Tuesday, December 13, 2011

System Mastery

I’ve come to believe that a roleplaying game that codifies too many of its rules actually limits the creativity of players and GMs. I’m not commenting on the idea of complicated vs simple rules. 3E or Pathfinder aren’t necessarily any simpler than AD&D, which is full of elaborate and sometimes clunky rules systems. What I’m talking about here is the deliberate codifying of game design and character design into the rules in a way that’s meant to reward so-called hardcore players.

In 3E, this kind of rule takes place mostly off-stage (i.e. outside of the actual play experience). You don’t select feats during game play, you take them between sessions. Once the game begins you’re stuck with what you’ve got. It’s during your down time that you plan out your character’s next level, decide the best multiclassing route, figure out how to gain the most synergy bonuses to your skills, etc. The GM, on the other hand, has ready-made rules to help guide his creative process. An experienced GM doesn’t just create an evil order of assassins to hunt the PCs. He designs a specific prestige class to emulate all of the assassins’ abilities. A GM inspired by a cool combat scene from a popular movie must develop new feats if he wants his characters to emulate the actor’s stunts. The problem with the above is that it doesn’t just reward a deep knowledge of the rules, it requires it.

Take monster design for example. In 3E and Pathfinder there are entire subsections on building monsters the “proper way.” Note that this has little to do with helping the GM make sure the creature is fun or easy to use or whatever. No, most of it is there to make sure that all of the world’s plants or goblinoids have the same amount of skill points as other plant or goblinoid monsters. The premise is game balance, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most of these specific formulas for proper hit dice or number of feats are just arbitrary. 3E includes a number of monsters that have a natural armor bonus that is actually “wrong” according to the monster design guidelines. A quick look at the AD&D Monstrous Manual shows where these numbers came from;  they exist to adjust the given monster’s AC so that it’s the same as it was in 2E. In other words, there are several pages of rules that allow you to achieve similar results to those you could have gotten by looking at an existing monster and then just making stuff up. Similar results, way more time and effort invested.

What did players do before all this “system mastery” stuff was written into the rules? Did they get a less fulfilling play experience? Do older versions of D&D offer less reward for players because they weren’t deliberately designed to account for “mastery”? I believe that the answer is no. The desire to tweak D&D with houserules and homebrewed campaigns has always been a part of D&D. In fact, one could argue that the original version of the game required house rules in order to even be playable. Instead of spending their time out of game trying to build their characters, players were forced to accomplish the same things through play. It is one thing to take a prestige class called “Dread Pirate.” It’s another thing entirely to steal a pirate ship and begin raiding the king’s treasure ships as they head for port. I understand the desire to give a character a bonus to sailing if he does either of the above, but I think that most of these kind of rules could be handled by the GM and some simple roleplay. Isn’t being a feared pirate in the campaign a reward in itself? Do you really need a special class all your own as well?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

D&D Race Doesn't Matter (but it should)

I must admit that when I first started looking at the rules for older versions of D&D, I found the idea of race as class strange and laughable. I get this same reaction from a lot of gamers when I broach the subject. One of my friends here gets a bemused look on his face whenever he mentions “that version of D&D where Elf is a class.”

Look, I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid on any one version of D&D being “superior.” One is certainly free to prefer whichever version of D&D one likes best, for whatever reason. Please don't pretend that the things you like about your favorite flavor of the game makes it objectively better than other versions. That's a tired, tired philosophy and I have no interest in discussing it. Your opinion is perfectly valid, but that doesn't mean you should dismiss a game mechanic out of hand. Speaking of opinions, here's why I've come around to liking race-as-class in D&D.

Since the first edition of AD&D and right on up through 3E D&D, I think a character's race has mattered less and less in favor of his character class. When I sit down at the gaming table, it's easy for me to forget that so-and-so's character is an elf or halfling or whatever, all I can remember is whether he's a ranger or a cleric. It's to the point that race almost completely doesn't matter and I think that's a shame. Look at Tolkien's stories, certainly the inspiration for D&D's demihuman races as we know them. If I asked you, “What is Legolas?” your first answer is probably “He's an elf.” Elf, you see, is a viable archetype, despite what more modern RPGs would have you believe.

It's important to remember that D&D is an archetype-driven game. Especially in earlier versions of the rules, but certainly present in all editions to one level or another, a character's class is his most important trait. In the absence of a codified skill system, how do you know whether your character can perform some task that's not defined by the game rules? Character class, that's how! Even with a skill system in place, a lot of what a character can and can't do is hard-coded into his class. Magic-users possess the sorts of abilities that magic-users should have acquired after a youth and early adulthood spent learning to cast spells.

In the first version of D&D there were 3 classes: Fighting-Men, Clerics, and Magic-Users. In addition, a player could choose to be an elf (which could switch between Fighting-Man and Magic-user each adventure), a halfling (which could be fighters), and dwarves (fighters). While at first glance you might think that there is no difference between a Fighting-Man and a dwarf, you'd be mistaken. The dwarf also gets a rather substantial bonus to saving throws against spells; access to a powerful type of magic weapon; the ability to note slanting passages, traps, and new construction underground; and the ability to speak Gnome, Kobold, and Goblin languages.

To the modern gamer, this might not sound like much to give the dwarf. Bear in mind, though, that this original version of the game didn't grant any benefits for high ability scores beyond an XP bonus. That means that your Fighting-Man with the 18 STR didn't hit any better than a similar character with a STR of 11. (Except that the former character got an XP bonus, meaning he'd level faster than the latter character, thus making him a better combatant over time.) Above all, OD&D was very light on rules and open to player improvisation and DM fiat. That means that any bonus ability, no matter how small, could have a big impact on a character's power.

Now take a look at Labyrinth Lord, the retroclone game patterned after 1981's Basic version of D&D. Here we see the races codified almost as classes of their own. At the core, the dwarf is still just a fighter, with the same hit die and combat abilities. However, the dwarf has slightly different XP requirements to gain each level, a different set of saving throws, and some extra abilities. For all intents and purposes, it's a class all to itself. While the game says “dwarf” is your class, you could just as easily say you're a “dwarven fighter” and the only difference would be semantics

The other common argument against race as class is based on roleplaying. Of course not every dwarf in the world is exactly the same "class". NPCs don't need to follow the same rules as Player Characters. Indeed, they probably shouldn't most of the time. Just because all dwarf adventurers fall into the same class, that doesn't mean there aren't dwarf cobblers and cartwrights and candlestick makers. It also doesn't mean that the DM can't, should he so desire, invent more class options for dwarf players to choose from. Think that your world should allow dwarven clerics? Great, make up a class specific to your milieu and write it out.

When AD&D rolled around, Gary Gygax introduced the idea of racial modifier to ability scores. This is the concept that elves are more agile than humans and thus receive a +1 bonus to their Dexterity (and a -1 penalty to their Constitution due to a more fragile build). While this sound okay on paper, in practice it seldom amounted to much. AD&D's ability scores determined a bunch of secondary abilities for a character, such as his Strength affecting his bonus to hit with a melee weapon or his base chance of bending metal bars. However, there were big areas within each ability score where a +1 bonus made little mechanical difference in the character's stats. In most cases, the guy with the 12 STR wasn't mechanically stronger than the guy with the 10 STR. Unless your stats happened to fall at a specific number, a +1 either way didn't make a big difference. In other words, elves didn't seem any more dextrous than humans.

