Friday, August 19, 2016

Me and the Ass Olympics

In 1998, I was looking for my second job in the gaming industry. I interviewed at GameFX, a small studio started by former Looking Glass members. I actually got a formal job offer from them, and utterly indecisive, I simply ghosted them on it. It was probably the single dumbest, embarrassing, most unprofessional thing I've ever done (possibly followed by publicly admitting it here?).

Anyway, among the things that came up at that interview was that I sat down with one of the designers (can't remember the name) and found that they were mostly done with development on the game Sinistar Unleashed (a 3D reboot of an earlier, popular arcade game in 2D with digital voice features). One thing he said to me: "That's great that you're interested in the design aspect, because we're having problems with Sinistar Unleashed. We just can't figure out how to make it fun. If you have any ideas we'd love to hear them." Which was, you know, kind of a bad signal in an interview regarding a game I haven't played and was already nearing the end of its development.

So here I am this summer almost two decades later, clearing out some of my hoarded clutter, and I come across an issue of PC Accelerator magazine from May 2000. That was kind of a "Maxim-y" magazine for gaming, written throughout with a snarky "bro" tone. As I flip through it I find a piece called "The Ass Olympics" about recent games that had sucked to an unusual degree. Among them: Sinistar Unleashed, which was ranked fourth in the event of "Boredom", with a score of 8.0 out of 10 by their standards.

So here's a late salute to that now-forgotten designer for his perpicacity.




Friday, July 29, 2016

The First D&D Movie Script

If you haven't seen it already, here's Jon Peterson's review of the early-1980's script for a D&D movie for which Gygax was pushing so hard. Personally, I'm pretty convinced that it would have stunk the place up.



Hat tip: Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Gygax Regretted Clerical Turning

From the old ENWorld Q&A thread with Gygax:
Q: If you could travel back in time to the early 1970s, would you still make it that clerics can turn undead? I ask because of these words you wrote on page 101 of the original version of Necropolis:

'Priests and Priestesses have no extraordinary ability to affect the Netherrealms creatures and beings, spirits, Unliving, Undead, and Unalive in this game system. There will be no mumbled prayer followed by a "Vaporize!" or "Shoo!" removing dangers such as these foes in this tomb! Naturally, clerical personas wield many instruments which are amongst the Susceptibilities of these sorts of creatures and beings, but there are no givens ("gimmes") here. Be sure to keep this in mind--and to gently remind players of this too, if they are veterans of game systems which make this sort of fell minions of Evil lightweights to be brushed aside with the wave of a sacred object.'

A: So many of the very most interesting "monsters" were subjected to that rude capacity of turning/destroying that I initially bestowed upon the cleric class that I did indeed come to rue the initial benison given to that class. My plan for a revised edition of AD&D was such as to limit that power somewhat while adjusting things for the capacity of undead to withstand "turning" so as to make things more challenging for PCs without emasculating the power of the cleric. Alas, that was not to be in AD&D terms, so I did things differently in the DJ system, as you note, and have continued that fine tradition now in the LA RPG :-D

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Saga of Gary & Glen

Following up from Monday's post about the Hall of the Fire Giant King game from Independence Day weekend: I would be remiss if I didn't add the following freaky activity.

From all the accounts that I've read, every party that ever explored the Hall always fell for the ruse played out by the evil dwarf Obmi  and his retinue of gnollish servants (including the champion party at the Origins '78 tournament). Now, my players have learned make really good use of the various charm spells as an information-gathering device (and under OD&D rules it even works on elves, which is important in the D1-3 series). In this case, knowing they were going up against giants and it wouldn't be generally useful, none of the wizards prepared charm person. But one PC, Ezniak of the Myriad Rings, just happens to have a ring of human control, and also speaks gnollish. (These are pregenerated PC's that I made up about 7 years ago. Did I pre-plan that or was it a random result? At this point, I have no recollection.)

Anyway, Ezniak, cunning as always, immediately hit the gnolls in area 12. with the charm effect from the ring. This affects d12 figures; the die came up only 4, and against the odds, 2 of those made saves, so only a pair were affected; Ezniak immediately named them "Gary" and "Glen" and interrogated them about Obmi. They more than happily gave up his ruse. Obmi loudly objected through his barred door; for good measure, the PCs used a read minds spell (ESP) on him for confirmation. The jig was clearly up. The group promised to free him while ambushers stood to either side.

