Monday, March 29, 2021

Skills in Old-School Gaming

              One of the most important things in any role-playing game is WHEN should a die be rolled. Controlling this is one of the DMs most coveted tools because it can set the tone for a game. In general rolls can be done in one of three places, before the fiction, during the fiction, and after the fiction. When a roll is called for and used determines a lot. If we are discussing D&D (and its clones) the older we go the less skills there tends to be. So, when should you roll a Find Traps roll with a PC? Does the PC have to say they are using the skill? Should the PC roll it or should the DM? How detailed should the PC be about what they are doing? These are some of the questions that DMs face when running a game. I am sure that some people will claim to have the “right” answer to this question. I personally feel there is no “right” answer, just the answer that works for me. This is how I use skills in my game and some of my rationale for why I use them that way.

                To ruin some of my “old-school credibility” I play in a semi-monthly 5e game with my friend who I started D&D with in 1990. One thing that I hated with the 5e system (that many, but not all people do) was the idea that if my character does something directly it triggers a roll, not a solution. Example: My dwarf examines a treasure chest, I specifically state that I am looking in the keyhole for a needle or device. I even stick a knife blade into it to spring a possible trap if one is there. I am told to roll a Perception check with advantage, I still roll poorly. My character decides to open the chest and I am stabbed with a poison needle. If I were running this in my games, the PC would have seen the trap without a roll, because they were looking in the right place. If the player does a thing and, in the fiction, it makes sense they would see a thing, then they do. I assume competency on the part of the PC characters. I see DMs report running this style of game all the time. One in which the PCs must be EXTREMELY specific in what they do to figure out traps and the like. You might believe this is abundantly correct, but then the issue comes up, what is the Find a Trap skill used for exactly? If I need to be specific about what I am doing, and I don’t specifically mention I look in that keyhole should I roll? Should I automatically get hit with the trap? How much detail does a PC need to go into to gain a benefit? More importantly, what is more fun?

                This is how I run it, I am not claiming this is the only or best way to do it, just how I run it for my games. First off, if the PC does an action, they do an action. If they state they are searching the throne for buttons that activate a pit and there is one, they find it. Second, I use the 1-in-6 type rolls often as a passive alert. If the PCs are moving at “Dungeon Speed” the idea is that they are mapping, trying to be quiet, and looking for things out of the ordinary. I will roll for them to find a trap even if they are not specifically looking for it. If they approach a door and they should be able to hear a ruckus party going on in the other side of the door, they hear it. If there is a possibility of hearing it, I will roll for them, many times without them even knowing. I allow these skills to be used as shorthand too, to speed up game play. If we went into EXTREME detail for every room the PCs come into with their searching, we would possibly clear three rooms a night. I allow them to say “We search the room for X.” I will then make the appropriate rolls. I will often telegraph in rooms with interesting things (secret doors, hidden treasure, etc) with details so they can zoom in on that. If they want to tell me specifically what they are searching, I will then decide accordingly. I do not think this was the intended way to handle these situations, but I think it is fair and efficient.

Demi-Humans often must pay a premium (in XP) to get bonuses to these skills, so let them be skilled in it. I often roll the player(s) with the highest in each skill first, to see if they notice, then everyone else. Once one player achieves the roll, I usually stop. I let that character shine. You will notice that the Elf in my game often hears things and finds hidden doors and no one else does. Because I tend to roll him first and he then gets to take his moment in the spotlight. Making sure that everyone feels their character adds something to the party is important. Even the filthy Demi-Humans.

I also tend to use Ability Checks which can be controversial in the Old-School community. I do not think I overuse them, because of assumed competency, but they are still used. I try to keep in mind that Magic-Users know magical stuff, Clerics know religious stuff, Dwarves know dwarven stuff, etc. I generally give them automatic information based on their realm of expertise. Ability checks come in to adjudicate things that fall outside the common in those realms, they fill in the gaps so to speak. I also admit that I do far more INT and CON Ability Checks then others because I think the stats are under used compared to the others. This means having a higher INT and CON has some more useful benefits. I generally see Ability Checks as the opposite of Saving Throws. Saving Throws happen when something is done to the PC, Ability Checks are when the PC does something to something else. I can see a game going on just fine without them and the DM just coming up with a X-in-6 chance of everything, but I enjoy them and will keep using them.

