Monday, November 30, 2009

Bardic Lore Pt. 1: You Spoony Bard!

So, in a very roundabout way I've finally had to address the question of bards in my campaign. To wit: Dealing with last week's Advanced Prostitutes & Procurers game led me to look at the Thieves' Guild structure in the City of Greyhawk, which prompted me to take into consideration the "other" illicit guilds described in The Canting Crew: The Assassins' Guild, the Beggars' Guild, and the Vagabonds' Guild. This last encompasses Jongleurs, Gypsies, Strolling Players, Mountebanks and Tinkers (with a great deal of overlap between them). In other words, itinerant entertainers - which inevitably leads us to bards.

Now, I've always had a soft spot for the class. As a player (probably because I get to actually "play" so infrequently), I love "in-between" classes and jack-of-all-trades characters. As a GM, having a bard of any stripe in the party inevitably leads to hilarious situations and juicy complications (not to mention a great information pipeline when I want it). That said, it's had a bit of an identity crisis through the years (and editions).

The original (OD&D) version appears as early as Strategic Review #6, and already we're told that it's basically an amalgamation of the Nordic skald, the Celtic bard, and the medieval minstrel. The class has lore abilities (specifically used here to ID magic items in the dungeon), a basic bent (if not a requirement) towards Neutrality (the bard in all TSR editions seems to have a Heart Full of Neutrality), access to tons of languages (1 per point of Intelligence), and the odd mish-mash of fighter, thief, and (upon attaining 2nd level) spellcasting ability (here from the MU list). Interestingly, elves, dwarves and hobbits may all pursue the class, albeit with limits to their advancement. The 0e bard has a d6 for hit dice and attacks as a fighter of equivalent level. Thieving ability is as per a thief of half their level, rounded down (thus presumably not accessible at 1st level), with the backstab specifically excluded. Here the bard may use any weapon, but is limited to chainmail or leather armor (chain, however, precludes his ability to climb walls and move silently). The article is silent on whether they're allowed to use a shield (I'd guess no). The 0e bard has a % chance per level to mesmerize opponents (once per day per level), and once this is done he may plant a suggestion as per the spell; he may also use his music to counter song-based effects (the harpy's song is mentioned). Perhaps most unusual is that the bard here attracts followers starting at 2nd level, and these followers increase in number and level as the bard advances in experience. The Gaelic college names (Fochlucan, Mac-Fuirmidh, etc.) are present already. (Note: I had assumed these to be "mock Gaelic" and pseudo-historical; not so, as it turns out - check this link for a metric ton of bardy goodness.)

AD&D and the Players Handbook brought us the 1e bard, AKA "the original prestige class" - prestigious indeed, due to the requirements in getting one through actual play! The class seems to be a retro-fit of the 0e version, adding in a highly unusual (and somewhat problematic to arbitrate) "training period" before you actually get to the bardyness. (That's a word, right? Bardyness? Should be, anyway.) What's more, the progression here (gaining at least five but less than eight levels of fighter, then gaining at least five but less than nine levels of thief before finally switching to bard) works completely different from the standard dual-class (or multi-class) systems (which has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth over at the Dragonsfoot forums, I can assure you). The class as presented here has a reputation for a huge power bump once the bard levels are attained (as the xp progression given here is somewhere between the fighter and the cleric, yet for some reason the bard BTB gets a new HD every bard level, again flying in the face of the traditional dual-class system where you don't get new HD until your new class exceeds the old), as well as the near-mythical rarity of actual, played-from-first-level 1e bard PCs.

All that craziness aside, the actual class is pretty close to how it's presented for 0e. Races are limited to elven and half-elven. (This is parodied somewhat in the novel Azure Bonds, with the halfling "bard" Olive.) (Note how retardedly powerful the actual bard in this story is, too - he becomes a friggin' god by the end of the series! Clearly either Novak or Grubb had seen one in play at the table. LOL) Alignment is now required to be Neutral in at least one of its axises (this would also stay put until d20 rears its ugly and oh-so-permissive head). Hit dice are still a d6, but the 1e bard attacks as per his fighter level, which never increases once the class is abandoned (more on that later), while thieving ability is as per thief level. Weapons are now restricted (the druid list plus non-two-handed swords), and now only magical chain is permissible (presumably once you've worked through ten levels of fighter and thief, this is not too problematic). Spells are now from the druid list, and go up to 5th level; what's more, the 1e bard gains all druid abilities as a druid equal to their bard level. Additional languages are granted as the bard advances in level. The Legend Lore, Charm and Counter-song abilities of the older class are present, largely unchanged (albeit at a slower rate of advancement), and are supplemented by the now-ubiquitous ability to inspire his allies in battle (+1 to attack, +10% to morale, requires 2 rounds of singing and lasts a turn).

