" in the SWN rulebook. (25%, 50%, etc.) 
4.) Jeff Rient's carousing table may be used to spend credits for additional experience. Use at your own peril; no ability which allows re-rolls can alter the results of the carousing table.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sifting Through Fallout

Gaming Related Experience #2: Computer RPGs

Right, so I kind of touched on this a few weeks ago when I said that player choice is really damn important. The most open world has boundaries at some point. However, I think some rpgs are immersive enough  to scratch some of that gaming itch. Right now, I'm playing through the original Fallout on PC. (I picked up a bundle of Fallout and Fallout 2 for five bucks at the used bookstore)

 Incidentally, I thought I once read that Fallout was originally supposed to be a GURPS game. I don't know what happened to that, but you can see some similarities in the game's mechanics: modest attribute numbers, varied and granular skills, and a system of "perks" not unlike the Advantages, Merits, or Edges of your favorite character building game.

Although I'm only partway into it, Fallout seems to have a pretty interesting world with a lot to do. The game seems to frame three basic approaches to your quest: combat, stealth/thievery, and diplomacy. They offer three pre-generated characters that epitomize one of the three approaches. (Though you are free to alter them or even scrap them and make your own character from scratch.)

My experience so far tells me two things:
1. It's usually possible to solve a quest through any of the three paths, with a few exceptions.
One of the first quests you can take involves rescuing a girl held prisoner at a camp of raiders. If you are a badass, you can just shoot your way in and kill everyone. (You can also challenge the leader to go mano a mano with you if you're a martial artist type) If you are super sneaky, you can sneak in the back way and pick the lock on her cell. If you're diplomatic, you can barter for her freedom or even bluff the lead raider into letting her go.

2. You really should specialize in one of the three paths. I've found so far that being sort of sneaky leaves you unable to really sneak into any place. If you aren't a stone badass, combat often does not go well for you.The speech options on the game are entirely reliant on what your Speech skill (and sometimes your Int and Cha) are. You end up like the poor Red Mage in Final Fantasy III, where you can do everything...and you suck at all of it. I'm trying to make a character who is sneaky and good at martial arts, though I find that I'm tempted to learn to use guns... even if I'm good at these three things, I'll be terrible at the laundry list of other skills...I find that I want to just keep restarting with a new character so I can see what capabilities I'm missing out on, or so I can tackle a quest in a different fashion. I had this same problem with Arcanum, but to a much greater degree.( Combat? Magic? Science? Thief Skills? Social Skills? Of magic, which of the sixteen schools? Of science, which of the eight disciplines? Do I want to be a melee fighter? A gunslinger? Throwing weapons? Arrrrrgh)

I guess this is one reason I like character classes so much. I have a thing that I can do, and (in theory) nobody does it better than me. Of course, a proliferation of character classes tends to lead to games where there's a sourcebook or two full of guys who do what you used to do better than you. (3.5 Tome of Battle, anyone? RIFTS? White Wolf? -"Yeah, we're the True Brujah, biyotch.")

I know you can specialize in point-buy systems, but I always feel tempted to try to cover all my bases.

It's funny; when I run a game, I like to give my players lots of options. I like to include sub-classes and things. On the other hand, my tastes as a GM and tastes as player often have weird discrepancies.

A final disclaimer: one of the two times I tried to run a campaign of Pathfinder-a game that has something like 20 classes last I checked- my party was literally a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, and a rogue. Go figure.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


So this blog is dedicated to tabletop gaming, but I did want to discuss two related experiences.

Related Experience #1: MUDding

So earlier this year, I started playing an old school text MUD. It was kind of cool...I had to make maps and use my imagination. I died a lot, but it was fun regardless. The world had some pretty cool stuff in it. Then the guy who administrated the thing had to get serious about finishing his PhD and shut the thing down very suddenly. I was pissed. (Also, is it like, hand-cranked internet or something? Why not just leave it running?)

