Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Appendix N

How Much Does Appendix N Matter in Actual Play?

Well it took a while to get an idea about this, but I think we are finally starting to get a clearer answer on this one: “Does Appendix N really change the way you play D&D all that much?”

Speaking for myself, reading all those pulp stories kindled a thirst for real life adventures. Maybe not quite on the same scale as the sort that guys like Burroughs and Merritt and Hodgson would take for granted, but nevertheless still a significant leap forward in the adrenaline chasing department. For sure, people that have been brainwashed into being ashamed of their pioneering heritage are definitely missing out.

Dipping back into role-playing games at a somewhat more infrequent tempo, I did feel far more comfortable running off of, say, the core Gamma World first edition rules with no little else than a rough map and a few random encounters. Certainly, knowing what the rule set is made of grants a unique sort of confidence when it comes to the matter of elaborating on it.

Introducing a real life gaming group to Moldvay Basic D&D and Keep on the Borderlands, I found myself being far more willing to range off the starting map that comes with the module. Swaths of Lovecraft and Solomon Kane stories were dropped side by side into the play area and the weird world of my campaign setting took what could have been its foundation. But this potentially rich vein of gameplay– the whole original Appendix N infused homebrew campaign would have to wait. It remained an experiment, very much overshadowed by the usual D&D activities of players getting outwitted by goblins, kobolds, and gnolls.

The current AD&D game is another matter entirely. This one was presaged by an investigation into just how exactly James Ward prepared for his Metamorphosis Alpha games. With nothing more than an unkeyed sketch similar to what James Ward would have done, I was off in a quixotic effort to imitate the Dungeon Mastering style of Sky Hernstrom.

Sitting on this side of fourteen AD&D sessions, everything is pretty clear now. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I would have said that Appendix N is only going to account for maybe 20% of our play. The reason for that is that it is very hard to approprate from these books any more than one vivid scene, one big tent pole idea here or there, or maybe just characters or situations ripped completely out of context and dropped into play as needed. But there really is more to it than that.

For one thing, it’s not just me that is fluent in Appendix N in this game. It is the whole game group. Not only does this allow us to trust the often strange and weirdly hyper-specific AD&D rules and just see where they lead, but we are also all of us extracting a lot more of excitement out of them. Knowing where all the bits and pieces come from and their original contexts, we are equipped to play everything to the hilt. This by itself is orders of magnitude more fun than what used to be the default po-faced naturalistic approach to framing the game back in the eighties.

Just as important is the fact that the campaign setting we developed together is a heterogeneous mess that works far, far better in practice than I think anyone would would want to believe. We have a Melnibonéan ruling over Lankmar… with a Clark Ashton Smith story next door and bits of a Margaret St. Clair novel in the dungeons below. To the north we have the lost city of Opar courtesy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and another dungeon concept taken wholesale from H. Rider Haggard and A. Merritt.

There are scads of rpg supplements out there that steal the same sort of things, but this is different. All these things taken from incompatible sources and placed side by side…? Well, when you have that you end up with a campaign setting that reflects the exact same overall Frankenstein’s Monster approach to fantasy that the rules themselves exemplify. And there is a unique kind of synergy that emerges when you are creating in tandem with the rules and in the same way that the rules are conceived.

The thing that the people that are striving for “realism” and elaborate rules and overproduced campaign settings are missing out on is that when you have a game that is as stupid and eclectic as mine, it results in a gaming premise that is very easy for players to engage with. None of them are limited by realism or ponderous “ecology of…” articles. None of them have to worry about getting things right. If it’s exciting, if it’s intriguing, if it’s consistent with any one of hundreds of old pulp stories where awesome things happen in every chapter, then it’s totally on the table as something that can be added in to the mix.

That’s probably the most important discovery of all, for once you end up in a place like that you’ll never again need to rack your brain coming up with an idea for what to do for the next session. It’s more than just a game at that point, really. And you’re not just running an “adventure” anymore, either. You’re bringing a living, breathing campaign world to life and all of your players are engaged with making it great.

The results truly are a product of your imagination. THIS IS HOW THE GAME WAS MEANT TO BE PLAYED!

Unlock the wonder of the earliest role-playing games. My books will show you the way!

The Penultimate Men is Here!

I know exactly how you feel.

More than once I’ve caught myself looking out the window to check for roving motorcycle games. Checked the news for the latest updates on the food riots. Wondered just how I would manage to get home in the event of taking a wrong turn.

The future I was weaned on is has arrived. Scenarios I’ve played out countless times at the tabletop routinely show up in my twitter feed as footage from somebody’s phone.

I won’t lie, it’s rather alarming.

If you are reading this blog, then you already know what to do. Shut off the media whose only purpose is to demoralize you and denude you of your culture. Get stronger, get tougher, and become a harder target. And stand with those that will not bend the knee to whatever false god is being peddled this week.