It took AD&D players all of three years to decide that the weird advancement was a little unwieldy, and the concept perhaps a bit muddled, and to do something about it. Dragon #56 (December '81) saw the publication of "Singing a new tune - A different bard, not quite so hard" by Jeffery Goelz. Goelz takes the bard as presented in both previous incarnations, and melds it into a single-class warrior-druid-illusionist (without the thieving associations or the attendant skills). This is informally known as the "Welsh bard," taken more or less from the Welsh Mabingion cycle. The Welsh bard may be human, elven or half-elven (with unlimited advancement); halflings and dwarves may only attain up to 5th level. Alignment is sort of weird - no evil, tending towards law and/or neutrality. Armor is leather only, but may be supplemented with a wooden shield (i.e., as per the druid), although the shield will interfere with Charming. Weapons are as per the druid with the addition of non-bastard-or-two-handed swords, handaxe, hammer, and horseman's mace, and excluding the spear. (Which seems pretty rough giving the poor armor situation and the back-rank position this implies - I'd be inclined to add it back in.) The Dragon bard attacks as a fighter, but does not gain multiple attacks per level or versus "insignificant opponents". They receive but one starting weapon proficiency, and attack with a -4 penalty to non-proficient weapons. They are also prohibited from using an off-hand weapon (such as a dagger or handaxe). (Again, seems a weird restriction.) Here the bard gains druid spells upon attaining 2nd level, and illusionist spells on reaching 4th. However, there is a list of spells from both traditions which are unusable by (these) bards. This bard does not gain extra languages per se, but rather adds a Read Languages ability to their Charm and Lore abilities; the Charm ability here is unrestricted by uses per day. The Inspire ability is as presented in the PHB, with the addition of a +2 bonus to saves vs. fear, and only requires one round of singing (or poetic oratory). The Counter-song ability, in addition to providing complete protection vs. harpies and the like, grants a +1 to saves vs. non-song sonic effects (such as that of a groaning spirit). Interestingly, the bard may also sooth road-weary travellers (I should note that this has never proven the case in my campaigns ;) ), granting a bonus to mounted or pedestrian movement overland. Lastly, the druid abilities are scaled back to just the shape-shift ability, and this at 11th (rather than 7th) level.

(Read in Flavor Flav voice:) Oooohhhh NINETEEN EIGHTY-NINE!!! 2e drops (yo), and the bard gets a single-class overhaul. This is the bard I grew up with, and the genesis of the modern concept of the class. We're firmly in minstrel/jongleur territory, here - the Celtic origin of the class is touched upon, but the actual class described is basically a fighter/thief/MU (errr, "mage") with good people skills. Races allowed are back to human/half-elf, alignments are back to neutral/something. Armor up to chain is allowed (with attendant adjustments to thieving skills), but no shield; weapons are unrestricted. Spells are now from the MU ("wizard") list again, and there is mention of the need for a spellbook. Hit dice are on a d6, with fighting ability as per a thief. Thieving abilities are restricted to Climb Walls, Detect Noise, Pick Pockets, and Read Languages; the 2e bard is better at Detect and Read than a thief, but suckier at Climb and Pick. The Charm ability of previous incarnations has been reduced to a chance to shift listener's reaction category by one place (with an equal and opposite reaction if the target makes a saving throw). The Inspire ability is present, here it can provide (either) a +1 to attacks, a +1 to (all!) saves, or a +2 to morale; it now requires three rounds of singing to work, and lasts 1 round per level of the bard. Countersong is limited to song-based effects, and requires the bard to make a save to get the effect. The Legend Lore ability is present (5% chance per level), albeit somewhat gimped and ambiguous (does not reveal pluses or powers, only alignment, cursed-osity, and history). Finally, 2e bards can attempt to use scrolls as a thief (just a little bit better).

