Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Rules Comparison of Older D&D Editions

The following is a comparison of TSR-era D&D editions and/or their derivatives that is mostly intended for my own reference when considering different editions to run, or if I am considering pointing others towards a specific game I would like to run. If anyone reading this blog can point out corrections or additional information, feel free to comment.

Systems Considered:

  • S&W (Swords and Wizardry Complete, 2008, an OD&D (1974) Retroclone1)

  • B/X (Dungeons and Dragons Basic/Expert, Moldvay-Cook, 1981, consulting Old-School Essentials for clarifications. Additional references to Rules Cyclopedia)

  • AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Ed., 1977, consulting OSRIC for clarifications.)


Character Classes:

  • S&W: Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Thief

  • B/X: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-User, Thief (See Rules Cyclopedia for Druid and Mystic.)

  • AD&D: Assassin (T), Bard (F/T), Cleric, Druid (C), Fighter, Illusionist (M), Magic-User, Monk, Paladin (F), Ranger (F), Thief
    (Note: Parentheses indicate a sub-class. Bard and Monk excluded from OSRIC. Additional classes in Unearthed Arcana, such as Barbarian and Cavalier.)

Character Races:

  • S&W: Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Human

  • B/X: Race as Class.

  • AD&D: Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Human


  • S&W: 3-point Law-Neutral-Chaos

  • B/X: 3-point Law-Neutral-Chaos

  • AD&D: 9-point Good-Neutral-Evil and Law-Neutral-Chaos

Maximum Level:

  • S&W: 20

  • B/X: 14 (see Rules Cyclopedia for up to 36)

  • AD&D: 20

AD&D Note (Leveling Up):
  • Gygax suggests training required at a rate of current level × 1,500gp per week in order to gain levels.

Spell Lists and Max Spell Levels:

  • S&W: Cleric (7), Druid (7), Magic-User (9)

  • B/X: Cleric (5), Magic-User (6)

  • AD&D: Cleric (7), Druid (7), Magic-User (9), Illusionist (7)

  • S&W: Can be transcribed to spellbooks. Must Read Magic for arcane scrolls first.

  • B/X: Can only be cast. Must Read Magic for arcane scrolls first.

  • AD&D: Can be transcribed to spellbooks. Must Read Magic for arcane scrolls first.



  • S&W: 10-minute Turn, 1-minute Round.

  • B/X: 10-Minute Turn, 10-second Round.

  • AD&D: 10-Minute Turn, 1-minute Round, 6-second Segments (10/Round)


  • S&W: Movement rate e.g., 12. (×20 = feet/turn; ×10/3 = feet/round in combat)

  • B/X: Base movement (Encounter movement) e.g., 120' (40')

  • AD&D: Movement rate e.g., 12". (Conversions: 1":10' per turn of exploration or combat round. 1":1' per combat segment. 1":2 miles per day of travel.)


  • S&W: Weight measured in pounds. Affects movement only.

  • B/X: Weight measured in coins. Affects movement only.

  • AD&D: Weight measured in pounds. Affects Surprise and Initiative

Random Encounters:

  • S&W: 1-in-6 chance every turn, but suggested as few as every 3 turns. Variable dungeon level. d6×10' distance in dungeon. (×3 to ×10 in wilderness.)

  • B/X: 1-in-6 chance every 2 turns. Standard dungeon level. 2d6×10' distance in dungeon.

  • AD&D: 1-in-6 chance every 3 turns. Variable dungeon level. d6+4" distance in dungeon. (50' to 100') Base 6d4" distance in wilderness, modified by surprise.

Reaction Rolls:

  • S&W: 2d6. Low rolls are hostile.

  • B/X: 2d6, modified by Charisma of interacting character. Low rolls are hostile.

  • AD&D: d%. Low rolls are hostile.


Operation Order:

  • S&W: 1. Declare spells; 2. Initiative; 3.Movement and Missiles, then losers of initiative; 4. Spells and melee, then losers of initiative.

  • B/X: 1. Declare spells and melee movement; 2. Initiative; 3: In order: Movement, Missiles, Spells, Melee. 4: Opposition.

  • AD&D: 1. Declare intentions including spells; 2. Initiative; 3: Resolve in initiative order.


  • S&W: d6. 1-2 is surprised for one round, but only 1 if Monk or Ranger in party. 1-in-4 chance of dropping a held item if surprised.

  • B/X: d6. 1-2 is surprised for one round.

  • AD&D: d6. 1-2 is surprised for that many segments. Dexterity modifiers can negate these segments for individual characters.


  • S&W: Group d6, highest goes first. Ties are either simultaneous or re-rolled per DM choice.

  • B/X: Group d6, highest goes first. Ties are either simultaneous or re-rolled per DM choice.

  • AD&D: Group d6, highest goes first. Each side acts on the other die’s segment. Ties are simultaneous. Spells resolve at appropriate segment per casting time.

