Friday, June 5, 2020

Rediscovering my love for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: a review of second edition

So like many, especially fellow children of the '80s/90s, my first rpg was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (2e). My wife also particularly likes these rules, as she has put many hours into the Baldur's Gate series. Recently, I rediscovered about how awesome the rules are even in comparison to the current gold standard of OSR rules - B/X (basic/expert) Rules Cyclopedia D&D. One reason too was acquiring from half-price books a printed 2e player's handbook (I apparently lost/sold my original childhood one).

Having re-read the book and thought about the rules, some advantages of second edition over other D&D (even B/X!) and in some regards (proficiencies, fighter rules, spells) first edition:

  • Ability score bonuses are pretty small (+1/+2 at like 18) and start at higher scores (16+ usually), which means that they are overall less important to the game than in B/X. A character does not suck in comparison to his friends and the NPCs simply because his fighter only has 11 STR compared to 16 or something, because he's only missing out on a small bonus. And the way scores are generated, 4d6 drop lowest 1 die, increases the likelihood that the PC will have one great score to feel important. Other stuff the ability scores do is simply provide a guide to the character's basic abilities, like how many languages known or their max bench press. This allows them to be used as a guide for in-game decision making
  • The class abilities are well-done. I especially like the fighters in this edition. The full impact of the rule is somewhat buried, but basically fighters are the only class that can specialize in weapons and doing so gives 2 attacks every other round starting at 1st level! This is an awesome ability that really makes the Fighter shine (everyone likes multiple rolls!) and is also simple and straightforward. No counting HD of enemies or something. This ability being denied to Paladins and Rangers also makes Fighters actually more important, which I like as I think the latter classes should be available.
  • Class requirements, in both ability scores and race. This helps keep things thematic and balanced. Also, the classes being organized into groups of Warrior/Priest/Wizard/Rogue helps if you want to make custom classes that still fit in the mold without breaking the game, and keeps similar classes together in terms of HP. This level of rationalization of the rules helps.
  • There's lots of options for weapons, armor, and spells, which are the meat of any game. Weapons come in all varieties, they list initiative modifiers (but this is an optional rule!), you can turn on/off weapon type v. armor type, etc. All the spells list their "School" or "Sphere" for wizards and priests respectively, so you can easily create custom lists to fit your setting.
  • Spells are not under-powered at low levels. A specialist wizard gains a few more and then the spells no longer do paltry damage amounts. Instead, its reasonable. Also, it takes soooo many level of wizard to get the truly great, gamebreaking spells, so this isn't such a game breaker. 
  • Proficiencies are actually awesome, especially non-weapon proficiencies. Now some may turn up their nose, saying they're too close to a skill system, but I in fact feel the opposite. They provide specific "extra" (though mundane) abilities to characters to let the player and DM know what the character can do. Does my character know how to ride a horse, yes or no? If so, you'll not need to make a check - so in actuality reducing silly "can I make a check" to do everything under the sun that comes up in a game. The DM can simply look to the character's proficiencies to know whether they know about some topic. The way I deal with them though is to leave the "slots" available as the character plays - if in play Heraldry comes up as something useful, and it's available to the character class, I let the player decide whether they want to spend one of the limited (3/4) slots to gain that knowledge. Then going forward she'll always know about heraldry. It gives some structure to making the character unique based on in-game play.
Beyond the specifics, generally what appeals to me about 2e is that everything is very thematic and it shows the DM a roadmap for making the rules fit their own particular setting. Want to run an ancient greece game? Swap out this and that, deny certain classes and races, use the bronze plate rules but drop regular platemail, etc. Want your magic-users to only have illusion and divination spells? You're ready to go because all the spells are divided into schools. The core classes like Fighter and Priest fit many settings because their abilities are so straight forward (extra good at weapon attacks, being restricted to particualr deity's spheres of influence). And its faster than needing to come up with all the customized rules for your setting, because 2e's rules are such a grab bag of goodies.

That said, of course there are some major flaws, especially in light of the way we've all being playing D&D in the many years since this was published.
  • Information organization and presentation is somewhat suck. There's no handy dandy bullet point list of class abilities or charts with all the options. you have to read through each class and race description. Rules are spread out in separate chapters (e.g. weapon damage is one place, number of attacks with weapons another, the effects of specialization a third). This can be solved with a simple reference chart you make yourself, but ugh, why make people do that work. At least the authors put a compiled set of most of the game's charts in the back (handy spells by level and spells by school/sphere are there too!).
  • The weapon damage rules are dumb. They make no sense in terms of why would I pick a horseman's flail over a "polearm" over a halberd. Some are doing like 1d4+1 damage but seem substantially the same weapon as another doing 1d10 damage. This leads to hidden 'traps' for unwary casual players - ooohh I want a Ranseur! Well, johnny that does less damage than a battle axe but requires two hands and basically it sucks, you fail. I looked to Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea and yanked those rules. (The weapon damage problem goes back to AD&D 1e's also nonsensical damages etc.). 
  • Dexterity is overpowered because it breaks the pattern I noted above that scores only give small bonuses. Not only does it influence initiative, chance of surprise, ranged attack, and AC, it gives BIG AC bonuses. Nerfed when I stole more rules from Astonishing Swordsmen (AS&SH, pronounced Ash)

All in all, I highly recommend giving second edition another look. It overall is not more complicated than B/X but has alot more options and food for thought. So if you're like me and find it easier to pick and choose from a menu of rules and ability options rather than create them from a skeletal baseline, get yourself a copy and start playing AD&D again.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

WFRP House Rules to live by

As any rpg table will have after getting used to using a rules set for awhile, ive imposed some house rules.

Initiative: We roll. Each PC rolls as usual a base initiative test (modified by talents or weapons), and notes success or failure levels. NPCs/monsters do so as a group (altogether or like goblins one initiative, orcs another). Then act in highest success levels to lowest (highest failure levels).

Simplified Shields: these ignore the off-hand penalty for parrying  (-20) but do not grant a defensive bonus, simply the +2 AP. This was too cumbersome to track, involved a stupid calculation ("but wait etc. -20 offhand but +10 defensive!"), while Shields are still awesome with their +2 AP. I would restore the +10 Defensive quality to those with the Melee (Parry) skill.