Lastly, we have the bard as presented in WotC's 3rd Edition. Without going into it too much, the d20 bard is essentially akin to his 2e presentation, with much more emphasis on the "skill monkey" aspect of the class (since now there are skills), spells as per a 3e Sorceror (just a few spells known from the Wizard list, but you can cast'em a zillion times, no book), some weapon restrictions (basically simple weapons with "fencer-type" weapons added on top), limited to light armor (leather up to chain shirt) and (non-tower) shields (albeit with a chance of spell failure when casting in armor). The Lore ability is now Bardic Knowledge, works pretty much the same. Inspire, Counter-song and Charm (now Fascinate) are present, but the reason I include this class is the division of the Inspire ability into Inspire Courage (pluses to combat like we're used to), and "Inspire Competence", which allows you to sing a song and make somebody better at any random task, and is fucking hilarious. The character of Elan (from Order of the Stick) is pretty much based around this, and the "Bluff, Bluff, Bluff, Bluff the Stupid Ogre!" song is one of my top ten webcomic comedy moments; hence this class's inclusion.

So that's the rich tradition of the bard, as seen through the lens of a game about genocidal murder and doing B&Es. Next time we get to look at how I'm bringing some of these classes in line with each other for (simultaneous, parallel) inclusion in my AD&D game. There will be fucktons of charts.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Old Guard Kobolds (or, "Pimpin' Ain't Easy")

Tuesday's game was an interesting session.

Last time, the PCs were on a map-and-loot jaunt through the Storerooms (level 1 of the Castle Greyhawk dungeons). Near the end of the night, they managed to discover a long-hidden secret chamber. Shortly after, a nasty skirmish with a band of goblins left them pretty banged up, and they retreated to the secret bolthole for a rest.

Now, they were careful to cover their tracks and leave no obvious trace of their passage, so I allowed that they'd be pretty safe there, as long as they Anne Franked it. Usually I've encouraged a trip back to town at the end of a session (since you never know who's gonna be around for the next session, and I try to avoid having un-played PCs in the game), but here at least the players who turned up could operate out of the secret room, with the inactive PCs hiding out. Well, next session we ended up with 3 players.

There was some discussion of turning back to town and assembling some hirelings, but instead the 3 PCs mounted a scouting expedition. They spent a few turns double-checking the party map (there've been a handful of mappers working on it, which tends to make things nice and confusing), and then headed off to the quarter they hadn't hit, yet. And met the Old Guard Kobolds.

If you're an adherent of the Lake Geneva Campaign, you've heard the stories, if not - well, just suffice it to say that these are some Very Burly Kobolds (who've been taking out PC parties for decades, now). The party as it stood was about as tough as a 3-member low-level party can be (two tanky fighters and a fighter/cleric), but right off the players knew something was up. The little bastards were falling like so much wheat (or at least the ones in the front were), but only due to some fancy rolling on the players' part - and they weren't falling fast enough, since the ones in back were tossing oil - and then some of them turn out to be capable swordsmen - and that one's wearing fucking PLATE MAIL - and here come two more units of'em - SHIT SHIT SHIT LET'S GET OUT OF HERE - and I laughed very much.

To their credit, they just exactly pulled it out of the fire, with only one fatality and a handful of hit points left, but (by at least one of my players' admission) their reluctance to flee was almost the death of them. I'd like to say the lesson was learned, but of course they're already plotting out bloody vengeance against the kobs. I suspect it won't be as easy as they're imagining. [EVIL DM GRIN] Their early realization that these weren't "just kobolds" was downright heart-warming, however; if they can at least take away from this that they can't always rely on their knowledge of the Monster Manual to gauge encounters, I'll consider us ahead of the game.

After that fiasco, the party hoofed it back to the Free City of Greyhawk. This was the first time I broke out the map (I'm using Joe Bloch's maps - Joe Bloch of the Greyhawk Grognard blog and the thoroughly awesome WG13 - for my City of Hawks and so far they're eminently suitable), and the first time I plotted the party's course to their destination, with encounters every few thousand feet courtesy of the Midkemia Cities book (I'm loving this supplement so far - read on).

