Sunday, September 17, 2017

HackMaster 5th Edition Play: After Session 1 of 2

Back in The Day I was an early buyer of HackMaster 4th and was a low-counter member of the HackMaster Association as a registered GM. Tons of fun - I loved carrying my card around. I ran a HackMaster 4 campaign for a few years (heavily modified to get the satire out) and ported a version of the honor rules into my new AD&D 2e S&P campaign 8 years ago.

Naturally I was a pre-order guy for the HackMaster 5th Kacklopedia and PHB. I got Frandor's Keep the day I could. The Fun Lads Four and the wife all made characters and we started at Frandor's, running 5 sessions or so.

And we hated it. We all remembered the combat as wonky and confusing and the play as disjointed. 

I didn't pre-order the GMG and we put the books on the shelf in my storage room that it climate controlled. After 3 years sitting on the shelf I was moving books around and the PHB cover had simply fallen off. From sitting there.
I let Kenzerco know and they very promptly shipped me a free replacement (the batch my first one came from had a known issue). Excellent customer service!

About 10 days ago Sam persuaded me, Jack, and Nick to make 4th level characters, play two sessions, and see if it was still an issue.

This is what happened.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Guest Post: The Beauty of Weapon Selection in AD&D1e by Jack



     The gameplay balance between classes in 1st Edition ADnD is very frequently misunderstood.  As has been previously observed on this blog, the most common victim of these misunderstandings is the humble fighter. To be fair to those that bash the old melee-brawling hero, a cursory reading of the rules does seem to indicate that they underperform compared to their magically-endowed teammates, and I'm not just referring to the ever-undying "linear warriors, quadratic wizards" concept. Even at levels 1-5, fighters may appear to simply be weaker than clerics and, at the last of those levels, than magic-users.

     At first blush, too, the good ol'-fashioned number-crunching math appears to back this up. Clerics have hit points that lag behind fighters by an average of just 1 point per level.  While that can certainly be the difference between life and death, especially at low levels, it is not a wide margin. This is particularly true because clerics have all the same armor proficiencies as fighters, closing the survivabilitiy gap even further. Similarly, while fighters get nicely ahead in terms of THAC0 progression at 3rd level, clerics nearly catch up with them when their combat abilities finally improve at 4th. Again, the 1 point difference here matters, but not by much. So, seeing as the only ability of the fighter is to stand there swinging his sword and taking hits, while the cleric trades mere 1 point gaps in that ability for the power to cast several heal, buff, and combat support spells each day, it stands to reason that fighters are useless, right? Heck, a properly-provisioned magic-user of 5th level can deal out average damage well in excess of 50 points in a mere 5 rounds, which is far better than the average damage of a sword in that time. So with a battle-oriented thaumaturgist blasting away and a cleric pulling double duty as a fighter to keep the bad guys off him, the poor old fighter turns out to be useless, right?

     Right?

     Wrong! Contrary to popular belief, analyzing the game carefully reveals that fighters do indeed have powers beyond being marginally better at taking and dealing hits than everyone else. The ability I'm going to focus on in this article is their remarkable ability to use any weapon.

     Fighters can be proficient in any weapon! If you don't think that's amazing, you clearly haven't read the books enough. Sure, clerics have access to the footman's mace, which has some really excellent damage, and the footman's flail, which has amazing armor type adjustments.  Heck, mere thieves can use the long sword, which is the best one-handed weapon for attacking size large targets. The thing is, though, that fighters have access to all those, plus weapons such as the two-handed sword, which as the best damage dice of any footman's weapon in the game and incredible armor type adjustments; the glaive-guisarme, which does nearly as much damage with less space required and more reach; the ranseur, with all its overpowered special attacks in the footnotes; the lance, which is literally twice as powerful as the two-handed sword on a charge; or, if they want to fight smarter, not harder, the humble spear, a one-handed weapon with reach, low required space, and the ability to set for charge or be thrown. Any one of these armaments can take a fighter from just barely edging past the cleric in combat output to leaving his priestly counterparts in the dust completely.