Move and attack:

  • S&W: Can be combined.10' melee range

  • B/X: Can be combined. 5' melee range.

  • AD&D: No melee until after the round distance is closed, unless charging (×2 move). Defender can set to receive charge.

Back Stab (Thief):

  • S&W: +4 to hit from behind for Thieves and Assassins. If also surprised, damage multiplied based on level.

  • B/X: +4 to hit if unaware and from behind. Damage doubled.

  • AD&D: +2 to hit from behind (or +4 if also with surprise), damage multiplied based on level.

Attacks of Opportunity/Fleeing:

  • S&W: Free attack as the character moved out of 10’ melee range, made at +2. Optional.

  • B/X: +2 to attack from behind; No automatic attack.

  • AD&D: Free attack(s) at +4 (i.e., treat as stunned)

Missile attacks:

  • S&W: +0 at short range, -2 at long range.

  • B/X: +1 at short range, +0 at medium range, -1 at long range.

  • AD&D: +0 at short range, -2 at medium range, -5 at long range.

Firing into Melee:

  • S&W: Random.

  • B/X: No mention.

  • AD&D: Random. Adjust probabilities based on sizes.

Monster Morale:

  • S&W: Mentioned in the abstract.

  • B/X: 2d6 vs. Monster's score. Equal or lower continues to fight. 2 successes will fight to the death. Optional.

  • AD&D: d% roll for resolve; Base 50%, +5/HD >1, +1/extra HP. Additional situational modifiers.


  • S&W: No mention.

  • B/X: Monster reaction roll. Success based on movement rate.

  • AD&D: d% roll for pursuit chance. Depends on intelligence and situation.

AD&D Note (Spells and Weapon Speed):

  • If lost initiative but attacking spellcaster in melee, subtract losing initiative die roll from weapon speed. If the result is less than the casting time, an interrupting hit is possible.

AD&D Note (Simultaneous Melee and Weapon Speed):
  • In tied initiative, If the slower weapon has a greater speed factor by either +5 or 2x, the faster weapon gets 2 attacks before slower. If the difference is 10, the faster weapon gets a 3rd attack simultaneously with the slower weapon attack.

AD&D Note (Weapon vs. Armor):
  • There is a table for bonuses and penalties to hit based on different armor types. Thus, certain weapons are better for lightly armored foes, and others for heavily armored foes.

As stated before, please feel free to comment below to point out inaccuracies or important omissions. In a future blog post, I hope to compare stat monster block formats found in adventures for various rules systems, as well as looking at how a monster changes across those rules systems as well.

1 - Note that of the three systems compared, I consider Swords and Wizardry to be probably the most removed from its inspirational edition of D&D, so I don't want to simply call it OD&D. (For example, the default option is a single saving throw, as opposed to the 5 different types.) As far as I know, it is an interpretation of the rules comprising Chainmail, the original D&D Box set, all supplemental booklets, and some articles from The Strategic Review. There are also the White Box (Original 3 Booklets) and Core (Same, with Greyhawk supplement) editions of S&W, but I imagine they are mostly stripped-down versions of S&W Complete. In reading the Swords and Wizardry Complete rulebook, however, there are well-presented notes about changes from the original rules.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Looking Back on the OSR

What better way to celebrate my return than to offer a sort of retrospective of the whole RPG scene and where I fit into it? In this weird world where D&D is more popular than it's ever been, I nevertheless feel increasingly isolated with where I like to place myself in it and the kinds of games I like to play. Also, since the death of Google+ and the fracturing of the RPG social media machine, I have had a difficult time surmising the current state of things with respect to RPGs in general, much less the Old School community. Twitter as a platform is far less functional and navigable than it used to be, and I have since deleted my Facebook account for a wide variety of reasons, my mental health being the most important. So, there are many people I used to talk to on a regular basis who I now have no idea how to contact, and I have no idea what they might be doing these days. And although I plan to summarize a few key events that occurred while I was removed from the hobby community, I undoubtedly missed something. Mindful of this ignorance, let's take a look at how I understand the "Old School" D&D scene on a macroscopic level before I inevitably find myself deep in its sweet clutches once again...

The OSR, Whatever That Is (Was?)

First, a definition. The "OSR"—at least at the time of my departure—had meant a great many things even during the span of time that I considered myself deeply entrenched in it. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there persists debate as to what the "R" even means. "Old School Renaissance" is the most common I've come across, with "Rules" and even "Revolution" being alternatives. I think its formation can easily be traced back to the acquisition of D&D by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and the incorporation of the fundamentally different 3rd Edition mechanics. Interestingly, the 3rd Edition also produced the Open Gaming License (OGL), which allowed for not only third-party creation of modern D&D content, but also the creation of content related to earlier editions of D&D.