The first encounter I rolled up, as the party was traversing the main drag north towards the Old City, was a prostitute. Consulting the sub-table, I learn that this is exactly (*roll*) one prostitute, who is (*roll*) approaching one of the characters for (*roll*) help. Off the top of my head, it becomes apparent that this is a street girl, and that some bruisers from the bawdy house nearby have been trying to run her and her co-workers off of their corner (nobody likes competition). The players bite and we're off on our first city adventure of the campaign.

This ends up being an interesting exercise in on-the-spot content creation. They head to the spot, the party leader gets the girls to point out their antagonists, and the PCs go to "straighten out the situation". After a few tough words are exchanged, they demand to speak to the thugs' boss; the thugs are only too happy to show the PCs in so that they can fall in behind and bash their collective brains out in private. A close-quarters melee follows (in the foyer next to the coatroom), and, with the thugs realizing the futility of direct attacks (one fighter in plate mail, and we're using weapons VS. AC, they'd be hitting on 20) I got to break out the pummeling and overbearing rules from UA. (Lesson learned here being that you really need multiple bodies for the overbearing thing to work well.) With the largest of the three doormen downed, and the other two wounded and fled, the party leader relays his message to some newly-arriving bravos (that the girls ought not be messed with from here on out), and they take off. Being smart enough to have the hookers show them through the back alley, they even avoid the watch patrol that's headed to investigate the disturbance. The girls are brought to the Green Dragon (where the regular working girls shoot them dirty looks), and it is decided at that these will now be two of our PCs' hos, and that they will now look after the ladies.

So now my PCs have some hos. I'm still figuring out how to handle this. Gary Gygax's Canting Crew book has some amazingly detailed thieves' guild info (that I'm using pretty much as-is for my City), and from here I learn that not only is prostitution a guild-run activity, but that there's even different branches for different types (high-class girls, house girls, street girls, etc.). So not only are they horning in on one branch's racket, they're interfering with another's. I suspect they'll find that pimpin' ain't easy, even in the City of Greyhawk. LOL

All in all, out of one random encounter I got a new city location, the name of its owner (and an idea of what its foyer looks like), two new slightly-detailed NPC enemies (the escaped doormen), a potential in-town conflict for the PCs to deal with (the guild), and a rather interesting and potentially hilarious campaign complication (i.e., "How the shit do I handle PC ho income?")("And do they gain XP for it?")

Hell of a session.


PS: This post at Old Guard Gaming Accoutrements is awesome.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

WTF, Sparta. Seriously?

LOL - I just stumbled across this tidbit on - from the article on "Annoying Arrows" (i.e., the tendency for characters in media to get stuck full of arrows and keep on fighting) (yeah, D&D gets namechecked here):

300 in a way both overstated and understated the effectiveness of Persian arrows. The arrows were actually very light, like most weapons used by the Persians, and would bounce off Greek shields and armor instead of sticking into them like in the film. But the Persian army was renowned less for its ground archers and more for its mounted archers, who would ride close to the enemy and harass them with targeted arrow fire, which the Greeks at the time had no defense against. After the war, the Spartans actually invented the "hoplite run," in which a soldier would have to sprint the better part of a mile in their armor to train for running down enemy cavalry.

Seriously, Sparta? When presented with deadly enemy horse archers, your response is "JUST RUN THE HORSES DOWN AND PWN THEM YOU PUSSIES"?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Greyhawk Sandbox Project (Steps 1-10)

Tuesday is AD&D night around here, so I'm spending some time before the game to get all my campaign ducks in a row, so to speak. One thing that's topping my list at the moment is an overland map - I don't have one (or at least one with a finer scale than the Darlene map's 30 mile hex - great for getting an overview, but not so useful for hexcrawl-style wilderness adventure). So far we've been concentrating on the dungeon (Castle Greyhawk), with the city itself (Free City of Greyhawk) only just starting to show up in play - but it's only a matter of time before somebody picks up one of the adventure hooks laying around (or gets bored) and wants to do some hiking.

Bat in the Attic blog (a fine OSR destination if you haven't checked it out yet) outlines 34 steps to make a fantasy sandbox, and I'm dying to try his method. The first three steps (1 world map, 2 label important regions, 3 write region blurbs) are already taken care of thanks to the World of Greyhawk folio, and step 4 is to choose your starting region - again, centering on the Free City of Greyhawk, the choice is made for me. Steps 5-10 involve detailing the local map, so that's where I'll be starting.