     You know what's scarier than that, though? Bows. Bows do a d6 of damage and fire twice a round, and, in the case of a longbow at least, can do so out to a ridiculous distance. Compare that to the best ranged weapon of non-fighter classes, the thief's sling, which does 1d4+1 once a round, or the fact that clerics have no ranged weapons whatsoever except for the thrown club or warhammer, and fighters have the entire aspect of ranged combat almost entirely to themselves. Even magic-users utterly fail to keep up with a bowman's overall damage output unless they empty all their spells at once.

     On that note, let's go back and crunch some numbers again. At 4th level, a fighter will have a THAC0 of 17, hitting an AC 10 target 70% of the time, while a cleric will have a THAC0 of 18, hitting the same target 65% of the time. Average damage with a footman's mace is 4.5 points, while average damage with a two handed sword is 5.5 points. Against a size large target, though, the gap is much more significant, at 3.5 points versus a whopping 10.5 points, respectively. This means that against an AC 10, size medium target, the cleric still isn't really too far behind, doing an average of 29.25 points of damage per turn, compared to the fighter's 36.5. Versus an AC 10, size large target, however, the cleric does a per-turn average of merely 22.75, while the fighter has a whopping 73.5 points!

     Now, let's take the fighter to 5th level, and run his numbers with a bow, instead. His THAC0 is now 16, for a 75% hit rate against AC 10, and he now fires twice a round for 3.5 points of average damage against both size medium and size large. So, over the course of a seven rounds, he will do an average of 36.75 points of damage. Why did I pick seven rounds, you ask? Because a magic-user of the same level only has seven spells a day total. Assuming he memorized magic missiles for all 4 of his first level spells, Melf's acid arrow for both his second level spells, and fireball for his third level spell, that he hits with both acid arrows, and that his target fails his saving throw against the fireball, said magic-user will do an average total damage of 76.5 points of damage, just over twice as much as the fighter did (oddly enough, the damage from magic missiles exceeded that of fireball and the acid arrows combined. Food for thought). This sounds starkly in the wizard's favor, until you realize that the magic-user has now shot his bolt and is done for the day, after preparing for nothing but combat. Meanwhile the fighter is only starting to dip into his second quiver of arrows. Plus, an ogre charging the wizard makes it almost impossible for him to survive, while an ogre charging the fighter actually increases his total damage output. And an arrow nicking the fighter merely annoys him while an arrow nicking the wizard causes between 10.5 and 17.5 of those points of average damage to disappear permanently. Note that we didn't give our hypothetical fighter any magic items (and if the fighter has no magic items, it doesn't make much sense for the wizard to have spells he didn't start with, does it?). And so on, and so forth.

     To me, the take away from this analysis is that the classes are balanced. The argument can be made that, with spells available to them such as protection from evil, bless, or cure light wounds balancing out their slight mathematical inferiority, clerics are actually better than fighters at fighting size medium targets hand-to-hand. However, fighters are clearly superior at dealing with large, dangerous targets such as ogres and giants, and at ranged combat (plus, this analysis is leaving out the mechanic for bonus attacks against creatures with less than a hit die, but that's an article for another time). Meanwhile, magic-users have an absolutely tremendous short-term damage potential, but that's all they have in combat: short-term damage potential. Fighters are leagues more survivable, and can fight indefinitely compared to characters reliant on spell memorization. So, in order to have a tactically effective party, you really need all the classes, even the ones that seem like all they're good for is taking hits and swinging their swords.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Quick Take: The Orcs of Seaward

West of the Stone Hills stretch the Orcish City-States. Five times in the past they have been united under and Overking and each time have threatened to conquer the human, dwarven, and elven nations that surround them.

Gramak Kor- Broken Bone cult. The closest and largest. Known for fielding disciplined pike formations. Counting allies and slaves the city is said to have up to 29,000 humanoids in its walls

Hranath Kor- Dripping Blade cult. Ancient rivals of Gramak Kor. Their king is said to be a master swordsman. Allied with a large ogre tribe.

Turrkan Kor- Vile Rune cult. Distant and mysterious, but known to be feared by other orcs for their magic.

Sharmat Kor- Leprous Hand Cult. Only orcs known to have cavalry. Foes of the Horse Keshi to the Southwest.