One way you can do the latter is by picking up this latest book put together by my friends at Pilum Press. Experience again the thrill of reading stories by people that share the same ideals and visions as yourself. People able to inspire you, to lift you up. To remind you of what you are and who you are.

And there’s more. It even includes a couple of pieces from myself: a deep dive into the foundations of the Gamma World game, with an eye towards recovering the sort of lost arcana that can propel your campaigns to unparalleled heights.

It’s a fantastic collection that you are sure to revisit time and again. And you will never have more fun re-colonizing your bookshelf.

Get your copy today.

It’s Coming!

 

Get ready, y’all. This one’s gonna blow you away!

The Emergent Fantasy World of AD&D

Tam Robinson is a babe.

I’ve been tough on the players.

I just had no interest in running a game featuring kobolds and goblins like happens so often when you run Keep on the Borderlands by the book. But you know, with three healing spells at first level for each cleric, high powered rangers and paladins holding things down, and with enough money in the game that the fighting-men can afford plate armor now… hoo boy, they can hold their own up against some pretty tough opposition. Tougher opposition means bigger payoffs– a tradeoff that seems quite satisfactory, at least when the players are winning.

The magic-users are kind of hysterical. Gone are the predictable Sleep-tossing special weapons units of my B/X games. We really are seeing a lot of weird stuff crop up in play: Spider Climb, Burning Hands, and Read Magic have been the spells that been used so far in the game. Such off the wall spells! The players are one spell scroll away from fundamentally changing the balance of power between the classes, but even if they do they still have to make the “chance to know” rolls to get the good stuff. Spell books and spell components add yet another limitation to the magic-users. Magic is strange and weird and mysterious again!

Meanwhile one cleric is very, very close to leveling up. Several others of the tough guy types are maybe halfway to second level. Another good haul could could cause characters to take a break from adventuring in order go take care of their training requirements. Guys that drop to zero or less hit-points miss out on both the big scores and the experience.

The effect of finding significant treasure last session can’t be understated. I had worked up new rumors and new NPC’s for the tavern but nothing else mattered the moment that a significant treasure haul was discovered. Talk about having a motivation for your characters! It was so intense it was palpable.

And the collision of the wandering monster tables with the encumbrance rules made for a surprisingly elaborate scenario– one that came out of nowhere, really! Weird magic-user spells combined with relatively elaborate morale rules added a lot of color to stuff that would have been a little more predictable under B/X.

The game has its own internal logic and it sure does assert itself quite strongly. My desire to create a sort of auteur type monster setting is overruled by the capriciousness of the dice, the rapaciousness of the players, and eclectic specificity of the rules. (And on the player side, my smart aleck spin on the AD&D half-elf begins to look ludicrously out of place.) As I revise my rough notes for the game, refresh and restock areas, and ponder what is needed, the AD&D game begins to shape me much more than I anticipated.

The rules are ponderous, sure. But once the essence of the game is extracted from the manuals, I have to say… it sure does work. AD&D is alive. It is packed with gaming insight. Random tables like the city/town encounters matrix are a godsend, solving longstanding game design problems with just a few rolls of some percentile dice.

Most of all, Gygaxian wisdom brings a depth, breadth and scope to your game that is far richer than the stories that you might think to impose on it. You can do a lot worse than take a chance and see where all of this stuff leads.

The Hole in the Sky

Well I don’t think I have ever run AD&D before unless you count that one disastrous attempt to run “Roarwater Caves” from Dungeon Magazine issue #15 a long, long time ago. Times have changed! With many years spent studying the ancient texts and an all star crew of players on hand, now was a great time to seize hold of gaming dreams from another time.

My first encounter with AD&D or any kind of role playing game at all was with a strange kid at a YMCA summer camp that was willing to run a couple of elementary school students. It was a weird and very brief experience. The guy let us use someone’s continuing characters that were carefully recorded on this parchment-like paper. The kid that was playing with me wanted to crawl into the mouth of the green devil face, which would famously annihilate anything that was placed inside it. The dungeon master was mortified as his elaborate character sheet became invalid for continuing play.

But that’s D&D for you.

I open up with the players in the tavern. A farmer is complaining loudly that he is sure that the dragon has woken up early from his hibernation– much of his cattle have disappeared in the night. A ranger speaks very seriously about increased activity among the wild men to the south. Many of the signal fires can be seen as they communicate over great distances. Finally… there is Zanzel Melancthones drinking himself to a stupor at the bar.

The players ask who Melancthones is and I say the local high level magic-user. They ask me to describe him and I say he’s the sort of guy that’s liable to have to have 1d6 scrolls on him. The assassin walks straight up to him and buys him a drink. Alas, he gets a 01 on his reaction roll. Melancthones erupts from his chair, shoves the assassin to the floor, and beings pummeling the poor adventurer with his fists.

