Thursday, December 4, 2008

Playing Alignments - Chaotic Evil

Chaotic Evil, I'd imagine, is not a common alignment to play. Why? Well, it's generally interpreted as "Kill anything you see all the time without any regard to anything", which doesn't really allow for much in the way of joining a party. To me, that's idiotic.

Sure, someone who did that would be chaotic evil, but not everyone who is chaotic evil is like that. Orcs are listed as 'usually chaotic evil', in 3.5. In 4e, if it lists alignments, they are probably the same. With the above interpretation, no orcs would exist, because they would be too blind with rage to even mate. Yet, orcs have functional tribes and occasionally armies. Why?

Chaotic evil just means that you care little for rules and less for altruism. A single orc, coming across a single unarmed human, with no witnesses in sight, would probably kill him. Why? Why not? The human has stuff, maybe some of it is worth something. The orc doesn't care about sparing his life; there's no reason to.

However, let's say a single, unarmed human approaches an orc tribe. He's approaching in the open, not hiding, and wearing the colors of a local citystate. The orc chieftain, or at least his advisor, would order that the human be left alone, as he is obviously a messenger. Yes, they are evil, and yes, they don't respect law with regards to killing messengers, but they are also likely self-serving and know that mercenary work can pay well, even for orcs. It's rare that someone is so devoted to creating chaos and death that he won't act in his own self interest when he can.

How do tribes of Chaotic Evil creatures even form? They form on the basis of self-preservation and greed. A big gnoll can beat up a smaller gnoll. The larger gnoll is now a leader of a tribe of two. He keeps his lesser kin in line with beatings and harsh treatment, and he slowly brings in others of his race, or other races, by the same methods. The larger gnolls in his retinue get power to control the smaller ones. On occasion, some gnoll will become powerful enough to kill the previous boss, and thus will show that he can control the group. There will be constant infighting and working to get ahead in the positions, but the tribe itself is still cohesive. Self-preservation is a powerful tool for chaotic evil races. Besides, gnolls know that a single gnoll has a hard time raiding a human trade caravan, but a pack of forty can do it easily.

What, then, about Chaotic Evil PCs? Assuming we are discussing a party of chaotic evil PCs, they are probably using the latter justification for the gnolls: power. Together, they can do more than they can separately. They can make more money, get more food, sleep with more women, whatever. This is what a good number of bandits do. Bandits are evil people, the occasional Chaotic Good Robin Hood not withstanding. They band together in order to have the combined strength needed to achieve their goals. In a party of Chaotic Evil PCs, all of the players should both be expecting the others to grab the loot and run, and planning their own way to grab the loot and run. They don't feel allegiance to their compatriots, and if they have enough money to achieve their goals, they are as likely to run off with it as to actually stay. Is this disruptive to a campaign? Yes. Does it immediately provide a possibly awesome adventure chasing down the now DM-controlled former PC, with that guy that you just met in the tavern (a new PC from same player)? Also yes. Bonus points to the PC that sets up a stronghold during play, documents it as a full dungeon with traps and henchmen, and then scampers off with the loot. Now there's an entire dungeon of enemies, topped by a suddenly more powerful and well-armed ex-PC!

What about introducing, preferably secretly, a new chaotic-evil PC into an established neutral/good party? You have to do this knowing that it will result in conflict eventually, and you have to know your players can handle this sort of pseudo-betrayal. Still, this can make for a lot of interesting roleplaying hooks.

Let's say you have a fairly typical "good" party. A Chaotic Neutral rogue, a Neutral Good Fighter, a Neutral Good Cleric, and maybe a Chaotic Good Wizard. The fighter dies in a dungeon, and does not respond to resurrection. The group, for some reason knowing that someone else exists that will join their group, goes looking and finds another fighter in a tavern or somesuch. The man seems a capable combatant, isn't a cringing sociopath, and agrees to join on for a full share. The new fighter introduces himself, talks about his past fighting injustice, etc etc. The DM perhaps requires a few secret bluff rolls, or just wings it if the party seems to believe the guy. The new fighter is Chaotic Evil, and is basically just joining up for the loot and chance to kill some things.

Does this new party member have to attack the other PCs? No, he doesn't have to. In fact, he shouldn't. He knows how powerful they are, and he knows that as the odd man out, he'd get slaughtered. What he wants is money and magical items. Maybe he stays on for a while, studying them, keeping track of their safeguards and their wealth. He might make a move to steal everything at some point, but he'd be sure to have an escape ready. More likely, the party would eventually see what he is, and force him out. The player signed up for this character to be lost the moment he put "Chaotic Evil" on that character sheet, but hopefully still had fun doing it.

If the Chaotic Evil fighter wasn't killing the party, how would they find out that he was chaotic evil? He's evil. No matter how hard someone tries to hide their moral core, parts of it slip out on occasion. He's unnecessarily abusive to captured monsters or people. He taunts injured foes, and takes great pleasure in dealing pain to his enemies. He verbally assaults NPCs, and occasionally runs into trouble with the city guards. Perhaps he even runs into the occasional law officer who recognizes him from some old crime, and has to talk his way out of arrest. There are a lot of things that can make for some interesting party dynamics here. The guy might even be worth keeping around after being revealed, just for his efficacy in combat.

Anyway, give some thought to Chaotic evil characters, and you might be surprised that they can be as nuanced as any other alignment. You may even consider playing one, just for fun. Game on!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RPG Carnival - Transformations

A new RPG Carnival is up this month, dealing with "Transitions and Transformations". I intended on writing for last month's "Religion" theme, but never got around to it. Anyway, there are all kinds of Transitions and Transformations in RPGs, to be sure, and that leaves me a bit spoiled for choice.

I think I will go with a literal transformation that most RPG players are at least passingly familiar with: polymorphing. This can be either lycanthropic, wild-shape, or magically induced, among probably a thousand other varieties. I will focus on the above three. They are each fairly different processes, but I think they share enough to talk about in one post here.

More than it might seem by conventional thought, people associate with and define themselves by their physical shape. When you look in the mirror, you expect to see a certain figure looking back at you. If you notice a new pimple, or a few extra pounds, it's worrisome or at least annoying. Cutting your hair drastically or shaving off a raging neckbeard can immensely change not only your physical looks but also your self-image, confidence, and even personality, in one way or another. One of the most horrifying things imaginable would be to look in the mirror and see someone else entirely looking back. It would lead to a terrifying loss of identity, as well as any sense of permanency in your own existence.

How, then, can people take polymorphing so casually in gaming?

As a lycanthrope, the physical change is, at least in the beginning, unwelcome or even unexpected. Suddenly, your body twists and contorts, your bones snapping and reforming as a lupine or ursine shape, your flesh prickling and growing wiry fur, your teeth extending quickly and violently, your fingernails stretch and tear, becoming vicious claws. Is it any surprise, after this monstrous transformation, that your mind would tend to snap? You have become an abomination of nature and foul magics, a dangerous half-breed of animal and human. In the depths of your mind, the animal encroaches, hungry and violent. The wolf or bear in you doesn't recognize this wooden structure, filled with panicking, hairless apes and the strange, chemical smells of alcohol and lamp oil. Your human mind, with it's capability for higher reason and concepts such as reciprocity and civilization, fades in the face of this new, predatory will. No longer capable of knowing why you are here, why these tattered strips of cloth are hanging off of you, or why those apes are now holding implements you dimly recognize as dangerous. Of course you would lash out in violent anger. When you awoke after the night of slaughter, your mind and body once again human, is it surprising that the memory of your deeds would be wiped away or suppressed? You awoke in the woods, with a splitting headache and no clothing. Perhaps you just... maybe you just got drunk last night. Yes, certainly that's what it was. You would never do any of those things that you half-remember from your dreams, even if evidence is shown that points to the contrary.

Now, obviously, wild shape is pretty far removed from lycanthropy. As the form is assumed intentionally, and through communion with and understanding of the natural world, the transformation itself is less violent and painful. Simply put, you might be human one moment, feel a tug as your body shifts, and then become a bear the next moment. Now, as a druid in wild shape, you generally maintain your own mind. Still, with your new shape and power, certain effects have to manifest. Imagine, as a human, being mugged by some punk in an alley. You're under his power, in a sense, as he holds a knife to you threateningly. Suddenly, you triple in physical strength, grow to twelve feet tall, gain claws and teeth capable of tearing flesh nearly effortlessly, and lose your ability to speak, cutting off diplomacy as an option. His knife is no longer a threat of any real scope. Certainly, your new and powerful position makes you feel a bit feral and violent. Power corrupts, and physical power is included in that. Of course it would be easy to bat the mugger thirty feet across the street, then jump after him and maul him to death. As a human, you would never bite into another person's flesh, but after changing, it just feels... natural. So, as a druid, think about how powerful being a bear would feel, how fast and nimble you would be as a cheetah or panther, or how invisible you could be as a fly on the wall. Put some thought into your animal forms, and how you act within them.

Compared to wild shape, Polymorph as the spell is simply a matter of scope, as are variants such as Shapechange. However, they are also a different sort of approach. Druids can become animals due to their connection with nature. They already empathize with the creatures, and becoming one physically is just an extension of that. As such, their minds are likely easier to recover when they shift back. With magic, you are bending the rules of the world, changing yourself physically and possibly mentally (if mental stats are changed by the given spell) into another creature. Instead of growing to twelve feet and gaining claws, you suddenly go from a physically weak, wiry human to a colossal Red Dragon. Your senses are a dozen times more acute, your slightest movement shakes the ground itself. With a breath, you can devastate huge areas of the landscape. Your very appearance causes terror and fear all around you. Your mind expands to that of an ancient beast, and the most difficult concepts and theorems for humans to grasp suddenly become child's play. Your mind, to an extent, begins to know the lust for treasure, for the glitter of gold and the tinkling of coins, that all dragons feel. Your greatly expanded size shows you that your former companions are just ants. They are only playthings; petty nothings before your great might and ancient power.

