Category Archives: Game Design and Mechanics

There Can Be Only One

In 1st Edition AD&D there’s an interesting quality built into a few of the classes, where not only do they have a hard level cap, but the highest levels are limited to only a select few, with the ultimate level restricted to a single character.

For druids there are only nine level 12 characters, three 13th level archdruids, and a single Great Druid. For assassins there is only one level 14 guildmaster in any local area and a single level 15 Grandfather of Assassins.

Monks have the hardest, but most colorful, road of progression. There are three level eight Masters of Dragons, with only one master for each level after that. This proceeds all the way up to level 18 and the Grand Master of Flowers. This creates an interesting case where progression is limited sooner for monks, but they also have a higher final level cap. I’d love to know if that was a design choice or curious accident.

For a character to proceed into the higher levels they must replace a vacancy in the ranks, or they must challenge and win against the current holder of that level. These duels may not be fatal, and the losing combatant is reduced in experience to the lower level and may challenge up again once enough experience points have been earned. For assassins the duel may not be direct, as arranging for the assassination or other form of removal of the rival is also acceptable.

The result is some fun built-in plot hooks. It’s certain that the higher level members of each class will be keeping an eye on the up-and-coming rivals. Depending on the individuals involved they may seek to eliminate potential rivals before they get too powerful, or nurture them to be a worthy successor. I’m particularly intrigued by this for the monk class, no doubt because of my love for the Shaw Brothers films. I talked about my renewed interest in the monk class in this post, and the interest hasn’t waned over time.

I think it would be particularly fun, and appropriate, to have a party with more than one member of one of these classes. In keeping with the fine tradition of Kung Fu movies I’d think monks would be the most fun, but any of the classes would work. The players might start out like brothers, standing together against the world. What would happen over time, as they close in on those limited levels? Would they turn to bitter rivalry? Would they undercut each other? Would their rivals above and below seek to breed distrust between them? Or would they find a way to rise above it all?

And what would happen with the rest of the party?


If you’ve ever had something like this in your campaign, please let me know. I’d love to hear the stories!


Tags: , , , ,


“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.



Tags: , , , , , ,

A Familiar Addendum

An interesting idea has come to mind, following up on my post about familiars:

“At 10th Level (Master Thief), thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of clerical, but not druidic, nature.

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 27

With the right scroll, a Master Thief could have a familiar! Given the abilities of the familiars in 1st Edition, they’d be more advantageous to a thief than a magic-user. And if they managed to roll a special familiar? A 10th level chaotic neutral Master Thief with a pseudo-dragon!

How did I never think of this in my Monty Haul days?

And we can extrapolate this even further:

“Tertiary functions of assassins are the same as thieves. They have all the abilities and functions of thieves; but, except for back stabbing, assassins perform thieving at two levels below their assassin level…”

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg 29

A 12th Level Chief Assassin with an imp for a familiar…



Tags: , , , , ,

A Familiar Problem

There is a segment in a recent episode of Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff discussing how to make a magic-user’s familiar more interesting. It’s a good bit and it has me reconsidering their use in Dungeons & Dragons, however a glance at the spell description in 1st Edition reminded me why we stopped using them.

On the plus side, familiars give magic users a few perks. These include serving as a spy for their master and the ability to converse with the magician. I’d thought that a telepathic link existed between them as well, but this isn’t part of the 1st Edition spell. There’s also a 1 in 20 chance that the player will summon a special familiar, the type being determined by the caster’s alignment. These are the really cool and useful familiars and include creatures like pseudo-dragons and imps.

Possibly the biggest benefit from a familiar is that they add their hit points to the caster’s, which is excellent for a low level magic-user. However this is also the biggest danger, because of what happens if the familiar dies.

“Normal familiars have 2-4hit points and armor class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.). Each is abnormally intelligent and totally faithful to the magic-user whose familiar it becomes. The number of the familiar’s hit points is added to the hit point total of the magic-user when it is within 12″ of its master, but if the familiar should ever be killed, the magic-user will permanently lose double that number of hit points.”

1st Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 66*

So the death of an AC7 creature with three hit points means the magic-user will permanently lose six hit points.

Ah… yes. That would be why our casters stopped summoning familiars.

I was curious if 2nd Edition AD&D did anything to fix the problem. The spell’s entry is almost twice as long and adds a few extra benefits.

“The wizard receives the heightened senses of his familiar, which grants the wizard a +1 bonus to all surprise die rolls. Normal familiars have 2-4 hit points plus 1 hit point per caster level, and an Armor Class of 7 (due to size, speed, etc.).”