Overall, the thing I like about older systems is that they do not have a robust skill system. To me this was something that kind of spoiled AD&D and D&D beyond that. Second Edition’s proficiency system was too limiting in that they had TONS of skills, but you got so few you felt your character was inept. Third Edition you could do any skill and skills stacked with skills and had bonuses from class and feats and synchronicity and what phase the moon was in and the list goes on. It was too much. I like the way that OSE/BX keeps things simple, and it is a big reason I continue to use it.

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Friday, March 5, 2021

The Isle of the Plangent Mage Review

The Isle of the Plangent Mage

By Donn Stroud

                I am going to get this out of the way in the beginning, I love this adventure. Not that I did not love the other two that I have reviewed so far, but this one fits my exact GM style. This, to me, is not an adventure, but a mini-campaign in the style of Keep on the Borderlands. It is designed for characters in the 3rd – 5th level range with the appropriate old school caveat that encounters are not balanced. It is hard to know where to start on this one, because I like so much, but I also do not want to give away crucial details of the adventure. In general, there is a seaside town, and it has the support of a local Magic-User and his wife. Both have gone missing, and some strange occurrences have started to happen, like sea life beaching itself regularly. The DM has several hooks provided to get the players to the town and searching, the rest is up to them.

                The adventure is set around the town of Imbrich and anyone who has read their Lovecraft will see another obvious connection with a seaside village. The town had formed a relationship the local Magic-User, Cetus, who ran local lighthouses. Cetus used the lighthouses and the grounds underneath them for his experiments with both sea life and sound. You get a complete work up of the local village complete with notable locations and personalities. This can serve as your party’s home base as they delve into the various locales of the setting. Several of the villagers are noted as willing to pay for certain items or information from Cetus’ grounds. An example might be that the local blacksmith wants some of Cetus’ ever-burning logs. This gives the players even more reason to venture into the locations and find these items for the locals.
                There are several locations that the parties can explore that each have their own feel, dangers, and rewards. There are a series of caves along the coast, a place called Darksand Isle just offshore, the isle has two separate Lighthouses that can be explored as well. Then you get the Magic-User’s Undertower, which his underground domicile and laboratory. This Undertower is eight levels deep and certainly qualifies as a dungeon. Each level generally has about six to ten locations in them, so it will take the players a bit of time to explore. Strange beings lurk through these halls along with strange devices imagined by Cetus himself.

                As for the book itself, it has the same quality layout that Old School Essentials is becoming known for throughout the industry. Maps are clearly readable and accessible without excessive page flips. The bullet-point format allows a GM to easily run this off the cuff, but a read through before would not hurt. The art is brilliant and colorful, it brings the setting to life. This is also a bit of a unique setting. There is a lovely nautical feel throughout the entire book. If you are looking for a classic sandbox that is not a typical dungeon, then you have found it. 

               I think this is a great example of a sandbox adventure. There is not set destination that the players must go, but they get to make their own choices about what to explore. There is not a “quest” per se, but there is a story to what has happened at this town and it unfolds as the players gather information. You can plunk this little town into almost any setting, and it will blend in with the background seamlessly, the only thing you need is a coastline. I give this this my highest recommendation and think everyone should check this out.

Click here to buy The Isle of the Plangent Mage

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Incandescent Grottoes Review

The Incandescent Grottoes

By Gavin Norman

 A bubbling stream cascades into a hole in the earth, leading to a series of underground watercourses and scintillating grottoes. Adventurers who delve within may discover odd mosses and fungi, a ruined temple complex, and the lair of a crystal-eating dream dragon.

                This is the next installment of adventures from Old School Essentials creator Gavin Norman. This adventure is for beginning characters of 1st – 2nd level. It is designed with challenges that are way above a 1st level character’s ability, thus the characters will have to play smart or die quickly. The format of the book seems to be standardized and resembles Halls of the Blood King. The maps are incredibly functional, and this adventure would be simple to run with little prep and straight from the book.

