Tuesday 31 March 2015

The Best: The Maps of Pete Fenlon

Over the years there have been many fantastic maps in RPGs, many have captured my imagination, but none to the extent that Peter Fenlon's maps for MERP did.

These maps induced in me a longing to climb those ranges of mountains, explore the strange towers atop hills, and follow the dotted trails. Features always went beyond the edges of the maps, inviting you to look beyond. Over many years I collected more and more of the maps, always looking to get a complete set, so when ICE lost the Middle Earth licence and there had never been a full-size version of the map of Lindon I was dismayed.

I still wished for a map that joined them all together, but it looked like a lot of work, then a couple of years ago this collage map below appeared on the internet from zikull (whoever he is). A fantastic job!

(It looked like he had a map for the missing north west corner, but sadly on closer inspection it's just a cut and paste of another bit of the map.)

When I played MERP these maps were always something that I loved, but my players rarely saw. With hex maps I knew how to let the players do their mapping, but with these grid-less maps I was at a loss. Now I play with grid-less maps and trace out the features as required, e.g. start with major features such as cities, then fill in the rest as they're discovered. If my own maps ever achieved this level of greatness I could thus share them with my players.

Which leads me to the Campaign Cartographer's Pete Fenlon style. Here is an example map drawn by modric:

(Taken from http://rpgmaps.profantasy.com/?p=1948 )

Now I'm not keen on using computers for drawing dungeons and the like - it seems like 100 times as much work for not enough gain unless you're selling it - but if you have a wilderness map that's part of a long running campaign I can certainly see the attraction.

Feel free to comment about any maps you're inspired by!

Saturday 28 March 2015

Mapping During Play

A perennial problem is how to map for players. I've tried out various methods over the years: describing the dungeon whilst a player tries to draw the convoluted description and everyone else sits round looking bored...

"The door opens into a room which is 40' by 60'. You enter halfway along the west wall. There is an door in the north wall, about 10' from the eastern end, and a corridor in the middle of the south wall. Oh, and there's 5 orcs in there."

I've tried cutting out map sections which get handed out and stuck together...

"You enter a room which looks like this... hang on... it's here somewhere...oops no, not that one - that's room 7. Ah, it's fallen out."

I've tried filling notepads with map sections which I then hand to players to copy out...

"Right, that's rooms 1-15 drawn. I never knew that two hours could go so quickly. Now all I need to do is draw all the corridor sections. I don't have time to do the eastern half, so they'd better not find the eastern entrance." 

I've tried the "character's wouldn't have the skills or time or instruments to map" method - that was a quick way to suck the fun out of a session!

How about drawing the map on a computer and revealing it to the players one room at a time - technology can solve every problem... until the players go off piste and you have to improvise an encounter.

So in the end I decided I wanted:
  • the physical process of mapping should not detract from the game
  • should not have to spend hours of my life prepping sessions
  • be able to improvise new maps on the fly
  • have the same system for dungeons, towns, and wilderness
  • have the same system for purchased modules and home-grown adventures
  • have the same system for floor plans, side-elevation maps, and isometric maps
And finally, but far from the least important
  • If the map is cool then the player's map should be cool
One day I bought some thin paper you could overlay over a map and trace through it. As we adventured I would pick up their map, put it over mine, draw on whatever extra was needed whilst describing what they saw and put it back down. One minor but important detail is that I keep the paper the same way up as my map, that is for them the map is the other way up, else I find it really confusing!

I have never looked back!

Here are some examples from our Star Frontiers campaign.

First a spacestation map, and the player's traced map:

DM's Map
Partial Tracing for Players
Here is an isometric map of a compound:

Thursday 26 March 2015

Open Dice

Roll 2d10. Replace any zeros with another 2d10 roll.

Use this instead of a d20 in any d20 system. It has the following curve for chance of beating a target score:

Now open (or exploding dice) are nothing new. I first encountered them in Rolemaster where a 95+ on a d% meant roll again and add on to the score. This is almost equivalent to a 20 on a d20 meaning roll again and add on.

This seemed cool at first, but lead to very uneven probabilities. Increasing the target required by +1 sometimes meant it was far more difficult than other times. Need an 11 instead of a 10? 90% as likely. Need a 20 instead of a 19? 50% as likely. Need a 21 instead of a 20? Just as likely!

What I was looking for was a similar "nothing is unattainable" system where each extra +1 on the target is an even amount more difficult. Ideally I wanted +3 to make something twice as difficult. That is, the initial maximum +3 or -3 on a stat could make you twice as good, or twice as bad. Fortunately (for me) in this "zeros mean roll again" system I finally found what I was looking for, whilst keeping it simple and fun:

The blue line shows the effect of +1, the red line that of +3. For example, needing an 19 instead of an 18 is only 83% as likely (the blue line), but needing a 21 instead of an 18 is only 53% as likely (the red line). Beyond a target of about 10 it roughly matches the desired rate of change.