If a shift to a dragon would be so powerful, a shift to an outsider would be even more disruptive mentally. Consider changing into a Balor for the purposes of combat. This requires Shapechange or the like, a ninth-level spell. Extremely powerful magic, challenging the gods themselves with your control of reality. Anyway, you still have all the changes of a physical variety, but also something a bit more disturbing. In your new form, in every beat of your six hearts, with every twist of your warped muscles, and with every thought in your wracked and altered mind, is geared towards evil and malice. You have dozens of powers and talents now that exist solely to destroy and torment. Without any conscious effort, your hands twist when you strike, adding extra tearing to any wound, causing excess pain and blood loss. Holding back and trying to take prisoners becomes difficult, if not impossible. Treating a prisoner humanely is beyond your imagining. He is weak. He should suffer. All mortals should suffer, and you finally have the strength, intelligence, and supernatural powers to make them do so. It should be no wonder that wizards are known for going mad with power. Who wouldn't?

This post is just intended to get you thinking about transformations as more than just skill and ability changes. Think about how different you would feel and act if your entire form were suddenly changed to another. Think about the animal or magical influences on your mind, whether lycantrhopic, animalistic, or supernatural. Make transformations such as these more interesting your campaigns, and it will pay off in your roleplaying.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Handling Human Encounters

Humans, it would seem, would be the easiest sort of encounter to handle. Certainly, everyone who plays D&D with any real capability is at least human in some regard, feykin and furries included, if it's that sort of group. I mention folks like fey and furries because I want to illustrate that humanity has a great range of people. Any characteristic of a dwarf could be that of a human. The same goes for elven, fairy, halfling, pixie, draconian, and just about any other racial or animalistic characteristic outside of physical ones. Humans are generally the only race in most settings that are described in any way other than a monoculture, and I look at that as a statement towards the variety they are capable of.

Thus, human encounters can be a great deal more difficult to handle than, for instance, dwarves. When a PC approaches a dwarf, he has a general idea in his mind about how the dwarf will act. A dwarf is a dwarf in most settings, after all. He is probably a stoneworker of some variety, and if he isn't, he is probably a metalworker. He is probably either drinking now or waiting until his next drink. He's probably a bit gruff, but trustworthy in general. Avoiding such monocultures might be another post.

Now, when a PC approaches a human, what can he assume? Basically, a PC expecting to talk to a human in a D&D setting can expect that the human speaks common. That's about it. Humans don't tend towards law, or towards chaos. Towards good or evil. They don't favor one class over another. They can be abject liars, sociopathic killers, saintly priests, or demonic servants. They don't necessarily favor living in any particular environment, aside from the concerns of comfort and survivability. One human may cherish the natural beauty of the forest, while another may look at that same forest and see nothing but thousands of gold worth of logging to be done. In OD&D, humans are also the only race capable of the highest levels of power and advancement. Humans are always shown as adaptable as well, thus meaning that the same human might not act anywhere near the same way from encounter to encounter.

How then to handle them realistically? Be a human. Don't just be yourself though, but become the NPC. Think about his or her circumstances. Think about his or her history, even if it's only fleshed out so much as "A farmer born near Woodvale." What does a farmer, used to defending his home against bandits and raiders in these troubled times, think when he sees five heavily armed adventurers approaching, backed with a dozen hired mercenaries/porters? I'll tell you what he's likely to do. He'll shout to his family to get into the house and lock the door, and he'll run off to ring the town bell. If an alarm system is too far away or not present at all, he'll pick up his father's old sword and ready it. He will be tense at least.

What if, instead of a farmer, you have a nobleman? Well, put yourself in the nobleman's shoes. He probably defines himself by his title. Let's say this guy is a Count, currently being visited by the PCs in his estate. A Count holds a very prestigious title, and a great deal of land. He was almost certainly, by necessity of his rank, born into his nobility. This man has never done a day of work in his life. He dismisses peasants and other callers as unworthy of his presence. When told that his vassals have no bread, he suggests they eat cake instead. What then when a group of commoners, having the gall to call themselves adventurers, approach his estate for a meeting? Well, if they aren't called for, they won't even be allowed in. If they are called for, they won't be allowed in with weaponry of any sort, and not in armor either. They must show proper respect, to the point of not speaking unless spoken to, keeping their head and eyes lowered, kneeling in respect before being told to rise, and other such humilities. The Count will likely speak with a haughty, apathetic tone, and be extremely incensed at what might be considered a very minor faux pas to those of lesser station. By no means would he allow contradictions of his statements by commoners visiting his hall. Secondly, he holds awareness that if he had his guards kill all of the visitors, no one would ever question his word that they had caused the fight in the first place. To the players' advantage, he might respond well to obsequiousness, or perhaps respond even more so to a commoner with a knife at his throat. Deprived of guards that are able to save him, he will likely be very compliant with attackers, as he has no capability of defending himself.

What about a foreigner? A stranger in a strange land? Perhaps he would identify in a way with the adventurers, as both of them are outsiders to the common people around him. Perhaps he speaks common with an accent, or a heavy dialect that makes him difficult to understand. Perhaps the lingua franca in his land is Orcish, due to centuries of oppression. Maybe his society puts less emphasis on personal liberties and the accumulation of wealth, and he finds the adventurers' "be mercenaries; kill and loot" policy to be completely abominable. Maybe in his culture, people go to great lengths not to show any of their flesh aside from their eyes, and he is extremely uncomfortable with the women parading about in their pauper skirts that are little more than rags. He may think little of lying for personal gain, or he may see it as tantamount to murder in severity. It's possible that in his country, carrying weapons in full view in the middle of a metropolis is common practice, and he is unnerved by having his sword taken from him at the gates. Perhaps his nation is at war, or has a history of war, with the nation he is now visiting. A PC approaching an obviously foreign-born NPC has no idea what to expect, and that can be an important part of the encounter.

An interesting peculiarity to human encounters is that they may not be human at all. Humans are by far the standard, most populous race in most fantasy worlds, as well as the most naive. If a doppelganger, changeling, were-whatever, dragon, angel, demon, or any other sort of camoflagable race were to fake being a particular core race, it would probably be human. How can one non-magically sort demons or dragons faking being a foreigner from a violent society from the actual humans? One might not be able to, which allows for even more variety for 'human' encounters.

So give some thought to how humans react in your games. They shouldn't be blasé, mechanically helpful, or generally bland and boring. Every human is an entire person, with his own hopes, dreams, culture, upbringing, moral core, and dozens of other characteristics. Make each person a person, and your world will feel more true and alive.

Monday, December 1, 2008

ODnD Searching and Traps

It's been a few weeks since that OD&D game that seems to have caused a huge, albeit temporary, flush of traffic to my oft-neglected blog. I don't doubt that RPGBloggers and an apparent link in a OD&D forum helped as well. Anyway, this post is an exploration of something that caused a bit of confusion for me, as DM, in that OD&D game: searching and traps.

The problem, stemming no doubt from my D&D 3.0 roots, is the matter of searching and the efficacy of such. I get that in OD&D, having a room with traps that exist as part of the room is important. Rather than "roll to disarm", the party should have to figure out a more physical and 'real' way to disarm the trap based on logic and reason. That's fine and dandy. The issue is thus: In 3.x, 4e, and possibly other earlier editions, you roll to search for traps. Rogues in particular, and others to a much lesser extent, can search a room for traps by rolling a die. "I search for traps, I get a 18+8 for skill, so 26". Then, you compare 26 to some DC, and there you go. They found it or didn't.

In OD&D, there is no such mechanic. How then to respond to "I search for traps"? The primer, linked in the previous post I believe, suggests requiring very specific things to look for. "I search for traps" is then insufficient, requiring something more akin to "I search for a tripwire across the hall" or "I look for cracks in the floor which might be indicative of a pit trap". The problem that arises from that is twofold: One, the players, if sufficiently paranoid/trained to expect traps everywhere, will spend hours in each room, checking every brick and cobble to be certain that flaming death doesn't await them. The second is that players will feel cheated if they search a room and miss something that they feel should be obvious. "What? How could I miss a tripwire? I said I searched!"

How to remedy this issue? Well, firstly, it might not actually be an issue that isn't already solved. Part of my reasoning for writing this post is to hear other people's rules on such things. Do you just list traps as part of a room's decor? Do you accept "I search for traps" and list them then? Require ever more specific phrases to be able to find better traps? Improvise/houserule/steal a mechanic to handle it by a die roll? I'm curious to hear your ideas.

For me, sans any exterior input, I think I will continue making traps effectively invisible unless a player specifically searches for that type of trap, or is searching a sufficiently small object, such as a chest. Searching an entire room "for traps" is laughably difficult, with a clever enough trap inventor. Hell, there could just be a poisoned barb on the back of the door handle to the next room, that a casual adventurer would grasp and pierce his hand on. Who would even think to look for it? A chest, however, is small enough and simply operated enough that one can search for trigger mechanisms at the least. Trapped chests, of course, are almost reason enough to devise some alternate method of opening them than just standing in front and kicking them open like one is Link.

The issue is that, from a 3.x/4e/videogame aspect, these sorts of decisions seem like DM arbitrary damage. Those rules effectively only exist so that the DM can't just "Rocks fall, everyone dies". If there are search and disarm rules, then it's less based on the DM's fiat, so that players don't take umbrage when they are injured. In OD&D, by design, the DM is the final arbiter on everything, superseding rules when desired. How do you avoid looking like you are just smacking the players around? If they search for tripwires, and you decide that they miss one, or miss another kind of trap, how is it not just you smacking the players around?

Anyway, sorry for the post with fewer answers than questions, but it's something I'm curious about and would like to hear the gaming community's opinion on.

Friday, November 14, 2008

First ODnD Game, a long story

This is going to be a long post, so be aware of it. It's also probably going to be pretty rambling and unorganized. With that said, if you see that I've done anything horrendously wrong with regards to oD&D rules or common practices, tell me! The game is odd to acclimate to, and I figure I could use the help.