“The wizard has an empathic link with the familiar and can issue it mental commands at a distance of up to one mile.”

“When the familiar is in physical contact with its wizard, it gains the wizard’s saving throws against special attacks. If a special attack would normally cause damage, the familiar suffers no damage if the saving throw is successful and half damage if the saving throw is failed.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

That is a little better; the benefits are boosted, the extra hit points are nice, and the saving throw certainly helps. This flavor of familiars is more useful for a low level wizard, however it’s still going to be a liability once the magician starts facing things like dragon breath and fireballs. No problem, once the caster reaches those levels they can leave their familiar at home. Right?

“If separated from the caster, the familiar loses 1 hit point each day, and dies if reduced to 0 hit points.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

Okay… so that’s not an option. Well, on the plus side, in 2nd Edition you don’t lose twice the familiar’s hit points when it dies. However,

If the familiar dies, the wizard must successfully roll an immediate system shock check or die. Even if he survives this check, the wizard loses 1 point from his Constitution when the familiar dies.”

2nd Edition AD&D PHB, pg. 134

In the end, 2nd Edition familiars are less risky to have than their 1st Edition counterparts, but the benefits still don’t match the danger. Also, they did away with the special familiars, removing the chances of a really useful sidekick.

The idea of familiars is cool and suitably thematic for a magic-user, but their implementation in early D&D doesn’t justify the risk. There should be risk involved, but it needs to be something more balanced with the rewards they provide. I’ve been considering the following for my games:

  • The familiar is able to communicate telepathically with the magic-user.
  • Once per day, the caster can telepathically “ride” their familiar. This allows them to see, hear, and smell what the familiar can. The magic-user can also cast a spell through the familiar. This action cancels the link for the day.
  • The familiar adds to the magic-user’s spellcasting. The magic-user can memorize one additional spell per spell level available to them.
  • The familiar’s saving throws are equal to the casters.
  • Familiars and their magicians are linked and share a common pool of hit points. Attacks directed at either target will damage both. This is not limited by range, so a captured familiar can be used to torment the caster, like a Voodoo doll. Area of Effect attacks that catch both targets do not do double damage.
  • The death of a familiar causes the caster to make an immediate Save vs Death Magic or die. If the save is successful the caster loses one point of Constitution. (Alternately, roll randomly to see which attribute loses a point.)

This is still a work in progress. My priorities are:

  • A familiar should provide significant, thematic benefits.
  • A familiar should provide a risk to the caster, one that will make a lasting impact on the character but not out of proportion to the benefits they bring.
  • The familiar should work in tandem with the spellcaster. The mechanics should promote a partnership beyond that of a pet or henchman.
  • Things that help spellcasters cast more spells are good things.

Do you use familiars in your games? Have you revamped them? I’d love to hear stories. Also, I have no idea how D&D handles familiars in editions after 2nd, so I’d welcome any information on that.


*For those not familiar with 1st edition AD&D, 1″ equals ten feet indoors or ten yards outdoors.


Tags: , , , , ,

The Collect Call of Cthulhu

Aaaaand, we’re back.

Hope everyone has had a good holiday season. I know I have.

One of the big treats I had was getting my first taste of the new 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu. I’ve been playing CoC since 3rd Edition and it has been one of the mainstays of every gaming group I’ve been in since high school, so I jumped at the chance to try out the latest incarnation. Due to the production problems at Chaosium the book still isn’t loose in physical form, but our keeper has a .PDF copy. Unfortunately this means I didn’t get to thumb through the rules, so my impressions are based on my one session as a player, but even so I think I have a good handle on where the game has gone.

The Good:

Call of Cthulhu is a tight, easy, excellent rules set and has had few significant changes over the years. New editions made some tweaks, but more often than not consisted of including additional source material and re-organizing the existing rules. With very little effort you can pick up an adventure written for 1st Edition and run it using 6th Edition rules. When I heard that 7th Edition would be making more changes than all the previous editions combined I was concerned.

However, making more changes than all the previous editions combined isn’t a very high bar to cross, and I am happy to say that I quickly fell right into the new system, even without having read the book myself. For an old hand at CoC, looking over the new character sheet is enough to clarify most of the changes and I’m pretty sure that I would be able to convert older edition material on the fly, with only a bit more effort than I could previously. This is the single most important thing I can say about 7th Edition, that it is still backwards compatible.

Changing the basic attributes to percentiles was a good move. It keeps them in line with the derived attributes and codifies the way many players were already doing attribute checks.This combined with opposed roles for tasks has replaced my beloved Resistance Table, but even I must admit that it does streamline the game. Plus the opposed role mechanic is such a staple in modern RPGs that it’s easy for gamers to pick up.