Capped Advantage: Max Advantage = Initiative Bonus. Though Advantage is easier to lose than many of its detractors think (any wound wipes out, any disengage wipes out, and lose 1 Advantage per round outnumbered), it can spike quickly. 

No Advantage for Parrying: Though the rules say any successful opposed combat test gives +1 Adv., this is simply too cumbersome to track (especially for my NPCs). Advantage is also effective enough without giving an outnumbered opponent +4 Advantage for several successful parries. (However, I do provide +1A if you crit hit an enemy while parrying).

Deathblows:  If you strike an enemy down to 0 wounds, gain a free follow up attack. Must be adjacent target or have quick draw type weapon (toss a dagger, bow-in-hand etc.). I like this rule, it's fun and not that difficult to track.

Larger Fear: The rules impose Fear tests when facing a foe Larger than you. This is too much and penalizes halflings (size Small) unduly, so I changed it to 2 sizes larger.

Platemail: while platemail is still pretty good at stopping many injuries, the rules do not reflect truly how protective this armor was. especially if we have guns running around, we can assume the full plate of the game is pretty advanced. Hence, in my games plate loses the 'weakpoints' quality and ignores all critical hits as long as the location is covered by plate. You're going to have to Hack the armor or whittle the platemail down. 

No Resilience/Resolve:
This was too fiddly, a pain to track, and made the already resilient PCs too resilient for my taste. Accordingly, all humans start with 4 Fate, Halflings 2, and Dwarves and Elves 1. If you're a kind and generous sort, you can let PCs make an Endurance roll -20 or something to resist being stunned, etc. Any talents that provide resilience/resolve or rely on them work as normal, and treat each PC has having the resolve needed for them.

Reduced outnumbering bonuses:
While outnumbering a foe is great, and only attackers receive a bonus to hitting skill, I don't think it's +40 easier to hit an outnumbered foe in hand-to-hand. I cap the outnumbering bonus at +20 (and may one day only grant for 3:1 outnumbering). I also count a mounted warrior as 2, requiring 4 footmen to outnumber (makes sense to me given the mount's moving through the men makes even harder to hit). 

Goal XP only:
No XP awards for merely playing the game and your PC not dying. Instead, you have to achieve things! I tried gold for xp, but this failed. I will give minor +10 to +25 in-game rewards for little stuff (fun roleplaying, a cool combat win, etc.). So:
+200 xp per minor goal or ambition achieved - this is your standard adventure, usually.
+500 xp per major goal or long-term ambition achieved - this is your long term plot points, ascension to knighthood, etc. 
This also encourages updating and following ambitions more, as that'll give you healthy bonus XP along the way. 

NPC and Creature Careers
This is not realyl a houserule as the game's rule creator, Andy Law, uses this method, but keep in mind the NPC and creature stats in the Bestiary are base racial scores. Thus, any experienced orcs or beastmen will have a couple career ranks under their belts. Even gobbos may have 1-2 ranks in stuff like Sentry or Soldier. To quickly come up with this stats: 1) take the base stats in the bestiary, 2) pick a few career ranks (eg sentry 1, or soldier 2), 3) add +5 per rank in that career to each attribute it applies to (soldier, 2 ranks: +10 WS, +10 BS, +10 T, +10 WP), and +5 per rank to each important skill - usually this means combat skills like Melee or Ranged, but Cool Endurance, Dodge, and the like would apply. Voila, a quick and easy way to generate fearsome foes!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Warhammer Fantasy Campaign: [Session Reports] Killing Agravaine

* blog note: I'm going to stop pretending I'm updating this blog at any set frequency, you will continue to see little bursts of activity and then nothing for three months.
The Crew
Onfroy - fencer and louche extraordinaire, with a fetish for female urine
Willem of Nye - death wizard, searcher of artifacts, seeking of Enochian and Elohim mysteries
Regis de Pubiens aka Don Gonada - spy and huckster, the voice of reason
Okra, a female ogre smith, good at smashing, always hungry
Twiggett Plumbottom, halfling thief

So after taking captive the Lord of the random castle they raided on the river Morceux (prounounced More-So cuz its wfrp 'tongue and cheek' humor), the PCs (really Onfroy and Regis) negotiated the exchange of the Lord's treasury and safe passage away as ransom. The knights were honorable and allowed the merry band on their way.

The party then made it to the outskirts of the dukedom's capital, Castle Aquitaine itself. The boat captain bid them adieu and the party approached the castle town.


They first took service with one of Agravaine's banner lords, but quickly acted like idiots and tried to assault the main castle to gain entry rather than negotiating their way inside. They fled into the town proper, before hiding successfully in an alley. There two robed 'men' invited them to negotiate with the ratmen, as they turned out to be.

The skaven sorcerer promised to help them gain entry into Agravaine's inner keep if they would obtain his Nehekharan scrolls and any other magical items from the strange architect-engineer in Agravaine's employ. The group readily agreed.

The group was snuck through skaven tunnels to a point said to be beneath the keep. The skaven offered to blow open a hole, which again the group agreed to. The hole in the cellars of the keep brought several men-at-arms to investigate.

After the group mercilessly ambushed the initial guards, Onfroy made two kiss each other to prove their willingness to submit. He then killed them, laughing. The adventurers soon fought their way out of the cellars and into the keep's entryway, which had the large courtyard of the castle on the other side. There they were met with more skilled knights coming down from the keep. Between an ogre and the wizard Willem of nye, however, the knight guards stood little chance. 


But then Agravaine and his 'architect' appeared, the latter coming down the stairs of the keep and the former from the courtyard area. The architect, a strange necromancer in white tunic with a burnished wood rod, engaged in a spell duel with Willem of Nye. Around that same time, a mighty statue 18' tall pounded towards the keep, animated by some strange magics. The colossus stood ready to hammer anyone who emerged from the door, but did not attack the structure itself.  

Hidden and free from the melee in the keep entryway,  Twigget the halfling soon made short work of the necromancer with two well-placed sling bullets. The architect fell, and then was doused with a flask of lamp oil thrown by Regis de Pubiens. Meanwhile, Onfroy sought to slay Agravaine himself, but was driven back from the courtyard beyond the keep's door by a rain of arrows. Onfroy cracked the demonic sword that he had fished out of the river in Giseroux months before summoning a red, smoking-sword wielding demon who lurched forward to attack Agravaine.