Third Edition remedied this issue somewhat by changing the ability score system so that every 2 points a stat increased, it gave a bigger bonus. Now race mattered a little bit more, but it was easily forgotten once character creation ended. Plus, unless you rolled really well (i.e. a legit 18), only luck kept the humans from being just as dextrous as you.

I'll leave 4E out of this discussion for now, as I think that game's philosophy invented a different set of reasons why race doesn't matter. Instead, I'll close by reiterating my initial point, and that's this: modern gamers shouldn't scoff at race-as-class as being something primitive or “less advanced” than the more recent race/class split. It's simply a different philosophy for approaching character archetypes, and it's one that I think makes for stronger, more memorable characters at the gaming table.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

July 25th?

I really have no excuse. I've been busy, sure, sometimes working 12 or 13 hour days. You know what, though? I'm supposed to be retreating forward here. Not standing still. I've got a posting philosophy change and a bit of a schedule that I think will keep me honest. More posts to follow, hopefully tomorrow, definitely by the weekend.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Magic and Aether

The following is a short bit of flavor that may (or may not) explain how magic works in my home-brew fantasy world of Terren. It's based on stuff I wrote here.

The Elements
The material world is comprised of five elements. The first four, called the corporeal or lower elements, are earth, air, fire, and water. These elements, combined in various pairings and ratios, are the building blocks that make up everything in the physical world. The fifth element, called aether, is sometimes known as the celestial or higher element.
Aether, like air, is invisible and largely intangible. It does not exist on its own, but instead can be found within other things. A man's body is made of flesh (earth), blood (air), bile (fire), and phlegm (water); his soul is made of aether. Without the soul, the body is just an empty husk. Therefore, aether is the spark of life.

Tied closely with the concept of aether is an invisible energy scholars call mana. In simplest terms, mana is a kind of diluted aether, distilled from the universe and drawn inside a mortal being through ritual or divine will. Once gathered, mana allows a person with the proper training to exert his will upon the world around him, casting spells that can alter the laws of reality. Thus, a wizard can cause the air to burn (fireball) or a priest can mend a deadly wound (heal).

Mortals are not gods, however, and no living man can freely alter reality via nothing but his strength of will. Magic requires specific formula, rare materials, or the intervention of divine beings.

Arcane Magic
Arcane magic is the spellcraft of the magic-user class. This sort of spell-casting relies on complex rituals that, if completed correctly, allow a caster to draw mana from the world around him and store it within himself. He does this by meditating on a written spell, letting the strange runes and magical diagrams open a metaphysical conduit between his mind and the aether. Once the ritual is complete, the spells remain within the magic-user's mind until he casts them. Once cast, the mana tied to a particular spell leaves the magic-user. In order to cast that spell again, he must rest and then repeat the preparation ritual.

A mortal can only control so much arcane power, limited mainly by his intellect and experience. Regardless of his power, a magic-user must still consult a written work in order to prepare is spells. This is partially because of the complex nature of the spells themselves, but there is another, metaphysical reason; the act of writing a spell on paper, using special runes and magical symbols, focuses the mana and makes it possible for the spell-caster to channel the proper energy.

Armor, especially metal armor, interferes with a magic-user's ability to harness mana and hinders his ability to perform the intricate gestures most spells require. Thus, magic-users prefer to wear light, loose-fitting garments and shun heavy armor.

Divine Magic
Divine magic draws mana not from the world, but from the power of a god, demi-god, or other immortal being. However, a cleric's spells do not require the active consent of a deity. Indeed, even priests who have strayed from the tenets of their faith can cast spells. Perhaps the amount of mana a single mortal can channel is too small for a god to notice, or maybe a cleric takes power from his god indirectly, as a plant gathers energy from the sun. Whatever the reason, the ability to cast spells is not an indication of a person's piety, although some clerics would like the world to believe otherwise.

Cleric spells are simpler to cast than arcane spells. They are usually short prayers that invoke the name of a god or potent spirit to achieve a desired effect. The exact wording of a given spell is not precise and often varies between faiths and sometimes even between castings. Since the prayers are not complex and come from a higher power, clerics do not need to write their spells down or use a spellbook in order to prepare them. Instead, the cleric simply prays to his god and meditates on whatever spells he wants to cast. This act, bolstered by faith, channels divine power through the cleric's mortal body and gives him the necessary mana.

Faith alone, however, is not enough to wield divine magic. Before he can cast any spells, a cleric must be undergo a ritual called ordination. The ritual's details vary depending on the cleric's religion, but all require a blessing and ceremony conducted by someone who can already cast divine spells. Most religions have strict requirements that a prospective cleric must meet before he can undergo the necessary ritual. Once ordained, however, the cleric will have a permanent connection to the divine that grants him the ability to cast cleric spells. This ability can be taken away, should the cleric's order decide he is unworthy of the ability, but excommunications are rare. Also, a deity can always deny spells to a follower, although this is also very rare.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes RPG (Part 2)

I have a long-running joke with a friend of mine. It basically boils down to mocking the way one creates characters in the Marvel Super Hero RPG. The version that I owned really pressured players to assume the role of the established heroes of the Marvel comic books (at least, it seemed to 12 year old me that it did). The trouble is, no one I know wants to do that in a super hero game. They want to make their own guys. It's more than half the fun.

Don't get me wrong. It's neat to bump into established supers from time to time. While powerful NPCs are vexing in D&D, in a comic book game it's a treat to battle Doc Ock or meet the Human Torch at Applebee's. As far as running those characters, though? Heck no! I want to make my own.

In Marvel Supers, at least the version that I owned, character creation was relegated to a back section. It was written as if the authors never expected you to actually use it. It was also completely random. Everything from how fast or smart your character is, to what powers he has, is determined by the roll of the dice.

That's where the joke came in. Whenever I would sit down and roll up a Marvel Supers character, it seemed that every time I'd come up with a guy with the stupidest combination of powers. Underwater Breathing, Electricity Manipulation, and Rotting Touch. It's Zombie Eel! Damn it, I wanted to play a guy with super speed!

I must say, my opinions have changed a little. I've become more a fan of purely random characters. Randomness in an RPG forces one to exercise the imagination, to roll with the punches that fate is throwing and try to bring everything together in a logical (at least comic book logical) fashion. One caveat, though. The random is much more fun as a GM. When you're behind the screen, rolling on charts can make you feel less like a referee and more like a player in the game, getting surprised by what the dice tell you and trying to make things work out.

The version of Marvel Supers that I played today was far more complete. Rather than devote a few pages of an appendix to character generation, the game put custom characters front and center. The GM gave us a set of house rules that let us game the probability a bit, picking powers here and assigning dice rolls there.

You know what? I ignored all that and let the dice decide EVERYTHING about my character. I was really happy with the results. It was a lot of fun taking these results and mixing them together, like a cook trying to make a gourmet meal of the stuff tossed to them by the Iron Chef. Say what you want about Zombie Eel, but I still talk about him 20 years after I randomly rolled him up, and I never even used him in a game.

If only Marvel had a faster, more intuitive system, I would probably rate it as a much better game. Still, I'll probably go back next Sunday. After all, there are bad guys out there that need to be stopped. I leave you with my completely random character. Ignore the stats you don't understand (unless you do) and just read the flavor text.

To start you out, keep in mind that I began by rolling my powers. I got Claws, Shape-shifting (Imitation), and Corrosive Missile. Huh. I wouldn't have chosen a single one of those powers. Here's what I came up with. Forgive the Comic Sans font but, well, I hope you can understand why I used it.

