Last year when I began trying grid-based combat in my B/X game, I started making 1″ circular pieces by cutting art out of Magic: The Gathering cards and gluing them to wooden circles. It’s worked great on the tabletop and I’ve been very happy with the results, and now that I’m getting an online game going using Roll20, I’ve taken the same strategy and have been making character and monster tokens from MTG artwork.

Though this will tend to give the game a “look” that may not appeal to all oldschoolers, some on pure principle, I happen to like it. I played a little Magic back in the mid-90s and liked a lot of the artwork even back then. It’s only improved since.

My initial online test session went well and am working on getting a couple more scheduled for this weekend. The crash course learning has been going well and I think I’ve got a good handle on how to use Roll20 to play the oldschool-style game I want while taking advantage of some of the online tools like macros for various attacks and the dynamic lighting that will speed play and enhance the experience.

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It was about 1985 or so when I abandoned the official explanation of infravision–seeing varying degrees of heat–and described it as “being able to see in the dark.” Though there is some coolness to the thermal vision concept, it’s just too wonky for me. I do stick with the “infravision” term because it’s in the rules and what players are familiar with, but it’s just plain old 60′ dim vision even in total darkness. (I think this is similar to later editions’ Darkvision, but I’m not really sure.)

As I’m gearing up for my first game in Roll20 and working with the dynamic lighting to get it working and working the way I want, I am pleased to see that I can basically set up my infravision by making a character “emit light” that is not visible to others. Below is a shot of a fighter and a cat warrior in the dungeon, with the fighter holding a torch, from the fighter’s POV (left) and the cat’s POV (right):

Both the fighter and the cat warrior see the torch light, but the cat can see farther due to its 60′ infravision. I choose to disregard the “infravision is spoiled by other light sources” out of simplicity. Note that in the upper left is another light source in the next room that probably should be investigated (or avoided).

If the fighter’s torch goes out, however, things change dramatically. Again, compare the fighter’s POV (left) and the cat warrior’s POV (right):

Now, of course, the fighter can not see anything except for the other light source in the next room. The cat, however, still has its 60′ infravision. It can see, though at reduced capability. Hopefully, it can guide the fighter until he can get another light source going.

For torches and lanterns with 30′ light radius, I’m using Emits Light = 30′ with Start of Dim = 15′. For the infravision, I’m using Emits Light = 60′ with Start of Dim = -5′. This removes all brightness and makes the entire 60′ dim. Of course, the infravision “light” does NOT have the All Players See Light box checked. Only the cat warrior can benefit from it.

In the B/X rules, halflings do not have infravision. I am not convinced on this but I will stick with BTB on that. I’m glad that Roll20 makes implementing my take on infravision so simple.

Obviously, playing this way makes light and infravision far more important that has often been the case. Although I’ve always enforced “you’ve got to have a light source,” tracked torch durations, and only described what’s visible within light range, the Roll20 dynamic lighting adds a whole new dimension to it that has usually been mostly handwaved for ease of play. I’m looking forward to trying it out and to figuring out new ways to make it work.

If you’ve got experience with this and have some tips for me, be sure to chime in. This is all very new to me and I’m learning as I go.

UPDATE: You may have noticed that this is the same map section as I posted yesterday but that the lighting and LOS barrier of the large statue has been removed. I have decided that–at least for now–I’m going to use a “less is more” approach to that sort of thing. It jumbles up the look of things and seems unnecessarily complex for my game. So simpler is better. But I’m undecided on whether or not to keep blocking the edges of the doorways or not. I like the effect but it’s a lot more work for a small return. We’ll see.

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Kilgore Quarantine

Not sick, but like what seems most of the US, I’m working from home and not going out in order to reduce the number of wandering monster checks.
Passing the time by cramming the self-learning on I’ve been a member since 2015 but never done anything with it. These events are maybe the kick that I need to make it happen.

I’m working on putting together a little test game to try it out with my daughter (our regular B/X game has been hit-or-miss recently and this plague has obviously made it worse. Not sure what I’ll like, but my initial take is a classic blue map sheet with circular counters like the ones I use on the tabletop. I am enjoying the dynamic lighting on Roll20 because I’ve always struggled with getting the oppressive feeling the dark dungeon across.

Exploring a blue map dungeon. A large statue at the edge of the torch light.
After checking out the statue. Another room with a door. 5′ squares.

One thing I haven’t worked on much so far are Roll20’s character sheets. Seems like there’s a lot of good stuff that could be done there but it looks like the learning curve is significant. My initial games will roll without them.

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Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future

After a few months of pretty steady B/X Dungeons & Dragons activity, I’ve hit a little bit of a lull gaming-wise. However, I am excited to be prepping for what will hopefully be a fair amount of Traveller over the holiday season, including some gaming with my 12-year-old nephew who I introduced to the game this past summer.

Deluxe Traveller
Deluxe Traveller

My Traveller game is what I call LBB123. It consists of the three classic core Little Black Books (1981 edition) only, with a smattering of material from the other LBBs, particularly those from early in the game’s run.