A few weeks ago, I found a replacement MUD. This MUD has quite a few differences from the one I played previously. The two experiences sort of remind me of different editions of the Game, or old school vs. new school. Some thoughts: ( I shall refer to the deceased MUD as MUD A and the current MUD as MUD B)

Races- MUD A had only six races (the AD&D set minus half-orcs), and race only provided bonuses to certain saving throws and a *slight* nudge toward combat or magic; so slight that you still saw plenty of Elf Warriors and Dwarf Necromancers.  MUD B has something like a dozen races, including weird shit like "gaunt ones" (zombie dudes?) and Japanese cat-people.Race affects all of your stats and your potential to be stealthy, and the game actually tells you which races are best for which classes and will not work for others. (You can do a Dwarf Mage in MUD A, but in MUD B this character is going to be pretty ineffective and unable to roll in level appropriate zones.)

Classes- MUD A had five classes. (The standard F/M/C/T quartet, plus Necromancers) The non-magic classes had some pretty interesting skills; thieves could trip in combat and fighters could interpose themselves between monsters and weaker party members. (Or take the heat off another fighter who was wearing down on hp.) The spellcasters had cool non-combat spells: invisibility, infravision, various detection spells... necromancers could send a ghostly herald to deliver a message elsewhere in the game, etc. The skills and spells lead to some pretty interesting tactical decisions in combat, which was pretty cool considering that combat would otherwise be a scrolling wall of multi-colored text.

MUD B has something like fourteen classes. You have your standard AD&D roll call, including a version of the monk. Beyond that, the game has a number of "combo" classes like the warlock (fighter/mage), the missionary (thief/cleric), the gypsy (thief/mage) etc. The game also has classes that are essentially specialized versions of "standard classes": the witch-hunter is a fighter will greatly increased combat ability and magic resistance, but who is unable to use magic weapons and whose resistance blunts allied/friendly magic. The ninja is a version of the thief with much better stealth and backstabbing abilities, plus cooler weapons, but decreased lock/trap abilities.

There are a lot of witch-hunters and ninjas, and very very few warriors or thieves. Just sayin'.

PvP- MUD A has lots of PvP, though the game's system of informal alliances made PvP a somewhat dangerous prospect; you never knew who was friends with who. I killed a character who was annoying me, only to find out he had a high level mage buddy...of course, I was rescued by my own high level pals when said mage charmed me and lead me out into a dangerous area to leave me there naked and temporarily blind.

In MUD B, PvP is forbidden, as is stealing from other characters. You aren't even allowed to loot the corpse of a player that you may find in some forgotten dungeon. This isn't enforced in the game's code, but you will be banned. I was given a warning for grabbing the rare and powerful weapon of a friend of mind when he died on a quest with me. (I wanted to get it back to him quickly) My email explaining that it was for my friend (and that I couldn't even use the weapon in question) was ignored.

Helping- In MUD A, life is tough. High level players will give you advice, but the game does not allow players with more than three levels of disparity to exchange money, items or assist each other. That means that if you're level 5, you can't roll with level 1 characters or level 9 characters. Players might give you directions to get to a place, but nobody shares maps.

In MUD B, high level characters will often run a low level character through a dungeon to level him fast. They give you loot. They give you powerful weapons. The maps are posted online.

Cheating- In MUD A, you cannot play more than one character at the same time. You cannot play the character with a scripting program.

In MUD B, most people script most of the time. This perplexes me. Is the game so boring that you'll actually use a program to play it for you? If the first twenty levels are not worth playing manually.. maybe your game sucks.
I think lots of players run parties of characters at the same time, often all scripting together.

Death- In MUD A, death is not permanent, but you lose *tons* of xp for dying. Dying sucks. A lot. You can get your gear back by making a deal with a sinister NPC, but he often takes a magic item or two for his troubles, and your stats are drained for a day of game time. You can permanently lose items as well if you wait too long.

In MUD B, you can actually permanently die, but only if you die nine times in the same experience level. Dying means loss of property, but your high level buddies will run you to your body or just give you more money. Death is a minor hassle.

Game World- In MUD A, dungeons and zones had widely variable monsters in them. You might b have been whopping ass on level 2, but when you got down to 3, it was a different story. Some dungeons kept you occupied for many levels as you dug down deep into the depths. Dungeons were often a long ways away from towns, often through wilderness that held monsters of varied level. (At the bottom of a dungeon full of orcs was a temple full of demons, including a boss that nearly killed me in one shot.) In MUD A, running into a monster you'd never met before was always potentially cause for alarm.

