Saturday, January 17, 2009

Games for Old-school Dungeon Crawling

I've put together a quick summary of three retro style games that I think work best for old fashioned dungeon crawling.  This is just designed to highlight their similarities/differences and is in no way intended to be a review or criticism of any of them.  I've placed them in alphabetical order so as not to indicate any preference by order.

Castles & Crusades

Overview:  A D20-light version of AD&D.  It follows a number of the current D20 conventions, while trying to stay rules-light.  There are no skill lists, just class skills.  Armor class is handled in the modern ascending format.  It is a race/class based system with all classes open to all races.  It's rules-light in today's terms, but is less a retro clone than a pared down version of D&D 3.5 with AD&D sensibilities.

My Assessment:  Probably the best choice for 3.5/4e players looking to scale back the complexity of their games while maintaining some familiar connection to the rules that they know.  A good game from a good company, but the most complex of the games discussed here. 

Labyrinth Lord  

Overview:  A retro clone of the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert D&D rules from 1981.  Race and class are not treated separately.  Dwarves, elves and halflings are their own class, with dwarves and halflings basically being fighters and elves being fighter magic users.

My Assessment:  A great choice for folks who cut their teeth on Moldvay and Cook and are after a classic dungeon crawl experience without a lot of overhead.  A nice complete package and free to boot.

Swords & Wizardry 

Overview:  This is for the most part a cleaned up, better organized version of OD&D (Original D&D).  It actually comes in two flavors, regular Swords & Wizardry and Swords & Wizardry White Box Edition.  The regular version includes that later stat bonuses for strength and dexterity and constitution , while the white box version retains the original idea that only charisma has any direct bonuses.  Demihumans are, in keeping with the OD&D rules, more limited in level progression than in Labyrinth Lord or Castles & Crusades.  

My Assessment:  Jump into the wayback machine and see how the grognards played D&D back in 1974-79.  Probably the best choice for people who want to house-rule their games a lot.  The rules found here adhere most closely to the old-school "guidelines" approach.  The Erol Otus style cover of the regular edition and that it's freely available are pluses too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What makes a "good" dungeon?

I've been thinking about the question of what makes a good dungeon for a while now, so I think it's time to write down a brief summary of my ruminations.

1. A good map. The map is an important part of the dungeon. Thirty feet of passageway to room with orcs, followed by thirty feet of passageway to a room with kobolds, just doesn't cut it. Maps don't need to be Escher-like studies in insanity, but they do need to have enough caracter to make the players feel like they are going somewhere and not simply visiting the same room over and over again, or just following a straight path to the end of the dungeon.

2. A sense of scale. Dungeons in the old school sense were big places. Individual rooms might be small, but the overall impression should be that the dungeon is BIG.  The dungeon should cause players should feel that they are far from the lighted world above, especially as they moved deeper into the underworld. 

3. A sense of otherworldliness.  I 've always felt that the best dungeons are somehow separated from the day to day realities of the world above.  Sure, the dungeon may be situated beneath the ruins of a mad mage's castle, but it shouldn't be storerooms and privies.  The dungeon needs to be mysterious.  It should evoke wonder in the players and make them question its purpose.  That purpose may never be truly known, but it needs to engage the imaginations of the players.  Make your players wonder about things.  Keep their minds working.  The dungeon needs to almost be a character in itself and if handled well can in many ways be more interesting that either the monster or the loot found within it.

4. Room to grow.   A good dungeon needs room to grow.  Parties of adventurers will come and go and the dungeon may need to expand either downward of outward.  Make sure that there is room.

5. Care and feeding.  The best dungeons are never truly complete.  As adventurers come and go, things will change.  Old monsters will be slain, new monster will move in, inhabitants of the dungeon may form alliances or fight amongst themselves.  Dungeons are entities in a game and they need to be maintained.  A well cared for dungeon can provide countless adventurers for numerous parties.  

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some more thoughts on hirelings and henchmen

I'm quite sure that of those who even remember the prevalence of hirelings and henchman in the early days of RPGs, quite a number of them don't really miss them.  I've heard comments from people to the effect of "hirelings don't make for a heroic story", or "Conan didn't hire a torchbearer."  While I can see these points, I would argue that especially at low levels, the PCs are not mighty heroes of literature, they are adventurers, adventurers on a journey often into the uncharted depths of the earth.  To me, hirelings and henchmen accentuate the send of an expedition.  I think back to the days of watching the old Tarzan movies, where the explorers surrounded themselves with no end of bearers, guides and other assorted local-help, not to mention hiring Tarzan to save them when things got really tough.

In games terms there is sometimes some confusion between hirelings and henchmen (sometimes called retainers).  This was in my opinion caused by the somewhat inconsistent terminology used in the early days, but for the most part, the confusion was cleared up by the first edition AD&D Players Handbook.

Hirelings are individuals such as Bearers, crossbowmen, men-at-arms, teamsters, etc.  They are employed by the PCs for a set fee.  They generally are employed for a set period of time and do not usually gain experience.  In the case of crossbowmen or men-at-arms, they will fight with the party as that's what they are payed to do, but the other non-combat hirelings will generally only fight when it is necessary for their own survival.  The PC's charism, while affecting the loyalty and morale of Hirelings, does not restrict the number of hirelings a PC may have.

Henchmen are a different story.  Henchmen are considered to be followers of the PC.  They travel with the PC for lodging, supports and a share of the adventuring spoils.  They also gain experience, albeit at a slower rate than the PCs, gaining only 50% of earned experience.  This is because they are not involved in the decision making process of and adventure and while controlled by the gamemaster, they generally follow the orders of the PCs, except of course in situations where the orders are not of an agregious nature.   Charisma is an important factor with henchmen, as it limits the number that a PC may have as well as affecting their loyalty.  Thus, when using hirelings and henchmen, charisma becomes a more important stat in the game and not the dump stat that it has become in later days.

Henchmen provide not only addition muscle and skill son an adventure, they can also provide a source of replacement characters.  Dungeons in the old days were deadly places, and having a henchmen along when your PC fails a save vs. poison can be a godsend.  this becomes even more important later in a campaign.  Imagine if you will, a party of 4th level character wandering deep beneath the earth, when disaster strikes.  Suppose that one of the PCs is slain, perhaps in a manner that precludes his or her being raised from the dead such as a pool of lava or acid (no body, no raise dead).  So, what is the player to do?  Go home?  Roll up a brand new first level character?  Well, if there was a henchman around, the day would be saved.   He would most likely be only second level and while that might not be ideal, that character would still be more survivable than a level 1.  

Of course hirelings and henchmen do require a bit more record keeping on the part of the GM, but I think that the benefits that they can bring to a game are numerous.  From rounding out a weak party to providing a source of easy and logical PC replacements it's hard to argue their potential value.  So, I say, "Bring on the hirelings and henchmen!"