The rest of the party restrains the old wizard as he laments bitterly that no one believes him. With the other party actively distracting him, the assassin attempts to pick pocket him. The chances were slim due to the assassin not getting his thief skills until level three, but the roll was a 20 on percentile dice and I declared that he managed to pilfer two scrolls off the old guy! The casting of a read magic spell would later determine that the scrolls contained lightning bolt and protection from magic. Kind of a nutso haul right out of the gate, but okay!

The wizard takes them to his tower and shows the party this amazing device he created– it’s a long tube with glass on each end. He claims it can allow you to see far away places as if they were nearby. A player magic-user then takes the device and sure enough views the northern jungles, the western hills, and the southern sea as if they were just across the street. But then in this other direction which he can only describe as “yonder”… well, the player magic-user can’t seem to find it. But the second player magic-user can. There it is… the hole in the sky!

The players are hired to go check it out. 50 gold pieces now and 500 when they come back with news of the place. Also they manage to borrow a patented Melancthones’s Magic Farseeing Tube and gratefully accept his offer to pay for their horse rental. They set off into the yonder. After a days ride they encounter a pack of some kind of howling dogs. They confront them, kill one, injure another and send them packing. As they travel on they hear in the distance the dim sound of horns which are off key, followed by screams.

The players reach the ends of the earth. The see that there really is a hole in the sky. The edge of the world slopes upward gradually. A magic-user strikes it to no effect and then laments not having any iron spikes to hammer into it. The party takes stock and realizes they only have half as much rope to reach the hole. The assassin runs back to the farmsteads and takes another 50′ of rope from a barn. Meanwhile the rest of the characters throw rocks into the hole. They hear the strange horns coming from the hole and hear screams there, so they throw a rock with light cast on it up into the hole. Even with Melancthones’s Magic Farseeing Tube they cannot see what is happening inside.

The party is stumped about how to reach the hole in the sky until he recalls that he can cast Spider Climb. He takes out a vial with three live spiders inside and eats one of them. Then he consults the players handbook and calculates that he will only make it half way up! The thief elects to climb the celestial dome up to the hole in the sky and makes it up there, then calls down, “you ate a spider for nothing!” The 80′ x 100′ room he is in is filled with dried old vines covering everything. He ties the rope to them and the party makes it inside.

They note that the floor, walls, and ceiling are perfectly flat, perhaps made from some sort of metal. There is a lever next to the hole in the sky which the assassin impulsively pulls. The hole snaps shut as flat metal plates spiral into place. The rope is unfortunately cut in the process. The players are left with about an eight foot length.

With a bulls-eye lantern to light the way, the party elects to explore one of four strange passages leading from the room.  These passages are neither man-made looking nor like natural caves. The angles of everything are in all directions, not quite crystalline. After a while the party experiences a moment of vertigo, wondering if there is something non-Euclidean about the shapes of the passageways.

The passage begins to slope downward and then gradually begins to widen. The party comes to a stream formed from a foul, oily liquid oozing out of cracks in the walls. The assassin attempts to set it on fire with his flint and steel, but nothing happens. When the party jumps over the stream, they hear the blaring sound of the out of tune trumpets… and then screams. In the pulse of a sort of strobe light they see humanoid forms coming towards them.

The players discuss various options including something involving flaming oil, but then decide to hold their position and wait for these things to arrive. I rule that weapon length determines who goes first. The players manage to take out two of the seven humanoid things. When killed, they disappear in a puff of greasy vapor. The monsters manage to drop a magic-user and knock the thief down to one hit point. Looks like trouble! The players discuss their options, maybe fleeing or even just jumping back across the stream. The cleric offers to cover everyone’s escape, but then the thief points out that he is the only hope to save the mage. The mage who has run a very faithful AD&D campaign points out that the rules for retreats are not favorable. The players may as well stand and fight!

In the next round, the players lose initiative and the monsters take down everyone but the cleric. The cleric had previously told everyone not to worry, he has a back up deity. In this dire moment before his final act of the game, he holds aloft a very beautiful hard back book about everybody’s favorite game. The cleric says he appeals to the creator of this tome for divine assistance. I regretfully inform him that it has no effect. He rolls his attack and it comes out to a natural 1. He then falls in the mass of screaming, howling creatures that claw and bite him to pieces. His last conscious thought being to wonder if such things are capable of consuming his very soul.

Rest in peace:

  • James King, Human Cleric, 5 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Azirian, Human Magic-User, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Zordak, Human Assassin, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Verrod, Human Thief, 6 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.
  • Tundar Neverflim, 3 hit points, level 1, 0 XP.

Killed by screaming, humanoid monsters in the hole in the sky.