Ok, so I played my first OD&D game, with largely improvised rules due to poor organization, last night. My younger brother and a lifelong friend of his visit on Thursdays sometimes, and yesterday they brought over some Warhammer 40k RPG tutorial adventure, which I flipped through. Rules seemed simple enough, but it was an adventure module that I hadn't read through, and thus couldn't really DM. Stupidly enough, this somehow led to us playing a completely improvised dungeon and ad-hoc nonsense through OD&D, books for which I had recently purchased and printed.

This does lead to my first complaint about the game. The organization in OD&D books leaves me much less apt to complain about the organization in 4e. Rules and information are strewn about everywhere, with no real rhyme or reason.

Given that I've never played or DMed OD&D before, and the two players had a sum total of perhaps two hours of 3e under their belts, from nearly five years ago, it was... interesting to get started. One thing that stuck out as a point of "this is stupid" was the near-complete lack of effect for ability scores. Aside from bonus XP for a high primary ability, most everything else has no effect whatsoever, except in extremes. It was neat to see how rolling 3d6 in order produced some severely flawed but interesting statblocks, as well as not-quite-but-basically-forcing a certain class choice. If you have 18INT and 9 STR and WIS, you'll probably go Magic-User.

I had on hand miniatures from the board game Descent: Journeys in the Dark, which are... tolerable I suppose. I could have dug up my Warhammer fantasy army, except that it would constrain monsters to orcs and goblins, and players to orcs and goblins. Or space marines, I guess. Anyway, despite sort of getting off point, I used miniatures for effectively the first time in my D&D career. I have mixed feelings on them. While they helped to make the battles a bit easier to keep track of, and it was fun when some large creature could terrify the players by virtue of it's base size, I feel that they limited my options for monsters to provide as opponents. If I don't have a model for, let's say, green oozes, it becomes harder to use them. I ended up using poison tokens for it, but it was sorta silly. I used the D:JITD terrain for mapping the dungeon also. This meant that, due to the style of play in both D:JITD and OD&D, the rooms were stupidly small for the movement speed of the PCs. Also, the dungeon was fairly 'dense', as we only had so much space on the table.

Ok, so all that caveats aside, I 'cheated' by reading part of a silly quest intro from the aforementioned boardgame, with the PCs being approached by a mysterious old man, who gave them a map to a giant holdout and told them there was money to be had. The players, presented with a familiar and fairly railroaded (fairly?) plot, immediately went to the dungeon and popped in. Here, it may be worth noting that I decided to follow the advice provided in this "primer", I sort of kept a distance as a plot-giver, and focused more on presenting an area as a world, and letting the players decide what to do.

Given the large pile (3d6x10 gold, as per LBB Vol1) of gold provided as a character starting wealth, the PCs were bloody loaded with equipment. They found that since Plate mail was cheap (50g? Really?), and so were shields and other such stuff, they bought whatever they wanted. Also, they had a pile of money left, and loaded themselves down with the other random available items. I.e. the ubiquitous ten foot pole, iron rations, torches, and et cetera. Initially, they just bought all that crap to spend money. I told them they'd need torches, but they just bought other things they figured sounded good. It was fun that the items even existed; 4e does away with a lot of that.

Anyway, Samuel von Sam (a Fighting-man, played by Guy, my brother's friend), and Chargrin the Dreadful (A cleric, played by Brian, my brother), headed into the dungeon. They lit torches, and promptly barreled down the hallway and turned a corner into a room. The attitude was "Let's go kill things!". So they trotted, pretty as you please, into a smallish room. No door here, because I didn't want to assemble the doors from D:JITD. They turned a corner, and found the initial encounter: three skeletons with rough clubs! I didn't think much of this encounter in terms of difficulty. Keep in mind that I'm used to 3e characters, which start with... what? Twice the normal HP of OD&D? On a bad day?

So initiative is rolled (couldn't find rules. I used d20 flat, no mods), and the PCs both came up ahead of the skels. Here's where a concern became apparent. The attack matrices, for level one players, require fairly middling rolls to hit skeletons, with an AC of 7. I think maybe 13 on a D20. The problem was that for the skels to hit the players, fully arrayed with plate and shield, needed a 17. Something akin to a maybe a 20% chance to hit. It sounds like more than it is. The combat, lasting perhaps the quickest four or five rounds I've ever seen, turned into a comedy of mediocrity on the skeleton side. They failed to hit anything, but the players decimated the useless undead. At this point, I was aware that the cleric should be able to turn undead, but I couldn't find the rules. Didn't really matter; he was fine with bashing skeletons with a mace.

Combat resolved, I was aware that I had no idea how much XP a monster gives a player. The experience section of Vol1 suggests 700 for a troll, but I couldn't figure how that was figured. I ad-hoc'ed the skeletons to offer 30XP each, as they weren't really a challenge. I also noticed that skeletons had no treasure, but tossed 400gp in the room because I wanted to see how the players approached random treasure laying about. The cleric dove for it, but grudgingly split it with the FM upon request. Fine, they each had some XP and gold XP to get when they left the dungeon as per my decision regarding getting XP for gold. Happy enough, they headed into the corridor to the north. The hallway ended in a T-junction, and they arbitrarily took the right-bearing passage.

Now, the party was heading along without any care for their surroundings. I say 'party', but it was two guys. Anyway, I decided that it was my duty as DM to show, not tell, that the dungeon could be dangerous if you run around like a twit. So, as they walked forward into a small room, the floor broke out underneath the party! They fell ten feet into a dry pit trap. Here was the first notice of lethality for PCs in this edition. Recalling 3e, a pit trap does 1d6/10ft. So, we rolled 'damage', which is always 1d6 in 0e, regardless of source, weapon, strength, or anything else, so far as I can tell. In 3e, 6HP is not that scary. In 4e, it's laughable. In oD&D, it's probably more HP than your max at level 1. Samuel von Sam met his end in this pit trap, rolling a six for damage against his own 4 max HP. Chargrin, the cleric, who had barely been injured, promptly took all of his erstwhile compatriot's gold and items, and climbed back out of the pit, on the side towards the entrance. He ran back to town to recruit another companion, receiving 490 XP for his recovered gold and three kills.

Back in town, Sam von Sam's descendant (with a new stat block reeking of failure), Samuel Von Sam II, met his father's companion and promptly returned to the dungeon. This SVS was a magic user, and chose the spell 'protection from evil', in the hope that it might help his miserable 10 AC (compared to previous SVS's 2 AC). The party immediately descended once more, despite the cleric not selling all the looted junk of SVS I. He was at 'Armd. Foot' encumbrance, which limted him to 6" movement. I took this as 'six squares', because it was easy to measure. The new MU wasn't encumbered at all.

The group now took a much more cautious exploration, however. The cleric pulled out his ten foot pole and began using it as "a blind man's stick", in his words. Basically, tapping the floor ten feet ahead of him. They turned the corner again, where the skeletons had been, and found two goblins and an old human man eating on a table in the room. The food was some strange meat. They correctly assumed it to be the remains of Samuel Von Sam. The diners hadn't noticed the PCs, and so the magic user cast a spell, as he didn't know that spellcasting was loud. Thus, combat ensued!

Once again, I suddenly came to a realization about the differences in OD&D and 3/4e. "Sleep", a level 1 spell, is defined as 'Affecting 2-16 creatures of the level one type'. Not sure what that means, but it sounds like it sleeps between two and 16 (2d8?) level one creatures that fail their saves. The PCs both immediately failed. The goblins bashed SVSII for low damage, and he awoke. Using his dagger, he dispatched one of the goblins, as his companion slept soundly, failing the 'save to end' that I had randomly decided made sense, each round. The old man fled pretty much immediately.

Sadly, Sam von Sam the Second perished from a goblin club. I did make the comment here that I was beginning to understand a common convention which I've read of, in that OD&D players rolled up a half-dozen characters before starting. The fatality rate was quite high. This may have been partially due to my inexperience with the ruleset, but still. Anyway, the next save was successful, waking the cleric. His mace discontinued the life of the remaining goblin. Oddly, the cleric decided that his best bet (after looting his friend and the goblins, as well as finding a potion on the table, putting him near max load), was to continue adventuring alone.

While Guy rolled a new character, Chargrin the Dreadful headed towards the previously found pit trap (following the direction the old man had run), and then puzzled how to cross the open hole. Pole-vaulting was considered stupid, as the low ceiling prevented it, and besides that the pit was as deep as his pole was long, which mattered for some reason in his head. He ultimately laid the pole across the pit, and shimmied across it. Taking a more cautious approach (with something like 3 HP remaining), he listened at the northern exit to the room. He could hear excited shouting in a langauge he didn't recognize (goblinoid). He thought better of continuing, and headed back to town. He received some amount of XP upon leaving, which put him even closer to the 1500 required for level two.

Back at town, he met the brother of SVSII, named Samuel Von Sam III. The name was explained as Samuel Von Sam being a prolific breeder, but quite short on naming creativity. SVSIII was a fighting man with very impressive stats, and would prove to have quite a bit more longevity that his kin. After spending a night in the inn to heal, the two headed back down into the depths.

I didn't know how to keep the game going unless I kept the dungeon stocked, but figured that the first room had been combative enough already. Aside from the gore from the previous fight, there wasn't much there. The party, being a bit more dynamic this time around, took the left branch. Down the hallway, they could hear the sound of scuttling and bat screeches (insert imitations of the same noises from Daggerfall). They decided that valor was the better part of sense, and charged in!