The door opening up, Obmi in desperation jumped out, won initiative, and savagely attacked a random figure in range, trying to backstab with his dagger. Random determination of target comes up: Gary the gnoll. Obmi hits and Gary dies instantly. The other PCs fall upon him, and try as he might, the dwarf cannot quite get away, and he dies.

So this leaves Glen. For completion sake, I now roll hit points in the open so as to let Ezniak's player track here from now on; and this comes up snake eyes, that is, double 1's, so Glen has the minimum hit points possible: 2 pips worth. Glen is hence the weakest type of his entire race. We also learn that Gary was his own brother. But he joins his new friends, who in fact treat him far better than his prior employers did: They hand him a number of treasures, a magic shield +2, a small suit of plate mail (which he can't wear, but carries around on his back), and also a magic war hammer of unknown strength (never known to the PCs, it is actually the most powerful weapon amongst the whole party!). He happily tells them of the nearby guard post to beware, and gives them directions to the king's throne room, joining them under illusory disguise for the attack.

So basically Glen with his 2 hit points and magical accoutrement manages to survive this and multiple other forays into the Hall. He fights mightily against king himself. He actually jumps up on Snurre's own magical throne at one point in order to carry a potion of healing to a downed comrade there. He hits a previously-injured fire giant in the foot with his magic hammer and kills him. As DM I'm constantly rolling for random targets, or else continuing engagements round-to-round, and weirdly Glen never comes up as a target. His new friends encourage him warmly, and he starts to believe that he might very well become King of the Gnolls and free his entire race from subservience elsewhere.

Alas, on the third foray the invisible party (including Glen) is sniffed out by a hell hound, and a fire giant casts a tree-sized spear blindly in their direction, at a random target, and this does in fact strike a glancing blow off Glen. Of course, he goes down immediately. Wregan the elven fighter/wizard with his magical strength scoops him up as they run, and without further comment, carries his body throughout the rest of their adventure. Such was the impression that Glen the gnoll made on everyone.

.

.

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Epilogue: If you read my OED House Rules, you'll know that there are no such things as negative hit points, but upon reaching 0 hits any character is allowed a saving throw vs. death to see if they are truly expired or not (see v.102, bottom of page 4). When the PCs return to their secret cave hideout, I make this roll for Glen... and the die comes up a natural 20. Glen stirs, coughs up a little blood, and awakens to general cheering. Our story ends here, but Glen's does not.

Which is to say that D&D is full of occurrences that we would all laugh off as being outrageously impossible if we didn't see the oracular dice come up that way before our very eyes. Is our world an amazing place? Yes, it is.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Fireworks in the Hall of the Fire Giants


For Independence Day weekend, I had the great pleasure of DM'ing high-level D&D games in marathon sessions for 4 days straight. Thursday I was at DexCon 19 in Morristown, NJ running a scenario I call The Stygian Karst of the Kuo-Toan King. Which was pretty awesome (and insane and terrifying), but I'll leave that tale for another time.

The rest of the weekend I was once again DM'ing another crawl through AD&D Module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, for a bunch of friends (using customized Original D&D rules, of course). It's one of my favorite things to do, honestly; it's almost surely one of the toughest classic modules to run for both players and DM. Last time I ran it, it rather quickly turned into a TPK in the first room. (link here). Here's a quick outline of the various PC assaults on the place (area numbers from the original module, to follow along if you have the module).