The Colossus Statue

Then the adventurers inside fought the last remaining knights in the keep, avoiding the archers and colossus in the courtyard. Twigget and Regis both fired missiles at Agravaine, who attempted to push his way inside the keep before being stopped by the demon. Likewise, Onfroy threw his last petard with a deafening roar that filled the courtyard was smoke. The demon himself was quickly slain by Agravaine's archers, but not before Agravaine himself was brought low with several well-placed hits from the group. The colossus ceased his menacing movements. Twiggett quickly then dashed out, ripped off the amulet Agravaine wore, which the skaven sorcerer and Willem believed sustained his life unnaturally, and dashed back inside. Regis threw his last flask of burning oil on Agravaine's body, hoping that would ensure his demise. They then slammed shut the keep door, barred it, and went in to find anything of value from the necromancer's room, wherever that may be.

While his companions explored the keep, Willem of Nye brought comets and lightning from the heavens, disrupting and burning the knights and men-at-arms assembled in the castle courtyard trying to get back into the keep. Twiggett explored much of the keep, while Regis attempted futily to get past magically barred doors leading to the necromancer's workshop near his rooms on the fourth floor.

After killing a few scattered guards, the group finally accessed the necromancer's chambers, stole a stack of rolled-up scrolls and made their way back down to the cellar area. They then betrayed the ratmen by teleporting out the backside of the keep.

The adventurers then found themselves in a desperate struggle to escape the castle's outer walls. Archers laid low Willem several times and knights charged in, badly wounding by Okra and Regis. Finally, pushed up against the gatehouse wall, a last healing draught was poured down Willem's throat and he critically succeeded to teleport them away. The group ran for the the river, quickly throwing Twigget's rope down to rappel to the river.

Riverside, the ratmen streamed out of a hole in the keep's hillface as the adventurers swam for their lives across the river, tossing aside their heavier armor. They made it after some dicey swimming checks, and then smashed and killed the ratman sorcerer, the rat-ogre beast he rode, and a group of 30 or so skaven. Okra did most of the work with sweeping blows from her hammer, followed by several blasts from Willem's lightning-arcing fingers. 

At this point, everyone was very low on health, tired, and wounded (except Onfroy whose player sat out a session). They figured they were now in the Forest of Chalons, the legendary forest where the First King Gilles met the Lady of the Lake and received her blessing on the Isle de Lys. Onfroy proved a surprisingly good navigator as they walked through the forest at night, keeping the river as a landmark on their left. They then attempted to camp during the day, making a smokey fire with green wood.

Here, they were ambushed again after noontide. A band of mercenaries, Tilean, Estalian, and Imperial, approached the camp, but were spotted before ambushing everyone. In the chaotic scrum that followed, Willem (again) and Okra were laid low before the mercenaries themselves were overcome. Apparently, the new lord back in Aquitaine had hired them to kill Agravaine's killers. Alas for them, the group once again pulled it out by the skin of their teeth.

Finally, the battered group made its way to a small 'frontier' settlement of woodsmen and hunters, ruled by Lady Helvois and her husband. Regis sweet talked the residents into letting them inside, saying they were foes of Agravaine. Once inside, they found lodgings and favor with the lady lord, whose husband fought with Duke Alberic against Agravaine. That is where the adventures ended, as the adventurers lick their wounds, recuperate, and spend some well-earned money and experience.

50 GC from the keep of Duke Agravaine.
300 GC from the ransom of Lord Bartheleme, buried somewhere outside Aquitaine
The ducal crown of Aquitaine
Nehekharan amulet
2 wheellock pistols
1 Luccini long rifle wheelock
3 petards (bombs)
2 hand crossbows
1 crossbow
1 skaven staff (Staff of the Great Horned One)
1 jar of flies
1 light warhorse (a charger)
2 riding horses

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Warhammer system thoughts: Efficiency in Presenting Information, Or, How to Speed Up and Simplify Combat

[for those that haven't heard, Old World Warhammer the wargame is back ... or it will be sometime in the next few years.]

An excellent post over at the Alexandrian about how the exchange of information about rolls between players and the GM affects the flow, enjoyment, and feeling of complexity in an RPG.

Besides being a well-written post in itself, it got me to thinking about applying it to WFRP. I've seen several people criticize the new edition on forums or the subreddit for being complex, especially the new way of doing combat where hitting and damage are the same roll. But I haven't found the system to be particularly complex, especially on the player-facing side. (Obviously, it's way more complex than basic D&D but probably about the same complexity as fifth edition.) I think two things are going on here. One, the efficiency of the exchange of information as per the Alexandrian article. Two, differences in assumptions between the older editions or D&D and the new edition.

The latter issue is tough to tackle, and it really requires a 'close reading' of the rules to combat or time spent watching other people play the game. I noticed in the Mud & Blood podcast, the players and GM had ALOT of trouble with the new way of doing combat because they were mixing up the old rules and had decided to use a 'quick method' of calculating success levels that they kept forgetting they were using. Play the game more, and make rulings until you look it up in the current rulebook, I say.

The issue of information exchange, the former issue, is an interesting one though. I like Alexandrian's point about the different exchanges that happen when firstintroducing the game versus the players gaining some familiarity so that if you tell them the enemy's AC, they can perform certain calculations themselves and have a more efficient (and fast and fun) info exchange. Thinking about this for WFRP is instructive, because if the new combat system's information exchange could be streamlined this would speed up the game immensely and should eliminate the "complexity" complaint I've heard.

