Saturday, September 28, 2013

Castle Amber

This isn't exactly a review… consider it more of a commendation or eulogy.  I'm a big fan of module X2, Castle Amber.  It was one of those early 1980's D&D modules, written for the BX Classic D&D game by one of my favorites from back then, Tom Moldvay.  Officially it's for character levels 3-6, and it came out for the Moldvay Basic set and Cook Expert book (the red and blue books).

Castle Amber is a bizarre funhouse dungeon.  The basic idea is that this large mansion (Chateau D'Ambreville) has been cursed, along with all of the inhabitants, and now it's untethered from space and time.  When it briefly touches other planes, beings from that reality can enter the mansion and find themselves trapped as well.  Ostensibly, the players wander through a cloying mist while on some wilderness hex crawl and find themselves within the reality of the castle, seeking a way out.

The inhabitants of the mansion are either extra-planar visitors like the players, or the powerful and insane remnants of the Amber family (many of them magically altered with animal heads).  About halfway through the adventure, the players get the opportunity to leave the mansion and visit a realm like Medieval France - the province of Averoigne - taken straight out of Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne stories; many of the literary characters from the weird tales show up as important non player characters.  Rounding out the literary roots of the module, there are also a number of direct homages to Edgar Allan Poe stories in the mansion.  When you need to steal, steal from the best.

Castle Amber has a curious and intriguing relationship with "game balance".  On the tin, the contents say the adventure is for "3rd level characters", but many of the Amber family members are 10th level or higher and not opposed to a little of the old ultraviolence.  You don't always have to fight them.  They're batshit crazy and chaotic, and much of the charm in this particular module is giving the referee free reign to portray these unbalanced and idiosyncratic mad people.

I just finished a post earlier in the week where I dressed down the BX version of the fighter as a poor combat threat… sure, sending a 10th level fighter at a party of 3rd level characters sounds unfair, but the clerical Hold Person spell is a real thing.  Wolf pack tactics are a real thing.  Because a fighter does such a low amount of linear damage, these encounters are attrition challenges, wearing down a powerful but solitary antagonist, while trying to manage damage on the party side.

Dealing with 10th level magic users is another matter.  When negotiations and parley fail, it comes down to initiative rolls and prior planning, and whether the party can disrupt the magic user's tempo (causing spell failure through damage before spells go off and kill everyone).  Otherwise the player characters tend to die in big numbers.  The combats with the high level fighters are analogous to drawn out chess or boxing matches; fights with the magic users are gun fights, nasty, brutish, and short.  The NPC magic users have poor armor class and few hit points, and fall quickly to a frontal assault, assuming the party dodges that opening salvo.  It's never dull.

I keep tinkering around with "Harrow Home Manor", one of my previous mega dungeon ideas, and it’s shaping up to involve the lairs and sanctums of many powerful and idiosyncratic mages in the hoary depths.  This idea of damage output and game balance and fighters versus magic users, has been front of mind.  I couldn't help but circle back and see how it was handled in Castle Amber.  (To recap:  powerful opponents are scattered throughout Castle Amber with utter disregard for balance.  Works for me).

Incidentally, Castle Amber has an interesting place in the history of Mystara, the BX "Known World".  As the setting developed, the events of the module were placed some 100-200 years in the past.  At the time of the Gazetteer series, the Amber family has been long restored, and is one of the leading powers within the Principalities of Glantri.  The last time I ran a Mystara campaign, one of the plot lines involved the characters getting a job offer from a powerful wizard (the future version of Stephen Amber) to go to the correct place and time to encounter the castle, which was spinning through time and space.  Stephen knew it was the players who would return the castle to it's rightful place (200 years ago) by solving the curse, and so he made sure he himself was in the right time and place (in the future) to encounter the players and encourage them to take up the mission with gobs of money.  There was a great moment at the end when the players realized the guy they rescued when they escaped the castle was a much younger version of the mysterious patron that originally sent them.

Sounds complicated.  But you know, time travel.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Damage Output

Fantasy gaming with higher level characters is uncommon.  Proponents of newer editions proclaim a mid-level "sweet spot" that erodes as spellcasters begin to take over the game, making the other classes obsolete.  Is this a problem in OSR style games as well?  There are far fewer discussions about high level characters or high level campaigns.