Where I'm going with this observation is this: the thesis that there are generally two different populations that make up what would eventually become this "OSR" philosophy/community.

Initially, this "old school" crowd merely contained the population who refused, for one reason or another, to adopt the newer edition(s), instead sticking with the editions released by TSR1. Not long after, it also included all the newer content (games and modules) that were released under the OGL, and these creations had fans in their own right. But still, you could say that this is the "nostalgia" camp, since their initial RPG experiences were crafted in the context of TSR D&D.

Eventually, there became an ever-growing population who had been introduced to D&D as it had been reborn under the WotC banner. They then discovered—through whatever means—the older editions and began to play those as well, and in some cases exclusively. Naturally, this tends to be a younger audience, coming into RPGs after the year 2000, when 3rd Edition hit the shelves.

Note that I, myself, am in a relatively unique position, or so I believe. My first experiences with Dungeons and Dragons were thanks to reading Bill Amend's FoxTrot comic strip in the mid-90s. After hearing nerd extraordinaire Jason describe D&D to his sister Paige, I thought it sounded like such a cool experience, let alone a cool game. I eventually convinced my dad to get me the 1994 Black Box, followed by the Revised 2nd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, which I would read through while eating breakfast cereal. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that a lot of the rules I needed were in the Player's Handbook, which I couldn't find for a long time (since this was before online bookstores existed). Although the earlier edition captured my imagination, it wasn't until when 3rd Edition came out in high school that I found people who were into the game. Effectively, I can kind of claim membership of both of these subgroups that gravitate towards TSR-era D&D.

The Social Problem

Let's fast forward a few years. Facebook came out while I was in college, back when it was only open to college students. I remember thinking that it was a bad idea to open it up to the general public, and oh boy, was I correct. Since then, generally speaking, I have seen all manner of social media algorithms create hyper-focused self-reinforcing communities on their respective platforms. Echo chambers, polarization, and siloization are some terms that I am thinking of using here, although I hesitate since I have not studied social media dynamics academically, only as an attentive yet casual observer.

At least in the context of the US, there has been an ever-strengthening tendency of social polarization. On one extreme, you see higher concentrations of radical bigotry and hard-line social "conservatism." On the other side, I see well-meaning social progressivism, albeit too often in the framework of a hyper-morality competition that becomes absolutist and self-sabotaging. This is about as political as I want to get, as the tightrope of language is thin, and I have never been excellent at choosing the right words to convey my meanings with surgical accuracy.

Actually, scratch that. I had checked out well before the rise of the bizarre, perverse conspiracy cult of Anonymity centered around a letter between P and R. That's right, I'm treating it like Voldemort because I don't want Blogger to associate this blog with that terminology in any way. I have no knowledge of how that real-life fringe has affected RPGs, and for the moment, ignorance is bliss.

Back to the polarization aspect: an obvious correlation is that the bigotry side of our US society tends to consist of older, white, cisgender and heterosexual males, while the opposite side is younger and, broadly speaking, more diverse.2 It follows that the OSR community is similarly divided, due to the generational gap between those who are members through nostalgia versus those who are members via discovery. Nevertheless, for many people who have not explored the older editions or who cannot understand the appeal, the preference for older D&D editions is easily written off as nostalgia, and is synonymous with old, likely bigoted, white men.

Certainly those of us who are trying to reject this association are not helped by the flood of problematic news that continues to come out about the older generation of gamers and creators. (Ex: 1, 2, 3.) Fortunately, I can say that during my run in the RPG circles, I made a lot of new friends of various sexualities, genders, and ethnic backgrounds, and most of them I met through playing older editions of D&D, or games that were inspired by them. What's more, I made more such friends than when engaging in all my other hobbies combined (including board games).

Evolution of the Label

As the OSR evolved, it began to be less about the D&D game system, and more about the ethos that the older editions represented. TSR editions of the game had fewer rules overall, and the farther back in the publication history you go, the poorer the organization and layout tended to be. As a result, there were fewer rules to cover every possible scenario that arose in play, and when those rules did exist, they were not always easily found. While there were times that this created some disastrous social outcomes, particularly amongst kids who are not always the best at fairness, the contemporary take from within the OSR is that this leads to greater freedom on the DM's part to be creative and make rulings that adapt to the fiction at hand.

Gamemaster inventiveness and homebrew hackery led many who identified with the OSR to experiment with new settings, game mechanics, and original game systems, all with the intent of facilitating better gameplay at the table with a DM who could be entrusted to fairly adjudicate the gameplay. Interestingly, an "opposing" group of new RPG design with direct narrative-control mechanics (e.g., Fate) likely also had its genesis in early D&D games, albeit ones where the social contract had been violated and the DM could not be trusted.