They also trimmed down the skill list on the character sheet, which was a good move. A lot of the entries on the old character sheet just took up space and were rarely used, and in traditional form the new sheet has plenty of blanks to fill in skills not already listed. I don’t know if the trimmed skills are still in the book or not, but pruning the list definitely cleaned things up nicely.

The Bad:

“Bad” is really stretching it. It’s more, “The Not Really Liked”.

The addition of a penalty die to rolls. Under certain circumstances, or if your character decides to try multiple actions, an additional D10 is rolled. This additional die counts as another “tens” die and the penalty means you take the lower of the two rolls for your result. For example, I roll two “tens” dice and get a 7 and a 3, with a 2 on the “ones” dice. My result is 32, using the lower roll. My guess that this mechanic, like the elimination of the Resistance Table, is meant to streamline the game so that you don’t have to look up penalties, but the impression that I had was that it makes the results a lot more swingy. It also makes it harder to determine what chances to take, which is an important consideration in a game like CoC. If you give me a 15% penalty on a roll, then I have a concrete figure to judge if the risk is worth it. But with a penalty die I have a harder time judging. I would love to see some figures on how using a penalty die changes the probabilities for your results, but that’s well beyond my own math skills to figure out.

I get the feeling that the penalty die was meant to offer more choices for the players, but on my initial experience with it I found it confounding.

The Meh:

Instead of being a set attribute, Luck is now a spendable asset pool. You spend them like Magic Points, but to adjust die rolls instead of fueling spells, and like SAN points you can regain them from surviving adventures. This is nothing new in game design and it does give the players an extra edge for survival, but was that necessary for a game like Call of Cthulhu? The place where I do see its value is for investigative skills, for those times you really want to nail the Library Use or Spot Hidden role so you can move an investigation forward. It’s in combat that it rankles my old school CoC heart. I am happy to say that in practice I don’t think it will remove the sharp fear of mortality that CoC players have known and loved over the years, death is still omnipresent, but it does blunt it a bit. That’s why I list this as a “meh” instead of “bad”.

They’ve also added a graduated success result mechanic. CoC has always had a critical success for combat rolls, via the Impalement result for getting under 1/5th of your skill. Making this an across the board critical success for all skills was a no-brainer and codifies what many of us were already doing in play. However they’ve added a Hard Success result for rolls under half your skill. I’m still learning all the implications of this, but it seems unnecessarily fiddly. I don’t see what it adds to the game. Maybe it’ll become more clear once I’ve played more, or once I read the manual, but for now I’m ambivalent at best.

The Summary:

All in all, I had a good experience with the game. There is nothing here that makes me want to run out and get a 7th Edition manual for myself, but I am happy that I’ll be able to sit down at any game of CoC and still know how to play, requiring only a glance at the character sheet to tell me which rules we’re using. I’m happy that I can buy new source books and know that I can use them with my pre-7th Edition rules. I’m happy that if I do switch to 7th Edition I’ll still be able to unleash horrors on my players from my library of older edition books.


My 3rd Edition tome, battered like the souls of my players.


Tags: , , , , ,

Observations about Character Creation

One of the fun things about running Ravenloft again was that I got to revisit AD&D’s character creation rules for the first time in years. From this I learned, or re-learned, quite a few things.

Because the game started with only four players I pre-generated the characters on the high end of the level range for Ravenloft, giving them all 100,000 XP. This put the characters at level seven or eight. As I expected the fighters and clerics were seventh and the thieves were level eight, but I was surprised to see that magic users were also level eight. I’d expected them to also be level seven, but it turns out that the experience curve for magic users shifts after level six. Instead of gaining levels slower than fighters, high level magic users advance noticeably faster.

Multi-classed characters also surprised me. When we first started out, all around 13 years old, we didn’t really get how multi-classing worked. Having different rules for multi-classing spread out over the Players Handbook and the poor quality of the index certainly didn’t help. (In 1st edition the Dungeon Master’s Guide held the index for both the DMG and PHB, and it’s not very comprehensive.) So we rarely created such characters and we were quite happy with single class characters.

In 2015 we have the power of Google to help us. For the first time I can say that I understand how multi-classing and dual-classing works. One of the misconceptions we had was that multi-class characters would fall behind single classed characters, but in creating several of them I found them to be about one level lower than their single class counterparts. I even realized that for 100,000 XP you could create a decent 1st edition Bard, though I decided not to create one of those oddities for this game.