Into the Caves
It took John Doppler two hours, crawling on his belly through the mud and grime, to reach the end of the tight crawlspace. Spelunking was dangerous enough, but spelunking by yourself was borderline insanity. Still, John had to reach the other side. If his instincts were right, the crawl-way would lead to a vast network of caverns, perhaps the largest in North America. Althea Cobb would have no choice but to let John onto her land then, once he could prove the significance of his find.

When John finally emerged from the tiny space, what he saw went beyond his expectations. A vast domed ceiling, like the roof of a cathedral, stretched past the range of his flashlight. A narrow, slow-moving stream split the entire massive cavern in two. Beyond the water, a dozen side-passages split off in every direction.

John didn't dare go any farther alone. He turned around and began the arduous crawl back through the narrow tunnel. When he emerged, John was shocked to find the same large cavern that he had just left. How could he have gotten turned around in a claustrophobic tunnel barely big enough for a man on his belly? It wasn't possible. Slightly panicked, John again returned to the crawlspace. His heart beat with fear as he made his way, painfully, through the tunnel. Finally, he reached the end. He was still in the same vast cave.

Exhausted and covered in filth, John began to question his sanity. There was no way he could have gotten turned around twice. Something unnatural was happening. Swallowing panic, John walked deeper into the large cave. As he waded across the ankle-deep river that bisected the cave, John suddenly stopped. The cold water began to seep into his boots, soaking his feet. He stood rooted like a statue, the will to move leaving his body like heat draining from a man dying of exposure.

“Wouldn't it be better to just lie down and rest?”

The voice came unbidden into the man's mind. What was his name again? J...something. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the water. And sleep. And oblivion. The man obeyed the voice, dropping slowly to his knees.

Then the ghosts came. Transparent apparitions with hollow eyes and blank, smooth faces. They seemed to grow more solid as they approached, as if they took substance from the man kneeling in the river. Smiling hungrily, the nearest spirit reached out its misty hand.

Something deep inside the man sparked as the spirit touched him. A thought. A memory. A name. John. With all his will, John Doppler stood up. The ghost-thing recoiled in surprise and fear. Then it screamed in unearthly rage as John turned and fled down the river.

* * *

John Doppler emerged from the small cave behind Jakobs Field a changed man. His memory of the past week was hazy and jumbled. John vaguely recalled a pale man, a dark boat, and a pervasive, clinging mist. He couldn't remember how he had escaped the endless cave.

John was certain of one thing, though. He knew where he had been; Hades, the underworld of Greek myth. Somehow, the land of the dead had infected John and taken a piece of his soul with it. It had altered his body, leaving his skin gray and nearly featureless. John's hands were now sharp, boney claws. His eyes were empty black pools. All around him, a thin purple fog hung like an aura.

John Doppler had spent a week in hell. He decided that he was never going to back. Swearing an oath to every Olympian god that he could remember, John Doppler became a hero. He took the name Eidolon, a Greek word for a phantom that can appear as a living person. With hell at his back, Eidolon went looking for trouble.


Hero's Name: Eidolon
Origin: Altered Human

Identity (Secret): John Doppler. Eidolon can use his Shapeshifting-Imitation power to disguise his altered appearance. As John Doppler, he is a an average-looking man with dark hair and brown eyes.

Fighting: Incredible (40)
Agility: Incredible (40)
Strength: Good (10)
Endurance: Remarkable (30)
Reason: Good (10)
Intuition: Excellent (20)
Psyche: Incredible (40)
Health (F+A+S+E): 120

Karma (R+I+P): 70

Popularity: 5

(Secret Identity): 10

Eidolon can channel a tiny thread of the life-force of any person he touches, mentally projecting it onto the mist that always surrounds him. Doing so creates a powerful illusion that allows Eidolon to duplicate the targeted person exactly.

CLAWS: Remarkable (30)
Eidolon's fingers end in boney claws, a side effect of his time in Hades.

Eidolon can project the purple fog of Lethe, the river of oblivion, whose condensation disintegrates matter.

Judo (Martial Arts A): Stun or Slam an opponent regardless of their comparative Strengths and Endurances.
Electronics: +1 CS on matters involving electronic devices, including their creation and repair.

Thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes RPG (Part 1)

As I posted a while ago, I ran into a group of guys playing the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes game down at the food court. They invited me to play, but work commitments kept me from accepting their offer until today.

Let me preface by saying that I had fun. The GM did a great job of making me feel like I was playing in a living, breathing comic book world that was unfolding all around my character. There was a lot of sandbox gaming going on, with a whole bunch of leads popping up all around us. We could have gone and investigated any of them and I'm sure they all would have turned up a bunch of adventures.

I say that because I don't want it to seem like I didn't enjoy gaming with this friendly group of guys. I really did. However, I'm not sure that Marvel Supers is my favorite game. This is likely to be a longer post than it needs to be. I'll try to keep it to two parts.

I used to own the Marvel Super Heroes Basic Boxed set. Man, did I save up and work hard to get that stupid thing. I was a kid and there was no internet, meaning that not only was it hard for me to scrape up the funds, I then had the added challenge of trying to find a copy of the game. I probably spent more time trying to get Marvel Super Heroes than any other game, toy, or “fun” thing I own. You can imagine my disappointment when I didn't like the game.

To be fair, I only actually played it once, running some of the sample characters against a mini-adventure that came in the back of the book. I couldn't have been much older than 12 or 13, no expert on either RPGs or comic books. The rules really encouraged you to play existing characters from the Marvel Universe and came with stats that seemed to cover every comic book super hero I could think of (minus Superman and his DC friends, of course). With that in mind, I let my neighbors and my cousin pick whatever characters they liked and we just went at the scenario as written.

They picked Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, and Silver Surfer. For those of you not familiar with comics, let me help you out. You know Spider-man, of course. He's sort of a moderately powerful guy in the world of supers. Then, there's the Hulk. You also know him, but it's important to understand that, depending on how angry he is, Hulk is potentially the strongest character in the universe. A universe that includes people who can literally throw the moon at you. Finally, the Silver Surfer. Without getting too deep in needless detail, one can argue that Silver Surfer is more powerful than Superman or Thor. That's the most famous hero EVER and a deity, respectively.

Going against Spidey, an infinitely strong monster, and a guy who can stand in the middle of a supernova and not bat an eye? Two crooks and a guy dressed like a scorpion. 

Hey, it's not my fault! I didn't know that much about the game and didn't give a lot of thought to the relative strengths of these characters. I was used to level-based systems, where every character had a number that showed how powerful he was. This game rated abilities with adjectives, for crying out loud! Spidey's agility was something like “Amazing” or “Incredible.” The Silver Surfer's main ability was rated as “Shift Z” or some other abstract description, proving that even the authors of this game couldn't think of as many adjectives as they had power levels.

There are many people who claim they loved the Marvel attribute system. I'm not one of them. I get the concept here. They're trying to make the system feel less gamey and more like a comic book by removing numbers and replacing them with descriptive words. The trouble is the words themselves. I challenge the casual reader to tell me which is better, “Amazing,” “Monstrous,” or “Incredible.” Yeah, you might guess correctly. The order that the authors placed these stats might make perfect sense to you. But, then again, they might not. Change them into numbers, and there is never a chance you'll get it wrong. 8 will always be more than 5.

