Irongrave – Session 3

27 December 1010

Impressed by the party’s success in dealing with three werewolves, the Patriarch of the Order Militant in Irongrave assigns Nessime a new task: Orcs have recently defiled a shrine in the foothills of the Black Mountains, making off with the Holy Handkerchief of St Veronica (no point me leaving it in Rome, the party won’t make it that far for years, if ever). Her mission is to recover it and bring it back to Castle Irongrave, where its powers (unspecified, but probably Greater Healing) can be put to good use.

The party found the shrine without much trouble, and discovered just how difficult it is to track opponents when no-one has the necessary skill. Fortunately, however, a group of orc archers tried to ambush them, and discovered how difficult it is to survive combat in wooded terrain with a group of Wild Cards who all have better Stealth and Fighting skills than you. While Nessime and Tenchi executed a classic fire-and-movement approach to the orcs, the warforged sorceror approached their position under cover, then assaulted them and rolled up their flank.

These guys have been playing long enough now to be dangerous when not outmatched.

While Nessime and the warforged argued loudly over what to do with the purloined icons the dead orcs had on their persons, Tenchi used sleight of hand to pocket them.

PCs, eh?

Review of Towers of Adventure

Towers of Adventure is a Castles‭ & ‬Crusades supplement by James M Ward‭ (‬yes,‭ ‬that Jim Ward‭) ‬and published by Troll Lord Games.‭ ‬As usual,‭ ‬I’m behind the curve‭; ‬this was written in‭ ‬2008.

The manufacturer’s website says:‭ "‬Tower Adventures offers the Castle Keeper a marvelous set of interchangeable tower levels,‭ ‬rooms,‭ ‬monsters,‭ ‬NPCs,‭ ‬traps and treasures.‭ ‬This box set allows you to make literally millions of exciting towers for your players to explore.‭ ‬Treasures,‭ ‬tower inhabitants,‭ ‬and tower maps are at your fingers and so easy to use you can put together a complex adventure in five minutes or less.‭"

They’re playing my tune.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬one quick raid on the piggybank later,‭ ‬a copy has moved from RPGNow‘s servers to my hard drive.‭ ‬What have we here‭?

IN A NUTSHELL

Toolkit for generating one-shot dungeons.‭ ‬Cheap,‭ ‬fast,‭ ‬and easy to use.‭ ‬Not quite what I was expecting,‭ ‬but value for money,‭ ‬at least as a PDF.

IN DETAIL

The product is split into:‭ ‬Author Forward‭ (‬one page‭ ‬-‭ ‬I think they mean Foreword‭); ‬15‭ ‬different towers,‭ ‬one to a page‭; ‬services and adventure hooks‭ (‬three pages between them‭); ‬NPCs and monsters‭ (‬12‭ ‬pages between them‭); ‬treasures‭ (‬8‭ ‬pages‭); ‬traps‭ (‬4‭ ‬pages‭)‬.‭ ‬It looks like this was originally a three-volume boxed set,‭ ‬though they would have been thin booklets indeed.

Use of the product is intuitive and straightforward.‭ ‬You pick a tower,‭ ‬label the floor plan with numbers,‭ ‬and assign monsters,‭ ‬traps and treasure to the rooms‭ ("‬Room‭ ‬2:‭ ‬117,‭ ‬201.‭") ‬-‭ ‬because all the entries in the monster and treasure sections are numbered sequentially,‭ ‬you need only scribble a couple of numbers on the key.‭ ‬You pick an adventure hook‭ ("‬Hook‭ ‬4‭") ‬and explain it to the players.‭ ‬Their characters kick the door‭ ‬in,‭ ‬and off you go.‭ ‬Instant dungeon crawl.

Towers:‭ ‬Each tower is on one page,‭ ‬with a black and white illustration,‭ ‬a floor plan‭ (‬which doesn’t always match the illustration‭)‬,‭ ‬and a blank key for you to fill in with references to room occupants.‭ ‬I especially like the Troll Tower‭ ‬-‭ ‬a four level tower in the shape of a giant troll,‭ ‬carved into a cliff face.