Rolling a zero in our game now means grab an extra d10 and roll again, and the glee when someone rolls 00 and grabs 4d10 and rolls the attack is fantastic... and fear is the look on their faces when I roll 00!

Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Worst: Horses, Chickens and Donkeys

"Portals of Irontooth" by Rudy Kraft, 1981:

11     Stable: The animals in the stable include Horses, Chickens and Donkeys.

To balance "The Best" there has to be "The Worst", and for every fantastic bit in a Judges Guild module there is a truly dismal bit in another! The Portals modules ("Portals of Irontooth", "Portals of Torsh" and "Portals of Twilight") by Rudy Kraft are an interesting conceit; each describe a different world, accessed through a system of magical portals. They lack a certain "zing" so are far more likely to inspire you to write your own adventures than to be played as written, but their main failing is the sense that the author has been told they have a page count to fill, a deadline to reach, and a bucket empty of ideas, never better expressed than this hilarious page:

I particularly like the fact that the animals in the stable "include" these animals - presumably there are others which you will just have to invent on the spot - and there's two lines for you to write your list of extra animals.

I challenge you to find anything of interest on that page; the Vroine fruit are a valiant attempt but I think they need an interesting look or taste to succeed. Imagine what it would say if this was a fruit in Vornheim! (Apparently you get no hits if you google "I hate Vornheim" - except, of course, now you do...)

You'll have to get the module yourself if you're desperate to know what a number 7 type Barracks is.

This module is from '81, and this style of module was shortly to be extinct, wiped out by the Boxed Text epidemic of '82, but this only masks the underlying problem which gets rapidly worse over the years until you get a glut of text which obscures the fact there is often absolutely nothing of any interest in the entire page of a module (and sometimes not in the entire module).

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Height and Weight from Stats

One thing that's always struck me as odd is how height and weight of PCs is often unrelated to stats, with no mechanical effect. I ended up not bothering with height and weight.

I tried deriving height and weight from stats, but never successfully until I made stats into related pairs.



So where does all this come from?

The formula I chose were:

Height is 5’9’’ + (3*STR-CON)’

Weight is 156 lbs + (STR+CON-AG)/2.

If STR = CON and agility is average then height and weight are both are based on strength and keep you a similar build (BMI) for all heights.

If you’re less tough than you’re strong then you become slightly taller and less heavy (i.e. weedier), and if you’re tougher than you’re strong you become smaller and heavier (i.e. stockier).

If you’re agile then you’d expect to be of slighter build, and not overly tall. So you can’t make the person slighter by making them taller, you have to make them more compact. Hence AG affects only weight.

(The reason why it relies upon having related pairs is shown in the blank areas of the tables - you can never have +3 STR with -3 CON, CON is always restricted to being at most 2 different - hence the difficulty of determining a height for such an unlikely individual vanishes)

The distribution of heights is:

The distribution of weight is:

Monday 23 March 2015

The Best: Gazebos

This is the first post in a (hopefully) regular feature - "The Best" and "The Worst" bits that I have had the luck (or misfortune) to read in RPG products.

I was going to start it tomorrow, but I'm starting a day early in celebration of Raven Crowking signing up as my first follower :-)

His latest post is a new monster - a Gazeball - which reminds me of this fantastic entry from Bob Bledsaw & Mark Holmer's 1978 Judges Guild module "The Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde".

1014 A large black gate and the remains of a gazebo that has burnt to the ground rests in a small valley. The iron gate leans slightly toward the west and is covered with vines hiding the runes upon it. A mass of stone and debris is all that is left of a small cottage which once stood nearby. Amidst the gazebo is the skull of a collosal giant with the hand of a warrior within it's grinning teeth. The hand wears a ring with a small ruby worth 124 GP. A Spitting Snake; 4+2HD, HTK 23, AC 5; is nesting in the skull on a pile of skins.

I wonder if this is the earliest ever in-print reference to the infamous fireballed gazebo?

Wikipedia has the first publication of the Gazebo story as "Alarums and Excursions in either 1985 or 1986", and there is no mention of it being fireballed. I can't remember when I first heard the story, but it was definitely "I fireball the gazebo".

Anyway, the thing that makes this really amusing (and not just another standard in-joke or Monty Python reference) is the fact that the gazebo has already been burnt - implying that the players have stumbled across the site of this fabled incident - and inside the gazebo lies the true reason why it was fireballed, thus finally solving the age old mystery of why anyone would fireball a gazebo in the first place; finally, distracted by the humour and the ruby, the snake strikes...

Stat Generation: Random but fair

Generating stats has always been problematic. Rolling 3d6 often leads to under-powered characters, but although many solutions attempt to fix that (e.g. 4d6 discard the lowest), you still end up with some characters much better than others. "Point buy" systems are fair, but lose that random element.