In MUD B, dungeons are usually pretty near town. (Not always) If they aren't, you can use a GOTO command to pretty much zap yourself there. Monsters are usually around the same level, with the occasional boss that is a bit tougher. In this MUD, running into a monster means that monster is probably roughly as tough as the monsters in this dungeon have been thus far.

I'm not sure if MUDding is for me, especially with MUD A being gone. It feels strange to play a game where the actual playing of the game is widely seen as a chore best handled via computer program.

Friday, October 12, 2012

 Recently, there's been a lot of talk about Player Agency. I even talked about it a few posts back. I think there's a second side of the issue that I haven't addressed, however.

When I run games now, there's an unwritten understanding between me and the group: I will let you explore wherever you want and generally pursue whatever interests your characters, so long as you pursue something that is interesting.

You want to explore ancient ruins? Cool. Want to blow off the ruins and see what's over that horizon? Cool. You want to research some obscure, throw-away lore I never planned to develop? Cool. Want to start a crazy mercantile enterprise? Cool.

Want to be a bunch of feckless assholes who antagonize normal people and commit petty crimes, even against those who did you a good turn? Well....if you can do it in an interesting fashion, cool. Cugel the Clever was a right sonofabitch, but he was charming. The Joker is a psychotic murderer, but he was fascinating. It has been my experience that most of the time, PCs who decide to be "bad guys" are not charming or fascinating*.

My current work situation and the presence of other obligations in my life doesn't leave me with enough free time to do things I don't find interesting. My time is valuable to me. If you want to go commit a bunch of random crimes, go play GTA. If you want to commit a bunch of random crimes with a sword, go...I don't know, play Skyrim or something.

I presently have the good fortune to play with a group that does surprising, interesting, unexpected things. When they do unlawful deeds, they are intriguing deeds. They are not asking me how much xp townsfolk are worth. They are not planning to rob the innkeeper's lockbox because the innkeeper wouldn't give them half-price rooms for no reason.

Player Agency (as it is bandied about in this corner of the internet) is awesome, and it makes RPGs worth playing. Remember, though, the the DM is also playing this game to have fun; he is not there simply for the aggrandizement of your character.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Another Brick in My Wall of Boxed Sets

A few weeks ago, I snagged a copy of one of the older printings of the Castles & Crusades PHB for two bucks. Today I was prowling the used section of the LGS when I found a smashed, beat to hell copy of the C&C "Collector's Edition" boxed set. The box was so mangled that I had to pry it open to look inside, but the booklets were in perfect condition and the dice were pristine and "uninked." They had it marked down to five bucks. so I figured why not? After all, now I have the complete game system. The box will likely have to go, unless I can beat it back into shape. If the stuff inside hadn't been in such good condition, I'd have given the whole thing a pass.

Just for fun (fun being a relative term), I colored in the numbers on the dice using the red crayon included in the boxed set. I ended up breaking the crayon. I have to say that pre-inked dice, for all their supposed inaccuracy, are my preference by a significant margin. I get the nostalgia angle they were playing for, but damn those are some ugly ass dice, even more so with red crayon filling in the numbers.

I also picked up a used but absolutely pristine copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics #9: Dungeon Geomorphs (also five bucks). My mapping skills are admittedly not my strong suit, and after awhile I start to fear that my dungeons get very "samey", so this will be a welcome source of modular map bits.

Granted, I'm not actually running a fantasy campaign right now, but I'm sure this stuff will come in handy in the future.

Monday, October 1, 2012

You Spoony Bard!

I've had bards on the brain lately.

Bards have been in D&D for a long time. I like 'em, a lot of people don't. What bewilders me, though, is how disputed and constantly revised the bard class is.

Okay, how different is the OD&D fighter from the AD&D or 2nd ed or OSRIC fighter? Even with feats, is the d20 fighter really that different from his predecessors?