Anyway, the fight went something like this. Spider-man drops in on a couple of jewel-thieves mid-crime. After a few seconds of witty banter, Spidey wraps the bad guys up in a web and the battle is over. But wait! There's a surprise! The Scorpion is hiding in the back of the getaway van. Bursting from his hiding place, Scorpion raises his poisonous tail and...notices the Silver Surfer floating above the alley. The Surfer snaps his fingers and the Scorpion is blasted into oblivion. End of adventure.

As stupidly simple as that was, I remember that it took a long time. You could chalk some of that up to inexperience, but I remember the Marvel system being kind of slow. Tonight, I got to experience it again, a much older and more experienced gamer.

You know what? It was still slow.

Everything in Marvel is resolved on a chart. It's not the worst system in the world. You cross reference your stat or power, roll d%, and look on the chart. The results are color-coded with white as a failure, green as a success, yellow as a better success, and red is the best result. That's not hard, I know. I used to play Rolemaster; I don't mind a chart.

You know what's faster than a chart, though? A number. It's the same as the ability score thing. I can learn the difference between Monstrous and Colossal, I can also learn what a yellow means when attacking vs a green. With a number, though, I don't need to learn anything. If my sheet says, say, roll d10 and add 5, I can do so easily. Then, depending on the system, the GM can tell me whether my action worked or not.

It might sound like I'm picking nits here, but I don't think so. Remember that we're talking about a game that is trying to emulate the action of comic books. If any game system should be fast and easy to use, it's a super hero game system. Comic books feature lots of fights. These fights, for the most part, are divided up into large illustrations that tell the story in a kind of snapshot style. Comics don't feature a lot of characters missing, panel after panel, dragging on through seeming stalemates. The Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game does.

I will forgive a supers game for slow, detailed character generation. A truth about almost every supers RPG I've ever played, even if I didn't care for the system, is that character generation is a lot of fun. It's a big part of the game, coming up with your own super hero. Also, in a game that faithfully emulates comics, character death should be rare. That makes me more forgiving of a drawn-out character creation. This isn't OD&D, where you're making new characters all the time.

Combat, though? It should be all WHAM! ZAP! SLICE! Done. Charts slow things down, at least until you learn to use them, and have no place in a super hero game. I have a theory about the chart. It feels like the product of a second or third generation of roleplaying games. It can only exist in a world where roleplaying game concepts are already firmly rooted in the minds of the designers. It feels like being different just for the sake of it. I can imagine designers asking themselves, “What would a game be like if it had a single chart to handle all the mechanics?” and then writing a game around that.

Instead, a better product would have come from looking at the source materials and trying to translate them into a game that remained as faithful to their feel and spirit as possible. Sadly, I don't think this was done here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on Cleric Magic

One of the things I've always tried to do is take a look at the way D&D rules work and tried to adapt my world to fit those assumptions. That doesn't mean that I won't alter or houserule something that doesn't jibe with some setting detail that I'm particularly attached to, but I'm not interested in changing 30 plus years of D&D tropes unless I have a darn good reason. Better to flex my world to fit the rules.

Cleric magic has always struck me as a good example of this kind of strangeness. With a few exemptions, clerics and magic-users (wizards, mages, whatever you want to call them) cast spells pretty much the exact same way. I think we can all agree that the D&D cleric is primarily based on the idea of a medieval Christian crusader, perhaps with some extra powers (i.e. spells) tacked on from various mythological and literary sources. Nowhere that I've read, however, do miracles work like D&D magic. So how do they work, why, and what does that mean for a D&D campaign setting?

Conclusion #1: Despite the difference in source and effect, cleric spells and magic-user spells are just different categories of the same kind of thing.

The magic used by clerics, for almost all purposes, is the same as the magic used by wizards. I know that the spells themselves are different, that's not what I'm saying. Cleric spells are not miracles. They don't reflect the way the biblical prophets performed signs and wonders. The only thing that cleric spells seem to be simulating is magic-user spells, at least in terms of preparation and execution. In fact, in the original D&D rulebooks (1974), there is no clear rule saying that only wizards keep spellbooks. The rules seem to imply that both clerics and magic-users both collect their spells in books (Men and Magic, p.34).

Conclusion #2: The force that powers spells comes from somewhere outside of the caster. Cleric spells come from a deity.

All magic comes from an external source. Magic-users study strange writings in ancient tomes to somehow temporarily “memorize” spells. Clerics pray to a god or goddess, also gaining a set number of one-shot spells. In both cases, the spell comes from somewhere else, gets held within the spell-caster's mind until used, and then it's gone. While it is not clear where magic-user spells actually come from (the cosmos, the energy of all living things, who knows?), such is not the case for clerics; their magic comes from the gods. Some D&D books make reference to clerics who gain their spells from some concept, such as Law or Nature, which for these purposes is the same as a deity.

Conclusion #3: Something intangible separates cleric and magic-user spells.
Despite the similarities between the two types of magic, clerics cannot cast magic-user spells and vice versa. The game rules don't offer any explanation for this, other than the idea that the spells come from different sources. There is something of an idea that perhaps wizard spells are written down differently than cleric spells. While clerics don't use spellbooks in most versions of D&D, they do make and use scrolls. However, clerics lack the spell Read Magic, which magic-users need to decipher spellbooks, scrolls, and the like. That seems to imply that a cleric spell is simpler than a magic-user spell, but requires a deity to function.

Conclusion #4: There are a finite number of cleric spells.

Magic-users must find and “learn” all their spells. If they haven't personally copied it into a spellbook, they can't prepare it. Furthermore, a given magic-user is limited by his intelligence, meaning that he can never learn all the spells in the world. Clerics do not suffer this limitation; they can pray for literally any spell that exists (limited by their experience level). However, they can't just ask their god for whatever they want. A cleric must choose from a set list of established spells.

Furthermore, it doesn't matter what deity a character follows, he has access to the same exact spells as every other cleric (at least, in original D&D). That means that a priest of the thunder god has the same powers as a priest of the goddess of love. Third Edition changed this a little bit with the advent of Cleric Domains, but all clerics still have access to the same core set of spells

Setting Assumptions
From the above conclusions, I came up with the following setting assumptions.

Assumption #1: There is a list of cleric spells
If a cleric must prepare spells from a set list, it is reasonable to assume that this list of available spells is somehow written down. Since all gods grant the same spells, then this list either predates the current religions, is somehow shared by them, or each had developed it independently (perhaps with divine inspiration).

Assumption #2: Cleric spells are simple rituals
All it takes to cast a magic-user spell is intelligence and special training. Cleric spells are presumably easier since they require no spellbook or a very high intelligence. However, only someone with faith in a deity and a certain amount of wisdom can cast them.

Assumption #3: Only the ordained can cast cleric spells
If cleric spells are written down, simple, and only require faith, then any pious, literate person should be able to cast them. This is not the case, however. Only clerics can employ these spells, with a god or goddess providing the final, unknown component that triggers the magic. While it's plausible to say that a deity actively approves the casting of each and every spell, checking whether or not the caster is a cleric of sufficient power and piety, this seems like a weak answer to me.

A better solution is to assume that clerics, by their affiliation with a structured religious order, undergo a ritual that gives them the power to use their magic. Whatever means a specific religion uses to ordain its clergy, the act of ordination lets the priest transform a list of simple prayers into powerful magic spells.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

House Rule Tolerance

In conversation with another gamer that I chanced upon here in South Korea, he mentioned that he's not really a D&D fan. Instead, he seems to prefer games with a more storytelling, less random aspect to them. While not exactly my cup of tea, I don't believe in the One True Way or the dreaded Wrongbadfun. Thus, I was interested to hear a bit about his games of choice. He mentioned that, while he likes certain games, he prefers to run a system of his own invention.