Services:‭ ‬Suppose instead of killing the tower’s inhabitants for their loot,‭ ‬you wanted to hire them‭? ‬This section lists the services provided by the assassins,‭ ‬thieves,‭ ‬wizards,‭ ‬clerics and fighters who live in these isolated keeps.

Adventure Hooks:‭ ‬20‭ ‬reasons to venture into one of the towers.

Non-Player Characters,‭ ‬Monsters:‭ ‬Each of these sections has a similar format‭; ‬a number of entries,‭ ‬each of which has the C&C statblock for a single tower inhabitant or a small group,‭ ‬followed by a descriptive paragraph.‭ ‬There are‭ ‬92‭ ‬human characters,‭ ‬divided by level and class‭; ‬24‭ ‬demi-humans,‭ ‬divided by race‭; ‬80‭ ‬monsters,‭ ‬divided by level.

Treasure:‭ ‬88‭ "‬treasure parcels‭"‬,‭ ‬divided by character class or race of soon-to-be-dead owner‭ ("‬Fighter themed treasure‭" ‬or‭ "‬dragon themed treasure‭") ‬and value‭ (‬generous,‭ ‬sizeable,‭ ‬substantial or huge‭)‬.

Traps:‭ ‬77‭ ‬traps,‭ ‬divided by category‭ ‬-‭ ‬mechanical,‭ ‬creature,‭ ‬magical,‭ ‬poisoned,‭ ‬and my personal favourite,‭ ‬dangerously loud noises.‭ ‬These are fun,‭ ‬but some of them would need a little amendment to include in the towers provided‭ ‬-‭ ‬the barking guard dog,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬as written requires a‭ ‬300‭ ‬yard corridor‭ ‬-‭ ‬none of the towers are that‭ ‬big.

SUMMARY

It’s only going to make‭ "‬millions of exciting towers‭" ‬if you count every permutation and combination of towers,‭ ‬inhabitants and loot as a separate tower‭; ‬at least‭ ‬15,‭ ‬definitely,‭ ‬and you can probably reuse them a couple of times each over a long campaign.‭ ‬I was expecting something a little more modular. Still,‭ ‬for £6 that’s about‭ ‬20p each,‭ ‬can’t complain at that.

I can see myself getting a couple of dozen sessions out of this before I start getting comments like‭ "‬Oh no,‭ ‬not the lonely wizard’s tower again.‭" (‬To which I will probably respond‭ "‬Oh,‭ ‬that‭? ‬The last great human empire used this as a standard guard tower on their minor trade routes,‭ ‬there are dozens of them in this region.‭") ‬Even better,‭ ‬I can throw the adventures together at less than an hour’s notice…‭ "‬Surprise birthday party‭? ‬Dungeon crawl required‭? ‬No problem,‭ ‬I’ll be there at eight.‭"

Traveller Zombies

“Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?” – Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

Isn’t every game better with zombies?

(Don’t give me grief about plausibility and hard SF. Go read Larry Niven’s “Night on Mispec Moor”. Back already? Good.)

Like most things, zombies are easy to add to an Old School RPG. Start with 100kg eaters. They come in packs of 2d. They will always attack unless the PCs surprise them. In combat, they will always attempt to close range, so that they can use their hands to drag their victims to the ground and eat them, but cannot run, so only close one range band per turn. If the PCs shoot them, each 6 rolled on a hit or damage die means another zombie shambles to the attack. If you want to run them as NPCs rather than animal encounters, zombies ignore the first wound rule. Any hit from a zombie which causes damage transmits a disease which inflicts 2d wounds per day until the victim dies; about a day later, he rises from the dead as a new zombie. (There is rumoured to be a cure, of course, but the PCs have to find it and apply it. Good luck with that.)

These are the classic Romero zombies. If you want the more modern view of sprinters rather than shamblers, allow them to run, otherwise don’t.