So first, before the players know what's going on, I think you have to stick with the uber-simple but more time consuming exchange of asking for success and then helping them calculate SLs. Like so:

  • GM: Roll to attack with your bow.
  • PC: I got a 37.
  • GM: Ok, what's your Ranged Basic?
  • PC: 45
  • GM: Ok you hit, you got 1 SL because you rolled one tens digit under your skill. What's your damage with your bow?
  • PC: 7
  • GM: Ok, the goblin is wounded. The goblin has an arrow sticking out of him (internally calculates 7+1 for the SL, 8 - Goblin's Toughness + Armor of 4; 12 wounds - 8 -4=8 wounds remaining). 
Soon, the PCs should be able to make this go much faster:
  • GM: Roll to attack
  • PC: I got one success level with a 37
  • GM: Ok, the goblin didn't dodge so how much damage did you do?
  • PC: (knows to add 1 to bow damage of 7) 8
  • GM: (now taking less time to calculate) ok, the goblin's wounded.
This is less complicated than the usual rpg way of next requiring a damage roll because there's fewer tasks involved. Additionally, the WFRP d100 system if fairly intuitive and shouldn't be too hard to remember three things: (i) roll under whatever your skill is, (ii) each tens digit under your skill you roll adds 1 success, (iii) doubles (33, 22, 66) are critical hits or fumbles. But there's a couple of twists in the new edition for most combat.

Current WFRP adds the advantage mechanic (as as has been said before, should be Initiative or Momentum) where each prior successful roll adds +10% (effectively 1 SLs) to later rolls, accumulating infinitely until the character is wounded. Most, including I, soon capped this (6 advantage for me). This is relatively easy and straightforward to add though, and doesn't matter if the GM or the player is tracking it:
  • GM: Roll to attack, you have 2 advantage.
  • PC: Ok, (internally adds +20 to skill to be skill 65; rolls 37) I got three success levels. That's 10 damage.
  • GM: Great, goblin has (internally, 12  wounds - (10 dam - 4 toughness)) 6 wounds left and an arrow sticks out of him. Increase your advantage (to 3).
Better, though not strictly necessary since it's a fairly mundane calculation, is to make the PCs track their own advanatage. So the GM just says roll, and the PC can calculate his successes. After all, the GM is tracking the NPCs advantage, so the less stats in his mind the faster the game.

The Hard Part
The other twist is that in WFRP, to eliminate the former 'whiff' of missing a lot (which still sucks in low-level D&D), is in melee, you count relative successes to hit and parry. So if I hit by 1 and you fail your parry/dodge by 2 SLs, I add 3 to damage. Currently, I think a lot of GMs and groups are making the GM only do this math. This is inefficient, like the example in D&D of never telling the PCs what the AC of the enemy is and then rolling their damage for them. Too much calculation by one player of the game:
  • GM: Roll to attack, 2 advantage.
  • PC: (rolls) I got three success levels, so...
  • GM: (rolls, gets 1 SL to parry) Ok, so what's your damage?
  • PC: 7
  • GM: (needs to calculate, and remember, ok so 3-1, +2 to damage 7, so 9 damage, now what's his toughness, minus 4; 5 damage minus wounds of 12...) uh... goblin has 7 wounds left. Increase your advantage.
Doesn't look that bad on paper, but in play, it's much slower. And can be slower than requiring another input in the form of a damage roll. So what to do? Make the PC calculate the total damage.
  • GM: Ok, roll your attack against the goblin.
  • PC: (knows has 2 advantage) Three success levels.
  • GM: Ok, (simply looks at dice and calculates SLs) the goblin got 1 SL to parry, so what's your total damage?
  • PC: (subtracts 3 SLs - 1= 2, adds to damage of 7) 9 damage!
  • GM: Ok, goblin has 7 wounds left 
This is much faster and feels less complex than the other way of not having the player calculate that. Even faster, in big combats (the relative brain-space or mental math isn't that bad for a 1:1 or 1.5:1 PCs type ratio) is to, like the DM who gives the monsters' ACs to speed play, give the enemies' Toughness + Armor. Then the GM is only recording reduced wounds. Very fast, and 1 dice roll on each side is quickly resolving things.
  • GM: Ok, roll your attack
  • PC: (+2 advantage) Three success levels.
  • GM: The goblin rolled 1 success level to parry, and has a toughness bonus of 4 (really 3 toughness and 1 armor protection point) what's your total damage?
  • PC: (3-1+7=9) 9 minus 4, 5 damage total
  • GM: Cool, the goblin has 7 wounds left. (moves to next player's turn quickly)
This is much better than players bored, waiting for the GM to do calculations and slowing down the combat. The trick is, your players need to practice and the GM needs to train/help

For awhile, doing the first iteration of simply knowing how to calculate SLs, recognize critical hits, and see how much damage their weapon does is great. Play several hours this way. But generally, roleplayers (i.e. people over age 10-11) can handle the addition (bah dum!) of knowing how to calculate their own damage by adding both (i) the advantage modifier and (ii) modifying their SLs. This is very similar to the D&D player trick of rolling your d20 to hit and weapon damage die at the same time, so you can instantly tell the DM everything once you know the Monster's AC. Except in current WFRP, that AC knowledge is basically how many SLs the enemy has. And, in WFRP it's far more important this happen than D&D players rolling both dice at the same time. 

Telling your players their enemies' toughness+armor should speed this up even more. And gives the GM more mental space for bigger combats, using various weapon rules, and so on. Generally too, players can figure this out very fast and you should be singing along. 

My 2 cents, inspired by a great one from the Alexandrian.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

More Warhammer session recap: Sailing to Aquitaine

Dramatis Personae
Onfroy - fencer and louche extraordinaire, with a fetish for female urine
Willem of Nye - death wizard, searcher of artifacts, seeking of Enochian and Elohim mysteries
Regis aka Don Gonada - spy and huckster, the voice of reason
Okra, a female ogre smith, good at smashing, always hungry
Twiggett Plumbottom, halfling thief
Stomply Rockcrusher, ornery dwarf Ironbreaker

The madcap Warhammer fantasy roleplay adventures continued. Now, mutated berserking freak companion Boneshard long dead, new holder of the Chaos Blade Onfroy with newly mutated goat-legs (hidden with a long dress thing compounding his already-bizarre appearance), the companions sail on the Swan Maiden to Bordeleaux.

The captain of the Maiden then refuses to land in Bordeleaux unless the party pays the notoriously expensive docking fees levied by the Duke. After some haggling, the party therefore is dropped off south of the river mouth. There, they ingratiate themselves with a minor landholder who is vassal to Bordeleaux. Learning through drunken revelry that the Duke Albericht of Bordeleaux in fact knows Regis from many months ago when Regis helped thwart the ratmen attack upon the City, the lord offers to bring him to the Castle Bordeleaux in exchange for a kind word and better position at court. 