A fierce combat ensued between the party, a pair of giant bats, and a pair of giant spiders. I discovered that improvising a 'new monster' in OD&D is fairly easy, as the monster stat block contains basically nothing other than HD, AC, and Movement. Spiders had 2d6 HP, 5 AC, and 4 movement. Bats had 1d6 HP, 7 AC, and 10 movement. Done. Quick! If you have a conception of how the monster acts and looks, you're done. Anyway, it was during the combat that Samuel Von Sam III gave himself the title "Sam the Lame". He missed roughly the entire time, rolling nothing higher than ten during the perhaps ten round combat. Shortly enough, however, the spiders and bats lay dead, with fairly greivous injuries to the PCs. However, as they hadn't found any treasure in a while, they noticed a chest and a pile of gold nearby.

The cleric ran across the room to look at the chest, while the Fighting-Man started knocking on the masonry walls with a wooden mallet, 'Looking for hollow spots'. The cleric, now paranoid over traps, told me he was going to "open the chest with his pole". I couldn't figure any way that made sense, so I told him that he couldn't use the pole that way. Besides, the chest had a latch. Suspecting a trapped chest, (in a room full of spiders?) the cleric carefully opened the latch, then jumped back and pushed against the top of the chest with his pole until it opened. His weird methods paid off, however, as a poisoned needle sprang out and struck the pole, ineffectually. The chest contained a magic item, which I rolled for, unimpressively being a divine-magic scroll. (Protection from Elementals, lame). It was unidentified and no one knew Read Magic, so no good.

The party headed back to town again, for healing and XP. This pile of gold and traps and corpses had netted a level up for Chargrin the Dreadful! Now a level two cleric (Adept), he gained another hit die, as well as a spell slot. I chose not to charge for training, as I couldn't find how much it cost. I told Brian (My brother) that subsequent levels would be charged CurrentLevel*100gp to level up. He shrugged, not expecting to live that long anyway. As he was now overloaded with money, he 'deposited it in the bank'. I figured banks made sense given that money had significant weight in this version. He chose 'Cure Light Wounds', because God knows they needed it.

Anyway, another trip down resulted in killing some spiders, then heading down the previously unexplored passage past the pit. Heading down a staircase, the PCs found a hallway ending abruptly, with no passage out. However, there was a greenish ooze on the floor. The players chose to ignore it at first, though it filled the floor of the hallway, and mentioned that they'd just walk through it. However, when it began moving towards them purposefully, they realized that it was a monster, not just a puddle.

My brother assumed, rightfully, that oozes were generally acidic and probably would eat their weapons. Seemingly forgetting the three or four extra maces and clubs he'd picked up from now-dead goblins and skeletons, he lit a torch and tossed it at the ooze. His attack roll was four, however, so he threw incorrectly, and it just fell at his feet. This is another interesting thing. I felt, since I was DMing a game with such a loose rule set, that if I wanted the torch to fall short, I could just say that it did. The Fighting-Man missed as well. The ooze oozed forwards and slopped itself at the Fighting Man, missing. The cleric decided to just strike the ooze with his torch directly, and dealt three damage. The fighting man then kicked the torch on the ground onto the ooze. Failing it's save vs. "death ray/ poison", it burst into flame! A few moments later, it was dead.

Knowing that the old man had fled this direction, Sam the Lame began knocking on the walls again, and found a hollow spot. Pushing against the 'door' didn't work, and striking it with Chargrin's flail just knocked a few chips of stone away. In relatively short order, the party searched for 'stones that looked wrong' on the walls, and found one that seemed detachable. Removing it left a small hole in the wall, perhaps eight inches wide, and indeterminately deep. The cleric stuck his pole into the opening, and felt something get mashed. Removing his pole found bits of a fist-sized spider on it. He then poured oil into the hole, and lit it with his torch. A few moments of fire ensued, which they used to see into the now-lit hole. Seeing a switch in the back, and nothing living in the hole, they pressed it with the pole. The door opened.

Feeling proud (though slightly injured from previous fights), they headed into the newly opened hallway. They hear spellcasting in the darkness, but are more concerned with the skeletons at the edge of the torchlight. However, when the spellcasting stopped, a huge manticore appeared!

The manticore roared loudly, and the players basically decided that this wasn't worth the hassle and bolted. In no time at all, the Fighting-Man (Samuel the Lame) was gone, but the overloaded cleric dragged behind. The manticore walked at the same six-inch speed, roaring but not attacking. The skeletons, however, were firing arrows after the fleeing cleric. Regardless, he was able to flee. The PCs returned to town with little to show for this excursion.

(The manticore was a "Phantasmal Forces" spell. The PCs never knew it, but the players figured it was an illusion after the session was over)

After resting their wounds, they returned again to the dungeon. However, this time, both PCs were killed in the first room, by three skeletons with bows. I was surprised, but it occurred to me that with just a couple lucky shots, a PC's life ends in OD&D. As with the previous deaths, there was a save vs. death (a random houserule). If the player saved, he was at 1 HP rather than dead. They both failed. DM and players mused on the appropriateness of being killed in two heavy strikes for 6 total damage, rather than being stabbed in the face for max dagger damage (4) ten times as a level one 4e character, getting your second wind, and barely being injured.

Two new characters were named, no longer relatives of the previous. I mentioned that a few months had passed since the last two people descended, and that these PCs had found the old map those previous adventurers had used. Now, "George the Small" (later, "Stout", and still later, "Stoic"), Guy's Fighting Man, and "Richard Long the Sloppy" (I know) the magic-user controlled by Brian, headed down.

With less detail, as this is getting long and it was getting late, they fought some more spiders, avoided some more traps, met the old man with more goblin and skeleton allies, fought, Mr. Long got killed (promising to return as Richard Long the Sloppy Seconds), and though stoically (gaining his self-appointed title) holding out against unfortunate odds, George the Stoic eventually ran away, to be the sole survivor of the night's gaming. In four hours (8 PM to midnight), we had fought perhaps fifteen combats, rolled up six or seven characters, explored maybe ten rooms, had traps and avoidance puzzles, and had a lot of fun. It was a high-energy and completely enjoyable experience, despite stupid problems and weird rules that made not a lot of sense.

To be short, I enjoyed 0e a great deal. I think it helped foster a more recklessly paced but also more interesting gameplay, as well as some weird experimentation. I wasn't pestered with questions as to why the heck all these things kept existing in the dungeon, I didn't have to worry about rules nazis coming up with obscure bits of rules from here and there, and if something cool needed to happen, I just said that it did.

Anyway, there's a report. It might have been a waste of your time to read, but it was my game and I wanted to show you it, to use a turn of phrase. It was fun times. I like the atmosphere and gameplay type that OD&D encourages, and I think I'll be returning to it eventually. If anyone saw anything in here that I did blatantly wrong, feel free to correct me. If you see places that could be improved, tell me. If you think it's just swell that I wrote all this up, tell me that too. Hopefully I'll post again soon. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dynamic Dungeons and Spellcasting

I am in the middle of thinking about crafting a megadungeon for OD&D, and the idea of a more dynamic place came to mind. I'm trying to walk a line between overly boring and confining realism and the completely gonzo nonsense that a lot of old modules seem to show to an extent. This got me thinking about spellcasting and how mundanely it is handled in a lot of games.

Think about it like this: you have a party of PCs in a dungeon. This dungeon began as a human crypt, expanded over time as it happens in your world. The PCs are possibly on level three of five, having fought their way down through the groups of goblins and orcs that live in an uneasy peace in the abandoned structure. The druid (we'll say 3.5e) is irritated by the prolonged combat, and casts "Earthquake" under a group of goblins. Now, as a GM, you are probably tempted/expected to have the spell do exactly as it says; knock the goblins down and possibly injure them from debris (been a while since I looked at 3e, I assume it did this). The way I see it, you should have the dungeon act like a hole dug out from living rock. That is, an earthquake affects it more strongly than, say, a fireball.

When the cleric casts earthquake, the room shakes and the spell's normal effects happen. Goblins fall down, some rocks fall from above and mash a few. Still, those rocks came from above. How far above was the next level? Realistically, a few dozen feet at least, as otherwise the stone would collapse by itself. Honestly though, in most dungeons it's assumed to be more like "a foot". Anyway, you are casting earthquake underground. The rocks fall, but it destabilizes the ceiling. More rocks fall the next round, and a rumbling noise reverbates around the place. The next round, the floor breaks out and the PCs fall down a level, into a twisted and broken mass of stone, worked marble, bodies, coffins, and dust.

Does this sort of thinking allow for some screwy spellcasting to completely wreck your dungeon? Yes, of course it does. Spells like Stone to Flesh make things even weirder. (Wall of Stone, Animate Object, Stone to Flesh in that order make a living, animate wall of flesh, a weird thing to encounter in all locations) However, you players start to realize that their hugely powerful high-end effects, are, in fact, hugely powerful high-end effects. This is also notable for the idiots that think they can cast Fabricate on a block of iron a few dozen times (easy for mid-level wizard) and create a hundred longswords to sell. What? No. No town has a use for all those swords. Even aside from that, you are flooding the market, driving down prices. The local smithing guild would be all over you, and probably violently. If you are too high level to confront directly, they'll probably just hire assassins. You are destroying their industry and wrecking up their livelihoods.

Anyway, back to dungeons.

How can you, as a DM, handle this sort of thing? Make your dungeon literally 3d, with defined structural components and rock hardness, add supports and engineering data, make sure it all works together in a real setting...

No, don't do all that. That sort of thing will kill you. Ad-lib it. If the party casts Fireball in the woods, the trees catch fire. If the party casts firewall in a sealed cave, the fire burns away oxygen. If the party wants to 'cheat' and go down a level in the dungeon by casting Disintegrate on the floor, let them! However, keep in mind that effects like this are more fun if the PCs didn't intend it to happen. PC plans to disintegrate the floor cause problems. Perhaps they breach a lava pipe (though the floor should probably be warm, as a hint. Don't just kill PCs randomly), or perhaps they cause another cave in. If the PCs cast Flamestrike in the sewers of a city, nothing seems to happen. However, the column of fire coming from the sky did successfully smash into a person's house up above, and when the party comes out of the dungeon two days later, they learn of the gods' judgment raining down on the city, starting a series of violent fires in the slums of the city. Casting anything at all in the middle of the city certainly causes a general suspicion of distrust of the party. Also no charming shopkeeps, they figure it out after you leave and you end up with a warrant out for you. This also means that previously fairly useless spells (Plant Growth?) become interesting again! Plants have been breaking up stone forever. It's part of their function in the world. When your cleric casts plant growth in a dungeon, the floor cracks and splinters from the new roots. I can see it being a bit more interesting.

