Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Old School Charm, New School Taste

A few years back, I grabbed a copy of Castles and Crusades, a D&D-ish RPG that has the distinction of being approved of by one of the fathers of D&D, E. Gary Gygax. It's a D20-license game with some decidedly old-school flare. There are a ton of reviews around the web, so I'll gloss over almost everything. The core game system is very modern in implementation though - it's d20 vs. threshold numbers all the way down. What's different is that unlike modern D20 games, there are very few rules or "build" options. What is there is elegant and simple, and quite source-compatible with old AD&D modules and newer OSG products, like OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord.

But for some reason, I didn't go for it. I ran an adventure or two, and while the game system was perfectly workable, it didn't grab me emotionally for whatever reason. I can be fickle that way, like how I dig Pathfinder but don't like D&D 3e.

Anyhow, as is obvious from my other blog posts, my current fantasy RPG "fling" is Swords and Wizardry. It's a "restating" of pre-AD&D D&D, also called "OD&D". (Original, I guess, or is that supposed to be a zero?) OD&D had a lot of loose ends in it, and S&W tries to tie them up in a consistent and interesting way. For example, S&W takes a very strict reading of the rules on strength bonuses, and ONLY lets Fighters (not Rangers or Paladins) use the bonus, thus making Fighters a more viable class - one that truly specializes in fighting.

One of the advances in recent years (aside from ascending armor class, which fortunately S&W supports) is the idea that a first level Wizard should be more than just a young adventurer who knows "much that is hidden", and has the potential to become great some day, but an active participant in combat. In Pathfinder, these beginners have "Cantrips", or Level 0 spells which they can cast at-will to do things like detect magic or maybe cause 1d3 damage to something. 4e goes farther and gives everyone at-will powers that are useful attacks, but removes a lot of the RP specific spells, or turns them into "rituals".

I think at-will and other ideas do not fit well with my understanding of the OSG aesthetic. Wizards, in game terms, are defined almost entirely by their consumables (spells, scrolls, wands, etc.) much as Fighters and Thieves are defined by their innate abilities. (Though to be honest, I rather like the idea of rituals.)

I've considered giving Magic Users an "Arcane Insight" ability that is a very light version of Detect Magic. If an MU spends 1 turn examining an item or willing subject, performing certain minor rituals (similar to spell preparation rituals or using magic items - just things MUs know how to do, not "spells" per se) and then succeeding in a Save (+2 for magic being involved), the MU can evaluate the magic of the object. In addition, if the object is cursed, the curse only attaches if the MU failed his Arcane Insight save. Using Arcane Insight requires touching the subject.

Seems like a lot of rules, but I think in essence it should be simple enough and someone more talented as rule statement could probably explain it better.

Here's how I see it being used:

Fighter: There's a door ahead. I don't see a lock, but I can't force it open
MU: Here, let me take a look. (1 turn and a lot of gesturing later). Yep, it's magically locked. Luckily, I have a scroll that we can use....

and later...

Fighter: Hey, that's a fancy sword.
MU: Wait, don't touch it yet!
Fighter: You think it might be cursed?
MU: Could be. Guard the perimeter while I examine it. (1 turn and lots of unhappy mumbling later) Well, I'm not sure what other powers this sword has, but it's definitely cursed. I think we need to seek a Cleric....

Sunday, February 3, 2013

First Swords and Wizardry Game

I got to play some S&W last night. My daughter was on a sleepover, so only my wife and son played. They rolled up two characters each, both opting for the "hard core" roll 6 sets of stats in order, then make a character from them approach. If the character had fewer 13+ stats than it did 9- stats, we discarded it and started again. With two characters each, the prospect of dying was less frightening. Both players wound up with a fighter and a caster (MU and Cleric), and all had primary stats of 13+, though in a few cases the stat was 13.) I also took a cue from Pathfinder and gave them full hit points for their class. 