The presentable members of the party are presented at Duke Albericht's court (e.g. Onfroy and the Ogre are left behind). Greeting the Duke himself, Regis convinces him that they are now a mercenary-type company who will attempt to kill Duke's now-rival, Agravaine the Usurper, murderer of the true Duke of Aquitaine, in exchange for some supplies and right to claim any loot. Duke Albericht agrees, sorely pressed since plague and war have ravaged his lands the past year and a half or so. While his army gathers in preparation for a late spring campaign against Agravaine, he entrusts the group with a war-boat captained by Estaine Mustaigne and a bevy of boatmen to take the fight to Agravaine. 

[DM's notes: There was a lot of confusion here about getting past the city and we had to retcon where the party landed when everyone realized there was miscommunication about paying fictional docking fees. Such is D&D eh? But it ended up being a fun side quest dealing with the lord and roleplaying his interest in the motley group.]

The party then set out with Capt. Estaine down the river Morceaux towards the upriver Castle Aquitaine, last visited by Boneshard and Regis as Agravaine had it under siege. 

Along the way, Estaine asks the party what they want to do about possibly being seen from the few castles lying along the river between Bordeleaux and Aquitaine. Somehow, the group decides that they want to raid one of these keeps for treasure. Coming upon a castle upon about a day and a half's sail from Aquitaine, they launch a night-time raid using the wizard's teleportation spell.

the keep they decided to raid

[DM's note: I definitely gave all wizards an overpowered spell by houseruling that Teleport can be used on not only the caster, but one additional touched person per 2 success levels. Channeling for a quite a time with a skilled wizard resulted in being able to teleport the whole party past the castle walls. This was a ruling I made over a year ago on the skaven adventure, and here it is, biting me.]

Once inside the castle, the murderous group made a short attempt to sneak around and get the lay of the castle features, chiefly by the very good hider Twigget. But a door opened, and Stomply Rockcrusher was like, fuck this, and laid waste to a whole room of guards with the help of Okra the Ogre and Willem's death magic. The alarm was raised, and several knights inside the donjon including a knight who was clearly the lord fought with the party. But Willem used a Lock spell to keep the porticullis shut, which was reinforced when Regis and Onfroy murdered their way up through into the gatehouse and jammed the chainwheel. Though Okra could not fit through the towers' stairwells, Willem managed to teleport them up several floors in pursuit of knights who backed away after seeing his death magic lay waste to their fellows. The Lord himself, still nameless to the party, managed to get away back up the upper floors from where he came, but not without many of his men-at-arms being slain beneath ogrish warhammerand fell magicks. And the locking of the porticullis ensured the roused and mounted knights and bowmen from the courtyard could not lay waste to the party. In short, I was impressed how the party used the confines of the castle donjon against its occupents - enabled of course by Willem's spellcraft.

keep knight, with a bec de corbin
The party has now made its way up all the stairs, rummaged quickly through the lord's bedroom, and made it to the roof, hearing sounds from there. Regis and Onfroy have emerged from the stairway in one of the donjon's four towers to see the Lord and the last of his keep guards attempting to lower his treasury strongbox. Beneath, the lord's ladywife and children had clearly just escaped the keep by being lowered on ropes. The party blasted the rope, heard the treasure spill to the ground, and now confront the Lord and his last guardians.

Lord Bartheleme of Houndshead

Friday, November 1, 2019

Why I Like Warhammer, A Review

Yes, another long-winded theory post. You're welcome.

This is a sort-of review of why I've come to enjoy Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay so much, despite it being a bit over complicated and some other flaws. For the past few years, like my adult gaming life circa 2010 to present, I've gravitated towards rules-light and simple rpgs, trusting in the theories behind Old School play where mechanical complication is just boring and frustrating, and neglects the unique feature of tabletop rpgs that a group of friends can simply talk about what's going to happen-it's not a competitive board game because there's a gamemaster/DM. But nevertheless I've gravitated towards the complexity of WFRP 4th edition, which is considerably more rules-complex than say Basic/Expert 1980s D&D.

And so noted in the previous post about running a rules-complicated game, one may think: why bother running a rules-complicated? Well, the truth is the gameplay at the table that emerges feels different between one game versus another, even with similar settings and types of adventures (murder-hoboing, investigating, etc.). I've now run WFRP 4th edition for almost 2 years, and so can compare it to similarly length run games like my 2010-2012 osr B/X D&D game (used Adventurer Conqueror King rulebook), a 2013-2014 B/X game (hombrew rules) and my 2014-2016 D&D 5e game. 

Core Mechanic - Pretty Simple In Play
Players only have to know one rule about reading their dice: under their skill is success, over is failure, criticals on the doubles. This is actually simpler in play than even Basic D&D, where they may have a d6 roll or 2d6 roll in addition to their d20 combat roll, spells autosucceed while are limited in number, etc. In contrast, everything in wfrp is pretty much this simple roll. It leads to what I like to think of as a 'nat 20' effect: excitement and joy when the dice roll something that always mean an exciting critical success/fumble. This is reinforced by WFRP's awesome critical charts: I love that these rolls for magic or combat lead to crazy shit like demons appearing or an arm's bicep being lopped off. Super fun in play. I was recreating the feel of this gonzo randomness in my basic D&D with homebrew/cribbed from blogs charts, but the WFRP charts are as great as these, so why not just play this game?

I also like the first digit representing a bonus, like Strength Bonus, which lends itself to extra effects like how much damage you do. Actually very simple and elegant in play as well, because you always know these and they are intuitive to players in a way that +3 for 16 or 18 STR is not.