By the time I had decided to abandon the RPG hobby, I was constantly observing new content coming out from the OSR community, and hardly anything was even remotely related to D&D. The idea had evolved far beyond an association with a particular era of D&D rules. Instead, you could easily call it a DIY freeform RPG community with a shared genesis point. 

Where I Am Now

Within the last few months, I hesitantly accepted an invitation to a fortnightly 5th Edition game. As a matter of fact, we have our next session this evening. I know about half of the players, including the DM, personally. However, what has me plunging myself back into the hobby and into this blog is the fact that one of the players has expressed interest in running a 2nd Edition AD&D game. But all this was covered in the last blog entry. My biggest challenge will probably be resisting the temptation to let loose my inner DM and start up a third game. There is no way that the current group could accommodate a third game, and even I have little free time to dedicate to running a complete campaign, even one as lightweight as Megadungeon Madness.

So, I will sit here and roll dice as a player in the meantime. It is good to have my paper, pencil, and polyhedrals again. My hope is that when I do get around to wanting to run a game with an older edition of D&D, I will not get much pushback from a community so fully immersed in the most recent edition and its modern tendencies.

Thanks to my initiative of separating myself from a toxic social media addiction, I do not know if the OSR is still going strong. And if it is, I have no idea what it looks like now. If you are a content creator who I know from my previous foray into the world of OSR creativity, please reach out. There are a lot of good friends out there who I wonder about these days.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A Few Years Later, Our Hero Returns

Well, here I am after a long sabbatical away from tabletop gaming. All it took was a single mention of a TSR-era edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and I launched myself head-first into old-school systems again. I've excavated my dice, and I'm ready to start rolling them into the felt of the dice tray once more.

When I last left the hobby, I was going through some personal stuff. I was battling mid-grade depression, and what had once been a solid OSR community had at that point become toxic.

I turned my attention to board games, then visual art, and finally music before coming back to RPGs only recently. I have been playing in a 5E game (one night online every two weeks) set up by a friend from college, and overall it has been quite fun the last few months. However, I do have to quietly chuckle at myself at all the things that would not feature in a game of my own making:

- The expectation of combat, with one set piece tactical battle per 2-3 hour session.

- Battle maps.

- A general lack of mortal danger.

- The Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

- Skill checks. (A lot of them.)

- Players asking to roll said skill checks in order to do something.

One of the players has indicated that he would like to try running a 2nd Edition AD&D game on the side. He started a character creation session on Discord, which was ill-timed because I was at a real nadir with respect to my depression in the last month. I wanted to do nothing; I saw very little point in anything; I didn't know if I could stand talking to people, etc. Those who have dealt with depression probably know what I'm talking about. Those who haven't hopefully never will.

I had missed a vast majority of character creation, but I did learn that we had a Half-elf Ranger and a soon-to-be-finished Dwarven Thief. Fortunate that I still had my PDF of the Player's Handbook, I was able to open it and slowly refresh my memory. I didn't even have physical dice handy, but I rolled some stats and decided on a Human Cleric. (Maybe I'm unimaginative, but I always gravitate towards playing humans.) The rest of the following half-hour was spent re-familiarizing myself with this game which I had first learned in the late '90s, despite rarely having friends who were willing to play it.

I had merely finished character creation. Within days, I had purchased/ordered new replacement copies of the Dungeon Masters Guide and Player's Handbook. I'm digging out the small mountain of dice I own in no fewer than three tackleboxes. I'm seeking out new content sources, such as The Old Warlock on YouTube (which is my preferred content consumption platform). I'm seeing which blogs I enjoyed a few years ago are still around. I am wondering how many people looked at my own and wondered where I went.

I have yet to play my first session in this new game, but I feel inspired to run a game of my own, even if it means that I have to sacrifice some of my precious little evening time.

The sword, it would seem, has been re-forged.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Statement & Forward Progress, or: A toxic person and what would eventually be my last blog entry for years.

Sorry for the length of time it took to get this out there. I've honestly been too overwhelmed with work to make any real progress writing things, even a blog post that would be very important to make.

I had a whole think piece planned where I was going to get into phenomena of hero worship and cults of personality, as well as my personal experiences with them in the forms of witnessing the downfalls of both Michael Vick and Joe Paterno, from the ground level within communities that adored them both, and seeing the various effects (both good and bad) that those downfalls had on the communities themselves. I was going to allude to the one friend I have who is currently wrestling with her own experiences of abuse and domestic violence. But I'm not a fantastic writer, and the task had reached a point of diminishing returns where I felt that the more I typed, the more needed to be said. And finally I realized that I was spending time on someone who's not worth spending it on, and about whom enough has already been said.

If you're clueless as to what I'm talking about, I think Patrick Stuart has penned one of the best summaries of the situation, which is almost a month old by now. ( He lays out the situation quite well and also links back to a few posts he's made in the past regarding Z, posts which I think are quite objective and a fairly neutral assessment. He also perfectly describes what it's like to interact with Z, how you seem to start arguing with yourself about what's real and what isn't.

