Friday, April 15, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 7

The Ruined Monastery
by James Maliszewski

The Ruined Monastery is a five-page adventure for 1st level characters. It details the first level of the underground chambers beneath the abandoned monastery of St. Gaxyg the Gray. There is a back story given, but who really cares? Any GM worth their salt can invent their own back story, and anyway all you need to know is there is an unexplored place with monsters and treasure. There is a good paragraph that explains who the baddie is, what he is doing there and what he hopes to accomplish. That being said, I used the back story verbatim for my group of beginning players, as an example of how they can find places where they can adventure.

The next two sections are two of my favorite things: rumors and wandering monsters. James provides a rumors table to give to players. I like to use rumor tables to give barkeeps and other random acquaintances something to spill to players who like to work at information gathering. Here is one sample rumor from the table: The ghosts of the murdered monks haunt the ruins of the monastery (False). That should get the players in the right frame of paranoia mind. And who knows, maybe the GM will decide to make it true?

I also like wandering monster tables - they add dynamism to a locale. Whenever a designer neglects to include one, I always create my own. This wandering monster table is excellent - besides what you might expect, it also includes a new monster and a static monster (green slime). I had never before thought of using a static monster as a random encounter - consider it yoinked.

The map is a hand-drawn pencil and paper map, taking up two-thirds of a page, that has been scanned in. However, it does not look amateurish. The markings and numbers are all very clear and readable. It reminds me of the maps I used to make (and still do, come to think of it). The map flow is designed so that your choices matter; there are many side branches you can choose to take or not, but also a few circular routes so that players can try flanking maneuvers and alternate routes to many destinations.

The physical layout features 14 numbered locations, 6 of which have monsters and 2 more have traps. There are 7 locations where treasure may be found. Using Labyrinth Lord as a base, the entire dungeon contains approximately 463 xp in monsters, 250 xp in treasure, and four magic items. James also provides an option for the GM to create a second level if desired, with hints as to how to stock/create it. There are two new monsters, and one new magic item, and they are terrific. Both monsters are different enough to be memorable, but not so bizarre as to cause suspension of belief. My players will never forget being chased by death maggots.

I think James does an excellent job of showing the old-school module design memes. These include: circular routes allowing customized exploration (no railroads), no MacGuffin, wandering monsters, much of the treasure being other than coins - some of it unrecognizable as treasure to the casual player, traps for the unwary, the old Gygax trick of including one piece of treasure that the players will never find unless they are obsessive-compulsive super-paranoid completists, a nice alignment-based special, new monsters, and chances for players to kill themselves.

I ran this module for four 2nd-level characters using Swords & Wizardy White Box. They had four men-at-arms accompanying them. Three of the players were kids who had never gamed before, the fourth was their dad, a veteran of RPG's. This place chewed them up, and only the judicious use of a Charm Person spell and liberal does of flame and oil avoided several TPK's. They all enjoyed it, and I would definitely run this module in any new campaign.

The bottom line? This is a perfect representation of old school, a triumph of concision, with a lot of atmospheric detail. It is also a lot of fun, to boot.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 6

Magic Items Sidebar
by Kesher and Calithena

The next article in the magazine is a pair of magic items, set in a text box to finish off the final page of the Flexible Sorcery article. I like this idea, as it avoids having to start a new article halfway down the page - I like it when new articles start at the top of their own page.

The first magic item is The Ring of Twelve. This ring is adorned with moonstones that can be used to create a clone of the wearer. The clone will perform a task for the wearer to the best of their ability, but the kicker is what happens after. There is a random reaction table to determine how the clone reacts to his original, which can range from murderous hate to devoted admiration. This is a great magic item, as its power is scalable; it can be given to a first level character or a tenth level character. In addition, it has possible drawbacks so that the player can decide how to manage his own risk. The referee will have to be up to the task of refereeing a  bunch of clones, but there should be no end of plot points created. This is an item that may show up in one of my campaigns.

The second item is The Idol of Irizandhe. This small jade sculpture is an insidious item that will slowly cast a curse on its owner, although a lucky person may be able to sell it for a sizable sum of gold before succumbing to its curse. You'll have to buy the magazine to find out its powers (I won't spill the beans here), but this is again an excellent item that will find its way into my campaigns. I like cursed items that don't automatically zap you, but give you fair warning.