Most of the discussions around the sweet spot focus on the magic user's ability to dominate encounters with damage output - the sweet spot is that transition period where all the character classes are contributing equally to dealing with tactical problems.  There's a secondary concern about utility magic obviating the need for a diverse party in the later game too, but today I'm focusing mostly on comparing fighters to magic users in the combat arena.  We've bounced around different old school style games so I'm curious how the relationship between the magic user and fighter scales in higher level games across some of these systems.  I've always assumed AD&D handled fighters the best, but both ACKS (Adventurer Conquer King) and LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) have gone in vastly different directions with their respective approaches to "niche protection".

There are some additional factors to consider.  One of our typical adventure sessions might cover 3-4 encounters, plus the potential for wandering monsters.  The goal is to avoid another later era phenomenon, the "5 minute work day", where the party rests and retreats after every encounter.  So the question becomes whether the magic users have enough gas in the tank to handle the encounters on their own when there's going to be a series of encounters without rests.  Do the fighters act primarily as "offensive linemen", keeping the monsters away from the spell casters, while the spell casters do all the heavy lifting?  Contrast that role with the fighters in the early game, where most of the tactical encounters are settled through missile and melee combat, and spells are held in reserve to get the party out of jams they can't otherwise handle.  Is this a more satisfying style, which is another reason why we see more lower level games than high?

Magic users are fairly similar across editions (except for LOTFP, noted below).  The typical high level wizard is going to have enough spell slots to burn a 1st level combat trick and 3rd level X-damage spell in each encounter, supplemented by a 4th or 5th level combat spell in one of the other encounters.  Assume average damage 3.5, a 10d6 spell will let the wizard do 35 points per encounter, with magic missiles adding 17.5 points (AD&D style) or 22.5 points (BX style).  Obviously, that 35 point X-spell can be devastating as a burst, stripping hit points from a large number of enemies.  Still, that establishes our baseline - a wizard that is rationing his or her magic to have a few good volleys for each encounter is easily laying down 50-60 points of damage, and that's not counting the 2nd, 4th, and 5th level spells or access to devices like wands and staves, many of which can alter combat math even if they don't do direct damage.

Assume an average encounter is against a party of eight high level fighters - a real baseline creature - they'll have 50 hit points or so each, close to 400 hit points across the entire group.  If they're caught in a magic user burst spell, they'll have a 50% save chance to reduce the 35 point X-damage - we'll just say the magic user strips 26 hit points from each (35 expected damage, reduced by the expected number of successful saves to 26 average).  The party will still need to dish out 24 damage to each remaining fighter (and the magic user should be able remove one with magic missiles).

For calculating to hit and damage, I'll assume the fighter has a +1 from strength, is using an appropriate magic sword (we'll say a +2 sword) for an average damage roll of 8, and the opponents are wearing good armor (plate and shield).

Moldvay-Cook B\X
BX Fighters don't get any extra attacks per round.  They'll hit 70% of the time, doing a meager 5.6 average damage per round (round up to 6?).  Trying to wear down those opposing 10th level fighters and their remaining 24 hp each is going to take a long time in BX terms - very grindy.  Each BX fighter will need an average of 4 rounds to mop up a single opponent.

The AD&D fighter also has a 70% chance to hit on each attack; the difference is they get an extra attack every other round, so they'll average 9 damage per round instead of 6 damage per round.  If you're using weapon specialization, the chance to hit is 75%, and they attack twice per round for an average 16hp damage per round.

The AD&D fighter is significantly more effective than BX - and keep in mind that fighters with high strength will be doing more than a +1 damage bonus (bringing that hp-per-round closer to 18-20hp per round).  Unfortunately, the NPC opponents would have 10 extra hit points (AD&D uses a d10 for fighter hit points) so we're still looking at 4 rounds to finish an opponent (or 3 rounds if specialization is in effect).  The AD&D fighters clean the floor against monsters with 8-sided die hit points.

