30 December 2011

Field testing Google hangouts and Twiddla

I have just completed a two hour run through of the Tomb of Sigyfel with my ad hoc group of players. The module was well-suited for delivering both a discrete packet of hack'n'slash fun and for showing me what I need to do better as a DM.

The two players controlled a party of six. We used the linked-to google spreadsheet as character sheets. Initially I had intended this just for me, but it was expedient to share the doc with the whole group.  In the future, I will make the spreadsheet a little more organized.

I brought up a free twiddla session that served as our virtual tabletop.  I sketched out in rough schema a town (Little Flanders) that requested the help of our heroes to cleanse the evil Tomb. That bit of additional setup, I believe, worked well.  Also, I plan to use Little Flanders again.

I found some of the twiddla UI confusing.  It was easily enough to use grid-based drawing tools, but I couldn't switch to the free-form pen when I wanted to.  I would have also liked a "virtual laser pointer" to indicate where I was looking sometimes.

The google hangout video chat worked well enough with 4 sessions.  I didn't notice any significant lag.  So, good on Google.

If you are  keeping track, there are at least 3 windows open on each person's desktop: the chat window, the spreadsheet and the twiddla.  This is probably one too many for users with a single screen (I have a very large monitor, so it wasn't a problem).

I would dearly like to see google add basic whiteboarding to hangouts or even be able to share some google doc embedded in the chat frame.

Despite my AWESOME dice cam, we ended up using the dice rolling feature of twiddla for combat.  It was the most transparant.

So did these tools make pencil and paper RPG work over tele-presence?  I believe the answer is yes, but with a few caveats:

  • The DM has to be really, really organized
  • The sessions need to be short-ish (1-2 hours)
  • The DM must be sure to engage all the players regularly

To the first point, I wish I had the common saving throws and combat tables out in front of me at all times.  I begin to see the value in the DM screen (don't think Goblinoid Games sells them).  I clearly have forgotten some of the basic mechanics of the game, but I think I got the gist of it for the players who were rusty too.

Because teleconferences invite participants to nod off, the DM really needs to drive the agenda forward.  That is not the same as "railroading" the players, but it does mean that you don't want 15 minutes to go by without the players making a move.

Attention spans can be shorter in teleconferences than in real life.  Don't expect a 12 hour hangout to be productive.  Instead, shoot for about 2-3 hours (and plan on a little break in there).   Maybe it's just me, but even doing stuff I like with people I like over a tele-presence conduit really sucks the joy out of life.

However, keeping the session short-ish keeps the spirit of the thing well enough.  It helps that we finished the module in the allotted time.  If you can break up your adventure in "acts" that can be finished in 2-3 hours, you may have better success.

I really do enjoy the B/X D&D system.  This is the first pnp module I have completed since the 70s.  It's got just enough rules for me.  Any more and I might was well be programming.

A lot of Grognards will tell you that you don't need a lot of heavy scripting to build drama into your adventuring. Now, I see what they mean.  Combat, and the capriciousness of it, builds the drama quite nicely.

Player's map of the tomb at the end.

Update: Google hangouts with extras has whiteboarding and document sharing.  However, it is currently in beta.

29 December 2011

In B/X D&D, perhaps demi-humans are multiclassed

This is a random thought that I need to exorcise.

Elves seemed to be the most powerful demi-human in the B/X D&D ruleset.  They melee like fighters and cast spells like magic-users AND they go to level 12 (one better than 11, eh Nigel?).

What if all demi-human were fighter/[something] combinations?

The Rockhome gazetteer already posits a dwarf-cleric.  Perhaps halflings are fighter-thieves?
Maybe they all go to 12th level.

Man, halflings got the short-end of the stick.  I'm not really sure why anyone would play one.

And this comes from a avid Tolkien fan.

OK.  Here's a picture of an elf, dwarf and what passes for a halfling.  Don't say I didn't get you anything for New Year's.

You're looking a little blue there, Frodo.

Of Gods and Gimps: PC stats we can live with

When rolling up a new PC, we want all his new primary statistics to be 18.

We could play any class and have an excellent chance of a successful adventuring career.  Heck, why not just gift the player a new Vorpal sword and +5 plate armor too, just to get the party started.

However, a little adversity makes the game more interesting.

On the other hand, no one has ever played a PC with primary stats of all 3s.  Since you (and I) haven't, let's take a look at what this character looks like.

  Name: Larry the Loser     Str: 3 Int: 3 Wis: 3
  Class: Fighter                 Dex: 3 Con: 3 Cha: 3
  Level: 1
  HP: 2
  AC: 8 (chain mail)
  DMG: 1d8 (-3)
  THAC0: 20 (but really 22)

Wow, that's rough. Let's start with the hit points.  A fighter gets 1d8 hit points at level 1.  The expected value of that roll is 4.5, which I'll generously round up to 5.  With a 3 constitution, I subtract 3 points from that.  Larry starts off in the world with but the two hit points.

Next, I equip him with a normal sword and chain mail, which is a pretty average way to kit out a fighter.  Chain mail normally bestows an armor class of 5, but "all thumbs" here must subtract 3 points.  This makes his AC 8.  Put another way, wearing leather or studded leather armor gives NO additional
protection to Larry.

No matter how well-made that sword is, on its best days, it is only 25% more effective than a dagger in Larry's hands.  About 38% of the time when Larry manages to hit something, he fails to do any damage at all.  He will be 5th when his THAC0 drops to 19.

He has no friends, is easily duped and barely verbal.

Let's all agree that a 3 in any primary stat is playable only for laughs.