This got me thinking about our own tolerance for house rules and experimentation in RPGs run by other people. While I'm as obsessive a tinkerer as they come, I have always found it important to try to adhere to the core of the rules as written for whatever game I'm GMing at the time. When I add houserules (and I do), I try to keep them in the spirit of the original system and only add them for good reasons.

This idea also applies to setting/genre tropes that may or may not be part of the rules. If you're telling people that you want to run D&D, but you're excluding all demi-humans, changing out Vancian Fire-and-Forget-Magic, and making orcs the most dominate race in the world, are you really still playing D&D? At that point, I feel like you've invited me to a movie and instead offered me a circus. I might enjoy the latter, but I came here expecting the former.

There's nothing wrong with throwing all the rules or expectations out the window, of course. I'm certainly not disparaging my new-found gamer buddy's homebrewed system. In fact, I think it's awesome that he's taken the time to write a game that reflects the way he wants to play. I'd love to take a look at it sometime. I love games of all kinds and I can certainly admire his do-it-yourself attitude.

I do wonder, though, how much tolerance each of us has for other people's house rules. I once played in a 2E campaign that started with the GM telling us there are no halflings or gnomes in his world because he thinks that those two races are “stupid.” Maybe it was the crass way he presented the idea, but I was immediately turned off by this. I don't think gnomes or halflings are stupid and I'm playing this game too, man. If you have a neat idea that certain rules don't mesh with, I'm all for it. If you're just kind of winging rules options based on a whim...that sucks.

There are two extreme directions one can take this philosophy. One is the ultimate pioneer-spirit approach where everyone's game is different, subject to myriad houserules and basic setting assumptions getting tossed right out the window. The other side is a blind adherence to the rules, treating RPGs more like traditional games like Poker or Chess where the rules are universal so that everyone involved knows what they're getting into.

The best approach is probably somewhere in the middle. I think I'm more in the second camp. I want to be in the first camp, totally trusting that the GM is tweaking and houseruling the game in order to maximize the awesome and minimize flaws he's found through actual play. In reality, though, I'm far too wary of encountering another “halflings are dumb” guy. Therefore, I err on the side of caution and trust the professional game designers.

I would still love to read through someone's self-written game, though. That sounds awesome.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One Page Design Philosophy

Some time ago, the One Page Dungeon was the rage amongst all the OSR bloggers. I must admit that I find the concept intriguing. As fun as flavor text can be to read in an RPG book, I don’t think that “read aloud” sections of adventures actually work in gaming sessions. If I have to read anything more than a few sentences or a short paragraph to my players, I notice their eyes glass over. Worse still, they often miss key information, simply because reading verbose prose aloud is not a very good way to rely fine detail. Emotion, maybe, but fine detail? No.

What I like about the One Page Dungeon more than the template itself is the idea behind it. Namely, anything you have to use as a referee of a roleplaying game should be presented as clearly, concisely, and quickly as possible. That’s why monsters in older D&D are easier to use than 3.5. No matter how well designed the statblock, it still takes a certain amount of brainpower to parse all those ability scores, attacks, skills, feats, spells, and powers.

I plan to adopt this kind of One Page Philosophy to my own game designs. Whenever I write up new material for use in my home campaign, I will try to keep things as short and clear as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to eliminate all the fluff from my world. In fact, I think the end result will be better because I will have to choose my words carefully.

I wish professional designers would do the same. I read a lot of RPG books for entertainment, a practice in which I suspect I’m not alone. It’s very rare, however, that I sit down and read them as I would a novel, from cover to cover reading each word. Instead, I flip around, reading a portion here and skimming a portion there. Naturally, I miss a lot doing this. If a book is heavy on description and flavor text, giving me minute details about the inner workings of the campaign world, I often get bored and move on to another section. The author would probably have conveyed more information if he had simply written less, since I would have been far more likely to read and retain it.

Perhaps I’m the problem here. Maybe I suffer from some kind of ADD related to AD&D. I don’t think that’s the case, though. RPG books are not novels and they shouldn’t be written like them. Imagine a cook book that begins each recipe with a one paragraph introduction to each recipe, explaining the history of the food. You might be really interested to learn how German Chocolate Cake got its name or who invented the Cobb Salad. If the same cookbook devoted entire pages to food history, however, you’d be far less likely to read it, let alone use the thing in the kitchen. Cook books are for cooking, just like RPG books are for playing roleplaying games.

It would be foolish to slavishly adhere to this idea, never writing more or less than one page about anything. The One Page Philosophy is meant to be abstract and flexible. If you’re writing about something important, say a guild that is central to a setting, then you should probably devote more to a page to its description. However, an author should still try to limit the information to small, easily digestible sections. Maybe the history and motivation of the guild fit on one page. The stats of its leaders and typical members fit on another. Plot hooks and information about the guilds’ dark secrets finish things on another.

I will see what I can do to keep the One Page Philosophy in mind in my own writings. I have a lot of stuff sitting on my harddrive that I eventually want to post up here. Before I do so, I will have to edit out a lot of needless fluff make sure my writing is as interesting and precise as possible. I think the end product will be much better for my efforts.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wonders of Your World

There is a really cool scene in the Fellowship of the Ring in which the heroes, floating down the river Anduin into Gondor, pass two giant marble statues. These are the Argonath, a pair of statues carved in the likeness of Isildur and Anarion. The statues mark the northern border of ancient Gondor and serve as a visual warning to her enemies as well as a reminder of Gondor's might.

The Argonath aren't essential to the plot; they're little more than scenery, but the statues serve another purpose. Their presence reminds the viewer (or reader) that Middle Earth is an old world with thousands of years of history. The Argonath show us that Gondor was once a much larger and more powerful nation. They also tell a little something about Gondor's culture.

A GM would do well to include such man-made wonders in his campaign, for many of the same reasons that Tolkein included the Argonath in his book. They make the world feel more alive; they're interesting to view, experience, and explore; they give a sense of history to the campaign; and they can teach the players something about a society.

For inspiration, here are the classic “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” As a bonus, I've included a few wonder entries from the different incarnations of Sid Meiers Civilizations computer games. Some of these are not “wonders of the world” in the traditional sense, but they were important developments nonetheless. Remember that your own ideas don't have to be as large or obvious as the pyramids.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The Great Pyramid of Giza: The tomb of the Egyptian Pharoah Khufu. The pyramids themselves are impressive icons, and the Great Pyramid is largest of them. It was one of the largest structures of the ancient world, it has lasted for thousands of years, and it is houses the tomb and treasures of Egyptian kings. There is also the matter of how it was built, a question that still remains unsettled among some modern scholars.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: King Nebuchadnezzar II constructed this wonder of multi-leveled gardens for his wife. The gardens, complete with a complex irrigation system, was notable for its architecture, design, and the beauty of its lush plants. The fact that they were built in the desert climate of what is now Iraq adds to the Gardens' appeal.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus: 120 years in the building, this grand example of Greek temple architecture was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Antipater of Sidon, a poet who helped create the concept of the 7 Wonders of the World, said of the Temple: “...but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”A mystery cult, called Amazons by some ancient scholars, may have been associated with the Temple site in its early days.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia: A 40 foot statue of ivory and gold depicting the king of the gods. The statue was so massive that one scholar proclaimed that it would “unroof the temple” if it were to stand up. Legend says that when workers came to disassemble it and bring it to the Roman Emperor Caligula, the statue let out a peal of laughter so powerful it destroyed their scaffolding and sent them fleeing in terror.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: An enclosed tomb nearly 200 feet in height built for Mausolus, a governor of Persia. Four different sculptors created the carvings that decorated the large tomb's corners, and statues and bas-reliefs decorated the whole of the building. Renown for its aesthetics and architecture, the Mausoleum is also a monument to love and grief. It was built by Mausolus' widow (who was also his sister) after his death and meant to serve as a tribute to her late husband. The name Mausolus has carried on into modern times as the world Mausoleum.

