Saturday, April 16, 2011

Three Companions - Odd Parts, Final Thoughts

Well, I actually finished this series of posts - this might be as rare as our little friend above :) It may be the first non game play related group of posts that I finished. There were parts of each book that mostly didn't overlap with the others. I thought I might cover these to give context about each book.

Barrataria games Companion Expansion had an expanded equipment list and a little section on overland movement rates with different animals and the effect encumbrance might have on rate. It had some good descriptions in its equipment section and also had 4 fast packs... I liked the fast packs used in Moldvay's B4 - The Lost City. The fast backpack just gets through the phase of character creation where certain players will hog the book and try to buy everything in the item list. Lately, my games have been loose enough and short enough (2-4 sessions long, no long campaigns) that it wasn't worth letting people pick out their equipment. Last time we made up characters, I told them, just pick out a backpack from B4 so I will definitely be pointing my players in this direction for more variety in Ye Old Fast Pack. Barrataria had riding dogs for halflings and gnomes this gives short folk more choices than the standard pony.

JB's B/X companion had some cool sections on Dungeon Mastering as a fine art and rules for dominion. This was also something covered by Mentzer. JB's dominion rules were fast and loose, while Frank was all about the random table. I think by combining these dominion rules together with the mass combat rules, players could take part in a "game within the game" if they so choose.

Mentzer also had a pretty neat section on extraplanar adventuring. He only touches on the ethereal and elemental planes in these books. I'm assuming he saves other planes for the Masters and Immortal rules. He also touches on the concept of vortexes and wormholes which are points where the elemental planes bump up against other planes. They create little pockets ripe for adventuring that are limited in scope rather than trying to tackle an infinitely large plane. I could see using these wormholes to spark interest in the planes from my players. It could also be a spot to place an interesting NPC or villain that the PC's will have to interact with on unsure territory. You can bend the normal game physics in these spots so it is important that the PC's are experienced and have an idea of what the norm is for your adventuring world before trying to change their expectations a pocket dimension.

Overall I was happy with the companion series books. I definitely will be slow to adopt material from these books into a B/X game and will test things out one at a time. Having come from a hard core background of 2nd edition AD&D I can tell you that when the splat books (Book of Elves, Book of Gnomes, Book of Fighters, Book of Thieves, etc...) all came out, my players wanted to integrate them all into my game immediately. Initially I let them, but over time I started pulling back on this tactic. I found that by adding tons and tons of very specific rules into the game atmosphere suddenly there was less and less room for flexible GM tinkering. Suddenly all the players were turning into Rules Lawyers... I would hear stuff like, my elven PC doesn't have to sleep because the Book of Elves says he doesn't. Then I would have to play the GM fiat card and say, "Well in MY GAME WORLD elves sleep!" This kind of back and forth just disrupts game play, so I eventually had to tell my players that all the optional rules were banned from the table. Players were limited to options from the Players Handbook unless I told them they could bring in one specific component from an optional rules book.

I feel that the options presented in these companion books should be treated the same. They can add tons of extra flavor to your game, but don't add too many flavors at the same time. I like steak, and peanut butter, lobster, and ice-cream, but if you add them all together (and you aren't an Iron Chef DM) you may just get an inedible mess...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Three Companions - Treasures and Magic Items

I have a certain reservation about the default experience system of B/X DnD. I don't like to give out massive boatloads of treasure in order to fuel the PC's in thire rise through the level charts. In playing my short little run through B/X DnD so far I corrected this in two ways. First off - I like to give out achievement based EXP. This throws sand in the face of certain OSR folks who have alternate theories on this issue. However, once the PC's have decided on a goal, I tend to give them an EXP award if they complete the goal. This isn't some DM driven story award carrot created to push the PC's into running down the linear path of the DM's pregen adventure. Instead, I will give EXP to players who create goals for themselves and then complete those goals. They make my job as a DM easier by "making decisions" and "engaging in teamwork to accomplish a goal" - things I like to see in my games because these things lead to fun. Another simple thing that I did to decrease the importance of treasure in PC experience gains was to multiply monster experience awards by 3x. I tend to maximize my monsters effectiveness in hampering the PC's as much as possible, so if the PC's actually defeat the monsters, I like to give them a good deal more exp for that creature than what is in the default rules for B/X. These two little changes make gold based EXP less important to leveling a PC.

Which is good because I am a stingy DM. I make my PC's work for their gold! My PC's in my PBEM castles and crusades Greyhawk campaign are near broke right now at 4th level. Some of them are complaining, but most of them are having a good time with the game and enjoy the challenge. Another interesting side effect of being a stingy DM, is you can let your PC's play to higher and higher levels without worrying about them entering into a run away power spiral. If you keep monty-haul treasure dumping on the PC's, at a certain point they have so much treasure and so many magical items, that there is really little left in the game world to go after. They are also so powerful that you have to come up with crazy stupid monsters to challenge them.

So anyway, with that lead up out of the way, let's talk about what I was planning on focusing on for this post! Treasure and magic items in the three companions!