So what is the reasonable spread of stats?  The answer to this question is inherently subjective. Let's start off with some fuzzy numbers:

  primary stat: very good
  secondary stat: good to very good
  tertiary stat: average to good
A primary stat is that primary ability that most impacts the performance of the class.  For fighters, this is strength.  For clerics, it is wisom.  For magic-users, this is intelligence.  For thieves, it is dexterity.  It gets a little fuzzy for the demi-humans, particularly halflings.

The secondary stat is one that supports the primary.  In most cases, this is going to be either constitution or dexterity, since these affect combat. In the case of a cleric, strength might be the secondary.

The tertiary stat is often something that is useful outside of combat, like wisdom or charisma.  There is a lot of room for further discussion here.

A "very good" stat is 16 to 18.  If your PCs highest attribute is a lukewarm 15, your character will have trouble standing out, I think.

A "good" stat is 13-15.  This usually nets you a nice bonus for a non-essential stat and that's a good thing.

An "average" stats is exactly what you think: 9-12.  No bonuses, but no penalties either.

What about the other three stats?  These can be anything higher than 5.  The 6-8 range provides lots of opportunities for interesting problems and role playing.

Less than 5 in a stat really suggests that a character isn't well-suited for adventuring at all.  Even a magic-user with 3 strength will be hard-pressed to succeed.  Think you can just move that 3 to charisma an be safe?  Perhaps, but you're rude/ugly/unlikeable PC will certainly turn heads in a bad way, probably at the wrong time.

Next time you get a sub-par stat, embrace it for his "characterful" opportunities.

And now, the Shambling Mound:

Who cares what the DM wants?

On a discussion about secret doors confounding young players, Jeff Rients posted the best advice for game managers:
   Who cares what the DM wants?
Indeed.  It is tempting as a DM to make the players jump through your carefully designed plot hoops to tell the story that he wants.  However, that's not really fun for the players.

Still, players should not always get want they want, at least, not in the way they probably intended.

I am writing a three module sequence that does have an NPC-driven narrative.  However, if I do my job right, the players could ignore this and still enjoy themselves.

Aren't you going to at least TRY to parlay with him?

28 December 2011

My Old School RPG House Rules

As is the custom, I have pulled together a few house rules for my old school players.   These can be found here (google docs).   Most of these are self-evident, but there are a few worth pressing on.

Get off on the right foot: level 1 characters get the maximum hit points

As the Labyrinth Lord manual says "characters die."  However, I have found the character generation is a longish process and one I would like to minimize.   This bonus doesn't seem overly generous.

When levelling, any HP roll may be re-rolled. The second roll must be used

What can I say?  I love gambling.  If the player wants to press his luck, that's fine with me.

Character generation: roll 4d6; drop lowest.  Generate 7 numbers; drop lowest. Place anywhere.

As I said, character generation is pretty tedious and who wants to play a character with several crippling stats?  This method doesn't produce "muchkins," but it should make the player feel like they have a character with a decent shot at survival.

Roll both “to hit” 20 sided die with the dice needed for damage at the same time

This is a time-saver.  The player can get all his "dice ducks" in a row to make combat less latent.

Each point of strength above 9 gives the character +10 pounds of carrying

Don't you hate it when you can't get the entire dragon's hoard of gold out in one haul?

Carrying weight rules vex me in the paper and pen world, but games like Fallout taught me that there is some fun in having to make choices.

I am going to try playing with OD&D with encumbrance rules, which I loathed in the past.  I hope that by tracking characters in google spreadsheet, the tedious (there's that word again) task of bean counting can be automated.  This leaves me with tracking time and movement rates (ick).

On a technical note, I tried out Google+ hangouts today and it works very well.  I log into the hangout with two different machines with two different accounts so that one camera is on me and the other is pointed at a "dice arena."  This, I hope, adds a layer of accountability to my rolls.  It's also a nod to the roots of the game.   Who doesn't love rolling funny looking dice?

Speaking of which, I picked up some new dice today.  Here they are:

Chessex CHX 25403

27 December 2011

Push your tabletop through the Intertubes for FREE


This is where I will discuss my latest hobby: old school role playing using modern technology.

I am not the only 40 year old to have atavistic urges to play D&D, see this Wired story.  I need to get 80% of the thrill of D&D in 20% of the time I used to have to play it.  I think technology can make this happen.

You are going to need rules.

Although I have all the original TSR rule books,  I am most interested in the 1981 Moldvay edited Basic  and Cook/Marsh Expert Rules.  These are most accurately translated by Labyrinth Lord, from Goblinoid Games.

You are going to need web conferencing tools.

I will acknowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of (hill) giants here.  Zak at D&D with Porn Stars seems to be the first person to try running D&D campaigns over Google+'s multiuser video chat system, called hangouts.  He may have also been the one to mention free internet white-boarding, courtesy of http://twiddla.com/.  Finally, I believe Zak was one of the forces behind http://constantcon.blogspot.com/, a sort of rolling gaming convention where people advertise open games.

You will need to keep notes.

While I don't have much to add to the list, I will mention a few other technologies that I will be using in my campaigns.  I use google calendar to schedule sessions and send out invites.  I use google docs to keep notes during play, including using a spreadsheet to track party and monster stats.

And I am manifestly using blogspot to gab about this.

Thinking about publishing your modules?

I use The Gimp to make old school (i.e. highly schematic) maps and Open/Libre Office to make pretty PDF versions of my modules.  Much of this was inspired by the One Page Dungeon challenge.

Finally, I wrote my own character generator, which is admittedly a little wonky right now.  When I get some time, I will rewrite it to be more in line with LL and perhaps be a good tool for generating an NPC rooster.

One last shout-out.  Much of my current interest in playing D&D again comes from the excellent blog by  Jamie Maliszewski called Grognardia.

I will leave you all with this fabulous picture of a group of my misfit dice.  You may notice a few of them have serious user interface issues.