The Colossus at Rhodes: A 100 foot statue of the god Helios, built to celebrate the city of Rhodes' victory against an invading army. The statue was the largest of its kind in all of the ancient world. Its imagery captured the imagination of Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar), the designers of D&D (as a monster), and the designers of the Statue of Liberty.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria: The lighthouse, at upwards of 400 feet tall, towered above all other structures on earth. Indeed, it was centuries before man was able to build anything larger. Its light shined out a warning guide to ships for hundreds of years, and the last remnants of the lighthouse stood until the year 1480; nearly 2,000 years after its construction.

A Few “Wonders” from the Civilization Computer Games

Moai Statues: Strange monolithic human statues carved from rock on Easter Island. Thought to represent deified ancestors, the Polynesian people that carved the heavy statues transported them all around the island, sometimes bearing them over several miles. The tallest known Moai is over 30 feet tall and weighs a staggering 82 tons.

The Great Wall of China: Not a single wall, but a series of stone and earthen fortifications built to protect China's northern border against barbarian incursions. The entire wall, taken as a whole and including all its branches, stretches nearly 4,000 miles.

Royal Library of Alexandria: Built in Egypt, the Great Library was the most significant collection of written works in the ancient world. Its goal was to collect all of the world's knowledge. As ships came into the port at Alexandria from both the eastern and western world, scholars at the library would gather any books from their cargo, make copies for their owners, and keep the originals. According to legend, the scribes were so skilled at this, the books' rightful owners often didn't even notice that they were receiving copies. No modern record of the library's contents exists, but it is likely that it contained tens of thousands of individual works collected on hundreds of thousands of scrolls.

It should be easy to take a few of these, add a fantastic twist, and then use them to spice up your own campaign.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Found Gamers

I'm running solo playtests of the upcoming DCC RPG on weekends here on post. Since I don't have a gaming group to speak of, I run everything myself; the player characters and the monsters. Last time I ran things in the comfort of the post library. For a change of scene, I decided to play in the food court today. As I was sitting there, rolling Game Science dice and scribbling notes on a piece of loose leaf paper, I looked at the table across from mine and noticed a bunch of percentile dice surrounding this:

“Are you guys playing the Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game?” I asked.

They were. Not only did I chance encounter a trio of gamers, but they were playing the last game I expected to see anyone playing over here. I've been searching for a month for people playing the most likely games: Pathfinder, 4E, even Warhammer 40K. But Marvel Supers? From 1985? That's unexpected. It turns out, one of the three players (one was even a GIRL!) does run Pathfinder. Emails were exchanged. They pointed me to a Facebook gamer group. I know there are gamers in the military, they're just hard to find. I'm glad I stumbled onto these three, even if I'm not a Marvel player.

We made small talk for a little while, which served to remind me that I think about this hobby and know more about it than anyone I ever meet. They've never heard of Labyrinth Lord, Mutants & Masterminds, the OSR, retroclones, DCC RPG, DCC Adventures in general, or Icons. I'm puzzled how someone can play Marvel Superheroes since 1985 and never even catch a whimper about M&M. People, I don't search around obsessively for information about games. Hell, I'm not even actively playing or even living in the United States right now. I learn about these games just by being involved in the online community of RPG players.

Oh well, at least I found some more gamers. Maybe I'll roll up a random superhero next Sunday.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In the Year 2000...

I've gotten off the d20 band wagon. It's kind of sad, in a way. As silly as this sounds, I think I was literally one of the earliest adopters of D&D Third Edition. Way back in 2000, I was an active reader on Eric Noah's Unofficial D&D Third Edition News. I can still remember the excitement of those times. If I think hard enough, I'm mentally transported back to the radio station where I worked as an overnight DJ. During down time, I'd surf onto Eric's site and read snippets of the upcoming 3E. I remember how new and different it all felt. Reflex saves, Base Attack Bonuses, Feats...all that stuff that is part of the gaming lexicon now was exotic and new.

It was a new age in gaming, one that we'd never seen before. The grognards will tell you that the golden age of D&D was the late 1970s, and they're right. The early 2000s, though, was the age where the gap between the game designers and the players all but vanished. The internet was still a fairly new thing back then and it seemed that information about the new D&D was appearing at lightning speed. If Monte Cook came up with a new rule on Monday, you'd hear about it on Eric Noah's message boards on Tuesday.

For me, it was the first time I ever felt such a strong connection to D&D. The open communication, the willingness to address the hardcore fans, to give us information about the hows and the whys of the development process, made a lot of us feel like 3E was our game. TSR had been a faceless corporation with a hostile policy against houserules and fan sites. Wizards of the Coast, at least for a few short years in the early 2000s, embraced the fans. They leaked us information about the game. They not only encouraged house rules, they gave us the OGL so we could officially endorse and sell them.

I was so excited about 3E that my friend and I planned a last minute trip to Gen Con just so we could buy the 3E players handbook the moment it was available. I got mine signed by Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams, and Monte Cook. Then I got both Gygax and Arneson to sign it. We went to an RPGA event and found that the judges were only vaguely familiar with the new rules. Thanks to Eric Noah's website, I knew more than anyone there about the new game. I started helping people make characters. I felt like an expert. I felt like 3E was my game, like I'd had a hand in creating it. I didn't, but I got to watch it develop.

Alas, Wizards of the Coast isn't what it used to be. How could it? None of the people working there are the same. The world is a different place, too. Paizo and Goodman Games released their entire game rules online for free as a public playtest. Almost every game that comes out now is under some kind of open license. Some of the good things that came out of those early 3E years are still around, but the magic has faded. It makes me sad in a way.

Pathfinder seems like a worthy heir to 3E. As I hear about Paizo's continued success, I can't believe that Wizards basically gave them 3E after D&D Fourth Edition came out. If the rumors are true and Pathfinder is outselling Dungeons and Dragons, then it means that Ryan Dancy's plan worked; no single company owns D&D any longer. The name may belong to Wizards, but the game belongs to everyone. Who could have seen any of this coming, eleven or more years ago?

I miss those early days, right before 3E came out. There was a buzz in the gaming world and a sense of community that I wish we could find again. I know that it wasn't the first time this happened. I guess that means that it won't be the last. Here's to the next gaming high period. It can't come too soon!

Super 8 and Storytelling

I watched the movie Super 8 last night. I enjoyed it, although I thought that it had the makings within it of a much better movie. Super 8 felt like the Goonies mixed with a modern, slightly scarier, ET. I don't want to give the wrong impression; the plots weren't the same, just the feelings. A group of ragtag kids run around in an adult world while scary government agents do X-Files stuff in a small town.