The 10th level LOTFP fighter will be hitting only 65% of the time, and they don't even get a damage bonus from strength.  They'll average 4.5 damage per round (round up to 5).  This fight will be even longer and grindier than the BX version.

Keep in mind that there are no X-damage Magic User spells in LOTFP, and the other characters in the fighter's party (even at 10th level) will only have a pathetic 10-15% chance to hit in combat each round against the heavily armed sample opponents.  In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - that's one way to make the fighter seem good.  LOTFP obviously doesn't assume the same degree of tactical combat is going to be happening as in other retro clones.  In fact, the proposed sample fight would be a mind-numbing affair - at least 10 rounds to kill a single 50 hit point opponent.  Best just to summon a demon with the level 1 magic user spell and let the eldritch horror go and fight.

ACKS uses a modified BX chassis for the fighter - the base chance to hit the opponents at level 10 will be 65% of the time, increased to 70% if the fighter has a "fighting style proficiency", which is likely.  The ACKS fighter gets a damage bonus based on level, which is +4 at level 10.  Thus, our ACKS fighter's average damage is 12 per successful hit, which equates to an average of 8 damage per round (3 rounds to knock out one of the opponents).  It's an upgrade from the BX fighter, but it's below the AD&D fighter (and way below the souped-up "weapon specialization fighter" from AD&D's Unearthed Arcana).

However, there are two other factors in ACKS - there's a cleave rule, which means every time one of the opponents is taken out, the fighter gets to tack another 8 average damage on the next one (a down payment on defeating the next guy), and there's a system-supported critical rule (a weapon proficiency) that maxes the damage on a natural 20.


I expected to get to this point and begin a discussion on challenging high level parties - for instance, ways to present difficult tests outside of combat that push the spell casters into selecting powerful utility spells and forcing interesting resource choices.  But after seeing how poorly the fighters scale in pretty much all the old school variants, do you really want to run high level tactical challenges where the fighters carry the load?  On the contrary, you need to be jamming more magic wands at the casters and let the party continue the asynchronous warfare.  A combat featuring the fighters is going to feel like one of those 19-inning baseball games (score tied the whole time 0-0 until the first run is plated)… ZZzzzzz.

From the perspective of peaking early, enjoy those moments of glory while you're level 1 and level 2, fighter players!  It won't get any better than when you're holding the front line in plate and shield, and killing off humanoids and bandits every other round or so.  It's like high school all over again, where that popular jock guy seems kind of successful now to your teenage eyes, but in a decade or so he'll be the one with the beer gut and the bald spot who never left town, and that brainy nerd from your chemistry class is the next Bill Gates (ie, the 10th level party wizard).  Magic users are living the white collar dream.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review of Qelong

Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.

I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable...
--Willard, from Apocalypse Now

I've been catching up on some RPG reading.  A few weeks ago I had gotten a big box from Finland with the hardcover LOTFP rules books, along with Qelong and The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions.  I've since read them, and am ready to discuss.  Let's start with "Qelong".

Qelong is a hex crawl setting that describes a war-torn jungle area inspired  by South East Asia, specifically Cambodia.  It's fairly high concept.  Imagine Apocalypse Now, but instead of two warring (modern) nations, the super powers are a pair of god-like wizards, devastating the areas beyond Qelong's border.  Sometimes their attacks are deflected and go astray, careening into adjacent territories like Qelong.  The Qelong River Valley has been poisoned by a magical super weapon that tumbled out of the war zone and now leaks it's destructive power into the environment, poisoning and mutating the inhabitants and awakening the dark powers that slumber in the earth.

It's assumed the players are outsiders that come to Qelong for… reasons.  Perhaps a patron knows about the errant super weapon and wants it recovered, or they're do-gooders out to fix the ecological disaster by removing the taint.  For looters and raiders, there are refugees, abandoned temples, and a lost mine to sack.  The book assumes the DM will employ some creativity and account for the aspirations of the players when designing appropriate reasons for the players to visit Qelong.

The presentation of the hex crawl material is slightly different than the standard treatment.  Instead of a laborious catalog of numbered hexes, Qelong is presented through 10 major destination locations, and then random encounter tables by terrain type (along with practical ideas for making the terrain types interesting).