Is this sort of spellcasting consequence limiting to spellcasters over fighters? Yes and no. A fighter just doesn't have the same kind of abilities, though I suppose he could buy a pick and just dig downwards instead of disintegrating. Also this means that spellcasters are now much less capable during barroom brawls, but if your casters were throwing around Horrid Wilting in bar brawls before, then you need to put a stop to it anyway. Another side to this is that it marginalizes fighters and their ilk in dungeons. If the druid can nuke half the level by casting Earthquake, then what good is a barbarian's greataxe? Well, for one thing, it's more controllable. I'd actually expect non-stupid (read: Long-living) PCs to lower their use of major spells in dungeons after they start seeing effects from it. What it allows, however, is more of an old-school dynamism and interestingly non-rules-based sort of environment.

So consider it. Next time your wizard is fighting off a few muggers in town by casting "Summon Earth Elemental", consider that a towering, twenty foot tall elemental is probably going to cause more trouble than a few muggers ever could. If your evil cleric starts casting Contagion on creatures, consider that many of the diseases are airborne. If the goblin collapses, coughing violently, then the players should be aware that they are in the same 20x20 room, enclosed underground, and thus are probably breathing the same Creeping Crud (or what-have-you). If the druid's pet (not spellcasting, but still) is a tamed lion, he probably shouldn't bring it to the inn. Honestly, it needs to stay in a kennel somewhere in town, if any exist that can handle such a creature. Walking around with it would likely attract the guards' attention. Have fun with it, and make magic interesting again!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Strongholds and Serfs

Player-run strongholds and castles are sort of a waning art these days. At least, I perceive it that way. Does the 4e PHB or DMG even mention the possibility?

In OD&D, the books for which I've been poking through lately, PCs had the ability to buy land whenever they had the cash. Once reaching a certain level (Nine or ten, I think), they could become nobility, and begin collecting taxes on their newly granted land. There were specified costs for walls, crenelations, towers, gates, and all sorts of other things. There were methods and information about finding specialists to join your work there, as well as hiring large bands of mercenaries to defend the place. It was an assumed endgame for the party to get into, once they had gone through the adventuring life for a time.

I've had a couple campaigns where the players became invested enough in the world to begin constructing fortifications and castles. It's certainly possible with 3.5 rules, and reasonably possible with 4e, if you don't feel overly pressured to stick to the treasure distribution in the book. However, be wary of allowing players to make a huge castle on a big land grant right away. Such a change in the campaign requires a lot of forethought, as well as raising a great number of issues in fairly short order.

Firstly, you have to consider how nobility and land ownership worked in older times. One, in most feudal societies, land was all owned by the king outright. However, he had the ability to grant land to noblemen, and possibly to non-nobles. Nobility is a virtue of birth. Your fighting-man (heh) can't become a baron by virtue of owning land and building a castle, unless he is adopted into a noble family, or the king just feels like granting him nobility outright. The latter is dangerous, as it disrupts social order if every Tom, Dick, and Harry can become a nobleman. Though to be honest, 'Baron' is such a weak title as to mostly hold the status quo while being given to erstwhile commoners. It was created for this purpose. Thus, either the PC gaining nobility and land has to be adopted into a family that will doubtlessly require more service of him than they would a blooded relative, or he must be extraordinarily lucky. I suppose he could also constantly serve the king, give him everything he wants, and exalt him everywhere he goes. That might curry enough favor also. Just up and buying a large enough plot of land to place a castle on is right out. The land isn't for sale, as the only person with the real rights to sell it is the King, and he does not care for the pittance the PC has to offer. Besides, any non-noble building a castle would be seen as, at least, pretentious. At worst, he would be seen as seceding, and declared a traitor to the crown.

Once made a low-ranking nobleman and granted some presumably derelict and near-lawless land, the new Baron must first see to the security and well-being of his people. Of course, living on 'his' land means that they all owe him fealty. However, if they have previously been ignored by the crown, harassed by bandits, and generally having a rough time of it, they won't bow to any nobleman coming in without good reason. They may not openly revolt, but they won't work willingly, and what work they are made to do will be slow and low quality.

Note that "I can kill everyone in this village in less than a minute" is not a good reason for gaining loyalty.

Anyway, at this point, the campaign likely takes a turn towards above ground work. The party will have to either patrol the PCs' new land themselves, or hire others to do it. They need to root out threats, kill dragons, slaughter or drive off bandits, genocide the orcs, make the roads safe, and generally raise the standard of living noticeably. How long does this take? It depends on how dangerous the land is, how large the fief is, and a million other factors. The best course of action would likely be to hire mercenaries (respectable ones) to come the land, and report problems they can't handle alone. Then, the PCs can go clean those special issues up.

Once the land is safe and good again, and perhaps the people are better provided for, they will be much more willing to swear fealty and vassalage to the new lord. Of course, the vast majority of the population is comprised of moronic peasants and serfs. They know little but what their lives consist of, which is farming and breeding. There may be a small village, with a few folk who are wealthy enough to actually own the building that they live in, and thus are able to ply a trade. Blacksmiths, alchemists, tanners, brewers, coopers, fletchers, bowyers, etc etc. There are dozens of trades available. At the least, there are those who can construct sturdy buildings of either wood or stone, a couple of people capable of making at least simple farm tools from metal, and perhaps a few more advanced trades.

Good, now the PC has some lands that are slowly (read: over a few years) becoming profitable again. Now he must see to a more stable and, more importantly, visible hold of power and security in the region. That means a fortress or castle of some variety.

Castles are commonly depicted in a number of works as lonely forts up on a mountain island or somesuch. While certainly possible, and incredibly defensible, this is not the most convenient or even effective place to build a castle. Fortresses are built to help slow the destruction of the populace and goods of the fief during times of war. The common people (some of them, the most worthwhile) will retreat to the castle when times are exceedingly bad. A castle must therefore be capable of being reached by a large number of people on fairly short notice. Secondly, it must be able to store a great deal of food and water, as to withstand a siege until help can arrive. It also needs to actually be possible to construct in a single lifetime, if the PC wants to ever see his work done. Thus, it's not a good idea to place the thing on the edge of your lands, on an island off the coast, or on top of a mountain.

Now that you have chosen a nice flat, well-grounded, and reasonable place for your fortress, how do you build it? Certainly, large structures like this are not short-term constructions. It will take years upon years for normal humans to fabricate a structure like this. Of course, your players probably want to go adventuring again at this point, and don't care to stand around directing laborers for years of game time. One will assume the DM allows the players to have access to a quarry, as well as transport for the stone, wood, and hundreds of other materials required.

Thankfully, D&D makes castle building a bit easier, since there are mages and clerics that can help. Hiring a high-level caster (or being one) can shorten construction easily. Spells to consider are Mass Haste, Wall of Stone, Fabricate, Polymorph Other, and numerous others. Let's say you have a typical mason/stoneworker. He's able to craft a rough rock into a usable stone block in perhaps a few hours, if he's skilled and the work goes smoothly. Now, you have a level five cleric cast a few spells. Your typical STR, DEX, and WIS buffs. Suddenly, the mason is twice as capable as any other. He's gone from a master craftsman to a legend in his own time. You have to consider than a master craftsman still has 10's or 11's across the board as abilities. This guy suddenly has 13 or 14 all over. He works twice as fast, and his products are ten times as good. He has less waste and doesn't tire as quickly. These spells have "Mass" variants, in some splats, and can be extended to day-long duration. Of course, mid-level clerics aren't free. What the PC can do to make it easier, of course, is to include a chapel in his fortress. Doing such due service to the gods can make working with clerics of the same god a lot cheaper, though by no means free.

With magic and whatnot, one can have a reasonable fortress built rather quickly, probably on the order of just a year or two. This will leave your serfs and craftsmen exhausted, but a good deal wealthier (with your money) than their neighbors in adjacent lands. This makes them happy, but also attracts banditry. Opposition is good! It fuels adventures! Also it gives players a reason to start hiring men-at-arms to watch the walls and patrol the roads.

At this point, the player is receiving taxes from his vassals and serfs. Taxes, especially in the early medieval age, were not only money. They were produce, meat, crafts, wood, metalworks, and numerous other things besides. Still, for D&D, it's probably easier to abstract this as some percentage of money generated by the lands. This money should probably be poured largely back into the land itself, maintaining roads, irrigation if it exists, security, and military. The player of course can feel free to keep a percentage of it, but he has his obligations now. Of course, other people can be hired to manage things.

Here, you must make a decision. Depending on your players and what they enjoy, they may get really into running their lands. They might want resource counts, population information, abilities to form mining groups and lumber camps, all kinds of intricate taxation and tariffs, etc. etc. That's certainly possible, but starts to move the game rather quickly away from D&D, in a large sense. If your players tend to hand-wave working on the fort, then let them hire people for a monthly/yearly wage (depending on how time flows in your campaign, they may instead ask for pay upfront). These people can be trusted as much as any civil servant, to manage the lands to the best of their ability. They have a vested interest in keeping it running well. This frees up the players themselves to go dungeon-delving again, or to go finish the plot of the campaign, or whatever else. Of course, the less supervision a paid administrator has, the more likely corruption sets in. Either route is fine, just try to see what your players enjoy.