I have bought or otherwise supported a number of products that Z has made a substantial input on, including waiting on a copy of a Kickstarted RPG. I am very good friends with that project's manager, Mike, who is a fantastic individual who has given me absolutely no indication that he's anything except a wonderful human being. So I am not withdrawing my support of that project because I think Mike deserves to see his project succeed to the best degree that it is still able. I do not plan on ever running the game again.

As for the books, I don't feel right selling them to anyone else, or even destroying them. First off, I hate destroying books outright, but also there is valuable sentimental content within most of them. My copy of Death Frost Doom has an inscription from Jez Gordon. Maze of the Blue Medusa has an inscription from Patrick. Even A Red and Pleasant Land has Satine's signature in there.

Then there's the two original art pieces I have. I've thought about destroying them, but I figured that it would serve little point. You see, they are two pieces from a project that Z and Patrick were working on together, but it either got put on the back burner or abandoned altogether before their relationship exploded in fire. Judging from the artwork I have and the quality of writing that Patrick has consistently put out, it could have led to something great. But now I see only lost potential, destroyed by a monstrous personality of toxicity. It's kind of a grounding effect that helps remind me that one's character really does matter. And for that reason, they're oddly valuable in a completely ironic sense.

Anyway, keep in mind that this was supposed to be a truncated post compared to my original idea, and it's already getting quite lengthy for what should have been a condensed set of ideas.

In summary, I no longer support Z or his work, nor do I recommend anyone give him any support, either in terms of purchases or even discourse. I believe Mandy and her accounts. Abuse is something I will not abide. Even if, for the sake of argument, Mandy's accounts were not accurate, (and again, I believe her) I have processed enough to make this judgement regardless.


Moving on to the subject of this blog, I have been dealing with low-grade depression for about half a year. I am finally starting to turn things around with professional help, and so I would like to attempt to move forward with this blog. It will continue to discuss my RPG activity, but it will probably contain even more content that is art-related. I hope both that I follow through with this plan, and also that you will continue to follow the blog.

If the blog fails, please follow my Instagram account, @dommedraws.

I also created a WhereToFindMe page.

Friday, November 16, 2018

U-Con 2018: Post-Convention Recap

This past weekend was my local convention, U-Con, and I thought that I'd offer some post-con analysis.

First off, here was the schedule of games I ran:
Friday, 900-1300: [redacted] - Terror in D.C.
Friday, 1400-1800: NGR - A Thousand Dead Babies
Saturday, 900-1300: NGR - Gnomes of Levnec
Saturday, 1400-1800: Mothership - Dead Planet

I also played in a Scooby-Doo LotFP game on Friday night, wherein we had to uncover the secrets of Velma's family during her sister's wedding preparations. That was an immensely enjoyable game, even if the ending had to be a bit rushed due to time. I did meet a cool group of people who are local to the area, so if they're reading this, they should get in touch so we can maybe try to get some local gaming going.

Anyway, more on the games I ran:

Terror in D.C. [redacted]:
[redacted] is Z's upcoming modern-day horror game. The rules are currently available to backers in a barely readable Word document (which is where the awesome Shawn Cheng comes in.) Using this, I devised a simple scenario involving a member of the House of Representatives. Perhaps the highlight of this session was the party hiding out in a Starbucks while staking out the Dunkin' Donuts across the street.

I absolutely love the mechanics, which are dirt-simple. Instead of everyone using their own dice, having the community tarot cards with their pictorial implications led to a greater degree of player buy-in, I feel. My main self-criticism is that I didn't call for many Calm checks (read: sanity rolls), especially when things got especially stressful for the characters.

What I loved about this game was that I made nearly everything about it up on the fly. I had a starting scene and an underlying horror, and the rest developed at the table. Not only does this mean that I'm more confident in improvising entire game sessions, but also that it is possible to improvise a majority of an investigative scenario. This is immensely satisfying.

A Thousand Dead Babies (Neoclassical Geek Revival):
The ultimate in introductory adventures for NGR (see previous blog post), as well as Zzarchov's adventure design style. I was fresh off a playtest of this adventure from earlier in the week, thanks to a group of friends in Lansing who run games every other Monday. I live just far enough away from Lansing that getting up there to see them is rarity, but fortunately they let me run the adventure through once.

This second incarnation of the game absolutely followed none of the path that the first game did. But it was just as awesome. They went the full murderhobo route, and it was a blast nonetheless.

The game introduces the NGR system fairly well. I had already put together a 4-panel GM screen, although I would probably also put together a one-page player handout to explain the basics and refer back to periodically during the session. Despite the system's elegance, there's a lot of things to teach yourself over and over again until it all "clicks." I may work on this project before running future games of NGR for newbies.