Action in the Hall

  1. A party of 7 PCs enter with a passwall. Invisible searching thief finds watchpost 1A., party attacks by surprise, kills the watcher before the horn can be sounded. Likewise ambush ettins at 2. by surprise and quickly finish them. Fight at 14., explore 13.; dwarven thief rolls a "1" to disarm traps, gets hit by 4 giant poisoned arrows, and manages to roll 4 sequential successful saves vs. death. Enter 12.; fighter/wizard who speaks gnollish charms two guards, who immediately gives up on Obmi's ruse; he is quickly disposed of. Charmee warns of guards at 24. and king at 3. Party casts illusion to appear as Obmi with gnollish cohort and march to 3., saying human intruders have been disposed of. King welcomes them gladly and summons them to kneel and receive prizes; hounds start barking and both sides engage in explosive combat. The party wizard is burned up by fire breath. The king is backstabbed, hammered, and lightning bolted; he dies with his guards. More guards start running into the chamber, initially into a blizzard of cold wand blasts. The party gets hasted and runs from the hall with the king's sword as a trophy. (I will point out that the overall path of the party here is almost identical to that of the winning group in the Origins '78 tournament as related in Dragon #19, although the exact engagements run differently, and perhaps most importantly, it's the only time I've ever heard of a party not being tricked and backstabbed by Obmi's ruse. A good job!)

  2. Main party wizard is reincarnated (successfully in his own form!) and decides to teleport back to town to replenish their depleted healing potions. The teleport back to his tower is fine, and he is feted by the lords as a hero. However, the teleport back to the less-familiar secret cave goes less well, and he lands over a hundred miles away in monster-filled volcanic mountains. He hides overnight in an extended rope trick spot, which lasts an entire day. (Note that this is how teleport and extension are handled as per the OED Book of Spells; see sidebar.) The next day he accidentally teleports into the Sea of Dust. Then to a cliff overlooking the edge of the Sea Princes. Then back to town. Then into the mountains on the trail to the Hall, a mere 10 leagues distant; he casts extended haste and runs for two days straight, arriving at the cave dusty and winded (a full week after he was expected back). The party enters the hall, trips the backup trap and gets shot by a half-dozen giant ballista bolts, and promptly decides to retreat and form a better attack plan.

  3. After a few days of recuperation, the PCs disabuse themselves of the idea that the giants will be morally broken, and stage a more determined attack, with all members invisible. Scouts disarm the tripwire and check area 2. finding the giant ballista reloaded, 2 ettins, a giant with the warning horn, and a half-dozen hell hounds sniffing for intruders. They plan an attack starting with an invisible, giant-strengthened fighter grabbing the ballista, spinning it around, and firing at the ettins and giant (which hit each of them). Simultaneous they are hit with an ice storm and several hounds lightninged. Again they go down without the horn being sounded. The party sneaks into 12. thinking to hide where giants cannot go, finding the northern doors bricked up with giant stones. They proceed through 13. to 14. and are surprised to find the guard not only replaced but doubled and back up by hounds; they engage long enough to kill the hounds, then reactivate invisibility and escape back north and east (several giantesses throwing huge sacks of flour miss them). Another hound at 24. catches their scent and the gong is struck; they run east and hide against the wall. Area 10. opens up with giant chimera as giants run from 25. An argument of unnatural philosophy: Does the dragon head of the chimera see invisible (as normal dragons from Chainmail)? A die is used as oracle: 1-4 yes, 5-6 no; the result is 5 and the party escapes detection. The chimera passes, and they run into 10. barely before giants clog the hall from 25. Available time running out, they move to escape, finding a dozen giants, 3 hounds, and the chimera blocking the exit at 2. An illusion of themselves moving in the opposite direction towards 3. draws off half; and then hastened they narrowly run past the rest (the dwarven thief cutting down one hound that gets in her way).