Animal Weight Hits Armour Wounds & Weapons Att/Flee/ Speed
7 Zombies 100 kg 18 / 7 Jack 4 Hands A1 F9 S1

There we go; job done.

Irongrave – Session 2

26 December, 1010

Travelling on towards Irongrave, the warforged and the dark elf became separated in a blizzard. In search of shelter, the warforged found a recently burned-out keep, full of mutilated bodies. He also found Nessime the paladin (Giulia’s PC), sent there by the Order Militant to investigate rumours of strange livestock killings, and Tenchi (her husband’s PC), who claimed to be a concerned citizen looking for survivors and not a thief at all.

After a thorough investigation of the ruins, the party made off for a nearby inn. Scouting the outbuildings, the warforged discovered a dismembered horse, and when he demanded an explanation with menaces, the band was attacked by a trio of werewolves hiding in the basement – the landlady’s family, transformed through some unknown incident.

A savage melee ensued, which the PCs barely won – one werewolf per PC is a little too evenly matched for comfort, especially with novice players who are still learning the combat options. This was Tenchi’s first session with Savage Worlds, but he quickly got the hang of making full use of the environment and some looted silverware; Giulia figured out how to use her powers in combination to make me use up the bad guys’ bennies so that they could be hurt; and Nick, although frustrated at not being able to deal overwhelming damage as he usually does, started getting creative about immobilising the werewolves instead so that the other two could fight them.

Best moment of the session: Nessime trying to persuade the others to take the werewolves alive, because “Werewolves are people too, and with modern medical help they can be cured.”

The Road Not Taken

Over the last six months or so I’ve been toying with the idea of mapping an old-school fantasy setting. I went another way in the end, that of Irongrave, but while I was dithering I came across some really good ideas for campaign building. Here they are, for your edification and delight.

  • Ars Ludi’s West Marches campaign. A different take on the classic sandbox, where you have a large troupe of players who combine into ad-hoc parties, and whose characters are the only adventurers in the region. Pure gold.
  • S John Ross’ essay on Mediaeval demographics. Want to know how many taverns your base town has? How many cities your kingdom has? What percentage of the population live in towns? It’s all here.
  • Signal GK’s Classic Traveller subsector generators and other tools. (This is here because I had a mad idea about using CT subsectors as a basis for a fantasy map, now discarded.)
  • Swords of Minaria’s reavers from the wastelands. An essay on the unexpected importance of nomads in the OD&D wilderness.
  • Welsh Piper’s approach to hex-based campaign design and thoughts on how big a monster’s turf ought to be.

Review of D&D Essentials Red Box

This was an impulse purchase, as I already have the core rulebooks.

In a Nutshell: Introductory set for D&D 4th Edition. New players start here. If you’re an experienced player or DM, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

What’s in the Box? One set of polyhedral dice; double-sided battlemat, 22” x 34”; sheet of diecut counters, 12 for PCs, 38 for monsters (3 of them large), 5 for action points; advertising flyer for other products; code to download another solo adventure from the WotC website; pad of four blank character sheets (why only four? I guess you can download others or photocopy them); 63 power cards; 32-page players’ book; 64-page Dungeon Master’s book.

The battlemat has a dungeon layout on one side, and a wilderness layout on the other.

The monster pogs are double-sided, with a different monster on each side. There 28 different types of monster. The PC pogs have a bloodied side and a healthy side.

Players’ Book: This takes the form of a programmed solo adventure. You start knowing nothing about your character, but as you choose your path through the scenario, the race, class, characteristics, skills and powers are gradually revealed. I’m not a fan of this approach; I would have preferred some pre-generated characters with which to leap straight into the action, and a much terser guide to creating new ones. I am hardly the target audience, since it’s clearly aimed at people who have never played before; but as DM, I wince at the thought of guiding 4-6 new players through this booklet one after the other.

The character classes are different from those in the Players’ Handbook, essentially being streamlined versions of the classic fighter, thief, cleric and wizard.