The Gnomes of Levnec (Neoclassical Geek Revival):
This is a game I ran last year, although I was using LotFP rules then. This time, I had a bit more experience under my belt, and I was able to take advantage of the NGR system, which lends itself pretty well to this scenario. Last year, there was basically a PCs-vs-the-Mob situation, and I felt like things were going to get out of hand quickly. I did one of the worst things imaginable and basically asked the players not to go off the rails with it. If the same scenario had arisen this time around, I would have been better equipped because of NGR's clear support of social conflict situations.

Like the A Thousand Dead Babies game, this second time through the adventure resulted in almost no overlap between what the two groups of players did. Both were violent, although this one did not end in a TPK. Instead, it was the party that inflicted mass violence on many NPCs

One thing I should note about both of these Zzarchov games is that each group expressed worry that they weren't following the narrative path of the adventure correctly. I then gleefully relayed the fact that the scenario in question was a miniature sandbox full of gunpowder.

Lastly, I only found out after the fact that I had run a game for an occasional online contact, Paul Gorman. Hi, Paul!

Dead Planet (Mothership):
OK, so oddly enough, this one was originally scheduled for 8PM-Midnight. That wasn't gonna happen for a guy who normally wakes up at 5:30AM on weekdays. So, I got this slot moved to 2PM-6PM. But that probably threw some people off, and I didn't get the requested minimum of players. Rather than just dissolve it, though, I was fortunately able to add my players to Bardaree's table in the ConTessa room thanks to her generosity. Likewise, I joined some of my former players from the Gnomes game at Stacy Dellorfano's table to playtest their city crawl project...

The Incompetent Watchmaker (LotFP):
This was my final game and I'm glad that Stacy let me sit in at their table. I will keep the appraisal very brief, but I can tell you that this is shaping up to be a fantastic supplement. Stacy added a number of real-world references from the city of Bern, Switzerland, which gave a good sense of grounding in reality. Meanwhile, the final encounters actually creeped/grossed me out in a way that no one else in RPGs has managed to do. I also really liked the tick-box customization of pregenerated characters (e.g., choose three starting weapons from this list, and so forth.) One of the smoother LotFP games I've played in.

Other Stuff
While I had a blast at the con while I wasn't at the gaming table, I will say that one of the highlights was getting to re-meet Chris Spivey (author of Harlem Unbound) at the bar. (We had met briefly at the ENnies earlier this year). This time we had a bit of a conversation about our U-Con experiences and we got to discuss a few aspects of running and writing RPG material. 10/10 would chat with again.

And now I'm back to my regular gaming routine once again, with my usual dose of post-convention gaming enthusiasm. I think my goals for the near future will be to continue familiarization with all the various aspects of the NGR system, and eventually writing an actual adventure for it. I may start by writing system-specific content on this blog, so keep your eyes peeled.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Neoclassical Geek Revival (NGR): A Review

Today, I would like to review the game system Neoclassical Geek Revival (henceforth NGR) by Zzarchov Kowolski. Now, I don't consider myself a reviewer like Bryce at tenfootpole, and in fact I've only posted one RPG review prior to this one. But I feel compelled to review the game system here, for one primary reason. You see, NGR is the only game I'm playing in now. I'm a player in one of Zzarchov's weekly games, and we use his system.

Zzarchov is primarily known in RPG circles as the author of high-value, innovative adventures. His work for Lamentations of the Flame Princess includes Thulian Echoes, which features a twist in that the players play both a historical party of adventurers as well as a party trying to retrace their steps. Also Scenic Dunnsmouth, an investigative town adventure with a playing-card-based setup mechanism which makes it highly replayable. Dunnsmouth in particular is a perpetual fan favorite that I keep hearing mentioned in discussions of present-day innovation in the old-school gaming space.

Zzarchov also has his own independent adventures available for purchase, two of which I'm running at an upcoming local convention: A Thousand Dead Babies and The Gnomes of Levnec. His independent adventures feature not only interesting public domain artwork on the cover, but also two sets of stat blocks: one for generic OSR games assuming some version of original D&D, and one for NGR. Although I purchased these adventures intending to adapt them to LotFP, the NGR stat blocks referred to mechanics that sounded both intriguing and practical. For example, "counts as consecrated temple on holy ground." As a result of sheer curiosity, I bought the rulebook and read through it briefly before diving in to Zzarchov's weekly game. I've been playing regularly for a few months, so the review will be from this perspective - someone who's tried learning the game solo and then seen the system in practice.