                There is no over-arching plot in this adventure, but a couple of key factions that have cross purposes in the dungeon. Examples of these factions are a Dream Dragon who has their lair in the Grottoes, a Necromancer looking for knowledge, and even a Cult who has run on hard times. This dungeon does not have the gonzo-like features of Halls of the Blood King, but a more classic fantasy approach with a lot of whimsy. Norman tends to write in an almost fairy-tale like manner and the creativity is abundant. It feels like a child’s storybook with meat. Just when the whimsy of the setting is taking you in, your characters catch a glance of something that is just a bit not right. They then only discover some concept, item, room, or monster that is deeply disturbing. It combines a lot of what these kind f stories are expected to be, cautionary tales. Adventurers can profit greatly from entering these halls, but the more they travel the more likely they are to die, or worse.

                This has a hugely similar feel to me as A Hole in the Oak. I would say if you liked that adventure you are almost guaranteed to enjoy this one as well. If you are a fan of Norman’s Dolmenwood setting this adventure will fit in perfectly. The art style in the book reflects the tone and nature of the adventure with a magical and fae-realm quality. The adventure itself is great for first time OSR players to give them a taste of what a classic adventure feels like, but it has all the modern sensibilities as far as layout, structure, and production value. I give this one a 5 out of 5 if you are in the market for a dark fairy-tale dungeon crawl. This would be a great product to do for a short campaign or even a convention, as long as you focused just on one aspect of the dungeon.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Halls of the Blood King Review

Halls of the Blood King

By Diogo Nogueira


With the rising of the Blood Moon, the accursed abode of the Blood King returns to this world. The lord of all vampires comes to claim the blood that is owed to him. His halls contain treasures and secrets that would make any ambitious adventurer abandon reason and caution to seek them out. Will you risk your soul for gold and glory in the Halls of the Blood King?

                With OSE releasing all of its adventures today from the latest Kickstarter, I figured I would go ahead and start reviewing them and seeing if they are worth the purchase.

                This adventure is a bit different from what I have seen so far from Old School Essentials. Halls of the Blood King is certainly not a “boot-it and loot-it” adventure. This adventure is a bit more subtle if you want to get everything out of it. This adventure will require the players to use their heads, sneak, and parley if they do not want to get slaughtered. I feel this has a lot of the great things about good Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules, without a lot of the troubling things that can sometimes appear in them. Overall, I like the adventure and it is well thought out and put together, but what were you expecting from OSE?

                Halls of the Blood King is made for adventurers of 3rd – 5th level (though if the party is smaller you might be able to get away with slightly higher) in which they are venturing forth into the manor house of the Blood King. Who exactly is the Blood King? He is the first vampire ever that all other vampires come from. His manor house hops from dimension to dimension where he can inspect the local vampires and collect his blood tax. The book gives several quite dissimilar hooks to get the PCs involved in this plot, which is nice so that you can tailor it to your setting. Once on the grounds of the manor the PCs are thrust into a strange world with different factions vying for different goals. Most of the NPCs are in fact vampires and unless the party comes quite prepared to deal with them subterfuge and parley are the ways to go. The scenario also has a built-in time limit too because the manor house is continuing to hop from location to location and the PCs most likely do not want to get caught inside. This also means the party cannot take extended time or rest to recover spells, once they head inside, they basically have what they have.

                The adventure is leaning a bit more towards the gonzo side as opposed to the classic medieval fantasy tropes. The setting reminds me more of the French Sun King’s court, then something out of Arthurian lore. The various vampires vary quite a bit in style and substance. These are not all your dark, brooding Vampire Hunter D clones, but one is a pile of red gel with eyeballs floating about. This might be amazing or terrible depending on your taste. The one thing I can say is the environment is evocative and never dull.

                As for the book itself (I am reviewing the PDF) the layout is everything you expect from OSE. The layout is concise, yet detailed. The different locations on the make highlight the important descriptors of each location. There is a lovely map of the manor house and mini-maps are provided throughout highlighting the areas in which the players currently are exploring. The PDF comes with a Virtual Table Top map for use with the various VTT programs available nowadays. This is a nice little bonus that more companies need to include. The art in the book is amazing and strikingly different from much of the OSE materials thus far. There is something with the color pallet choice that seems both alluring, yet off in some way. I will provide some examples throughout this article.

                This module is for the DM that wants something a bit different than the standard dungeon crawl. It can be easily slid into any campaign and the good thing is that it can exit just as easily. I think there will be a lot of newer DMs that really dig how different this journey can be and how nicely the book creates a mood. The adventure is designed for Old School Essentials, but can work with any OSR/D&D like game. 

You should check this out if you have not already. 

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