DM’s Book:  This is composed of an introduction, 16 pages of combat rules condensed from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook, 8 encounters which advance the story of the solo adventure, 6 pages of advice and guidance on creating your own adventures, 14 pages of monsters selected from the Monster Manual, and a couple of pages each on rewards (treasure and experience points) and the Nentir Vale setting. This all gives you enough to advance some beginning characters to second level, after which you’d need either more products from  the Essentials line, or the main core rulebooks.

Conclusions: Production values are good, but this has nothing for me, really, and even if I were the newbie DM it’s clearly aimed at, it would only last me for 2-3 game sessions, unless I were prepared to make up my own level advancements and powers (which I might well be).

Classic Traveller Skills

The assumptions behind the Classic Traveller skills system weren’t clear to me when I refereed the game in the 1970s and 1980s. Only now, after over 30 years of gaming, do I think I understand them correctly.

CT was a child of its time – RPG rules were combat-heavy then, because interpersonal skills were largely handled by discussion with the game master rather than die rolls. In line with this, Traveller had a different skill for every personal combat weapon, but much broader skills elsewhere – Admin covered everything from filling in forms correctly to brokering multi-million Credit cargo deals and beyond.

WEAPON EXPERTISE

Since the dice really only came out in earnest when the lead started flying, weapon skills were a special case.

Traveller weapon expertise wasn’t a skill level in the way that we now understand the term. All player characters had expertise 0 in all weapons, meaning as a PC you could pick up anything from a spear to a laser rifle and use it. (NPCs did not enjoy this privilege, suffering severe penalties if they tried to use a weapon without expertise.) Expertise with a weapon in CT is more like D&D weapon specialisation or the Savage Worlds Trademark Weapon edge; it is a statement about the character’s signature combat style and his favourite tools for the job.

However, compared to the die roll modifiers for range and target armour, the effects of expertise are quite low; the way to take a foe down was to pick the right tool for the job, i.e. the weapon with the best modifier against his armour type; adjust the range band to give yourself the best chance of hitting; and get the drop on the opposition to make use of the “first hit” rule, which meant that the first attack on an unaware target effectively did triple damage. All of this emphasised tactics, planning, and ambushes.

This meant that some weapon skills were pretty much useless to the power gamer creating a combat god. Possibly for this reason, players got more choice in selecting a weapon skill than other skills. If the service said you were learning Medical, then that’s what you got. For combat skills, they said you had to learn a gun, but you got to pick which one, supporting the idea that weapon expertise is about signature style. The check on this is Law Level in Book 3; the nastier your weapon, the more likely it is that starport customs and local law enforcement will take it off you, or at least try.

(It is possible in CT to generate a planet with a negative law level. My view was that this mandated the minimum weaponry your character had to carry, rather than the maximum. “Sorry sir, I can’t let you leave the starport unless you have at least a shotgun with you. It’s dangerous out there.”)

BACKGROUND SKILL LEVEL

The rules assumed that NPCs had expertise level 1 with whatever weapon they were carrying. (Medical-3 indicates a fully trained and licenced doctor or surgeon, so level 3 is pretty good.) Setting aside considerations of Strength, Dexterity, armour and range, the base chances to hit were:

  • No expertise: 13+ on 2d6 or 0% (-5 for lack of expertise, and opponents get +3 to hit them as well – it sucks to be an untrained NPC in this game)
  • Expertise Level 0, PC default: 8+ or 42%.
  • EL 1, NPC default and the minimum an Army/Marine PC starts with: 7+ or 58%.
  • EL 2: 6+ or 72%
  • EL 3: 5+ or 83%

SELF-IMPROVEMENT

Another key assumption of Traveller was that people do not improve their skills much over time, maybe one expertise level every few years. It explicitly states this in the rules, along with the point that experience and advancement in CT apply to the player not the character – the character becomes more effective over time because the player learns how to make better use of their PC’s characteristics and skills.