We'll start with the negatives, because you're going to have to deal with them up front. This game can be difficult to wrap your head around, especially if you're the only one coming to it in your gaming group and/or you have a strong familiarity with various versions of D&D. According to Zzarchov, the whole NGR project started out of a series of house rules to TSR-era AD&D 1E/2E. However, there have been so many modifications that the basic structure of the game mechanics feels entirely different—as a matter of fact, the game was once known by the title "Piecemeal." If the game can be classified in any way as "OSR," then it is in flavor and sensibility alone, and not in terms of game mechanics. I will argue later that a lot of these modifications are actually for the better and consistent with my ideal gaming experience when it comes to fantasy-genre roleplaying. But it's a difficult adjustment, particularly if you're like me and don't learn most effectively just by reading the rulebook. If I could offer an analogy, the coming of D&D was the invention of the wheel or maybe a wheelbarrow, but NGR is a complete mountain bike. You get a much more sophisticated machine that has a lot more esoteric parts, but once you learn how to use it you can do amazing and fun things with it.

In short, a lot of the mechanics end up being simple once you know them, but require a lot of explanation to fully illustrate.

Secondly, even after you get through the novelty of the mechanics and everything begins to "click," I find that it is definitely on the "crunchy" side of the spectrum as opposed to "rules light." ("Crunchy" alluding to number-crunching.) This is not a game for those who have burned their 5th Edition D&D books in favor of forever playing games like The Black Hack and Into The Odd. As an example, often times I feels like NGR may be prone to "modifier creep." This is what I'm calling the phenomenon of having to keep track of an increasing number of different situational modifiers (e.g., I'm facing a blunt attack [+2 to my defense roll] and I'm blessed by my priest's god [+1] but my opponent has the high ground [-2] etc., etc.). I don't believe it approaches anything close to Pathfinder, however, which the worst offender in all the games I played; I needed a laptop with HeroLab installed in order to play it effectively and keep track of all the different status effects. 

Some caveats: (1) Certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game—or simply don't want to incorporate them—you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined. (2) I should mention that by calling the system "crunchy" I simply am referring to the amount of time spent resolving mechanics rather than what those mechanics relate to. That is, you shouldn't assume that you'll be wasting a lot of time on tedious combat if that's not what you want to focus on. Indeed, many of our NGR game sessions involve little or no combat because the game actively promotes this play style—more on this below.

The presence of "crunch" and the depth of the rules leads me to the first positive of the review, which is also stated early in the book: "The Known Rule." This is two explicit statements in one: (a) if a rule isn't known, just make a ruling rather than look it up. (b) if you must look up a rule during play, you get -1 awesomeness if you're a player, or all players get +1 awesomeness if it's the GM looking up the rule. (Yes, awesomeness is a game mechanic, which I'll cover below.) In the same spirit of this, certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game, you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined.

Furthermore, a lot of the modifier creep can be mitigated ahead of time with a well-organized character sheet. I can bundle common modifiers together and simply make note of the totals a lot easier than I ever could in Pathfinder.

Speaking of dealing damage, that works entirely differently in NGR than in D&D. In NGR, physical damage is only one type of accrued "point," along with stress, disease, poison, fear, suspicion (think of giving yourself away while sneaking), and even influence (trying to win an argument). Yes, NGR has mechanics for social conflict, and they work seamlessly with the rest of the system. Anyway, your barrier to taking all of these potential "damage" points is known as your Luck points. It's helpful to think of them as HP, although again, it covers all bases and not just physical damage. Whether you avoid a sword stab or just manage to avoid detection while having a torch lit, it's all Luck.

This leads to another great plus about NGR as a system. In general, by spreading the focus across both combat and various other non-combat aspects, NGR tends toward hi-jinx and shenanigans. For example, if you enter into a social conflict (i.e., argument) and burn your Luck points, you will not be so lucky if a fight breaks out later, or if you get thrown in jail and have to sneak your way out. Furthermore, that "awesomeness" I mentioned? You cash those points in at the end of sessions in the hopes of getting fate points. Fate points will let you re-roll bad dice or get some luck back in a pinch. Correspondingly, you gain awesomeness a number of different ways. One method is to purposefully make poor decisions—for example, getting drunk instead of taking your assigned watch at night. Another suggested method is to have "80's hair." You can really get more awesomeness and fate points by being elected the MVP of that night's session by the other players.

Furthermore, the XP system is a key (somewhat hidden) aspect to incentivizing certain play styles. There are distinct differences in the characteristics of a D&D game that gives experience points (i.e., character progression) for treasure when compared to a later edition that rewards monster-slaying. Every facet of NGR awards XP in a slightly different way, and I feel it's done in a way that de-emphasizes combat while still promoting risk-taking. A great example is the fact that you get increasing XP values for each new room in a dungeon you explore. As you deplete your resources, that next room could be worth 450 XP now, or zero XP once you come back to the dungeon a second time. That's because that room will then be your first new room, whereas it's the tenth new room this time around. That sort of press-your-luck enticement is embedded in NGR (and Zzarchov's GM style, for the record.) It puts a heavy risk-versus-reward ball in the players' court at all times, and it's when they are faced with real, meaningful choices that players get invested in the game.