Super 8 is trying to be more realistic than the movies that inspired it, the movies that producer Steven Spielberg made back in the 1980s. The result is more realistic but less memorable characters. The Goonies were almost archetypes. They even had evocative nicknames that reminded the viewer of their personalities: Chunk, Mouth, Data, even Sloth. The characters of Super 8 have normal names. They seem (with the exception of the improbably brave and clever protagonist) like kids you might know. More real? Yes, but less memorable. At the same time, the fantastic elements of the story seem kind of tacked on. You remember how in Stephen King's It, Part 1 was really cool and nostalgic, mostly about the kids? Part one made you feel like one of those kids, It played off of the feelings and emotions we can all relate to having as children, the fear of the dark we all have inside. Part 2, with the grownups, had a big stupid giant spider and was far less satisfying. If you mixed the nostalgia of Part 1 with the stupid giant spider of Part 2, you'd have Super 8. It's a good movie, a solid B, but it could have been an A+.

What was awesome about Super 8 was the retro quality of its storytelling. I'm not talking about the 1970s setting or even the throwback to older Spielberg movies. I'm talking about the pacing and storytelling style of the movie. With four young kids in the house, I've seen a lot of kids shows, for better or for worse. Modern childrens' movies are fast paced with a lot of whiz bang effects. The best of the them have dialogue and jokes aimed at the parents, too, delivered quickly and smoothly right over the heads of the kids.

Super 8 is different. It focuses on the emotions of the story and its characters. It spends time establishing the characters, their histories, and their relationships to one another. It's not in a hurry to do so. Once it gets you there, the movie blows up a train in spectacular fashion. Then, with the kids' world turned upside down, the movie slows down again. The pacing is deliberate. This is a summer movie, to be sure, with explosions and monsters, but it's a summer movie from a different time. Well, parts of it are, anyway. It's wonderful to see a movie that treats its audience, children they may be, as if they're intelligent and capable of becoming emotionally attached to a story. Whether they are or not I'm not sure, but it was deeply refreshing to see a movie paced like this. May it spread to other movies and affect them.

I feel obligated to conclude with a gaming connection. Games, like other forms of entertainment, are products of their times. All too often, in the rush to adapt the zeitgeist of the day, I think that we forget the good parts of the things that came before. The music of today is very different from the music of 30 years ago. Does that mean that all of the music back then sucked and that the millions of people producing and enjoying it were wrong? Obviously not.

The same holds true for roleplaying games. The idea that we've somehow evolved or advanced beyond the rules elements of OD&D or 1E or whatever is absurd. Granted, these games were played over a period of several years, and we have the advantage of seeing how they worked on a bigger stage over a longer timeline. So, it's fair to say that you prefer system X or technique Y. But to dismiss old games simply because they're old, as if games could expire like cartons of milk? That's really, really foolish.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Playtest: Part 2 (The Adventure)

Now that I have the characters, it's time to put them through my pseudo-adventure. As I said before, I'm playing the part of all of these characters. This isn't a real adventure, but a series of planned encounters meant to simulate the sort of things one faces in a real D&D session.

We begin with the PCs just outside the entrance to the Barbarian King's tomb. Dusk is falling, and they know that there are goblins inside. Their plan is to creep into the tomb quietly, hoping to get a jump on the goblins and defeat them as quickly as possible. Before they begin, Dog lights a bit of tinder and gets ready to put flame to his flask of lamp oil. The PCs then creep along the outside wall of the cave before bursting in.

I have the party roll an Agility check, based on the PC with the worst modifier (+0). The result is an 8. The goblins, who are just inside the tomb's entrance, roll an opposed Intelligence check to see if they notice the PCs. I figure goblins are fairly stupid, so I give them a -1 penalty and roll a 9, for a total of 8. The result is a tie. I decide to be kind to the PCs and give them a free surprise round against the goblins.

The PCs burst into the cavern-like opening of the tomb. There are six goblins here, with three standing guard right by the entrance and the others hanging back, whiling away their time doing nothing.

Dog is the first to act. He lights his flask of oil and hurls it at the first of the three goblin guards.
Dog hits and rolls maximum damage of 6, killing the goblin outright.

Bunder draws his longsword and decides to hold back near the entrance to see how this all plays out.

Sirus steps in next, firing a sling stone at one of the two remaining goblin guards.
He hits AC 18 and does only 2 damage, but it's enough to kill the goblin.

Next up is Alfred, who brings his quarterstaff up and attempts to pummel the last remaining goblin guard.

Finally, the group's leader, Squire Tavor, draws his longsword and steps next to Alfred, attacking the same goblin.
He hits AC 18 and then rolls maximum damage of 8. Another goblin dies a painful death.

It's the goblins' turn. Since they've suffered their first casualty as a group they all have to test morale. Their three guards are dead, leaving the three that were deeper in the cave.
I need to roll Will saves for each goblin, DC 11. Two of them fail and one succeeds.

Panicked by this sudden and effective assault, two of the goblins break ranks and sprint for the entrance. Feeling the momentum of victory, the PCs let them pass unharmed. Only one goblin remains.

First, I have to roll initiative. I roll a single d20 for the group and d20 for the goblin. The goblin rolls high and wins.

Steeling its beady red eyes, the monster lunges at a nearby human.
I randomly determine that he attacks Tavor. He rolls a 5 and misses by a long shot.

Dog moves into the room and tries to smash the goblin with his club.
He rolls a 5 and misses.

Bunder is up next. Seeing that the others have things under control, he decides to stay out of the fight.

Sirus, not wanting to fire his sling into a melee, takes a short sword from one of the dead goblin guards as a backup weapon.

Alfred attacks the lone goblin.
He rolls a 4 and misses.

Tavor tries to finish the fight, swinging his longsword furiously at the monster's head.
He also rolls a 4. Miss.

The goblin lashes out at (random roll), Dog. The monster slashes with his short sword and..
He hits! He rolls 1d6-1 for maximum damage. The goblin's blade catches the poor slave right in the gut, killing him instantly. Dog is dead!

It's Bunder's turn again. He can't believe Dog could have dropped so easily. Keeping out of the Goblin's reach, Bunder creeps up to make sure Dog is really dead.
Checking the rules, I note that players do have a chance of helping other PCs who have been dropped to 0 hit points, if they can get there in time. However, level 0 guys don't have this luxury. For them, 0 and below is instant death.

Sirus decides that things might be getting ugly, but he still doesn't want to risk hitting an ally, so he gets his sling ready and waits.

Alfred, fearing this little goblin might be tougher than it looks, tries again to brain the thing with his staff.
He rolls a 2. That's a miss.

Squire Tavor attacks from the other flank.
And he rolls a 2! Damn you Gamescience Dice! You make it hard to pass the blame onto my dice!

The goblin, an evil grin coming over its face, begins to sense fear in its opponents. It attacks Alfred.
It rolls a 4. Miss!

At this point, Bunder decides he needs to act or risk losing out on the payoff he came here for. He asks if he can try to move around behind the goblin and gain a bonus to his attack, since the creature is fighting two people already. I don't see any flanking rules specifically, but I decide to grant him a +1 bonus to hit for one round only.
 Bunder rolls well and hits AC 17. He does 4 damage, but that's not enough to kill this goblin. The creature is wounded, but it's still fighting.

Sirus again waits. It looks like the others have things handled.

Alfred, encouraged by Bunder's assistance, swings his quarterstaff.
He hits a 6. No luck.

Squire Tavor follows up with an attack of his own.
He rolls a 9. Damn goblin refuses to go down.