This means that in videogame terms, one should view Classic Traveller as a First-Person Shooter, not as a Role-Playing Game. Success comes from familiarity and tactical sense, not from building up your in-game persona; if you want to buff your character, the best way is to get it some cool toys. Actually, you could say the same for Original D&D, too.

STATISTICS

For a long time I’ve believed that each successive iteration of the Traveller rules increased both the number of skills a character had, and his expertise level in each skill. Using the CT NPC supplements (1, 4 and 13) it’s relatively easy to check the baseline.

Supplement Rules Sample Avg # Skills Avg # ELs Avg EL Most Likely Best EL
1 (1001 Characters) Book 1, 1981 680* 4.17 6.02 1.44 1
4 (Citizens) Book 1 (ish) 480 3.01 4.31 1.43 1
13 (Veterans) Book 4 212** 7.74 9.90 1.28 2

* 1001 Characters actually has 816, and Others are done in a strange way so I left them out.

** A couple of dozen of the characters in my copy of Veterans are illegible.

So, the average Book 1 character has about 6 expertise levels split over about 4 skills. On average, a Book 4 character has nearly twice as many skills, and 50% more expertise levels in total – so somewhat to my surprise, his average expertise level is slightly lower.

Other points that caught my eye:

  • A character has about a 20% chance that his highest expertise level will be 3 in any of the systems (slightly higher under Book 4, but not dramatically so).
  • The chance of a character’s highest skill level being 5 or more is about 1-2% (slightly lower under Book 4).

I might do this for later editions as well, but not for a while as it is quite time-consuming and there are other, shinier things for me to do.

REFLECTIONS

All of this stuff was right in front of me from the very beginning, yet it took me decades to grasp. The lessons I take from this are to play the Rules As Written for any game, strive to understand why they were written as they were, and minimise house ruling.

Ispitan – May 986

Ispitan’s little band moves from the countryside of the Border Kingdoms to the border with the Goblin lands, in search of herbs for the Sable Mage. Once they are into Goblin territory, I will start using the quest table to look for herbs, but since the patron specifically said they were only found in Goblin lands, I won’t do that before we arrive.

The Border Kingdoms borders have an ER of 5, +1 because it is still spring, so I automatically pass 2d6 – there will be an encounter. A roll of 5 tells me we have not encountered locals (p. 41), and a second 5 tells me we have found some Goblins. A roll of 5 followed by a 6 on the tables on p 45 show that we have encountered them in a mountain city. A 2d6 roll of 5 indicates we are going to Talk the Talk with some Goblins. How hard can it be?

Ispitan’s next stop is the city of Sangfroid, harassed by driving mountain snow at the best of times. Goblins come over the border to trade and raid, and sometimes the weather is so bad that even Goblins and humans see each other as fellow creatures, striving together against the greater enemy that is the cold.

Ispitan and his surviving friends are moving across a deserted square, in search of an inn with beds free for the night, when a group of Goblins enters from the city gates on the opposite side. Unsure of their position, both sides halt. Ispitan and the goblin leader move towards each other to parley.

A roll of 6 on the How Many Of Them? table shows that the two sides are evenly matched, with 5 CV each. Rolling on the goblin army list I get two goblins, a goblin rider, and a chariot. The leader is probably riding in the chariot, so he will dismount. One of the advantages of the Twilight alignment is you’re not opposed to anyone. Nobody outnumbers anybody, and we’ve not met before, so the only issue is that the goblin gets +1d6 for thinking we’re foreign. We now each roll as many dice as our Rep, scoring 3 or less as a success. Goblin first; 3, 3, 5, 6, 6 – two successes. Ispitan rolls 1, 3, 4 – two successes. Since we score the same number of successes, there is no conflict.

“Human,” the goblin charioteer grates out. “Not want fight. Too cold. Fight other time maybe.”

“Maybe,” Ispitan replies. “Maybe not.” He holds up a herb. “Do you know where I can find these?”

“There,” says the goblin, pointing with a spear. “Other side of border. Ten, twenty sleep. East side of mountains.”