  4. Another day, and a more stripped-down party searches covertly for the king's well-hidden treasure room. A mere 4 PCs enter, but they are each magically strengthened, extended hastened, with infravision, and having individual invisibility powers. They find a yet-more-formidable defense at the entrance; another doubling of the guards, hounds, more giants further back with boulders for crossfire, and re-use of the party's own wall of iron (conjured in the first foray) as a fence to bar the path. Now the party casts a pair of fly spells, which serve to buoy the casters, each barely carrying a single heavy fighter each, bobbing invisibly balloon-like over the heads of the giants. (A roll is made for detection or something dropped? But the PCs are in luck again.) They land in the darkened throne area at 3. and the spell soon expires; they search for secret doors or compartments (silently avoiding a pair of wandering guards) and succeed. They explore areas 4-7., finding all of them completely empty, except for the valueless contents of 7. left in place. Extensive searches for more secret doors find nothing in those places. They invisibly pass north and are again scented at 24. and the alarm struck, at which point they run west. A large group of guards with barking hounds run towards them from 2.; they flee, finding their way to the 2nd level. There they look into the hammering at area 6.; thereafter the scout touches the wall at 12. and narrowly dodges the resulting attack; the party wisely flees further west and hears approaching monsters. They find the entrance to level 3., but turn back and enter cell 4C., then double back to 1. to find Snurre's rotting corpse freshly interred; they take his remaining valuables and leave a rude message. A random check indicates something stirring in the southeast corner. (!?) The party now decides it's time to leave with treasures they have, and at the entrance find but 2 giants and a hound on station. They quickly dispose of them, and escape for a final time from the Hall of the Fire Giant King.

The thing about G3 that makes it most challenging for both players and DM, I think, is the emphasis on some genius-level mastermind running the responsive defense (see "Notes For the Dungeon Master" in the original text). In addition to the players, I'm also sweating bullets as DM every time I run it as I try to come up with the most intelligent responses I possibly can on the fly, moving around giant defenses as needed (it's not just a static area-by-area dungeon crawl). My players were at turns terrified and delighted that while all the giants in their past experience, including those in modules G1 and G2, were fairly lunk-headed brutes, the ones here are master architects, engineers, and tacticians (it's a perfect Rule of Three punchline, really). All of their expectations have to get adjusted in that light (see the quick retreat from the 2nd attack above.) Really, both sides of the engagement are on a mutually-assured-destruction learning arc, on every foray getting more creative and devastating with the resources available to them (consider: the PCs developing a tactic of focusing attacks to kill any hounds or other invisible-detectors, then re-activating invisibility and escaping elsewhere). At the end after several days of play, I'd be willing to say that the group we had last weekend was performing at a level of the most "superior play" I've ever seen (see very end of Gygax's AD&D PHB) -- and likewise I was trying to run the monsters in the most ruthless and inventive fashion that I could muster. Now I kind of regret not recording the whole event, because I think it would have been highly entertaining and instructive.

Notes and Future Improvements

  • Of course we all love Trampier, but his illustration on the back cover is unfortunately out of scale. The outside gates should loom high above the PC's; the depiction there is certainly not a 30' high portal. In the past I used that as a banner but I discarded it this time; perhaps something else could be drawn up for the future.

  • Spell adjustment: After the party wizard was burned up a reincarnate spell from a scroll was used in the next round to resuscitate him. While there's nothing in OD&D or the Book of Spells to prevent that, I wasn't entirely happy with the tone of that. In the future I'd like to make that require a longer ceremony for the effect.

  • Note that the fire opals on the throne are worth 1,000 gp each. Should the fire opal in the DMG sample dungeon not be the same value?

  • Bring a dice cup because I get overexcited and always throw dice off the table and across the room. Also bring my custom d12 with body locations, purely for descriptive purposes of hits in combat, because I think I accidentally get a little repetitive with my descriptions.

  • Should I have used the dungeon evasion rules when hounds detected invisible PCs?

  • I have handout slips for pre-made "Giant Bag Contents" that I hand out as appropriate. Rename those "Giant Container Contents" because they're actually more often used for giant trunks, chests, etc. Need specific numbers for range-based elements (coins, etc.).

  • Initially forgot to pick a caller. Again, I think this is so critical to quality D&D play, especially with larger groups. It advertises that we expect by default that the party will be (a) cooperative, and (b) not split up. We determined this quickly when it became necessary, but I need to highlight this more on my "game start" checklist.

  • Update ability score charts in OED booklet and player reference cards. In particular: I need to expand the listed scores to about 30, because high-level fighters are constantly getting their strengths magically boosted by party wizards well into the 20's. This time there was something of an ongoing competition to that effect, with fighters at strength 20, 22, 27, and finally 29 (including Obmi's gauntlets of ogre power). So I'm always counting on my fingers for what the modified bonus should be, when that should immediately be in front of the players at the start. Quote from the game: "A good workout is like benching half a ton for around 500 reps."

