Sunday, June 28, 2015

Three Reviews: Creature Compendium, On the NPC, and Kefitzah Haderech

Inspired by a Lulu coupon, I did a little shopping.

Old School Adventures™ Accessory CC1: Creature Compendium by Richard LeBlanc
92 pages, $10.96

I didn't especially feel the need for a monster manual—what's easier than making up a monster? But I wanted to have one lying around for the kid to pore over—what's more inspiring than a bunch of monsters? This has certainly done the job. The kid has been writing up little adventures since he first saw this book.

It's a beautifully organized book. There is a full page at the beginning that clearly explains every statistic and notation you'll find anywhere else, all monsters are fully stat'ed for 0e and B/X, there are complete treasure tables in the back, and an index of XP values calculated for no less than six different OSR editions. And every entry is illustrated, which, really, is the sine qua non of monster manuals.

The book is presented with the assumption that you have a more standard monster manual of some kind or another. None of the standards are recreated here. Some of the entries are variations of standards (Cyclorcs are cyclops-orcs), but many of them seem to be drawn from lesser-known folklore. The one addition I would like to see would be sources for where some of these creatures come from. But that's an extraordinarily minor point, and it's not like I can't google this stuff for myself.

tl;dr: "Isn't this book awesome?!" —a seven year old grognard

On the Non Player Character by Courtney Campbell 
62 pages, $29.99!!

Well, this is truly an old school experience. Just like the original edition of D&D, this book is unusually expensive, frustratingly unclear, and yet contains a thrilling new approach, if only you can piece it together.

The book is about social mechanics, which some people have set opinions on. I'm sympathetic with the "let's role-play everything!" line, but I also like to have structured mechanics to fall back on. And the system here is good. It doesn't add new stats or novel mechanics; it builds off the reaction roll and morale checks. And it does so in an elegant, flexible way.

Just don't expect to get it on the first read. This is the sort of book that only makes sense if you already know what it's talking about. It provides exemptions and variations of rules before you learn the rules themselves. Vital points are presented without context or indication and then not mentioned again until much later and without reference to where the original information was presented. And it seems the book was written with sidebars in mind, but then not formatted with them, creating weird, nonlinear tangents that are entirely confusing when you're first trying to piece the system together.

It's a really, really intriguing system, and one I'd love to use at the table. But I'll have to rewrite the whole thing before presenting it to a bunch of players who won't have the time or obsessive drive to wrestle this text into submission. Which, you know, is fine for a blog post or something. But a thirty dollar book? That's crazy pants. 

tl;dr: Great content, but hopefully there will be a second edition that is more clearly framed. I'd hang onto your many dollars until that point.

KEFITZAT HADERECH - Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals by Paolo Greco
32 pages, $6.46

This was a total impulse buy. I have a hard time imagining that anyone would need this much inspiration for portals. But, boy howdy, if you do, this is the place to get it. And good luck getting through this book without wanting to make an elaborate network of portals a regular feature of your campaign.

In a blog-rich environment where people regularly put forward tables on all manner of things (d30 Rainy-day Encounters, d100 Things Found at the Bottom of a Well, d1000 Animal-motif Combs in the Elf-Queen's Hair), it may seem unnecessary to pay real money for a collection of tables on a minor aspect of the game. But these are solid and extensive. And they're fun.

Because portals and their particular destinations can have big setting implications, this would be a great resource to turn to when you're establishing a new campaign. Or when you need to expand an existing campaign by opening up some radically different vistas.

Paolo Greco writes well. He's clear and ordered, and conversational and funny, but not ostentatiously so. Remind me to look up his other works.

tl;dr: Inessential, but fun!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dice: Attribute Checks

I've been using attribute checks a lot, lately. My PbP game is Beyond the Wall, which uses attributes and additive skill bonuses. At home, I've been playing Holmes with the kid, with straight attribute checks bolted on.

Now, there is a powerful spartan appeal to the default 1d6 skill check of OD&D and B/X. And there's a curvy elegance to the 2d6 check of Traveller and *World. You can use OD&D-style attribute bonuses with 1d6, and B/X-style bonuses with 2d6 without breaking anything. But I've been using using the standard d20 vs. Attribute Score. 

Largely, this is because I hate to not use the attribute scores. They are such a prominent part of the character sheet, we expend such hope and energy on rolling them up, and they are so central to how we envision our character—how could we not use them?

With the kid's games, I've found this especially gratifying. The kid grasped the significance of the attributes, and how to apply them to a single roll of a d20. He immediately began suggesting when checks of which attributes were appropriate. And he's taught his friends how to play using this system. Successful transfer from one seven-year-old to another has got to be the golden hallmark of conceptual elegance.


I don't like the math. I don't like the straight line of probability one gets from a d20. A high stat feels too assured of victory, and a medium stat feels too arbitrary. If you're adding skill bonuses to attributes (which strikes me as a pretty straightforward way to handle skills), you have to start imposing limits to make sure characters aren't guaranteed success. And when I add situational bonuses and penalties, I always feel like I'm kinda pulling numbers out of the air.

I've been thinking about this system.

Roll under your attribute on: 
2d6 for an Easy task;
3d6 for Average;
4d6 for Hard;
5d6 for Extraordinarily Hard;
6d6 for Total Longshot.

And if you every need a comedy roll to, say, see how long your Charisma 3 Barbarian can last at the Duchess' Tea Party, you can use a 1d6.

Output 1: 1d6 / Output 2: 2d6 / Output 3: 3d6 / Output 4: 4d6 / Output 5: 5d6 / Output 6: 6d6

If you've played with this sort of check before, I'd love to hear your take on it.