The Orcs of the Evil Eye- With very, very few exceptions all orc shamans, witchdoctors, and hedge mages are members of the Cult of the Evil Eye. This cult is focused on orcish domination of other races and its members strive to get orcs to work together.

The Panoply of the Overking- According to sages and legends when an orc chieftain can gather 2 or more items from the Panoply of the Overking he can “bid” ot be Overking of all the cults. This typically involves conquering the other tribes with the powers of the items. But any chief that gains all 5 will be proclaimed the Overking and win the immediate loyalty of all orcs, an even that has happened only one other time.

According to tales when an Overking dies if he has no worthy heir the devilish patron of the orcs hides the items so that the next Overking can prove his worth by finding them.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

DM Report: Battle in the Ruins of Karkosi

I am going to try to summarize about 3 weeks of notes, talks, and short sessions and today's long session!

The characters:
Ursula 3rd level halfling thief
Athanasius 3rd level human cleric. has a 1st level paladin henchman named Edward and a 1st level    monk henchman named  Chun
Starkiller a 3rd/2nd/3rd half-elf fighter/magic-user/cleric
Greystar a 3rd level human mage with a 1st level fighter henchman named Karlsson
Telnar a 6th level human cleric and party leader
Greystar also has 4 hireling spearmen

Monday, August 28, 2017

GM Report: Champions on the Street

  I have been making noises about starting another Champions campaign for years. The last three I ran were all high-point supers games, one akin to the Legion of Super-Heroes where every character had to e capable of surviving deep space and FTL travel somehow.
 This time? Street level!

  I sat down with  he three players, Jack, Sam, and Nick, and we agreed on a point range (175 points, 50 complications), Normal Characteristics for no points, and no equipment points for PCs. We also decided we wanted a gritty, hardcore vibe, like Punisher. I finally get to use the amazing supplement Hudson City: The Urban Abyss. If you do any game set in the contemporary world, get that supplement!

Characters
Warlord- Jack made a melee combat specialist that uses sword, akin to Deathstroke, but lower points. The usual 'vigilante mix' of stealth, streetwise, etc. Minor contacts. Background of being a professional killer.

Wyvern- Sam made a former sniper with a drinking problem (inside joke) with the 'vigilante mix' of skills, minor contacts, etc. No real melee ability, but excellent sniping and pistol skills.

Wizard- Nick went toward a Dove build and is subverting the system; very skills heavy, all defensive martial arts, not killing attacks, etc. He's a normal guy that wants to make a difference. He has a top-notch police contact.

Background
  The various members either returned to their home or always lived in Hudson City. Warlord is obsessed with his mission, so he lives rough in empty warehouses, etc. Wyvern crashes in a flophouse. Wizard has a small condo. Their various contacts, streetwise checks, etc. pointed them all to a potential showdown between street gangs near Club 20, a nightclub popular with Hudson University students in the Forsythe neighborhood.
  The Carp gang (once the Carpenter Street Warriors) and the 21 gang (once the 21 Chains gang) had been engaged in low-level feuds over the drug trade around the club for months and both were facing the spectre of being too small to continue, so they were planning a final showdown.

The Adventure
  Each player told me in the pre-game that their character was going to scout the location of the probable fight in the afternoon, about 2. I have never seen a meet-cute come together on its own so smoothly!They all made excellent perception rolls so they all spotted each other! They also saw 4 Carps and 4 21s lurking in alleys across Moss Street from each other, probably prepping for the fight.
  Wyvern tried to snatch a lone 21 who was a block away, but his total lack of martial arts led to him getting stabbed before he shot the 21! The crew in the alley ran out and brought their comrade back, but the Carps took the opportunity to prepare an ambush. The vigilantes moved in, too. As the Carps faced down the 21s, Wyvern sniped a carp, initiating a firefight between the gang members.As the gang members wounded each other or downed each other Warlord waited, then leapt from the roof he was on among the 21s - his first blow severed the gun arm of a 21 and put him down.
  Wyvern downed another Carp and drew fire from the last one on his feet as Warlord gutted the last 21. Wizard closed with the last Carp and easily disarmed him, then kept him engaged with dodges, etc. until Wyvern put him down.