  • On that note: Write down a specific in-game penalty to opening giant doors. It's not specified in the module, and I was always doing a bit of guesswork all weekend.

  • Come up with a quick and palatable description for the three alignments for new/unfamiliar players who ask (in the vein of Anderson/Moorcock). Something like: Lawful wants human civilization to be extended and peaceful. Chaotic wants civilization broken down and destroyed. Neutrality is simply uncaring, or seeks a balance between the two.

  • Granted the existing book rules, and a desire for good pacing, how can we use dice to maximize the tension in the game? Example: On a critical hit, make the player roll the percentile dice, so that they are responsible for their own doom. On monster spotting, surprise, wandering checks, and who a monster attacks, announce the target and roll publicly in front of the players. Target20 in practice: For multiple monster attacks and saves, I do the reverse math mentally, announce the target for success on the die, and roll a whole batch of d20's at once. (In contrast, PC attacks report to me a total roll, and I add in monster AC mentally, so that is always hidden to players.)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Temple of the Frog

A very nice coverage of the backstory behind the design of Dave Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" scenario in OD&D Supplement II, Blackmoor. I must admit: The first time I read it I was similarly surprised and agog.



Hat tip: Landon Schurtz.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Tournament Coverage

How much territory to did old-school tournament players manage to cover, back in the day? This is an issue that I've discussed with some of my friends, and in general it seems a bit opaque to me. Following up from last week, I see the "Tournament" markings on classic Gygaxian adventures like the S-, G-, and D-series, and then beat myself up as DM because my players get to only a very small fraction of such an adventure in a 4-hour time slot (like at our annual mini-convention of HelgaCon). What am I doing wrong?

Here are a few scraps of evidence I've built up which point to an answer of "possibly nothing".

Slavers Series

Consider the Slavers A-series of modules, first used in 1980 at Gen Con XIII and published later that year and the next, by various authors (Cook, Johnson/Moldvay, Hammack, and Schick). One of the very nice things about the series of modules is that they make explicit what reduced part was used in actual tournament play (as well as other details, like how to score such a tournament). For each dungeon level, regardless of how expansive it is, the module highlights a sequence of around a dozen areas noted as in use for that stage of the tournament (ranging from around 9 to 15 areas by my count; generally the same number for both levels in a given module by a particular author).

But that doesn't help a whole lot for the Gygaxian modules, which do not have any hint of different configuration for tournaments in their text, and were used at tournaments in earlier years (1975-1978). This possibly leaves an open question if expectation were different at that time.

Battle for Snurre's Hall

Going back in time a bit, one of the most useful pieces of data comes from Dragon Magazine #19, in October 1978, which published the story of the winning team from the Origins tournament that year. This was written by the leaders of that winning team, Bryan and Kathy Bullinger of Morgantown, WV (3 other players being friends they knew from Morgantown, with 3 others hailing from Michigan; a high level of cohesion and cooperation is noted throughout the article). This story runs about 2½ pages (see p. 3, 4, 6, and 20 to piece the whole thing together); plus there's an additional article by Bob Blake (p. 6) on how the G- and D-series tournaments were scored.

The writeups for G1 and G2 are relatively short (3 paragraphs and 1 paragraph respectively). By my count, in G1 this winning party got through about 12 encounter areas total (entering by #22 and then exploring much of areas #1-11 on the upper level), including one room of the dungeon level (trap #29), and a major planned assault on the feasting giants in the Great Hall. In G2 they seem to have cleared out at least areas #9-10 and #15-20 (which are on opposite sides of the rift); so that's a lower bound 8 areas, with at least 1-2 other areas necessary to pass from one of those locations to the other, and quite likely more than that. In an italicized sidebar, the DM who ran their session ("Your Kindly Editor", I think Tim Kask?) seems to tweak them for not having any knowledge of the lower level of the place, and uses the opportunity to pump orders for the G2 module then on sale for a low price of $4.49.