“Thank you,” says Ispitan. “Go in peace.”

The two parties shuffle past each other warily, and enter different taverns. As the chariot rattles past, something shiny falls off the back; Ispitan grabs it, and quickly folds it into his cloak.

As often happens in THW games in campaign mode, an encounter passes without combat. Ispitan has survived an encounter and so rolls to increase his Rep, Hardiness and Social Standing; 3, 5, 3. He is now Hardiness 3 and SS 3. Why do my Stars never increase their Rep, eh?

Name Class Rep Hard Weapon AC Move Notes SS Align
Ispitan Missile 3 3 Staff 2 8” Caster 3 TW
Rufus Melee 4 - Sword 4 6” - - SS
Eyjolf Melee 4 - Spear 2 8” - - SS
Galen Melee 4 - Sword 2 8” Healer - SS

Irongrave – Session 1

23 December 1010

A first trial run of the Irongrave setting, conducted over the Christmas holidays to demonstrate the Savage Worlds rules to Nick’s friend Buster.

Nick created a warforged sorceror (I decided to say warforged swap the free edge human PCs get for the Construct ability). This should be entertaining as his hindrances combine to give him a Charisma of –6 once people get to know him.

Buster, as always, created a drow ranger. I figured this was basically a normal elf with a different colour scheme and a bad attitude, so a straightforward conversion.

Travelling towards Irongrave in search of their fortunes, the pair came upon a village beset by orc raiders, who had set fire to the buildings and taken the villagers captive. After some furtive sneaking around, and a lot of sliding about in the mud by the warforged, Nick’s character unloaded all his power points into the orc chieftain via magical Bolts, eventually killing him, while the drow went around the right flank and then proceeded to roll it up by throwing bricks at the rearguard.

Having seen their leader shot down by magical bolts, and the ranger despatch three of their number with bricks and swords, the remaining orcs opted to kill the captives and flee. One captive survived, only to have the drow try to stab him; he fled, only to be brought down by a well-placed brick. However, the party decided to leave him alive, unconscious in the mud.

At some point, the two surviving orcs or the surviving peasant may return to complicate their lives, although no-one who saw Nick’s warforged lived to tell the tale and only the dark elf will be blamed. For now, they press on towards Irongrave.

Interpersonal Skills

“In my opinion, the dice are there for everything that can’t be determined at a table – because we’re sitting at a table.  Yes, I can do the splits, and I can do a back flip, but I’m not going to do that at the table to show that my character’s acrobatic stunt should be successful (well, not again anyway).  That’s what dice are for.  What I can do at the table is role-play, and I don’t need dice or stat scores for that.” – Charisma Keller, Stuffer Shack

In the beginning, about 1975, man didn’t know about rock’n’roll shows, and all that jive.

What? Oh, excuse me. I zoned out there for a moment.

What I meant to say was, for a brief period in their infancy, roleplaying games didn’t have interpersonal skills – Diplomacy, Streetwise, Bluff, things like that. If you wanted to persuade the ogres that they should give you all their gold to reduce their risk of heavy metal poisoning (don’t knock it, sometimes it worked, generally the first time each Dungeon Master heard it), you as the player made the case to the DM, and he adjudicated whether it succeeded or not.

Then, starting with EPT and Traveller, skills like that started to appear on character sheets. Some argue that this allows players who aren’t that good at persuasion to run characters who are; some argue it’s just a crutch. When acting as Game Master, I get players to roll for persuasion attempts, but apply heavy modifiers depending on how well the argument should appeal to the NPCs, and often I’ll rule that the argument is good enough that the NPC doesn’t need to roll for it.

However, in solo or same-side play, these skills come into their own. When I am both player and GM, I need some way of determining an NPC’s reaction which is both fair and occasionally surprising, otherwise I might as well be writing a novel. Interpersonal skills and reaction rolls give me that.

The same applies in Play By eMail; there are times when it’s better just to roll against a skill or attribute, and move on.