Post
The PCs met up, exchanged contact info, and set up some meeting points. Since they crippled two gangs at once, met without the super-cliched 'superheroes always fight when they first meet' I gave them 2 character points each.

Overall
A ton of fun was had for an intro adventure. We will be working on out-of-band activities and such for a week.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rumors of the South

The players are preparing an expedition to the nation south of Seaward - the Grand Duchy of Banath. Here is what they know:

 Lord Osmend of Whitehill; the grandson of a Knight of the Starry Banner and son of a Knight of the White Sun (a lawful good order) was seen as a paragon of virtue until he met the Lady Jacinth, a noblewoman from a distant land of Outremer. Within weeks of meeting her Whitehill proposed and soon thereafter he changed drastically. Within months of their wedding he had alienated his key advisors and eventually dueled with and killed his own younger brother, the paladin Asric called the Bold.
  The Lord Duke of Banath banished him but such was his personality that many of his men followed him, and many of the worst sorts flocked to his banner as he moved towards Treachers' Road. But while the Duke's Men were watching his soldiers Whitehill himself led a group of his toughest, most loyal men.
  Accompanied by the Lady Jacinth, members of the Slime Cult, and even a Prime Assassin, he assaulted the conclave where the Lord Duke's heir was meeting with the Lord Count of High Morath to negotiate a marriage. The only heir to Banath and the Lord Count of High Morath were killed. The High Mage of High Morath, the Magister of Banath, the Archbishop of Banalan, the Bishop of Maralan, the Constable of High Morath, and the Lord General of Banath joined their lords in death. Whitehill lost his best captains, his personal mage, and the cream of his soldiers, but he and his wicked wife were able to join his remaining forces in the Eastern Wilds north of the Treachers' Road.

  According to rumor he has taken the bodies of the Lord Count and the Banath heir with him to prevent Raise Dead.
 -Banath now has no heir, no Magister, and a young, inexperienced Archbishop. The two most-senior nobles below the Lord Duke are equal in claim to the throne and each has 3 sons and no daughters. The Lord Duke is old, ill, and in despair at the loss of his beloved son. Banath did not pursue Whitehill because they are braced for a three way civil war for the throne.
 -The Lady Count of High Morath is a girl of 19 with no High Mage, a new, inexperienced Bishop, and an army whose generals were just murdered along with her father. All six of the Great Houses have sons and all are angling to find a way to force her to marry their son to gain the throne.
 -At the same time, many people in High Morath blame Banath (Whitehill was a Banath nobleman) for the death of their ruler so skirmishes are popping up all along the border, threatening a war between the two nations.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mapping the Briars: A Really Big Day

The party has been working really hard to do something never before done in 38 years of the campaign: develop a detailed map of the Briars.
  To explain both why this is a Big Deal and why it has never been done before, the Briars is hilly to very hilly terrain covered in thorns, briars, thickets, and thick copses of locust trees about 500 square miles in area. Between the trees often blocking clear sight of the sun or distant landmarks, the lack of clear trails in 90% of the area, and the short sightline (20 yards at most in the high briars!) parties get lost, on average, in 3 days. Clean water is limited, especially in the high briars, and food is wary and scarce. In Summer the weather is very hot and in Winter it is very cold. Travel is slow regardless. On foot, most parties get lost the first week, run out of water in the second week, and die of hunger, thirst, and exposure before they find the Old Road again.
  Then there are the monsters: kobold raiders, small ogre tribes, trolls, and the hippogriffs and gryphons always watching. On top of the commonplace poisonous spiders and asps the place is littered with corpses.