I will start again with the Barrataria Games Companion Expansion books. There are a wide variety of magic potions and scrolls, which I tend to give out fairly frequently because I love magic items that have limited use. This allows your players to use them effectively but then eventually run out of their magic and be forced to go out adventuring for more. One particular scroll that I found interesting was the scroll of interrogation - it is pretty neat, and I don't remember seeing it before. There are some pretty neat wands, rods, and staves for wizards. And then there are some really cool oddball magic items such as Marvelous Pigments that allow an artist to draw out non magical inanimate items and then it becomes real! That is a pretty darn useful magic item! They didn't have much in the way of treasures described beyond the magic items - no art objects, or land titles, or strange artifacts, etc... Overall, I was pretty happy with their use of magic items. I have the Forgotten Realms adventures book which has the most amazing set of tables and descriptions for art objects and jewelry. If you have never seen this before it is worth checking out.

JB's B/X companion, started out with a treasure table built on the starting points from the B/X style game, and then added new magic items. He has a very brief section about gems and jewelry and then moves on to the magic items section. First off, I really did get some evil DM chuckles from JB's cursed items. I normally don't use many cursed items, but he has some real interesting cursed items in this book which make me think about changing that policy!!! One of my favorite items was the Tome of Utter Destruction, beyond its cool name, it sucks the reader into another dimension - and the GM gets to decide the fate of the character. Yeah, you can suck the PC into the Army of Darkness universe so they can go all BOOMSTICK on the population there. I also enjoyed the Dancing Hut which reminds us all of the walking huts from Baba Yaga and the witch in the Fafrd and Grey Mouser series.

Now we move to the Mentzer companion set which starts on page 43 of his DM's guide. Frank probably has the best non-magical treasure sections, having gem value tables with example gem names like amethst, carbuncle, and tristals and starstones! For his jewelry table he describes a variety of types of jewelry that the PC's could find such as leaf shapes, bracelets, crowns, scepters, etc... on page 48 he describes each of these types and what they would look like. I think that is nice for the beginner DM. Then we get into the magical items section. Most of these items seem to be from the AD&D manuals, but I can't cross-reference since my copies were destroyed years ago in a real life fire. I'll pull out examples of neat magical items that seem new to me or sound like they would be fun to use in the game. I like potions of Dreamspeech - this seems very Howardian - I can see the dark eyed wizard using this potion to interrogate the sleeping Queen of Aquilonia. Scrolls of shelter and spell catching are really neat! I like the idea of a wizard using scroll paper as a sheild against a spell and then behold, the spell is transcribed in glowing runes on the parchment with no detrimental effects to the defending wizard!!! Eggs of wonder are really cool and could be used to interesting effect. Also, Frank had two really cool sections on missile types, such as screaming missiles and speaking missiles - the final section is on special weapons and it has some table on how to make special magical weapons using tables similar to those found in the AD&D handbooks.

Anyway, there are a wide variety of magical items in these books for you to use. However, if you are a new DM to the game, remember my cautioning statement at the beginning of this post and be a little stingy. Make them work to gain and keep all the magic items they find. Also, I think you should always try to make the magical items be a personal and add little quirks to them to make them unique. For example, maybe a magical sword is non-magical on one particular night of the year. Or perhaps a +1 sword is +3 on the night of the full moon? Do some wacky things like that to keep your PC's interested otherwise, you will hear little sighs around the table when they figure out that it is "just another +2 sword" and NOT the SWORD OF OMENS.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Three Companions - Monsters

Ah yes, monsters.... the guys that your players attack with D20's and then they drop loot and stuff for your players to collect! Nothing more to say on this one.

This topic is going to be hard for me to cover in only one post, but I really want to complete this series covering the Three Companions that I started in ~January. I have a fruitful past in this blog of starting things and then dropping them quickly. If you don't believe me click the tabs at the bottom of this post that read Pub Crawl (discontinued in the middle), Streets of Madness (also discontinued in the middle), Forgotten Realms (dropped quickly and replaced by my most recent obsession of "The Known World"). I have a limited amount of time to spend on "this blogging thing" and sometimes I like to bite off more than I can chew. The monsters section of the three companions that I am reviewing is such an elephant. There are way too many things to talk about if I wanted to cover them and compare them completely. It would probably take 2-3 massive posts, but I am really serious about slamming this out today and having some fun with it.... so I think what I might do is give a 1000 foot overview of these sections for each book and then perhaps pick out 1 or maybe 2 monsters from each book that I find the most appealing to me.

Almost every morning this week when I'm sitting at my computer before the sun comes up sipping coffee like a zombie, just waiting for the coffee to give me enough energy to shave, or shower, or iron some clothes.... I've been reading about monsters. Ah the life of a gamer with a job. I think I've come up with some conclusions about the different companion books and how I will use them in my campaigns.

So lets start out with our wide angle lens and try focusing on the Barrataria Companion Expansion. The monsters here do not cater to the 14th level and beyond adventurer. Instead we have a suite of monsters that remind me of the AD&D game rulebooks along with a few original ones. I find this monster section the weakest of the three books I'm reviewing since I already have prior versions of almost all the creatures. However, the companion expansion book has a different purpose relative to what I was looking for in a "Companion Book". It reminds me more of the LL AEC which intends to add more layers of complexity to the B/X style game. This is actually opposite in the direction that I wanted to go with my B/X games. I find that the simplicity of the B/X system is one of the glorious things that makes it work so well.