I was struck how "lame" the characters seemed compared to 4e or Pathfinder characters, who routinely have 17+ scores starting off. But S&W is an old-school D&D, and the idea is that players are not heroes when they start off, they have to earn that title. By coincidence, nobody has a Charisma higher than 11 or so, and most characters have at least one stat that is lower than average. Only one of the fighters has high physical stats, and the Wizard actually has a Wisdom as high as his Intelligence. None of the characters had the stats to qualify for Ranger or other more advanced classes.

None the less, they formed an effective party. the two fighters fought bravely, dishing out more than they took, the wizard was the only one who brought the fancy stuff like mapping paper, oil flasks, etc. (It helped that he was the one with the most money....) The cleric is clumsy, and even with his ring mail didn't have much of an AC. Curiously, in S&W, Clerics do not cast spells until 2nd level, though they only take 1,250xp to level up the first time. I found I liked these "average joe" heroes. Sure, each had a stat or two above average, but nobody was near the top of their range. They'll earn the right to call themselves heroes soon enough I suspect

We played the dungeon of Akban adventure. For motive, I had a local town put out a call for adventures to investigate a newly discovered staircase, believed to be the lair of some goblin bandits that had started to cause trouble in the region. The local cleric gave them two healing potions to assist them, and the mayor told them they were free to keep any loot they found, so long as they brought back evidence that they had found and removed the goblin threat.

Some well rolled Undead Turning and a timely sleep spell allowed the players to get through most of the dungeon in a little over 4 hours. (I kept very careful track of time, had one of the players draw a map, and only told them about stuff within 30 feet, the limit of their lantern.)

Even still, the two fighters almost got killed, with one needing to use a healing potion, as he had been reduced to 1hp. They made some good and bad choices, and both they and I got used to the flow of this sort of game. (We all play Pathfinder, and the various cantrips make certain things like light sources less relevant.)

I had originally thought to use some house rules, like allowing wizards to detect magic as a full-turn action, etc, but honestly things seem to be going well without such measures. I may still do 4e's "three strikes" rule for death though, unless an opponent finishes them off while they're down.

It seems our Pathfinder game is losing steam, and with two of the three players on board with S&W, I'm hoping we can switch rules for the next campaign. Honestly, none of them really understands Pathfinder. S&W is so simple, yet familiar (since it's still D&D), that I think I'll have less trouble running the game since I won't spend as much time helping the players run their own characters.

They got the goblins and discovered that there was more going on down there than just some unruly humanoids. But after 4 hours of exploring and fighting, they were in need of rest, and had treasure to redeem. The party returned to the surface to head back into town to recuperate and sell their non-coin loot. Gold pieces become XP in S&W, so after they sold whatever loot they wanted, we found the final GP total, and divided it out. More than half of their XP came from their treasure, which was novel from a Pathfinder perspective. On the other hand, they got no experience from braving various dangers, though the adventure was pretty good about placing gold in places with traps.

They decided to rest up for a week to get their hp back up to full and prepare for their next trip into the cave. I'm using the "100gp per level per month" AD&D costs, so I charged them 25gp to cover the expenses of living, partying, getting their weapons and armor repaired, etc. Even after that, they now have around 100gp each to spend. I suspect at least a few of them are going to grab some better armor. I think I'll just let them buy it rather than try to enforce some kind of "this town is too small to sell chain" type ruling.
I know my wife was enthusiastic about S&W. I'm not as sure about my son, who, as one might expect given his age, is a bit more detail oriented.

Plus I have to admit I get a (possibly perverse) pleasure out of playing S&W, with its simplified AD&D feel. With no gods, feats, skills, etc. the game feels more wide-open. Yeah, I know I can use Pathfinder or any other RPG this way, but I'm lazy, and if you give me structure, I'll use it. I look forward to some unbelievable (or maybe barely plausible) dungeon lay outs, cunning but untrustworthy goblinoids, strange oozes and molds, golden idols, lizard folk performing strange rites, lost temples,dangerous wildlife, and small keeps on the borderlands.