These two items belong to the philosophy of making magic item unique, instead of just the ubiquitous +1 sword or wand of fireballs. In my experience, most players love unique items, and it is only the sheer number of arduous tasks that get heaped on the GM that lead to him handing out the mundane variety instead of dreaming up new, creative, distinctive items. So here you have two of them that have been imagined for you - good stuff!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 5

Flexible Sorcery
variants by Jeff Rients, with Jason Cone and Calithena
This article describes three ways that the de facto Vancian magic system with rigid spell lists and memorization could be extended or enhanced. The suggestions are labeled Spontaneous Magic, Counterspelling, and Magical Duels. The three are not mutually exclusive - any campaign could use none, some or all the ideas.

The first idea is Spontaneous Magic. There is nothing gamebreaking here, just a small addition that can help with the flavor of a campaign, and give the creative yet another tool in their arsenal of tricks.

The idea is that a mage who can make major magic (spells) should also be able to perform some minor magic, like cantrips. Thus, a mage who has memorized Sleep could make people yawn, a mage who has memorized Fireball could light a torch. However, if the mage had cast Sleep, he would lose his yawn-inducing ability until he had re-memorized it.

My first reaction was "this is neat". But I don't think I would use it in my campaign, as it puts too much of a burden on the DM. It gives a whole new class of rulings that the DM must make, and then needs to keep track of so he can be consistent. I might try it if my players insisted on it, but would put the onus of bookkeeping on them.

The second idea is Counterspelling. This is definitely a fantasy trope - the enemy wizard starts casting his spell, and the party's wizard desperately tries to stop it. It has also been missing in most D&D-based games.

The basic mechanic is for a mage to announce he is counterspelling, and then roll 7+ on 2d6 to stop the spell. There are assorted adjustments to account for mage levels, spell levels, and sacrificed power. It then gives rules for how often NPC's and monsters will choose to counterspell.

The idea looks interesting, and I might try it in my campaign, but I would have to adjust the parameters during play-testing. It looks too easy for the counterspeller. I would think it would shift the mage class from being primarily offensive, to primarily defensive against powerful monsters or NPC's. Since your Fireball spell will be burned by the counterspeller, you are unlikely to use it - instead you will just stay in reserve waiting to dispell the opponent's spell.

The third variant proposed is the Magical Duel. Again, that is another staple of fantasy fiction missing from the rules. Who doesn't like a good wizard duel?

The mood is set by an amusing illustration showing various cartoony outcomes of a duel. It could have been omitted with no loss of impact, but it is not useless either.

The basic idea of a wizard duel is that it must be mutually consensual. The duellists then each roll 2d6, apply appropriate modifiers, and the difference between the two rolls is looked up on a chart that gets severely worse as the gap in the two dice rolls widen. Here are two examples of results, one mild, one less so:

- Smoke pours out of loser's ears. Loser takes one point of damge
- Loser catches fire, taking d4 damage each round for d4 rounds

I would allow this in my campaign - it can't be forced on an unwilling player, it gives them another tool, and also more rope to hang themselves.

All told, this was a good article, with interesting idead

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 4

The Swanmay
a new race by Calithena

The  next article is a re-imagining of the Swan Maidens of legend as a PC race. They get a minor boost in Wisdom and Charisma, and have the ability to shape-shift into a swan. This ability is counter-balanced by the danger that their shape-shifting shawl may be captured, and they will then be forced to serve the new owner of the cloak. Swanmay characters are always female, and lawful/good. Calithena suggests letting them advance as either warriors or priests. A few ecological and philosophical details are also presented.

I found the article interesting. I recognized the basic idea of the race from Swan Lake, and have no reason to believe any of the details to be incorrect. The character does not seem overpowered, and provides verisimilitude. I would probably present this as a playable race in any future campaign I run.

Of course, one has to adjust for one's own campaign world. There are some legends where the swan is actually a male, so I may allow a male swanmay. One problem would be in a race-as-class game. I would probably treat the swanmay as a Fighter with clerical spells equivalent to a cleric half their level, and make the character advance at the same pace as a Magic-User. In a game like OD&D with level limits, I would probably limit them to dual class level 5 fighter/level 5 cleric, but that would need some playtesting. I would keep their alignment as Lawful, but allow Neutral/Evil (the Black Swan) All told, a good solid article, and like any GM, you can see I couldn't help but tinker with it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 3

The Devil's in the Details
First in a series by Kesher

The first article in the magazine is "The Devil's in the Details", by Kesher. Two interesting points right off - this is the first in a series, and Kesher uses his forum handle. The use of forum handles vs real names caused quite some heated debate after the magazine was released. I support the use of forum handles if that is what people want, but there was such a backlash that in future issues, rather than stand on principal and irritate a lot of people, I used my real name. My real thought was "Fuck all you assholes, it is the content that is important, not the name". It reminds me of the fate of Michael Haydn's 25th symphony. The symphony was originally thought to be by Mozart (and was numbered No. 37 in his catalogue). It was performed quite often. Once scholarship discovered that it was in fact written by Haydn, public performances decreased dramatically. A sad commentary on humans - if the work was worth listening to when it was thought to be by Mozart, changing the name on the page does not change the intrinsic worth of the piece.