The goblin now turns its attention to Tavor. It ducks low, coming at him from a surprising angle.
The goblin hits AC 15. It does 5 damage. Taken completely off guard, Squire Tavor's dreams of becoming a knight die as his life blood runs out onto a goblin's short sword.

Bunder is now feeling desperate. A few moments ago, it looked as though the PCs were going to easily best these goblins. Now things are turning against them in a hurry. He slashes at the goblin's puny head.
Bunder rolled a 1. A fumble! Because he's wearing hide armor, he rolls a d12. He gets a bonus for his Broken Star ability and ends up with a result of 8.

Bunder falls prone onto his back, his arms flailing.

Sirus decides to risk a ranged attack into the melee.
He rolls an 11, -4 for shooting into melee = a miss.

Since he missed, there is a 50% chance that Sirus hits a random ally.
I roll percentile dice and get a 20. Sirus hits Alfred. He rolls 3 points of damage. Poor Alfred only had 1 hp. As the errant sling stone smacks him in the back of the head, the former servant drops to the ground dead. He never even knew what hit him.

[DM's note: This is getting really out of hand. If this were a real adventure, the players would probably flee at this point, especially since the remaining two guys are kind of shady characters. However, its a playtest. Plus, it's just ONE GOBLIN, darn it!]

The goblin leaps toward Bunder's prone form, trying to finish him off.
The goblin rolls a 4, +4 for attacking a prone foe, is still not enough to hit. Bunder just manages to roll out of the way, and the goblin's blade strikes only dirt.

Bunder uses his action to roll away from the goblin's reach and then stand up from prone.

Sirus, now with a clear shot, fires another sling stone at the lone goblin, but misses.
He hit AC 6.

The goblin resumes its attack on Bunder. The monster is convinced that it can win this fight.
He hits a 10. Not enough to penetrate the mercenary's armor.

Bunder, back on his feet, swings his sword toward the goblin, but the monster parries it away.
Hit AC 11. This goblin is wearing a bit of armor.

Sirus draws the goblin shortsword. He would normally be at a -4 penalty, since a 0 level character is only proficient with the weapon he starts with (in this case, a sling). I forgot this rule in the heat of the battle, though, so let's just say that the smuggler's Luck is working in his favor.

The goblin attacks Bunder again, hoping to finish him off once and for all.
Lucky break for the PCs as the goblin rolls a 9 and misses.

Planning to burn some Luck if need be, Bunder puts everything into this attack. He needs to finish this goblin!
Bunder rolls a 14 and doesn't need to use any luck. He rolls a 5 for damage. The goblin, tenacious fighter that it was, is finally dead.

Their strength down to only two men, the PCs decide what to do next. They're not certain that they can defeat any other monsters that might live in this tomb. On the other hand, with the goblins dead and the tomb only recently unearthed, it's likely that the treasure is now unguarded. Greed wins the day. Bunder dons Squire Tavor's steel helmet and, with Sirus the smuggler following, proceeds deeper into the cavern.

As they make their way down the narrow earthen hall that they believe leads to the Barbarian King's treasure, the party stumbles into a trap! Bunder, in the lead, is the first to encounter it: a small pitfall, concealed in the floor. Bunder has a split second to react.
Bunder must make a Reflex save, DC 10, or fall in the pit. He rolls a 10, narrowly escaping certain death.

With the pit trap exposed, the two adventurers are able to circumvent the danger. They finally arrive in a large, circular room. In the center is a stone sarcophagus. Atop of the Barbarian King's final resting place sits his treasure: a golden goblet filled with sweet-smelling red liquid, a small chest of silver coins, and a fine-quality axe.

Together, Bunder and Sirus creep carefully over to the treasure. As Sirus reaches out a hand toward the golden cup, the air ripples with magic. A dark wind blows and, in a puff of acrid smoke, the Barbarian King's long-dead body guards are summoned from beyond the grave.

I roll 3d4 for the number of skeletons that appear: 7

Clad in tattered furs and moldy leather head-dresses, the barbarian skeletons appear in a circle around the PCs. As the monsters move in menacingly, their grave-mouldered claws reaching with murderous intent, the two remaining adventurers have no choice but to put their backs together and fight.

Rolling initiative, the PCs get a 14. The skeletons get a 5. The initiative goes to the PCs.

Bunder slashes out with his longsword, trying to fend off the nearest skeleton.
He rolls a 5 and misses.

Behind him, Sirus dodges sideways and attack a skeleton with the shortsword he stole from a dead goblin. (Recall that I forgot about the -4 penalty).
He rolls a paltry 6 and misses.

The skeletons are up. I decide that there are currently two on each of the PCs, with the others coming up quickly to join their boney brethren.

The first skeleton snatches at Bunder with its claw-like fingers.
17! Bunder is hit for 2 damage. As tough as he seemed, the mercenary only had 1 hit point to begin with. The skeleton finds soft flesh, tearing into Bunder's throat and killing him instantly.

As Bunder falls to the ground, Sirus the Smuggler knows that he's about to die. With nothing left to loose, he braces himself for the incoming assault, hoping he can burn enough luck to turn the tide against the skeletons and escape with his life.

The first of two skeletons attacks Sirus.
It misses with a 4.

The second skeleton attacks Sirus.
It hits, but only inflicts 1 damage. Sirus has 1 hit point left.

Sirus' only hope now is to hit or come close enough that his luck can make the difference. He rolls.
...a 4. Desperate, he burns 6 points of luck, which actually gives him one more than he needed to hit. He rolls a 2 for damage but, since he's using a slashing weapon, it only does ½ against the skelton, or 1 damage.

The blade turns awkwardly off the skeleton's ribcage. The monsters continue to advance and Sirus' luck is running out!

Sirus's Luck is now 5, meaning he's at a -2 to all missile attacks due to his Fortunate Date luck ability.

It's a new round. There are three skeletons engaged with Sirus, with four more circled around the melee. One by one, the monsters claw at the desperate smuggler.

Skeleton 1 hits a 15. That's enough to hit. The skeleton inflicts only 1 damage, but that's enough.

Sirus swings in vain, trying to fight off the boney barbarians, but they overpower him and throw him to the ground. In a frenzy, the monsters tear Sirus apart.

The would-be adventurers are all dead.

There your have it. While not a true playtest, I can say with certainty that the DCC RPG is very deadly for level 0 characters. Had any one of these guys survived and graduated into a full scale adventurer, it would have made for a cool backstory. I rather like the “funnel” method, but it obviously works best with a normal-sized group of players, each running 3 characters or so. I'm sure that a party of 12 would have overcome the skeletons and made off with the treasure.

My first impressions of the game were pretty good. I liked making the characters and things went smooth and simple. I wasn't really getting into anything new, though, as the game becomes different than D&D only when you start running characters greater than level 0. Even then, I'm not sure that there is enough different here to distinguish DCC RPG from standard D&D in the long run. After all, its still fighters and wizards rolling d20 to hit the AC of the same old goblins and skeletons. The new bits, like the spell charts, might be a lot of fun if they aren't too much work. However, what happens when the novelty wears off?

I'm eager to see the final product, of course, and I'll hold off judgement until then. I will say that I enjoyed my little solo playtest. I really want to try this out with level 1 characters so I can test some of the new rules. I feel that its important to create characters using the funnel method that the book prescribes, though. Maybe I'll rerun this mini-adventure a few more tames with the same characters and see if the dice don't favor one or two of them surviving. Whatever I decide to do, I'll be sure to post the results here.