Character Creation
This is just random enough and the characters emerge as pretty robust and interesting, even if they're nominally just a 'human thief' in D&D terms. In WFRP, you can roll randomly for all your stats and your starting Career, which are more granular/individualized than the 4 to 9 main classes of D&D. Everything from Scout, Runner, Ambassador, Villager to Wizard and Warrior Priest. Mechanically, this edition makes skills only add to the basic statline, so no need to remember if someone has a Lore (Botany) skill to make a Intelligence test to know abotu a plant or the like. Instead, just roll it; and your players will figure out real quick if she has a bonus, because what player doesn't like a bonus. There's also no fiddling with dividing untrained skills in half and the like, it's a simple increased percentage. Humans roll some random traits like Strong Back or Perfect Pitch, which give some mechanical effects but also round out the character in a way that's inspiring, maybe my knight with great pitch is always humming a tune. In contrast with basic D&D or even 5e D&D, the Wfrp character creation randomness and more specific careers provides a lot more 'personality' for starting random characters. This is reinforced by the much more historically-grounded (I'm a historian by training) careers too, stevedores and servants have logical contacts and roles in any adventure location/setting anyway, leading to immediately imagining charming little backstories. For some people, they can come up with an awesome unique character with a voice and some likely friends and reasons for adventuring with the super bare-bones "Dwarf Fighter," but for many people, we need a little more to hang our hats on. WFRP provides that. It also allows some versatility; I can pick duellist  or protagonist with noble blood trait for my player who wants to be the Marquis from Rob Roy.

Another thing I like is that the lack of levels in WFRP keeps the world a more level playing field. Your starting Villager may just be a villager, but he has more survivability and impact in combat (or in gossiping) in the way a level 0 or level 1 d&d character does not. I know from the times I've played WFRP (or 40k rpgs) versus played my theoretically-beloved Basic D&D that I identify more with my slightly more complicated, more skills-listed, more random traits-having WFRP/d100 characters than I did with my D&D characters. This is despite totally buying all the "emergent play" and importance of building "character" *ahem* story through smartly played PCs.

So, it doesn't bother me that the character creation process takes longer than in D&D (and frankly, it's not that much longer if you know what the Talents do). After all, the player characters are "the main thing," so it won't hurt to spend a few minutes making them. If you need quick characters, make about 6-7 pre-generated characters and use those. Or use this really awesome instant generator by Paco

No Damage Rolls
I absolutely love that there is no second damage roll in this edition of Warhammer! The fact that the better you hit, the more damage you do is so intuitive. It helps narrate combat and I never have the problem with new players I have in D&D where they're like confused about why they roll again after rolling to see if they hit; it's all in the same roll. Sadly, there is a bit of math: 1) determine success levels of you and opponents, 2) subtract lower, 3) add net SLs to damage, 4) add any weapon effects to damage, 5) subtract enemy's Toughness plus Armor for the location on the body, 6) finally, subtract this last number from Wounds. I'm an adult, so I can do this after a few practices, but this is a bit daunting for new players or those who don't like to pay attention to the math. Fortunately, I can hand wave that by simply asking players to tell me their SLs, but there is a bit of a slow pause sometimes while I quickly do the mental math (people nowadays notice 1-2 seconds this takes to do). It's still worth the change, but over time, I would want to tell my players how to calculate their damage and damage resistance or use macros or something.

The Winds of Magic
I also love the way magic works in wfrp. First, that it's a skill makes it feels like every wizard book you've read, from Name of the Wind to Harry Potter. Wizards are smarter or less smarter, strong willed enough, and if they have both in a good combination, they can cast great magics, whether from their memorized repertoire or directly by reading the spell directly from a spellbook. Specifically, this works by casting spells itself being an Intelligence-based Language skill- your Potter-esque need to pronounce and articulate your magic words properly, combined with the scale of effects being based on your Willpower. This always present ability to cast spells, with rolling criticals causing great cascades of magic is just so much more evocative than the d&D game but never really in fiction picking of a spell that always works. The D&D spell system may be satisfying to an accountant like Gygax, but I'm increasingly dissatisfied these days with it in my imagination games. I also like in Warhammer how each wizard feels different, say between Death Wizards and Grey Wizards and Fire Wizards. There are some universal spelsl like Fly or Fear, but they also have 3-5 different powerful spells from their own school. My complaint with the spell lists in WFRP is the same as with 5e d&d: too much combat, need more whimsical, weird, and plot-spells. I've sought to ease this problem by introducing the wackier and more useful-outside-of-combat spells from WFRP's 2nd edition supplements. 

Gritty Combat, Realistic without Whiff
Biggest problem with 5th edition D&D is the superheroes feel of the combat, and sometimes how boring it is with its emphasis on high probability to hit and high hit points (how fast can you whiddle those down through naming powerz you have on your sheet!). In OSR games, sometimes there is a hit point problem at middle and higher levels, but also the characters don't feel like have much heft or weight to them. A level 1 PC or 1 HD orc feels like a paper-thin creature always on the verge of death, while a 4-5 level character is an unstopple juggernaut, even though both are 6 foot tall creatures of solid bone and flesh. WFRP has a nice balance: the PCs, even when powerful, have a human-scale number of wounds and a bad series of rolls can quickly kill them, but the way the numbers work, they (and experienced foes) usually can be confident they will wade through 4-5 regular ass soldiers with ease-though much more slowly than in D&D. This makes combat not something to pretty much always be avoided, as in OSR games, nor always engaged in as in D&D. Instead, combat is fun, because it is both something PCs can have become competent in while remaining risky with unexpected happenings. 

Another feature I like, is that the Size rules for bigger creatures, from Ogres to Dragons, really make those creatures extremely different and challenging. An Ogre has 30ish Wounds with higher Toughness compared to a humans (even a good warrior's) 11-15 wounds, plus the size rules give some hard hitting bonuses to hit in melee even when the Ogre's skill at swinging a sword is much lower than a master swordsman. This leads to PCs fearing larger foes, knowing a lucky roll can easily kill them while they are unlikely to kill the foe in one shot, without just making them unstoppable. Instead, they have to do things like in movies: think about using lots of arrows while trapping a foe, using poisons, etc. Much better than D&D's simple hit points, that make Ogres really just feel like 3rd level Fighters or whatever (same hp, same to hit, etc.) without the nice interplay of feeling like a clumsy but hard-hitting dude.