On the subject of the other point, "the first in a series", this always makes me happy. Part of the joy of a magazine is the serial nature of the publication, and thus continuing links from magazine to magazine provide an extra anticipation and excitement to the reader. Of course, if the series is bad, then you are stuck with something lame for a long time, but it is usually just a small piece of the magazine and can be easily endured. I guess this says something about me - I will wade through trash to find one or two spectacular gems, and that redeems the collection, whether it is a record album or an anthology or a menu. There's nothing wrong with good, consistent, meat-and-potatoes fare, but the gems are where it's at. If the only thing that Springsteen had written was "Incident on 57th Street", his career would still have been justified.

Back to the content! Kesher writes some unimportant babble to start, then gets into the gist of his article - tables to generate character background in his campaign. This issue deals with dwarves. He then provides some nice mood-setting prose: "Their thick beards are tangled with secrets. They kindle light in darkness, their songs echoing down straight paths tunneled through silent stone". Even Zak probably wouldn't object to that.

There are three tables - a MANY DWARVES..., a SOME DWARVES..., and SOME COMMON TRAVELLING GEAR. The idea is to roll 3 times on the first table, once on the second, and 1-3 times on the third. And then to choose a custom trait for your particular dwarf. I entered the tables into TABLESMITH and generated three examples to give you an idea:

Many dwarves will keep their word unto death, are capable of killing for a cause they believe in and with appropriate materials, can build an ad hoc object to accomplish a simple purpose.
Some dwarves are deadly philosophers.
Your dwarf owns a carved wooden box containing essential tools.

Many dwarves learn to play a musical instrument from a very young age, claim dwarves invented books and refuse to discuss whether or not dwarven women exist.
Some dwarves search for dark secrets in silent, lost places.
Your dwarf owns a steel-frame travel pack, a well-used bear grooming kit, an exquisite lamp, oil and a tinderbox.

Many dwarves are bemused by elves and therefore keep their distance, wear jewelry and finely-crafted clothing and abhor spontaneous displays of emotion.
Some dwarves can learn a new language in just a few hours, from an able teacher.
Your dwarf owns a shortcloak and long-piped hat in clan colors, a crossbow or throwing axe.

There is also a very nice quarter-page illustration of a dwarf embedded in the article. This is a good use of graphics for two reasons: it helps the reader focus on the thrust of the article (dwarves), and since the illustration is by the author, it shows us his vision of his dwarves. At the end of the article we are urged to make our own tables, and promised "Elves" in the next edition, plus there is a short Q&A to convey a bit more color, which wouldn't have been missed if it had been clipped.

My reaction to this article was very positive. It is simple to understand, easy to use, and evocative. Would I use it in my games? Probably not. I am currently running four D&D campaigns, and I can't see any of my current players being interested in generating a background like this (most of them just name their character Bob or Fred and grab some dice!). However, with the right group of people, I would definitely offer it to them as a possibility. I am thinking of also using it to flesh out any dwarf NPC's that my characters meet.

The other main use for it is simply the ideas it invokes. My favourite entry is "Many dwarves are morbidly embarrassed by their curse-deformed feet, wearing stone shoes to hide them." Or maybe the simple "Can kindle a light if they need one". I think most of us mine articles for ideas, and this one has many. I really look forward to the issue with "Elves"

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - part 2

The PDF copy of Fight On! #1 has 31 pages, one of which is the cover. Page 2 is a dedication page. The issue is dedicated to E. Gary Gygax, who had recently passed away, and is a fitting choice. It was Gary who took the fresh ideas invented by Dave Arneson and massaged them into a printable product, starting the whole RPG era. There is a nice picture of Gary, and then a quote chosen from the famous afterwards on page 36 of Book 3 - The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. The gist of the quote is Gary posits that his rules are a framework, and building on it should be easy and fun. He then advises people to take the game and make it the way you want it to be. An apt selection.

Page 3 is a busy page, with an introduction from the editor, a submissions guideline section, a table of contents, a list of illustrators and their artwork, and an explanation of the house terminology. The page is laid out in two columns, which is standard for the rest of the magazine.