Bards, on the other hand, have changed constantly throughout the history of The Game. The original AD&D bard was a hot mess and sort of a proto-prestige class. Old editions of Dragon featured two complete rewrites of the bard. AD&D 2nd edition modified the bard. The bard of 3rd edition/d20 is similar to 2nd edition, but has been changed again. (I have to confess I have no idea what a 4e bard looks like) Around the OSR, the bard is constantly getting a facelift. Alexis over at Tao of D&D had his own version. I've posted my own version. Lots of OSR products have rewrites of the bard. Castles & Crusades changed the bard.

Now, contrast that to the fighter. You don't find many reinterpretations of the fighter. The fighter in OSRIC and the fighter in Labyrinth Lord are 95% the same. The magic-users 'round these parts are fairly homogenous. 

There are a few things that most versions of the bard can agree on. Call them the Bard Conventions, if you will.

1. The bard is at least somewhat better in combat than his rogue-ish cousins.
2. The bard is has access to modest magical ability.
3. The bard has a few thiefly skills.
4. The bard has abilities based on influencing others, usually through music.

Though these basic ideas hold up, they are subject to wide and often jarringly different interpretations:

1. Combat- The bard often has better weapon choices that the thief, and often better armor, though using said armor may impact or preclude his thief skills. Sometimes he attacks as a fighter, though most later incarnations put him on even footing with the thief/rogue. C&C even gave him d10 for hit dice, though this is definitely an outlier.

2.  Magical ability is all over the place. Bards started with druid spells. I've seen one write-up that gives him most druid spells and most illusionist spells. (The latter being from Dragon Magazine) In 2nd edition, the bard used magic-user spells. In 3rd edition, the bard had his own custom spell list. The Delving Deeper OD&D conversion could read scrolls but couldn't actually cast spells, while other write-ups disallow the use of scrolls by a bard. Sometimes his spells must be kept and cast like that of the class he mimics. (A 2nd edition bard has to keep a spellbook) Sometimes bard spells are actually magical songs and require him to sing/play rather than cast a spell "properly."

3. The bard usually seems to have 3-4 thief skills, though which skills he has varies widely. Sometimes he has move silently and hide in shadows. (Not in 2nd edition, though)

4. The bard's influence ability range from an innate charm to the ability to shift NPC reactions on a chart to just having the Diplomacy skill. Sometimes it requires the bard to sing or play.

In addition to this, the bard often has a number of abilities that may or may not appear in any given writeup: bardic lore, countersong, inspire allies... I'm sure you can think of a few more.

No other class, except perhaps the ranger or monk, seems to have this much variance in different interpretations.A 2nd edition thief and a 3rd edition rogue may have their mechanical differences, but their basic capabilities are still pretty similar.

I suppose my question is: why? I have a few fledgling ideas in mind:
A. The bard is an unnecessary character concept, largely kept around because he has become a "sacred cow" in D&D cosmology. They did away with the assassin by reasoning that anyone who kills for money is an assassin. Is not anyone who becomes a musician potentially a bard?
B. The bard has been presented as a jack-of-all trades and a musician, and these two concepts seem to be vying for dominance. Each writer seems to favor one side of the fence over the other.
C. We are trying to "small tent" the bard. The original Fighting Man was supposed to be able to represent a cavalier, archer, samurai, viking, cossack, barbarian, or whatever. Just as the fighter has been split into a million sub-classes, prestige classes, and whatnot to suss out every possibility as a mechanical variant, the bard (skald, scop, minstrel, jack-of-all-trades, troubadour, orator, etc) keeps getting steered in the direction that the author wants him to go. (The C&C bard seems very clearly to invoke a hulking skald type dude,whereas WotC-era bards are definitely more minstrel-looking... bards of the spoony variety, if you will)

Personally, I like the bard and I want to keep him around. That being said, I don't think I'd use the version of the bard I posted back in 2009 for my last AD&D1 campaign. I can't even really decide what the bard is, or what it should be, or even if it should be in the game at all. I think the multitude of different bards, and their often wild dissimilarities, are proof enough that I am not alone in this conundrum.

                                                             Above: All the same character class?