Multiclassing is also easy in NGR. Imagine a pie chart broken into three pieces, and this is your character class. You can have all three "pie pieces" in warrior, or you could choose two parts warrior, one part wizard, and so forth. I'll spare you the details (which could get crunchy and count toward that first negative of esoteric confusion), but obviously the former example would be a more effective warrior than the latter, but the latter could at least cast a few spells if needed.

Lastly, the review would not be complete without a mention of Zzarchov's writing style. He's a witty guy—he enjoys more than his fair share of puns—and he's held back none of his sense of humor when writing the NGR rules. This is one of the few books that I've found legitimately enjoyable to read as it does not read like a dry technical manual. It's still easy to consult as a rulebook (even though there's no index and the PDF isn't bookmarked) but you could also easily read it from cover to cover.

I'll wrap up with my one final negative that we might encounter moving forward: name recognition. Unless you're familiar with Zzarchov or backed the recent Kickstarter, you probably don't even know about NGR. It's even less likely that your gaming group will know about it, so it may be difficult to drum up support for using it as a game system. But if you do, I know from experience that it has the potential to be a fantastically fun game.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Best D&D Book Ever Written

What do you know about Dungeons & Dragons? About where it came from and, specifically, what inspired it? Not the rules, but the fictional content of the game? If you follow the "OSR" movement or are simply an AD&D player since the first edition of the game, you might have a pretty good idea... The original Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) featured a slew of appendices from the verbose Gary Gygax, but one in particular—Appendix N—has consistently received the most attention.

Basically, said appendix is a list of fiction literature that inspired the game's content originally. (To quote Gygax, "From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay, you will be able to pluck kernels from which will grow the fruits of exciting campaigns") It's a useful list to reference when you're trying to convince someone that D&D is not purely some hardcore Tolkien-deification, as is common perception. There are a ton of authors presented there, and some of the biggest fictional characters from that list include Conan (created by Robert E. Howard), Elric (by Michael Moorcock), and Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser (by Fritz Leiber). A whole bunch of "sword and sorcery" novels populate the list, as well as some science fiction authors such as Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton.

I would argue that none of them capture the spirit of what D&D can and should be better than The Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

This is the copy I have
Now, you may be somewhat familiar with Vance if you've even played D&D at all. The paradigm of memorizing a set number of spells which will be forgotten upon their casting? That is a concept taken directly from this book. Furthermore, one can easily see the parallels between naming conventions: "Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell" (Vance) versus "Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound" (Gygax), for example. The ties are so strong that this"fire and forget" spell system is known as "Vancian" in discussions on various magic systems for RPGs.

Perhaps you are even aware of one of the greatest villains of D&D lore, Vecna. A legendary lich, his disembodied eye and hand are legendary artifacts of the D&D world. In case you haven't worked it out yet, his name was simply a rearranged form of "Vance."

The point is, this author had some serious influence on the foundation of D&D. And yet, I see so little of this book manifest in modern-day D&D games. Unlike the mighty Conan, the tormented Elric, or the plucky Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, I dare say Vance's work has been cast aside from the consciousness of most modern gamers.

Originally published in 1950, The Dying Earth is a series of loosely connected short stories depicting a fantasy world that is in fact Earth in its final years. The sun is red and bloated; magic is prevalent, as is ancient technology. There are six short stories, each named after its primary character. Perhaps the most directly related to D&D is "Mazirian the Magician," which firmly establishes the Vancian magic convention as the title character prepares a short list of spells, all that his brain can contain.

But if all you get that is game-worthy from The Dying Earth is the mechanics of magic, then you are not easily inspired. Take, for example, Chun the Unavoidable, a being who lives in ruins and snatches the eyes of anyone who steals from him, and then wears the eyes on a cloak. Or Ampridatvir, the city full of two sects of people who can't see each other because they're wearing two different colors of clothing. The universe which houses all these stories employs a fanciful sense of logic, which flies in the face of the ho-hum vanilla settings that you're used to in mainstream D&D.

The prose is a workout, to be sure, with quite poetic and fanciful language. It's not a style that suits those who don't like to take a hot, soaking bath in the nuance of the English language. Furthermore, the rest of the Dying Earth series focuses on Cugel, a largely unlikeable antihero whose character made me put down the second book (Eyes of the Overworld) after just a few chapters. But I would highly recommend reading through the first book as an inspirational collection of shorter picaresques.

If you're interested in Jack Vance, Patrick Stuart did a thorough review of the Lyonesse trilogy (spoiler warning) here. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my shelf so I have no excuse. I can recommend the novella The Dragon Masters, although it's science fiction rather than fantasy.

Once you have read The Dying Earth, I would strongly recommend The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, the introduction to the Viriconium saga.