I hope this sort of very limited scope essay at least makes you think about permitting or encouraging castle usage in your campaign. Though yes, it's largely incompatible with a heavily plot-driven campaign, it can add a lot of flavor and interesting adventure hooks to a more sandbox sort of deal. Good luck!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Handling Elven Encounters

Elves have always been present in D&D. Originally somewhat sub-optimal racial choices that limited your abilities to an extent, nowadays they are mainstream members of society, capable of any class. 4e changes them a bit from ranger-mage favoring to just favoring ranger. Still, woodsy folk that hang out in forests and shoot arrows at things.

I suppose that's as far as some people take it. Elves are pointy-eared humans that like trees. Possibly they have a innate affinity for the bow. They are dainty and tend to be smaller than humans. Perhaps they are immortal, but almost certainly they are at least long-lived. Of course, they don't hesitate to throw themselves into the same stupid situations that the supposedly more brash humans do.

As is my wont from time to time, I am going to think a bit on elven psychology and culture. Now, the way I see it, the primary difference between elves and men, men being our inherent baseline for judging other species, is that they are exceedingly long-lived. Let's say, for the purposes of this article, that elves live roughly a thousand years. That would, of course, affect their culture and ways of thinking significantly.

Think about humans. A human can reach the height of his skill in any craft in a few years of training. Some talented folk can get better with more time, perhaps becoming grand masters of their craft in twenty years. Twenty years is a long time for humans. If you live in a medieval/renaissance era, like D&D lazily half-represents, you might get 40 years of life. If you are wealthy or magical, you might get more. Humans do everything quickly and rushed, because they don't have long to do it.

Elves, on the other hand, live comparatively forever. Have you ever wondered why elves like trees and forests? Consider that the elf of adventuring age, say his early 130's, has probably seen all the trees in his home forest grow from seeds to full, ancient oaks and elms. He's walked the paths of his homeland for over a century, and he knows every leaf and stone along them. His race has time to coax a branch to grow into the proper shape for a bow, and then only break it off from the trunk after cutting off food to the single branch. The tree is not harmed; the beauty of the forest endures. Elves have the time to spend ten years on a single engraved door, making it absolutely perfect, that every time they open the door to their home, they can smile at it's appearance. Ten years equates to a couple months of a human lifespan. Certainly humans spend months on a single building or garden to beautify their home. Wouldn't elves do the same?

Elves certainly have seen 'developed' lands. However, they've been around long enough to see what happens. Humans, until recently, haven't lived long enough to really see ecological changes. Nowadays, modern technology makes them happen quickly enough that anyone can see it. Back in the fantasy world, however, humans settlements cut down trees to build buildings, but there's still plenty of forest left. They will never run out. Yes, the grass in the town square is dying, but that's ok, we'll put down cobblestone. As the children of the children of the original settlers grow up, they are used to a lack of greenery in the city. They are used to gray stone and dead wood being the normal color of all existence. They've grown accustomed to the river running through a stone-walled canal, at man's behest. Sure, the water is a bit dingy and the smell of people, animals, and refuse hangs over all the streets, but that's just life.

Elves have seen it all happen in less than one child's coming of age, however. The trees that they cared for over decades were cut down and planed into boards within hours. Humans have settled, moving and killing like the world will end tomorrow. Always rushing to get everything done. Constantly, it seems, they are killing more and more trees and animals, not planting or breeding new ones to replace them. The humans see the forest as huge, and that they won't possibly run out of resources. The elves notice that in only the past hundred years, the humans have leveled a quarter of the woodland. In only four centuries, less time than it takes a child to grow to middle age, the forest will be gone. Not only will it be gone, but the only nearby place to live will be the fetid, rotting human city. There, the once vibrant trees are now dead bits of graying wood, clumsily carved by rough human hands into beams and girders, or engraved hastily into a slipshod decoration here and there. Elves remember the fresh air and sunlight, the wild life of the woodlands, and the serenity of a life lived simply. Now, instead, they are forced into human society. Forced to work all day, every day, just to support themselves. Turning out crafts daily that are terrible garbage compared to what they could have done had they spent the proper three years to make that shoe, or sew that shirt. Everything is so fast and so cheapened, that they pine for the forests of old.

Think, now, about how elves would view humans settling in their lands. Certainly, even a human town that had been settled over a century ago, would still be "new" to the elves' perceptions. Why are the elves always the peaceful, laid-back peoples that guide and help the poor, upstart humans?

I prefer to think of elves as perhaps seeming haughty and hostile, from a human standpoint, but truthfully being remarkably patient, considering the circumstances. They are completely justified in attacking human towns, but they realize that humans are short-lived and that it takes time to make them understand. Still, the elves are pressed into action from time to time. The plead with the humans to at least try for sustainable methods of forestry. They don't want to kill the humans, since the elves realize that humans are still people, but they are doubtlessly tempted.

As another note, don't make elves too quick to kill things. Think about it. If a human dies at 25, we call it a tragedy. They have missed out on probably another fifty years of life! If an elf dies at 400, it's hard for humans to care that much. It seems he's lived a long life, certainly there wasn't much left to do after four hundred years. However, to another elf, it's an unthinkable loss. His kin could have spent another six centuries perfecting his skills at crafting and walking through the sunlit glades. He could have known generations upon generations of creatures and trees. He could have seen the slow shift from oak forest to pine as the centuries passed. Now, he lies cold and dead, beyond saving. He's gone. Elves should be loathe to kill anyone unless sorely pressed, but they should avenge murder with passion and hatred.

Anyway, give it some thought. Elves don't want money and quickly constructed human garbage. What use is a hastily stamped gold coin? Elves are interested in knowledge, in freedom, and in the perfection of something that took a hundred years to complete. They love nature, having seen all of it's cycles and beauty over their many years. They don't want to live in some dirty human hovel that shuts out the world. They want the freedom to move through the trees, grasslands, or mountains of the world, happy in it's long-lasting and slow-changing essence.

Work to make elves more interesting in your next campaign.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How the Heck do you play OD&D?

This post is less advice and more a request for advice. It's also reasonably short for my posts.

How do you play OD&D? I've purchased the PDFs of the books, and I'm working on a way to print them without burning through ten ink cartridges. Still, I've read (skimmed) through them, and the rules seem so nonsensical and alien. Weird charts everywhere, strange attack progressions, different XP rates for everyone, strange book layouts, and numerous references to Chainmail (which I also purchased, but I haven't read through yet)

How did anyone ever figure this stuff out by themselves? Was D&D always passed master-apprentice style, with an experienced player going DM to teach others how it worked? Was this system intentionally designed (as it seemed to be stated in the books themselves) to be houseruled to hell and back? Did anyone play the same game? There are weird omissions for all kinds of rules that would be required to be houseruled in some way, or else powergamer folk will beat the hell out of it. Were powergamers not extant in Gygax's heyday?

Traps seem neat in the sense that they should be physically arrayed objects, and not just "roll to defeat" spots, but then how do you determine if someone can do it? Anyone can say "I put a table over the spike in the floor, so when it goes up again it get stuck in the wood" or something, but how does a DM (sorry, 'Referee') figure out if that would work? Fiat? Are there even proper rules for how much a trap spike damages a table?

The game seems interesting in theory, and some of it makes sense. A lot of the weird differences in spell and other behavior when outside as opposed to a dungeon seems a bit gamey and breaks suspension of disbelief, but hey, that's how it goes. What is with listing range in inches? I vaguely recall reading that an 'inch' of range in spell descriptions translates to something else in-universe, but I don't recall where, and I can't seem to find it offhand. Not to piss anyone off, but with this sort of thing as OD&D, where do people get off complaining about 'squares' in 4e? Replace "5 squares" with "5 inches" and you still have the same focus on miniatures.

Anyway, any folks who currently play OD&D or are old enough to have played it in the 70's have any advice on wrapping my head around this system?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

4e General First Impressions

So I got to play a proper session of 4e yesterday. This is opposed to the, supposedly, improper session I played last week. My group, separated by a couple hundred miles, plays over Skype. Skype was acting up last time due to the slow connection of one player, and so made the session not fun.


So the first 'real' session of Fourth Edition went pretty well. I've heard complaints from here and there about various game bits of 4e, and frankly I don't bother internalizing that sort of thing. I prefer to do something myself before I go and judge it. One thing that really struck me as different about 4e, on a fundamental level, is how differently the game plays in combat. My group has never been heavy into long conversations with NPCs, so basically the captain of the steamboat we were working for passage on lectured us about the nature of the world a while, and we sat in a bar and listened to other people apparently lecture each other on the nature of the world for a while, before attacking some goblins when we floated by a town that was getting attacked.

Ok, so at this point the PCs started actually paying attention. The Captain told us his nephew (in his twenties) was in a certain building, and that he'd be appreciative if we'd go help. The party Ranger/Rogue (Actually Ranger with one or two Rogue abilities, per 4e 'multiclassing') negotiated pay, a trifle silly given the circumstances, but eh. We marched into town and shortly were in a combat with a couple gobbos.

Now the setup was a little weird to start with. Level two party of five characters, fighting five goblins, three of which were minions, as we found out shortly. Suffice to say, it was not a terribly challenging fight. What was interesting, however, was that immediately everyone started helping each other. Now, this might sound trivial to some people, but it's a weird shift for my group. We end up, usually, by level ten or so, with a party of five individuals who act like they aren't even in a party. We've never had a team, per se. However, this time, every ability gave an ally some sort of bonus. Marks would help your ally as well as helping yourself. The goblins couldn't do what they wanted, because if they did, they'd take damage, miss terribly every time, or fail in a myriad of other ways. The teamwork surprised me, even in the stupid low-challenge first encounter.

After that, we continued down the railroad, to fight more goblins. The next group was three minions, three warrior guys of some variety (Skull splitters?) and two casters. This encounter took a while longer, but I still don't think anyone in the party was in any danger. What interested me in this encounter was the mobility everyone showed. In 3.5, combats tended to devolve, at least for fighters and their ilk, to "Ok, I swing again" at first level, to "Ok, I swing six times again" at 20th. In 4e's combat, people moved around. The goblins shifted from here to there, the players had enough HP to take an Opportunity Attack here and there for better positioning. The goblin casters could shift effects and attacks to their minions, which made it interesting to try to combat them. People were knocked prone commonly, but it wasn't unfun; you could get up and attack again readily. The combat felt much more dynamic.