The core of the descriptive material is the handful of factions at work in the valley.  These are the powerful rivals with whom the player characters will have to fight or negotiate.  There are the Lotus Monks, remnants of the area's religious orders (and yes, they're flush with cool martial arts powers).  The Myrmidons are a gruesome, parasitic, ravaging army, insect soldiers created by one of the great powers, that angled out of the war zone and are now cutting a path through Qelong.  They seek hosts for their eggs.  My favorite group was the Varangians, tough mercenaries from the west that are exploiting the chaos to loot the region.  They have a giant flying construct, the lich-garuda, and similar war machine constructs - queue Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries".

The book contains the mechanical bits you'd expect as well - rules for disease and "aakom poisoning", the name of the magical contaminant leaked by the super weapon.  There are lots of new monsters, themed from Asian mythology; nagas and angry ghost variants headline the monster section.  There are name tables to help the referee generate flavorful NPC names on the fly.

Qelong is 48 pages, softcover, and is nicely laid out, with art by Rich Longmore.  This one is for mid level characters, in the 4th-6th level range.  You can get a pdf copy at the usual place (RPGNow:  Qelong) or a hard copy at the LOTFP store.  It's by Kenneth Hite, a prolific horror writer in the Cthulhu gaming space, and the choice of placing a sandbox setting near fantasy Vietnam is unusual.  Ken is an avowed fan of history; this is a clever way to hold the mirror up and explore some underused themes in gaming.

How do I recommend this one?  As I said near the intro, it’s fairly high concept (and perhaps narrow) but the material is thought provoking, well presented, well written, and offers a radical alternative to the dungeon crawl.  How many campaigns support access to an Asian-themed war zone?  The idea of warring super powers, and mercenary companies with war-constructs, implies a higher magic world than many campaigns (albeit "grim and gritty") than a low fantasy setting. The referee could have characters teleported to the region via a high level patron, or even travel to the world of Qelong through planar travel, for instance.  It's ideal for a jaunt.  It fits the whole "Heart of Darkness" theme to have 'ordinary' characters from the world thrust into the war zone, not fully understanding what they're getting into when they accept the mission.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: The Gnomes of Levnec

The Gnomes of Levnec is an adventure about the fate of an empire and the byzantine machinations of a court that no longer has a monarch.

Just kidding, its about Gnomes.
--Zzarchov Kowolski

I really enjoyed this one.  The Gnomes of Levnec is a short adventure, 16 pages, but you get a lot of value in those 16 pages. The book details a small adventuring area set around a remote village, Levnec.  Within is described the village, a handful of characters, the nearby woods, and a few adventuring sites in said woods.  The village has fallen on hard times, starvation is a problem, and the toymaker, a gnome, has been murdered.  Worse, did some of the starving villagers actually eat the toymaker?  There's an opportunity for a bit of investigative role playing.

The author, Zzarchov Kowolski, incorporates a lot of humor into his writing style, and Gnomes is an entertaining read.  There were a few times I caught myself laughing during the read through, and immediately knew I'd slot this adventure into any upcoming low level campaign.  Between the investigation, the village, the woods, and the adventuring sites, there are quite a few interesting things to do, and the sense of dark humor and whimsy seals the deal and makes this a winner.  There's also a nifty gnome recipe.  Running this adventure will be entertaining for the referee.

On the other hand, check out that cover.  You might think a hand drawn gnome picture demonstrates some OSR hobbyist charm.  If so, you'll be fine with the presentation of this adventure.  If you require commercial game books to have high production values, take your $2.85 somewhere else.  The maps and pictures are rough, and the writing could use some editing.  None of that affects the game play, nor does it detract from the subversive humor throughout the adventure.  Don't miss out on some fun because something isn't "professional enough".

The Gnomes of Levnec is available at the usual suspects (RPGnow: The Gnomes of Levnec).  It's for low level adventurers and will work well for any referee setting up a sandbox area who has space for an outlying village.  It's system neutral and can be used with any old school version of D&D or clone game with no fuss.  I'm recommending it.