The multi-class rules also gave me some insight into how racial level limits do work out as a game balancer, at least in a game designed for characters to max out in their teens. However I still find them distasteful both from a thematic standpoint and from a game play standpoint. For the fighting classes the rate of advancement should keep the gap from getting too extreme between a level capped demi-human and a human character, and the difference in hit points and tables isn’t so drastic that magic items can’t balance things out. It’s a bigger issue for spellcasters, as many more powerful spells will be blocked out of their reach. It would also seem to block them out of the iconic high level modules, like Tomb of Horrors. I should look at the pre-generated characters for those modules and see if there are any demi-humans on the roster in those adventures.

I also took a fresh look at the monk class. Now, I’ve never been a fan of the monk class; it doesn’t seem to fit with the implied settings of AD&D and I strongly suspect someone was watching too much of David Carradine in Kung Fu when they decided to include it in the Players Handbook. However I’ve been watching a lot of Shaw Brothers movies recently and figured I’d give it a look. What I found is that the class looks much more playable than what I remembered from when I was a kid. While monks have lower hit points than other classes their wide variety of powers and abilities does help make up for it and their innate armor class and hand-to-hand attacks are not insignificant. Add in a few magic items and a 1st edition monk should be able to hold his or her own with the other core classes. It left me wondering why I thought the monk class was so under-powered back when I was playing AD&D regularly and I think it’s largely because we played in a “high magic” world, where characters had a lot of magic items and in that setting the advantages of a monk are blunted while their weaknesses are accentuated.

Heh. “high magic”. Okay, I’ll be honest; back in our early gaming days we were completely Monty Haul. We even joked about it, saying that people needed to make a saving throw vs blindness if anyone cast Detect Magic on the party. Occasionally we’d decide to take it down a notch and run games where even the humble +1 sword was a weapon to be treasured, but sooner or later power levels would creep back up. When I started playing again as an undergrad my group used a more measured amount of magic, but by then the image of the monk as underpowered was set in our minds. Besides, if we wanted to do a martial artist we had our copies of Oriental Adventures to draw on.

None of my players decided to take the monk out for a spin for Ravenloft, but it’s given me the desire to get one out in the field and see what they can do in actual play.

Since I started playing D&D again with the OSR movement I’ve been playing retro-clones of Basic. This was my first re-visitation of AD&D and it was a lot of fun, both to generate the characters and to run the game. I’ll be starting up a new campaign soon and for that I’m going back to a basic game using Labyrinth Lord with some imported rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I can definitely see myself running or playing another AD&D or OSRIC game in the future.

And now that I think of it, porting the monk class into a basic game would be a snap. Heck, Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion includes a monk class…




Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


Tags: , , , ,

Weighty Matters

One of the fun things about the OSR is that it has inspired me to pull out the old books and try to figure out why rules were designed the way they were.

Case in point, why did D&D use gold pieces as a standard of weight? Why not use a real world standard, like pounds or kilograms?

The AD&D Player’s Handbook specifies that encumbrance is measured in Gold Pieces, with ten gold pieces equal to one GP of weight. One GP of weight is roughly equal to one pound, but it isn’t a direct comparison. The Dungeon Master’s Guide clarifies that encumbrance is not a true measure of weight, but an abstraction of weight and volume:

“Many people looking at the table will say, ‘But a scroll doesn’t weigh two pounds!’ The encumbrance figure should not be taken as the weight of the object – it is the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item.”

-DMG, Pg. 225

This is a reasonable, if fiddly, explanation for why D&D wouldn’t simply use standard measures of weight. However the reason for the Gold Piece standard goes deeper than just being an abstraction of weight and volume, its purpose is also to re-enforce the focus that early D&D was about finding treasure. The Player’s Handbook section on Encumbrance states:

“Lastly, as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”

-PHB, Pg. 101

Mentzer’s Basic edition also ties the importance of treasure to the mechanic of encumbrance:

“One coin of treasure, whatever the type (gp, ep, and so forth) weighs about 1/10 pound. Since coins are the commonest of treasures, the coin (not the pound) becomes the simplest unit of weight. From now on, the weight of all treasures, equipment, and so forth will be measured in coins, abbreviated cn.”

-Basic D&D Player’s Manual, Pg. 61

Dungeons and Dragons is full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but it’s fun to dig back into half-remembered concepts and discover the method behind the madness; that they were meant to re-enforce the vision that Gygax and Arneson had for the game.

 Encumbrance“Encumbrance? Oh… I didn’t think we were using those rules…”


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


Tags: , , , , , ,