The third encounter, as well as the penultimate of the evening (Which averages encounter time to roughly an hour and a half each, though that's not accurate since some were longer than others, as well as having noncombat time), was a combat against a pile of Hobgoblins, as well as their dozen minions scattering about. The party isn't built for stealth, so we ended up just running in and hitting things. The thing is, in the first round, everyone blew action points. All the minions died to our dragonborn as well as our Forgotten Realms spellsword guy. Area of effect knocked them all down. Then, everyone ganged the leader. I don't think the DM expected the number of horrible effects on the poor hobgobbo. Anyway, the combat was fast-paced, laced with teamwork and helping one another, and generally fun.

We talked to the nephew and he gave us some heirloom sword he had (Seventh level magic item, I got it as other people had decent weapons/didn't use swords), and we ended the session.

Overall take? 4e combat seems like a lot of fun, and I haven't run into the "Padded Sumo" issue I've heard people talk about. The combat was quick, fun, and generally well paced. So far, I'm fairly bully on 4e. I'll grant that from a simulationist perspective, a lot of the rules don't make sense, but the game is fun, so I'm fine with it. Just my two cents.

Monday, September 22, 2008

4e Organization

So I had the experience of creating a PC for a D&D 4e campaign recently. Our Night's Dawn Trilogy based World of Darkness game ended, somewhat abruptly, and we are on to the next game and system. I've poked through the books a few times for fourth edition, but I haven't really looked at it. After rolling up a character, I gotta say;

This book is a piece of crap.

Now don't take that as a slam against fourth edition in general. I haven't played it much. Sure, they made a lot of changes, and some of them seem to be just for the sake of making changes, but I'll reserve judgement until I've run a character to 30. You don't really know a system well enough to judge it until you've played it through and through. What I meant by the above statement is that the layout and design are awful. Simple things, like "How many powers do I start with?" are mentioned in sections that have nothing to do with powers and little to do with character creation. Information on character creation in general is spread all over the book, in nonsequential order, jumping from chapter to chapter. Nothing is fully explained in any one place, and doing the simplest of things requires looking on a half dozen pages.

God forbid you want to use the default character sheet to actually describe a character and his/her gear. There's no location on the sheet to write up mundane weapons, especially if you want something trivial like "Information about what it does" rather than just a name. There's a full column on the back of the sheet for magic items, but that doesn't help much for a first level character. Even so, it's worthless in the future because the most you can squeeze in is the item name and a page number. You expect to have space to write down what it does? Ha.

Now, with all that said, I do want to add a couple positives. The book has a lot of decent info for new players, rather than just rules. I've heard a lot of buzz about fourth edition being a miniatures game rather than a roleplaying game proper. Of course, I'll admit that most of the diplomacy is presented as rolling dice instead of talking. Bluffing, etc, the same way. Fine. However, unlike 3.x, this PHB has a large section (ten pages?) dedicated to fleshing out your character as more than an alignment and class/race combo. The book encourages you to pick a few personality traits, as well as some common mannerisms. It suggests you think about how your PC reacts to dangerous situations, and how decisive he/she is in such. That's a good thing to see, and helps new players realize that maybe it's not just WoW repackaged without a computer.

Anyway, just a shortish sort of rant/review on it. I don't care for lots of flamewars over edition changes. Play what you want to play. However, in the future, WotC should really put more effort into organization.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prejudice in Fantasy Worlds

I was thinking today, while bored at work, about human history with regards to prejudice and war. Yes, I think about topics that are a little overly complex when I'm bored.

Anyway, this got me thinking about aliens and also fey races. Humans, over history, have used almost any excuse to make everything a situation of "us vs. them". It's commonly referred to as outgroup Bias. Currently, in the US, you find a lot of this directed towards Muslims, or worse, Arabs in general. I've heard numerous people say that all Arabs "want to kill everyone", whatever the hell that means. They are basing their outgroup prejudice on nationality, skin color to an extent, and certainly religion. Humans use these flimsy excuses to hate people that are, in all the ways that really matter, just like them.

Now take that knowledge of basic human nature, and think about a world where there are sapient races that aren't human at all. Elves, Dwarves, Halfings, Orcs, Goblins, Angels, Demons, etc are all intrinsically different than humans. Many D&D worlds, sort of the 'standard', in fact, has a largely dominant human culture. Humans breed more quickly than elves or dwarves, have shorter lives and thus strive harder to get things done, etc etc. So you have a world where humans are the dominant military and social power, and you have major philosophical, psychological, and physiological differences between the sapient races. Think about how much effort, money, time, and creativity has been wasted in humanity's past just on killing people with a different skin color or creed, and think about how much different fantasy races are from humans. Is it really at all reasonable to assume that the D&D world is that much more tolerant? Tolerance and acceptance have never been the norm in any society, not even today.

What does this all boil down to? I think it might be interesting to think about having more prejudice and general... speciesism(?) in D&D. We don't really have a word for it, since we don't know of any other sapient species, but the idea fits. Call it racism I suppose. Humans deal with other races, sure, in a trading sense. However, it's entirely possible that the tavern you are dining at just doesn't serve nonhumans. "Not that we don't like you, y'see, but we know how Dwarves like to hoard gold, and we've got a bit of it as decoration. Also, we know the Elf might flinch at us having killed all those trees to build the place. Eh, there's a bar a few streets over that might serve your kind, gents." Maybe the elven wizard that runs the local scroll shop, or what have you, doesn't like half-elves; he doesn't like the idea of the proud elven line being sullied with human blood. Dwarves have a sort of traditional antipathy with elves in high fantasy worlds, but what if a recent raid on a dwarven settlement by a rogue group of elves has put the relationship on edge even more so? Suddenly, when an elf and a dwarf pass one another on the street, both of them have a hand on their weapons. It's not attack-on-sight, but there's tension. Your fighter, aiming for membership in the Blades of Ammeron, a knightly order local to this town, finds himself rejected for membership due to his traveling with a half-orc. In an extreme case, Tieflings or such may be entirely hated in common society. Tieflings can't own property, have next to no rights as people, and have to cover their more telling racial identifiers. Dragonborn have to wear muzzles to keep their weaponlike teeth and breath weapons "sheathed", or might be arrested for brandishing a lethal weapon in the city. I think it might add a bit of diversity to the world to have people in it that don't care for diversity.

That being said, this sort of thing is easy to offend people with. Know your players. If you've got a group with a few people that are going to get all offended over fantasy racism, it's certainly not worth losing a friend over. However, if everyone can handle it, it might be an interesting sort of spin on the normally happy go lucky sort of world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Grimy Dungeons and the PCs That Are Covered In Them

This article is much less high-handed than my norm. It's just a thought that amused me.

A post over at Trollsmyth, as well as couple of preceeding posts by the same, got me thinking about the effects that the kind of insane pyrotechnics, cryotechnics, and... electrotechnics(?) would have from the way wizards tend to spam spells all over the place in D&D. Now, in a place like a dungeon, where there is frankly little to burn, it's not a big deal. Scorch marks on the stone wall only mean so much to the future orcish occupants. That's not what this silly article is about, but it's still fun to think about. However, thinking about spell effects got me thinking about the lingering effects of combat and adventuring in general.

Let's set a short scene here. The party, having delved into the ancient system of tubes and pits used as a sewer, comes back up with the Eye of Gruumsh or whatever other thing they went down to get. They've flung spells back and forth with the death cult down there, slaughtered dozens of orcs, and are also lightly carrying the forty thousand gold they found. Fine. So they come up from the hidden entrance to said sewers, behind a building, and promptly walk to the royal castle to turn in their quest item.

Imagine, for a moment, how patently ludicrous these people look. For one thing, they are wearing adventuring gear, and associated dangerous weapons, to an audience with a noble. To be certain, they wouldn't even be allowed in the castle. You'll show proper respect by wearing nice things, not that patchwork of random magical items and armor you've found as you tromp through the underworld. Also, you'll be leaving that axe behind, thank you, and that 'parting an old man from his walking stick' bit isn't going to fly either.

Secondly, and this is something that gets glazed over pretty often, the party would be covered in goop, blood, scorched clothing, sewer matter, and numerous other horrible coverings that no one wants to see. One does not go wandering through a sewer for hours on end and not pick up at least a smell. The fighters of the party have been hacking apart animals, monsters, and sapient beings with their swords. They are drenched in blood and viscera. They have open wounds on their bodies that have not only other people's bodily fluids on them, but also the general rot and filth that a sewer accumulates. The wizards have been flinging spells, and their hands are covered in bat guano and diamond dust from their spell component pouch. The party was hit by a Flame Strike spell by an opposing cleric of Nerull, and though the magic armor they are wearing is still fine, their clothing underneath is little but scorched rags. Even ranged combatants and/or noncombatants like bards still have the general grime, sweat, and sick all over them that comes from such an expedition.

These are the people that are strolling through town, carrying the fifty axes they looted from the orcs. Saying that people would recoil from them is putting it beyond lightly. They would likely be arrested, explainations would have to be made back at the station, and they'd likely be required to clean their idiot selves up before they step out again. They certainly can't just drag a cart full of weapons to the blacksmith without generating a few questions. For God's sake, they look like mass-murderers.

Now granted, cleaning up is a relatively trivial matter, and probably should be treated as such. As long as the party goes and finds some water source to wash in, and gets some decent clothes for their audience with the Count, things should be ok. There's no real reason (excepting story or silly points) to make them roll a "Knowledge: Court Fashion" roll or anything. (Profession: Noble?) Still though, describing the effects of their ridiculous profession might add a bit of color to your typical dungeon crawl. It's at least valid to make the castle guards refuse to admit mercenaries wearing non-pretty armor. A full suit of plate mail with matching shield and tabard? Sure, that's reasonable, you look the part of a mighty knight. The +3 studded leather you picked up off a dead bandit the other day, a buckler that you've been carrying but ignoring since level one, and your Helm of Fireballs? You look like a fool and would be treated as such; go home and change.