The Complicated Rules are Basically Just House Rules, A Story
Ok, so there are alot of "conditions" and "talents" and "traits" in the new WFRP, which are things I hate in general and specifically hated in D&D third edition and other bloated rpg games. This means shit like Unconscious or Amputated or Broken are defined terms that you have to look up when you want to know whats going on. I do dislike this, but after playing using the rules for awhile, I've come to find out that they really don't need to make the game play any slower or more complicated than even super simple basic D&D. To do this, though, you do have to treat these Talents, traits, and conditions more as "rulings" than "rules." Let me explain.

So if I'm playing basic D&D with no rules for "Ablaze" or "Fatigue" like you have in WFRP, if a player decides to have his character throw a molotov cocktail, I don't know what the mechanic effect is. I know there should be one: swords do 1d6-1d8 hit points of damage, burning protester/freedom fighter oil should do something to a creature's flesh if there's a direct hit, so something should happen and I should adjudicate somehow. Buried within some basic d&d rules there's stuff like 'burning oil does 1d6 damage,' so I could try finding that half-remembered rule too. What do I normally do in D&D, though? I make up a damage, like 1d4, and then make up another rule for the fire, like it goes out with a successful saving throw or something. I reward the character for a good idea, make something up, just like I would with whether a person is convincing or the kobolds think the halfling is charming, and move on. In WFRP, in contrast, there's definitely a rule that I'm vaguely aware exists. But it's not on my player's character sheet, because it's not her usual sword attack or one of her listed skills (Create Fiery Oil Bomb), just like the impromptu 'burning oil' idea in D&D. So in reality, the dilemma is pretty much the same as in D&D: if its not readily accessible (WFRP), it's as good as nonexistent (basic D&D). Apply this analogy to all sorts of mechanical effects based on player ideas that come up all the time in rpgs. What to do?

Well, let's handle it the right way as a game master, fast and loose and not making other human beings sit around while you read quietly to yourself; a rule is rarely that important**. So in D&D, you come up with a spot ruling, do the same in WFRP. The fiery oil does +4 damage, depending on how well you hit with your "Ranged Thrown" attack skill, but it lasts 3 rounds or something. The onyl difference is that later on, rather than say to your players that you'll keep ruling it that way, you tell them, "Hey, this is what the molotov does, but I'll look it up later and we'll follow the rulebook the next time." In this way, rather than accumulate house rules like you do in d&d, you're simply learning/remembering the house rules in the rulebook. And guess what, you can look up the rule in WFRP, and be like, "That's dumb, I liked the way I did it last night better." And this works for almost all the conditions and traits and talents I've encountered in WFRP, and it makes a better game experience. Like I've done it with the Carouser talent for one character, and molotov cocktails, and "Broken" (failed morale test) and Fatigue (though this one was really close since it's a simple-10 to all tests). And it works out great, you don't need to stress about remembering all the rules. Don't treat the game book like a bible, where every rule is written in stone and sancrosact; let the rules be your servant, not your master.

(Turns out, there's even a bolded term for my PC's molotov (it's on the weapons chart as a incendiary!) and it inflicts "Ablaze" conditions, with a page reference. My spot rule was influenced by my players arguing abotu the likely real world effects of getting fire inside a helmet, so it ended up working out well, and next time I used the gentler rulebook ablaze rules, but I told my players this).

** One exception is Critical Hits and Magical Catastrophes (really, magical critical hits). These are gory, highly effect what happens in play, and spectacular. It's worth it to stop play for everyone at the table to wait with bated breath to find out that the warrior's eye just exploded all over the ground. But do bookmark those pages.

The Bottom Line: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
So this is why I don't mind the "complicated" rules of Warhammer and love the way it feels at the table. The basic core mechanic is in some ways more simple than D&D, since even spells are a based on # success levels (10s digits) on a 1d100 roll. Then the combat is just crunchy and satisfying enough, where I realyl feel like my player characters go through medieval combat. I hear the crunch of the metal in my mind's eye, to mix metaphors. And the complicated rules can really just be learned/memorized as you play, once you've played through needing to use them. I've had a lot of fun with this 'complicated system' and you can too.

WFRP House Rules
I figure I'll also use this space to note some house rules I've added to play warhammer. 

XP rewards: 50 XP for a full session, plus 1 xp per shilling (so GC = 20 xp) recovered adventuring. This gives a bit more 'purpose' for my players, and results in an appropriately Warhammery murderhobo vibe. I don't want my warhammer characters to be indifferent to money, ever, for Sigmar's sake!
Advantage: too overpowered as written, reduced to max +6 Advantage, and gained only on successful hits (not successful parries) with melee or ranged weapons. I really need to reduce this to max +4 frankly.
Magic: spells are too difficult rules as written, so 1/2 CN required (round up). This means instead of 10 successes to cast some of the bigger spells, the PC needs 5. I started this house rule with 1/3 CN, but it really needs to only be 1/2. Effectively, casting number is a penalty to the difficulty of the casting roll, with the ability to channel more successes before the decision Language test.
Arms: I recently added an expanded weapons list found in the Ratter zine #2 (bec de corbin, arming swords, etc.). These are just cool flavor, and I'm a bit of a gear-head when it comes to medieval arms and armor, so don't mind the extra fiddliness.
Fortune and Resolve/Resilience: characters have max 4 Fate/Fortune, and Resolve/Resilience is now used passively - those with it immediately spend it to avoid any effects they receive without having to declare it. It was too many options to keep track of and slowed things down. I actually think it's pretty dumb they added Resolve/Resilience; Fate/Fortune was elegant and worked.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Bretonnian Bloodshed - wfrp session recaps

Good lord, I'm the worst. Have not updated the campaign recaps since May. My excuse is that I moved cities and jobs, but it's really I could have carved out a few minutes. These posts are good for thinking about 'next adventures' with the group, anyway, so I really should keep up with them. These are very handy in remember stray plot threads and generally in prepping adventures, so it'd be for my own good too. Here we go:

Dramatis Personae
Onfroy - fencer and louche extraordinaire, with a fetish for female urine
Boneshard - terriblely corrupted mutant Norscan berserk, hellraiser-skin, disguised with a great helm and gigantic black cloak
Regis aka Don Gonada - spy and huckster, the voice of reason
Okra, a female ogre smith, good at smashing, always hungry
Twiggett Plumbottom, halfling thief
Stomply Rockcrusher, ornery dwarf Ironbreaker

Dragonsbridge and the Grey Mountains
After reaching Dragonsbridge on their way through the Grey Mountains of Bretonnia, the party continued to carve a path of bloodshed, violence, and similar hijinks through the land before returning to their old quest - killing Lord Agravaine who messed with them at the beginning of the adventures.