Now, surprisingly, there's not a single zoomed-in hexmap of the Greyhawk region that I can find. There are plenty of beautifully illustrated maps out there, most of which look like they'd be useless in my gaming (and most of which incorporate elements from 2e modules and the 3e Living Greyhawk campaign, none of which I'm using). So it falls to me to create a usable hexcrawl map of the area. I'll likely be doing this with the DMG random terrain tables as inspiration (although I'll place the result generated with some mind as to "realistic" terrain).

Something else I stumbled across last night: Bat in the Attic has also put up a great rundown-by-pantheon of the Greyhawk deities - something I've meant to do for quite some time (long enough that I probably never would have). The posting is HERE, and the full rundown is HERE. Great stuff.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Game Store Gloat

Holy fuck - quite a run to the local game pit this afternoon. Check it out:

JG88 Dark Tower (Paul Jaquays' legendary "upside-down dungeon", set in Judges Guild's Wilderlands setting.)
FR5 The Savage Frontier (Also by Jaquays - a classic sandboxing/expansion of Ed Greenwood's FR1 Waterdeep and the North. It's like Forgotten Wilderlands; been meaning to pick up a hard copy of this for years now.)
9031 The Rogues Gallery (Random NPC generation guidelines and stats for TSR employees' PCs - some of them included under protest, while Blume was forced to make up others when the players wouldn't cooperate. 1980 edition, B+W with Erol Otus art on the front and bogus Mordenkainen and Robilar stats inside.)
9047 Monster & Treasure Assortment (Dungeon level-appropriate encounters and treasures, 100 a piece for 9 levels, and trap/trick tables. I already have one of these, but this is useful enough to keep a copy in each campaign binder - I'm up to maybe four at this point.) (!!!)
B1-9 In Search of Adventure (Compilation of the first 9 modules in the B series, loosely tied together in a campaign. I've got maybe half of these already - from what I hear, the half that matter - and by all accounts this compilation contains heavily-expurgated and hacked-together versions of these modules, but I'm curious to check it out, and from a completist's point of view - well, it was missing from the collection. What can I say? LOL)

All of these for $5 or less. FUCKING SCORE. Dark Tower goes with the JG pile - the Wilderlands is my "someday maybe" setting, as I'm working on the GH stuff first. Savage Frontier was a must before I restarted my Realms campaign, so maybe that'll get going a little sooner. (This would be the PCs from my rather long-running (now defunct) d20/1e hybrid Realms game, only converted over to Hackmaster/1e hybrid stats and thrown some 30 years back in time to the Grey Box era. They keep requesting this, and I keep not having it done. It'll likely involve a lot of Hacking in Undermountain, so once I've got Castle Greyhawk out of my system and my megadungeon legs under me, that'll be a prime candidate. One of these days.) M&T and the Rogues Gallery are just great all-around table aids. (Although I should mention that Kellri's Encounter Netbook is a more-than-suitable replacement for both products, plus a whole shit-ton more. Worth checking out for any pre-2000 D&D edition.)

Damn this collector bug. Hahaha...


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What is good in life, Conan?

Nothing momentous to report. Just another Tuesday night around here: Me and some good buds enjoyed some single-malt scotch and some good buds. The party dickered over terms with some hirelings, then made an expedition to Castle Greyhawk, only to run into a hobgoblin and his goblin cronies - the same group that they'd only a few sessions earlier routed with judicious application of murder holes and flaming oil. It was a near thing, with the party pulling out a win but with the thief injured and the rest near "E" on healing and hp, but the haul was just worth it. The hired spearman ate it, while the torchboy ran away. They returned to the city, blew a week while the thief rested up (two members were offered positions in the military, another Gilliganed his way into a possible knightly appointment, and the thief picked up a nagging chest cold that will slow him down for a few weeks)*, then wandered the streets (passing by a Pelorite pilgrimage being harassed by street urchins)* hocking their ill-begotten gains and recruiting for the next adventure.

Man, D&D fucking rules.

* Random city events courtesy of Midkemia Press's fine "Cities" book - now re-available from Midkemia's website here: LINKY)