The memoir for G3 is much more extensive and detailed: 22 paragraphs, with 5 of them italicized inserts by the DM who ran their session (with behind-the-scenes information). Here on the first level they seem to have snuck past area #1, explored #12-14, instigated a major fight at #24, and with giant reinforcements converging from all over, attacked area #2-3 and successfully killed the King and Queen immediately before time was called on the session (thereafter prompting an argument about whether they could have feasibly escaped or not).

In summary:  In G1 and G2 this team cleared out about a dozen areas each, while in G3 only about a half-dozen rooms (again: this being the winning team of the Origins '78 tournament). G3 in particular is truly a brutal module; it makes me feel not so bad about the TPK that occurred last time I ran it. If the versions of G1-3 published by TSR were in use at the tournament, this best-of-class team mostly just explored a portion of the first level in each case.

(Coincidentally, I should be running G3 again the weekend that this post goes up, at a red-hot July-4th weekend party. As I write this I'm wondering: How that will have gone this time?)

Tomb of Horrors '75

Here's another early report that I just found in Jon Peterson's Playing at the World (p. 527-529). Jon recounts Mark Swanson's story of playing in the D&D tournament at Origins I in 1975, in the first appearance of the S1 module (this being published in Alarums & Excursions #4). Apparently the game was played in groups of 15 players at a time, in 4 time slots across that weekend; two groups played at once, the first refereed by Gary Gygax, the second by his son Ernie Gygax. Parenthetically, Jon reports that the winning team was selected by Gygax in terms of the most treasure looted from the dungeon.

Swanson had apparently played D&D before, but many of his fellow players had not, so he took the role of caller. From the description, it appears that Swanson's group explored areas #1, 3, 5, 7, 8 (presumably traveling through #9 and 10), to area 14B before time was called on the session. Swanson is among the many harsh critics of the S1 module, finding the experience, and by inference Gygaxian D&D in general, to be downright unpleasant. One grievance in particular is that his habit of deploying guards against wandering monsters slowed his group down in this scenario.

So it seems that Swanson's group may have only explored about 8 locations on the S1 map. On the other hand, he does point out that another group did finish the whole module in the same time, "possibly aided by rumors", which is about 18 areas by the most direct route possible. In terms of "rumors", Swanson might mean scuttlebutt at the convention (it was a "later party" who won), or possibly discovery of the riddle-clue at the start of the dungeon (which I have pointed out many times, to anyone I can, radically changes the texture of play in S1). I think that somewhere in a Dragon magazine there's another short anecdote from that winning party, that they used one of the dungeon's deadly traps against the arch-villain to win the day.

In summary: Again it seems that tournament parties are exploring between about a half-dozen and a full dozen encounter areas, or thereabouts.

Lost Tsojconth '76

Acaeum.com reveal another piece of information: The exact tournament format of several early modules, including: S4 (Gygax, Wintercon 1976), C1 (Johnson & Leason, Origins 1979), and C2 (Hammack, Wintercon 1979). In each case, the module came in a Ziploc bag, with a cover and photocopied loose-leaf sheets. The proto-S4 is noted as being 8 pages long (compare to the mass published format: the text of the dungeon alone being 16 pages; including wilderness components, art, maps and pregenerated characters the booklet is 32 pages long; not counting the supplemental 32 page booklet of new monsters and magic items). C1 and C2 are noted as having printed 25 copies for staff, 50 for tournament DMs, and 300 numbered copies for sale at the indicated convention; Acaeum assumes that the early S4 was printed in about the same numbers. So: Even though the mass-printed version of S4 in 1982 gives little hint of it, the tournament dungeon must have been of lesser extent and/or detail, likely only about half of the later official printing.

Edit: An inspection of the original '76  tournament materials reveals some more detail. Originally it featured only the tournament dungeon component (no wilderness setting). While the maps are roughly similar to those in S4, the encounter descriptions are far more cursory: generally just a few lines each, describing each monster and treasure. This results in the entire description for each level fitting on a single page each (plus another page describing the ultimate encounter with the arch-villain, and full details on the artifact found there). For a complete side-by-side comparison, check out grodog's page.

In conclusion, I think I can forgive myself for not exploring the entirety of any of Gygax's "tournament" modules in a standard 4-hour convention game. It seems like most playing groups at the time may have only explored a half- to one-dozen areas at most.