In the last recap, we ended with the party reaching Dragonsbridge, a castle guarding the lone pass through the mountains from Gisoreaux to Couronne. The group made some plans with a creepy hedge wizard named Ferregus to obtain a key to a sealed cave beneath the castle where a dragon was reportedly entombed. Initially, the group was going to sneak in, but Onfroy, drunk, picked a duel with one of the gate guards with some critical successes on Entertain (Taunt) rolls. We rolled with it, and Onfroy not only killed the guard but began wrecking mayhem in the castle yard. Things went south when the overall garrison was roused, and Boneshard and Onfroy were captured after the gates were shut and several knights pinned them down. Regis managed to disguise himself as a regular guard (who he had killed) in true spy fashion, and was able to move about the castle. He steals the key from the lord's chambers, while Onfroy manages to disarm the castle torturer in the dungeons and protest to the lord that he was undertaking an honorable duel (with some good rolling and judicious expenditure of fortune too). DM's note: the lord agreed to release him because he thought he could spy on Onfroy and find out the mutant's other accomplices, perhaps able to blackmail some noble rivals with a confession from Onfroy or the mutant. But he wanted to know where the group came from. Unfortunately for the lord, these plans unravel as Onfroy uncovered the spy, Regis supplied Ferregus with the key to the dragon's chamber through Ferregus's accomplice, the 'washer woman' Mathilde, and all hell broke lose when the dragon breaks free while Onfroy and Regis are making their escape with stolen horses and more convincing lies from Regis.

After a brief sojourn away from the castle, and seeing that a dragon has wrecked havoc on it before flying off into the mountains, Regis and Onfroy returned to save Boneshard. More hire-wire combat ensues and they manage to capture the Lord Drakemont in the chaos and his son and wife. There is a negotiation with the garrison commander, and the group is allowed to leave in exchange for no harm befalling the Lord's family.

Lord Drakemont
The group then spends several days on horseback in the windy, cold, snowing, starving mountains. They are attacked by orcs and a strange horse-monster before coming upon an Ogress, Okra, who had been working as a smith for the orcs before the warboss cast her out for eating too much of their foods. The group smashes up some orcs together before finally reaching site of the nearest town in the mountains' foothills, Souen. A halfling n'er'do'well Twiggett was in town and learned that three knights sworn to the king to find the chaos warrior (Boneshard, though they did not know his name) had hired a ranger guide through the mountains. The knights soon find Onfroy, Boneshard, Regis, and Okra on the mountain trails and battle ensues. In a striking moment, Boneshard is slain as a questing knight, Sir Bourchard de Montcalm, rammed his sword to the hilt through Boneshard's heart (in game terms, he was criticalled, rolled a 99 or 100 result to the body, and had no permanent Fate points left to avert). Okra then smashed the knight's skull in with her warhammer. While the questing knights were soon defeated through Okra's and Onfroy's prowess, Boneshard was dead---a blessing in disguise as now Regis, as the party's face, could disclaim that they were associated with the chaos warrior and mutant. 

An amethyst wizard from the Empire, Willem of Nye (Boneshard's player's new character) was also traveling in Souen, following the tales of Boneshard's demonic sword that he had obtained some ancient stories on. The lord of Souen, Alaric, shamed by his marshal Sir Godefroy into riding out  to confront the chaos warrior, summoned his men-at-arms to ride out. The wizard, a foreign notable, was allowed to accompany them as a dignitary (ah, the class solidarity of the elite!). Godefroy approached the wizard secretly offering him a stack of gold, like 30 crowns, to kill Alaric. Gossip gathered by Twiggett revealed this was because Godefroy sought to marry Alaric's daughter and gain his lands, but Godefroy refused, seeking a better alliance for his daughter. Willem agreed but then crossed Godefroy by casting a sleep spell on him as he sought to provoke a fight against the party, who Lord Alaric had begun to negotiate with. Regis sold the lie that they were mercenaries who had helped the knights kill Boneshard, and they were welcomed to camp in Souen. Alaric, though, realized what Godefroy had attempted to do, and so enlisted Regis to have him killed in a duel - he could not kill Godefroy openly himself, as Godefroy, a younger and martial man, had the respect of his household knights and troops. After insulting him profusely at dinner, Onfroy quickly slew the man (a lucky critical that slashed apart Godefroy's arm). Alaric then invited them to leave, with a bag of gold as a reward (20 GC i think?).

Outside Souen, the companions were greeted by their old patron, Lady Griselda, first in raven-form and then skyclad. She reached an agreement with Regis for them to resume their Olde Quest: kill Lord Agravaine, now Duke in the south. She offered to purchase them passage on a ship she hired in L'Anguille for the purpose, and they would take the group south where they were to figure out some way to kill the Duke. 

Griselda emerging from raven-form (kelly hensing)
The companions then traveled west, trying to avoid settlements. They were thwarted when hunting deer for Okra to eat, as several hunting knights found Regis 'poaching' as he stood over a freshly killed deer. A typical combat followed, with the knights' entourage of footsoldiers scattered and fleeing after some bloody work by the ogre and fencing-masters. Now equipped with fresh meat, but forced to hide from any settlement whatsoever, the party promptly wandered into a town to obtain a boat to travel to L'Anguille on river. A new companion, Stomply the ornery dwarf, tired of negotiations with the boat's owner and sons, killing them and they attempted to row and steer the boat out of town as footmen caught wind of the party's presence and sought to stop them. Through some luck and Okra the Ogre's well-placed anvil throw, the pursuing ship of men-at-arms was sunk. They group then got the vessel stuck several times and abandoned it to continue to L'Anguille on foot. 

Finally in L'Anguille, the party, now 6 strong with an ogre, managed to not kill everyone and sailed away on the Swan Maiden, south to find fell Duke Agravaine.