After several iterations I came up with the following random method for Explore, though the method can be easily altered for any other system.

For Explore it generates three sets of pairs, each with a bonus +3 to -3, where the sum of the bonuses is 0, and each pair cannot differ by more than 2.

To generate your stats roll on the table below.

Roll 2d%. Write down one followed by the other to give you a result 1-10000.

This gives you a row on the table.

This gives you three pairs, allocate these pairs to STR/CON, AG/REF, IN/MEM. You decide the order in each pair.

You can swap the order of the two d% to give you an alternative row on the table.

You may also choose to have the inverse of your stats (swap all + and – signs). For the rows where this is different, this is given as an extra column.


For example if you roll 32 and 73 you can have 3273 or 7332. For 3273 that give you [2,0],[0,0],[-1,-1] or[ 1,1],[0,0],[0,-2]. For 7332 it only gives you [2,2],[1,-1],[-2,-2], since the inverse of this is the same. You can choose any of these three sets of stats, and allocate them as you see fit. For example

  STR 0, CON 2, AG -1, REF -1, IN 0, MEM 0


  STR 2, CON 0, AG 0, REF 0, IN -1, MEM -1

but not

  STR 2, CON -1, AG 0, REF 0, IN 0, MEM -1

(as you have to keep them in pairs).

The distribution of stats is almost exactly the same as rolling 3d3-3:

Note this system gives you 1575 different sets of stats (given the different ways you can assign them), which is a reasonable amount - 1.3% of the possible sets you could get by rolling 3d6.


In Explore there are three pairs of stats:


Each is a bonus +3 to -3. (There is no 18 Strength gives +3, a strong character simply has Strength +3), the total bonus is 0, and stats in a pair cannot differ by more than 2.

Why these six?
I liked the idea of linking pairs of stats so that a high Strength character is also likely to have a high Constitution. (It has to be Constitution as Stamina sounds too SciFi). That means an even number of stats, 4 stats is too few, and 10 is too many, hence it's got to be 6 or 8 stats.

It's common to have a pair of stats for Agility / Dexterity / Quickness / Reactions / Reflexes. I've gone for Agility and Reflexes.

For the mental stats it's a bit tricky - do you have two or four?

I dislike using a roll on Intelligence / Logic / Reasoning  to solve problems - it's always more fun to set players a puzzle to solve themselves. Similarly Charisma / Personality / Presence / Charm is generally superfluous as players usually attempt to persuade NPCs through Role Play. Hence I've settled on two mental stats: Intuition and Memory.


My influences are primarily old school RPG - D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Rolemaster, Star Frontiers, Lords of Creation, Marvel Super Heroes. Some of these are the games I used to play back when I was a keen gamer (1982 - 1995) and some are those I've played in my recent resurgence (2010-2015).

I got back into RPGs through running D&D for my family. As D&D 4th Edition did not look like a game I wanted to play, I got the Pathfinder rule books but they were far too complicated as an introductory RPG, so I went for the quaint nostalgic approach of buying a copy of Moldvay's Basic rules from Ebay, and rapidly re-discovered why the game had been a runaway success in the first place. I tried introducing various ideas from D&D 3.0 / Pathfinder such as the battle grid and initiative order and although I could see what problems they attempted to address, they had bigger issues than the problems they tried to solve. Many thanks are due to the various OSR blogs, in particular James Maliszewski's Grognardia, which showed me that I wasn't alone in feeling this way!

Initially for the Nostalgia vibe, and later trying to understand why the game had been so popular in the first place, we went through B2 Keep on the Borderlands, X1 Isle of Dread, The Tomb of Aethering the Damned (Judges Guild Treasure Maps), A1-A4 The Slavers, G1-G3 The Giants, D1-D3 The Drow (some with a rather large helping of rewrites).

Unfortunately Q1 is not a great module, nor is battling Lolth a fitting finale for a series of modules where she had not been the enemy, so I finally bit the bullet and wrote my first new adventure - an inter-dimensional hunt for the scattered parts of a Tesseract prison which could imprison the Elder Elemental God. Foddy, Shadow, Turgon and Tuck had many more adventures before they retired to their castle, surrounded by the growing city of New Specularum (the original Specularum having been destroyed due to them accidentally releasing a demon).

We've also had great fun on the way with a Star Frontiers Volturnus campaign and two Marvel Super Heroes adventures. For the last year we've been Exploring beneath Castle Blood...


Welcome to the start of my new blog.

I intend to use this blog to share rules / ideas / suggestions for pen & paper role playing games. These can be used on their own applied to other games, but taken together they form the game which I currently DM. I've tentatively called it "Explore" or "Explore: Beneath and Beyond", but we generally talk of playing "Castle Blood" as that Castle (or the dungeons beneath it) have been the main focus of the adventures!