The introduction is from Ignatius Umlaut, the editor. It is a three paragraph entry that sets a fantasy stage in the reader's head, then introduces the magazine's mandate. It is a positive, upbeat message and is a useful addition to the magazine. Beneath Ignatius' introduction is a really silly line drawing of what looks like a squashed troll. I am going to assume it has some significance for Mr. Umlaut, as otherwise it is a waste of space on a page that is already very crowded. The last section on the first column is submission information. It is clear about how to submit, ownership rights of submissions, and even has the very generous statement that the publishers will help any interested parties to connect with the authors. This in fact happened to me, as Ignatius connected me with a French roleplaying magazine interested in one of my submissions. What is missing from this paragraph is the information that Fight On! does not pay for any submissions, but will recompense you with a free PDF of the issue.

The second column starts with the Table of Contents. I never look at ToC's on my first read, as I just plow into the material, but it is absolutely crucial to have one, for when you need to find the article you want to mine for ideas. This ToC is clear and easy to find. It adds the authors of the pieces as well, which is nice but probably not needed, and does add a bit of clutter. After the ToC is the list of illustrations, where I find the cover logo was designed by Jeff Rients, and the illustration by Andrew Reyes. I do like this touch of listing all the artists and their illustrations. The next paragraph discusses the thinly disguised aliases for Armor Class (Defense Class), Hit Dice (Wound Dice), and so on. The use of these throughout the magazine proves to be annoying, but is probably necessary for legal reasons. The last paragraph on the page provides miscellaneous contact information.

This page is a crowded page, but the information is useful and fairly complete. Now all the necessary preliminaries are out of the way, the next article can focus on the actual gaming content. All told, the first three pages give a good vibe - you feel you are in the hands of professionals who know what they are doing, and are going to deliver what they promise.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fight On #1 - Cover to Cover

This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the first issue of Fight On! Magazine, the premier magazine for the Old School Revival in role playing. Calithena and Ignatius Imlaut release Fight On! quarterly, and it is the best bang for your buck going. To my knowledge, there has been no serious in depth review of the 'zine. In the posts to follow, I will examine each article, what it contains in general terms, my reactions to it, what use I am likely to make of it and why (or why not), and other assorted ramblings I wish to share.

I will avoid addressing sentences with "In my opinion"; this entire series will be my opinion on the articles. In interests of full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to this periodical. I have a bias towards data and away from pictures - a picture seems to be a cop out from having to fill the page with useful material! The magazine is available in PDF and in print; my review will be on the PDF copy I have. Feel free to comment on these posts!

I will begin my "Cover to Cover" series with "the cover" (duh). The cover of any item is one of my exceptions about the utility of graphics. The cover is the first thing you see on a book or magazine, and has to make the right impression so that its target audience will take a closer look.

This cover is bang on. The bold, clear, bright green, old-school font (reminiscent of early Dungeons & Dragons) leaps out at the reader, and will be recognizable to any who played D&D in the 70's. The large, black-and-white line drawing of a fighter with raised sword has the clean lines associated with the original white box, and early Judges Guild illustrations. Again, the magazine flaunts its old-school cred - the fighter wears a helmet, there are no spikes on the armor, and the sword looks tantalizingly like a rune sword.

For those lucky enough to have the original boxed set (which I picked up for $8 back in the mid-80's), the homage is even clearer. On the last page of Book 3, there is E. Gary Gygax's afterword, and at the bottom of the page is a fighter with raised sword and the caption "FIGHT ON!". Fight On! magazine is in effect promising a spiritual rebirth of the same attitudes that spawned the original Dungeons & Dragons. What is nice is that the quality of the cover artwork is a step up from the artwork in the original book, which was average at best, and childishly crappy at worst. This promises well for the rest of the magazine.

The secondary parts of the cover are the subtitle and the picture caption. The subtitle proclaims "a fanzine for the old school renaissance". Again, this is a clear mission statement. It knows who its audience is. The picture caption then makes a nicely subversive statement: "for Fantasy Role Playing Campaigns played with Pencil, Paper, and Your Imagination". There is no mention of dice, of story, of character development, or of rules. The editors have cut to the core of what makes old school roleplaying so great, so inclusive, yet sometimes bewildering.

The cover then finishes off with the pedestrian notices "Issue #1" and "Spring 2008". This is a promising sign that there will be a summer issue, and the magazine will be an ongoing, viable entity.

In all, I think the cover is just perfectly suited to appeal to its target audience, and portrays a professional and intelligent outlook by the editors. Well done sirs!