Probably my favorite monster from this book was the Wax Golem. It was a cool, low powered golem that I could see using to create a very creepy House of Wax Golems horror inspired adventure. It got me thinking down really cool threads of how I could mutate these guys and make a bunch of adventures from this one monster. These guys got me excited to play some D&D which is a really good thing.

Next in line is the B/X companion, by JB of B/X Black Razor. I love the monsters section of his book. I think it is probably my favorite of the three books. First off, there are many creatures of what I would call the "near-original" creations. They are monsters that are familiar tropes of fantasy but statted up for B/X style play. JB also give all the creatures his own twist which I really like. I seem to be babbling here at the mouth so let me give you a couple of examples: The Goblin Lord is a handsome, tall, magic using goblin that can boss around hordes of regular goblins and is a throwback to the days when goblins and elves sprang from the same common ancestor. I can see many really cool applications for this guy.

JB also added Maenads and Frog People, and greater mummies. Who can go wrong with adding Greater Mummies? Another good example is the Death Lord - this guy is very similar in nature to Lord Soth of the dragon lance series, but the death lord also reminds me of the Spawn comic book. Again, JB adds his own twist to these guys and gives them some really neat powers that make them a good choice for the villian of a high level adventure series.

And then we end with Mentzer's D&D Companion set books. It starts with the Beholder statted up for B/X style play - heck yeah, the Beholder :) We then have rules for making super powered dragons capable of withstanding high level adventurers. High level ghosts, gargantuan creatures with 24-51 hit dice, and other unique creatures such as the Drolem. This is a really cool creature with a horribly unfortunate name. It is a mechanical dragon golem construct - how cool is that, right? It has 20HD, has massive damage output, is immune to all sorts of magical attacks, and has the name Drolem. Well, I guess this harkens back to the early fun days of the game when a certain amount of humor was regularly injected and we all didn't take this game so seriously. Dragon, golem, dragon-golem, and finally Drolem, I totally see how you get from A to B. I almost want to make my PC's fight one of these guys controlled of course by an evil wizard who will yell out," You will all die at the hands of my DROLEM!!! (insert nefarious cackle)".

Overall, I really like Franks monster section, and he also had a lot of elemental plane creatures for PC's to interact with, some of which are really neat and creative. I especially liked the Horde creatures from the earth plane with their "hive mind" and strange alien purposes.

Anyway, these three books give me a lot of ammunition for the DM cannon. I think I will start covering the magical items and treasure sections of all three books next. Until then young DM's, go forth and scour rulebooks for new monsters, if you don't like the monsters you find there, then tweak them. Send out your civilization ending beasties statted up on the back of spiral bound notebooks, find inspiration on saturday morning cartoons, read through mythology, there is a wealth of monsters in our history that are just waiting get some D&D stats. You can figure out if they have type Q or T treasure tables or whether they play chess later. However young DM's, just remember to give them a better name than "Drolem" or....

this guy will come and wreck havoc on your city!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Still Alive - Mass Combat

I'm still alive.

I haven't been blogging for a while, but I am having a great time with both my PbP Castles and Crusades Greyhawk game and also the continuation of the adventures of the Majestic Four in a PBEM Call of Cthulhu game started by Daddy Grognard and now continued by Pete. I've also become obsessed with the Known World and I'm starting to collect gaming materials related to it. I'm developing some ideas for a campaign based in Mystara/Known World, which I probably won't start until this summer or fall.

The first text from Barrataria Games doesn't have a section on mass combat. This book was more of a Companion Expansion and is not fully focused on higher level play. It is all about adding lots of options to a current B/X, LL, S&W game.

The B/X Companion by JB at Running Beagle games has a very simple multiplier system that essentially treats units like large monsters. It is pretty slick, super quick to operate based on my casual overview, and will need lots of GM creativity in handling special cases. I would like to try it out to see how it plays I think people who care about the little details of things will feel like something is lacking, but in general this system would be really nice for a GM who is going to introduce a little mass combat here and there but not focus on it.

In comparison, the Mentzer Companion has a mass combat system called "The War Machine". This seems very war gaming - I feel like you would want to grab the mini's and the battlemat and some snacks and prepare for a long afternoon. There is an elaborate system by which you give each unit some stats - basic force rating, troop class, and battle rating, and then there is a combat system with lots of tables and modifiers. I think this could be really fun to use for an afternoon, but it is going to take a long while. You would have to have the right type of gamerz at your table who would be into playing a "game within a game" and focus on this. I think you could create a high level mini-campaign with three to four adventures based on alternating the PC roleplaying and the war machine focus. If played correctly and with the right gaming group this could be an epic finale to a long campaign. Or a way to involve your PC's in the "War that changed everything", leading to interesting role play opportunities in the aftermath.

Anyway, I like both systems for what they are good for - use JB's B/X companion rules for small units of troops for a quick resolution and "move on the with the game", but, if you want to make Mass Combat the focus of a gaming night, then get out the battle mats and throw down with the war machine.