Anyway, just a few thoughts that occurred to me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fluff vs. Crunch: Magic Items

"Fluff" and "Crunch" probably require definition, because I don't want to assume all my multitudes of readers know both terms.

Fluff, here, is basically description from an in-game sense. "Opening the chest, you find a sword with a gilded hilt, wrapped in leather that seems untouched by time. The scabbard is made of bent and polished pine, inlaid with sparkling gems. Drawing the sword out, a dim glow runs along the length of the thin adamantine blade. Your arm immediately feels energized and stronger."

Crunch is description from a game rules sense. "In the chest you find a magic sword. It's Adamatine and plus two."

Now either way works, of course, and for most situations you need a touch of both. For instance, the top description is fun for opening a chest. It provides a neat but also somewhat loose description of the sword, from a visual and tactile sense. It places the sword as fairly obviously magical and probably plus-something, but you don't know what it is exactly. It's a little mystical and full of unknown. That works, it's good. The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

If you start with "It's a plus two adamantine longsword." then that's what you get. It kills any fun in opening chests that isn't present in a videogame. Your players will look at the stats of the weapon and decide if it's worth keeping, and simply throw it out if it isn't. They'll listen to treasure hoards with bored mathematician's expressions, doing mental math to see which item is better and which item is vendor junk. Items that you thought were interestingly crafted or at least a somewhat amusing mental picture come out as stat blocks that the players promptly ignore and forget if it's not immediately useful (Although I did get a "Loincloth of Venom Spitting" randomly generated in a videogame at one point, and I suppose I still remember that ten years later).

What is the solution here? Is there one? I've tried a few things in games and also given some thought to other solutions, so I'll list a couple here and also open the doors for feedback.

The first idea is to just deal with it. Magic items are mystical and unknown exactly as long as it takes the players to cast Identify or whatever your favorite game system calls the spell. This has the advantage of being easily written down for impatient players, as well as working to give the DM a chance to write flowery descriptions. The fighter can write down "+5 Vorpal Sword", but he may still have the memory of picking it up, feeling suddenly as though he had practiced with the sword for years, and deftly slicing the head off of the training dummy later.

This works so long as you can tolerate seeing the players gloss over during descriptions, waving their hands dismissively and interrupting with "Yeah, shining blades and crackling wands and whatever. I'm spending the next six hours casting Identify on everything."

Another idea I've toyed with is removing Identify and it's brethren from the game, or at least making them high level spells. This means that the players will have to experiment with the items and listen to the descriptions for clues. In the dust, on the floor of the ruined cathedral that the party is exploring, the halfing rogue finds a small ring. The ring is made of silver, and engraved with a feather motif. The rogue, having no magical rings currently equipped and with the mage's decision that the ring is magical, decides to wear it. The next day, scaling the walls of the cathedral to get at the shining gem in the eye of the bronze image of Erythnul, a bit of old stonework breaks away and the rogue slips. Instead of careening downwards at nearly ten meters per second per second, he floats gently down and lights on the ground without any injury. He deduces that perhaps the ring is one of Featherfall.

The obvious advantage here is one of atmosphere and experimentation. The party encounters magical items in much the same way one encounters a strange room in a dungeon. They are described, and the party has to decide what to do with that. Dark blades that drip blood and glow with an evil light can't just be filed away as a "+3 cold iron sword with will checks to avoid domination". They suddenly represent an unknown danger, and that makes magic item treasures that much more interesting. The down side is that the loot sheets get silly after a while, with a dozen unidentified rings that had no obvious effect, and the DM has to keep track of who all has what and when it would affect them. It also means that past about level ten in the old 3.5 parlance, no one knows what the hell their attack mod is anymore. It's all mysteriously affected by items that are unknowable.

Since it's good to do things in threes, I'll mention a sort of compromise between these two that I've considered in the past, and seen implemented with some success. Now, this takes cues from a videogame, so bear with me. In Diablo, a game that any gamer has heard of, you play a Fighting-Man, Magic-User, or Thief. Of course they use different names, and a different ruleset, but the game is as close to old-school endless dungeon sort of play as possible. Anyway, magic items you find while tromping around in the dungeon are all unidentified when you get them. In the game, you can't use them until they are IDed, but eh. Anyway, the core concept is that there is exactly one NPC that can identify items. He stands around in town and charges you for the service. This might work for D&D as well, particularly if travelling back and forth from dungeon to town is nontrivial. The party finds magical items, but can't ID them by themselves, in the dark of the dungeon. They can use them and try to work it out, but they can't just cast the spell.

Back in town, at the Order of Cuthbert, the identifier guy can do it. Why can he cast it when the party can't? Stretch those DM fiat muscles! Perhaps there is a large, immobile spell focus. Maybe a caster needs a place sanctified by one of a few specific gods to be able to ID items. Perhaps the identification isn't magical so much as research in grand tomes that catalog specific types of magical emanations and pulses, that cannot be memorized in a sense that provides any help whatsoever. In any case, a group of combat-based adventurers just can't solidly identify items in the wild. This approach encourages a longer period of experimentation before the identification, and also allows the players to eventually condense their loot sheets to a more readable form.

Tell me, what do you guys use? How do you handle this issue? It's not exactly a huge show-stopper for general play, but it's still interesting enough to hear about.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Messing with Players

Messing with the minds of your players is a fun thing to do, and can make for very interesting and memorable moments if done sparingly. Think about it. Most players are trained from years of lazy DMing that anything the DM goes out of his way to mention is probably important. They don't get stopped traveling across a distance for anything short of a random combat encounter, so why shouldn't they be on guard when the DM starts a sentence "Ok, so one day while you are walking, you come across..."?

One trick, of course, is to mention things that have no bearing on the PCs or their adventures at all. Interrupt a two-day trip across wilderness, but don't put any combat there. Just have the party come across a strange patch of brightly colored mushrooms. These are commonly fairy homes in mythology but that would likely end up in a combat. Instead, the party just finds a patch of mushrooms. The mushrooms have no particular alchemical value, they aren't cooking mushrooms, they aren't hallucinogenic, nothing. Want to really weird the players out? Have a magic weapon just slightly above the PC's level sitting in the center of the patch, under the mushrooms. Identify, at least in 3.5, doesn't show curses, so the players will be tempted to use the weapon, but forever be waiting for the other shoe to drop. The trick is that there's nothing wrong with the weapon, the players are just being paranoid. Plus, they'll rack their brains trying to figure what the heck that patch of shrooms had to do with anything.

Actually, outright generosity normally unnerves players, even more so if it's done secretly. Every morning, the party finds a small pile of 25 gold laying nearby the place they slept. There are no footprints nearby, no noticeable scent, no note, and no magic. It is ostensibly just a pile of gold. The PCs will likely spend an hour trying to figure out if it's cursed, fake, trapped, or some other problem. The second day, they will probably take the gold. They will almost certainly eventually try to find out who or what is leaving it there. That's up to the DM, of course. I sorta like the idea of a pixie, with invisibility, silence, and some other hiding spells, leaving it there. It's sufficiently weird (why would the pixie do that?) that the players will definitely be on edge. I'd say if they detect the pixie and it realizes that they have, it stops leaving money. Just a sort of strange vignette that the players will puzzle over for a while.

Also, just upsetting the typical tropes works well for throwing a kink into the party's thought processes. When the PCs file into a tavern, and spot that dark stranger in the back, they will probably attempt to approach him at some point. Thing is, the dark stranger is just a traveler that is sleeping sitting up in the common room. He has no use for adventurers, isn't some high level ranger, and doesn't want to be bothered. In fact, there are no adventure hooks in this tavern at all. Why should there be?

For that matter, I had an NPC weird out a pack of PCs lately. The PCs were high-teen levels in 3.5, so they were basically gods. Immune to everything, unstoppable in combat, etc. I'm a permissive DM, so if they can find a spell or ability combo in the books that makes them all-powerful, they can use it. Anyway, they walked through some criminal organization that had hounded them since low levels, and eventually took out 'The Circle of Twelve', a group of twelve level 20 rogues/clerics/whatever that ran the show. They knew of a single, unquestionable ruler of the group, named 'The Thirteenth', that no one seemed to know much about. Once they finished killing the twelve, they immediately set to looting. Suddenly, a fairly unassuming man in extremely powerful equipment appeared, clapping and grinning. They could plainly see the tattoo on his hand, signifying him as the thirteenth. He made no move to combat them. He congratulated them on their success, telling them that it was a great show. He related plot information that he had absolutely no business knowing, and that the PCs were unaware of. He told them that they had beaten his men, and that he was not looking to die. He would retire immediately, and go work on other pursuits. After this, he wished them luck, and disappeared, with his armor and weapons falling to the ground. The party didn't see him cast a spell, even a quickened one, and he wasn't on any transitive plane. He was just gone.

The party took his stuff, and his advice, but a comment a bit later amused me. They were talking about the battle a few sessions later, and he came up. "Yeah, I don't know what that guy was. He was really weird." That's interesting. He wasn't "a rogue". He wasn't "that cleric guy". He was unexplainable, an anomaly. There was no place to just file him away. It was fun. This party that typically knew everything and solved all issues didn't know what had happened there. I did, but I'm not going to reveal it here.

Now, as an aside, you've got to do this in moderation. Obviously, the party thinks that everything is a trap or adventure hook because that has usually/always been the case. One fairy ring of mushrooms or exceedingly generous peasant is an oddity, ten are boring. If every encounter is strange, then none of them really are. For the most part, stick to normalcy. But every once in a while, throw in something unrelated. It's a good idea and it will spice things up a bit.