  The party continued, using their communication helm to stay on track, using magic items for food and water, and using the broom to confirm distant landmarks. Between the Saturday and Sunday sessions they spent 3 game months in the high briars, mapping. Here is what they encountered on Sunday:

  • Another kobold war band, quickly dispatched.
  • A group of 9 trolls (!!). A very dicey encounter that was almost as bad as Ol' One Fang. If hadn't been for their Marble Mastodon Figurine it would have been a TPK! As it was, it was a long fight that no one escaped with more than single digit hits. The party had to rest for a few days after, but they did get a Frostbrand from the nearby troll nest.
  • They saw the famous Red Horseman near Grandmother's hut
  • One night near the mountains the sentry spotted the Red Maiden and her massive owl watching them from about a mile away. He alerted the camp and they prepared for something Very Bad to happen with the two Scouts in full Prepared Ambush mode as the religious brother Byron warned them evil was approaching. A chimera burst from the briars right into the ambush and was quickly slain. During the fight the Red Maiden seemed to vanish so Seeker scouted where she had been - and realized she was merely watching while Invisible! After a time she flew away. He found a candy wrapper from a famous candy maker in Adrian with orange fur and black fur stuck to the toffee remnants. The Chimera reverted back into a kobold in an iron slave collar. Close inspection revealed that the collar and been bent into place by a being of incredible strength whose thumbs were on the 'wrong side'...
   Close to Skull Mountain and considering taking a rest, they realized - they had never scouted the mountain's exterior! They did so and mapped the trails around and over Skull Mountain. Nearby they found a campfire with the bare footprints of a human. They found a steep trail that led to a pass to High Morath and the land approach to the Deep. They also found a boulder with a small "cabin" inside it. A cabin that looked a bit like this:


  They eventually figured out how to activate a scrying device that had three different views. With Tongues and such they realized one was the Lunar News Network (whatever that means) and another was the General Education System. They also saw a brief bit that mentioned a wax that 'made swords immune to rust monsters! Special offer, order now! Just send the proper glyph to the second moon!"

  They returned to the Briars and a few days later found the dead body of Erena the Gorgeous, killed by repeated punches and kicks from a human with bare feet....

  On a whim, Seeker donned the communications helm and, at midnight, looked at the second moon and said,
  "I would like to speak to a sales representative."

  In the morning the Man in Purple had a tent nearby and was sitting at a table with the Man in Green. The party spent a prodigious amount of money to ask some questions. So many they were told they had to wait a year to ask more! They learned:

  1. No one knows what the Lurker is, just that Disintegration and lightning seem to cause it pain.
  2. Skull Mountain was originally ruled (and first dug) 8,000 years previously by the Titan of the Mountain. He vanished long, long ago but his brother, the Titan of the Volcano, still looks for him every Midsummer.
  3. Inside Skull Mountain is something called the Contraption that controls the various natural portals to the many elemental, para-elemental, and quasi-elemental planes natural to the mountain.
  4. The Sleeping Princess at remote station #1 is a Marid in a genie pact who is the centerpiece to making the Montanic lances work.
  5. Ol' Knobby was once an ogre, but he has lived in remote station #1 near a broken ward so he is bathed in intense magic while he lives and sleeps there. It has warped and changed him, making him bigger, stronger, smarter, and stealthier
  6. The Men in Colors trade with the royal family of the elves once a year; only the elvish royalty know about this.
  7. The battle they saw in the sky was mind flayers being driven off by the navy of the Duke of the Third Moon.
  8. Lord Whitehill works for the same person that commands the Red Maiden; the Red Maiden is, in fact, a rakshasa. The mysterious commander of them both wants them to create civil wars in Banath and High Morath.
  9. Rupert is a Claric//Magic-user vampire bound about with Geases, Quests, and curses so he is trapped in parts of Skull Mountain, but he could potentially be freed just by having the right conversations. In fact, he once was contained to one tiny room.
  The party learned that the Man in Green's special introductory offer for non-magical weapon wax was limited to 10 jars of the normal wax or 5 jars of the deluxe wax! Brigid bought 3 jars of the deluxe wax (enough for about 3 years) and is treating Mor Altach with it to protect her sword from rust, lightning, and magnetism.
  The Man in Green gave a few prices for skyships (hideously expensive) and mentioned that if they were to light the beacon at Midsummer a skyship would take them to the Third Moon for a per-person fee. The Man in Green gave Seeker a device that would allow him to place an order at will once. he also mentioned that if they wanted armor, weapons, etc. they would need to talk to the Man in Red.

  We broke for the weekend.