In great part due to the excellent Traveller blogging over at Tales to Astound, I have been learning a lot more about the differences between the original 1977 edition of Traveller and the 1981 revision that was my first RPG back on my birthday in 1982. While I still prefer the 1981 books, I have come to appreciate a few of the things that were in the original and have been tweaking my LBB123 a little to hit what I think is the “sweet spot.”

I do not use the “Official Traveller Universe” in my game, but elements of the Third Imperium and other OTU material definitely show up here and there. Kilgore’s Traveller Universe is the descendant of my first attempt to abandon the Third Imperium back in 1987, but hopefully without all players abandoning me this time.

In the coming weeks I plan to blog about my Traveller game and, hopefully, some of our upcoming experiences. Topics will include (in no particular order):

  • The rules used (and not used) in Kilgore’s LBB123. And why.
  • All-Terrian Includes Water: Tweaks to a few of the skills for improved pulpiness
  • Not Just Scum and Villainy: My adjustments to the Other career
  • Making the Kessel Run in Less Than 5 Par-secs: Jump speed
  • She’s Got It Where It Counts, Kid: Some new options for Book 2 ship designs
  • A Few of My Favorite Things: Kilgore’s Traveller Universe

(Line-up subject to change.)

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1981 Basic, page B61:

PLAYER ADVANCEMENT: If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure. If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the “toughness” of the monsters.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about character advancement rate over the years, and I’ve tried various methods to control it and make it fit my outlook. None of these attempts have been particularly successful.

Personally, I have long tended to think that about 3-4 sessions at first level and another 3-4 sessions at second level are “about right,” at least for mid-XP scales like fighters. If playing a regular weekly game this would mean a month or so at each of the first two levels. However, since I seem to have trouble gaming with any real consistency, the rate ends up feeling agonizingly slow and the fragility of low-level characters means that even surviving four straight sessions can be quite a challenge. Character deaths slow advancement even more, as players need to start over at zero.

At one point, I even gave up on traditional XP for a while, using a Roll to Advance system. While that system got characters advancing at the rate I wanted, it (by design) removed any connection between success and advancement, pegging increases simply on the number of sessions played. While this was what I was after at the time and it seemed to work well enough, at some point I tired of it and returned to traditional XP.

I use XP for treasure recovered and monsters defeated, usually shooting for around an 80/20 split. I am a big believer in gold as the measuring tape for success, and I rarely give XP for role play, class skills, or anything else.

Personally, with our less-than-frequent play, I’d be fine with slightly quicker advancement at early levels. It seems that I am rarely running games where the characters are in the “sweet spot” of 5th to 8th level. For quite a while years ago, I actually awarded 3 (or sometimes even 5) experience points per gold piece recovered to speed advancement while not turning PCs into millionaires.

At the end of the day, though, I think the best way to speed character advancement is to simply play more often. (And don’t play elves…)

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There’s Always a Chance: d20 Ability Score Checks in B/X

The topic of rolling 1d20 and comparing it to an ability score to resolve an action has come up a couple of times on Reddit in the past couple of days, and also it’s one I’ve been meaning to post something about. I’ve seen a lot of talk over the years how this is some sort of newfangled thing or not very oldschool-ish, but “ability checks” have been a common thing in Dungeons & Dragons since the early days.

Though I’m not sure about Dragon magazine or modules, I believe the first time this sort of mechanic was directly spelled out in a rule set was in 1981’s Basic Rulebook, edited by Tom Molday. Though, like many things in 1981 D&D, the rule itself is clear but the presentation is not nearly so obvious; it’s in the DM Instructions section on page B60:

“There’s always a chance.” The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.

It’s presented a little more obviously (but as an optional rule) in the Expert Rulebook edited by David Coke with Steve Marsh on page X51:

SAVING VS. ABILITIES (OPTIONAL): The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability ratings (Strength, etc.). The player must roll the ability rating or less on a d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task, + 4 for a difficult one, etc.). It is suggested that a roll of 1 always succeed and a roll of 20 always fail.

(Personally, I like the “save vs. abilities” verbiage and try to remember to use it despite calling these things “ability checks” for decades.)

I’ve also seen (and sometimes used) ability score checks using d6s, usually something like

  • Roll under relevant ability score based on difficulty:
    • Easy: 2d6
    • Medium: 3d6
    • Hard: 4d6
    • Very Difficult: 5d6

This is nice because you can just assign difficulty levels and the ability score in question for various stuff (swimming across the river is a 3d6 Strength check, for instance) and you’re done. But I like the equal-probability of the 1d20 method and using modifiers as needed to adjust difficulty.

I also seem to remember a “multiply the relevant ability score by X to get the d% chance of success” rule, so a PC with a Strength of 14 on a “5x action” would have a 70% chance of success. But I’m not sure where that might have been from. Or if I maybe made that up myself. Because it TOTALLY sounds like the sort of thing I would have done circa 1987.

I am not actually a big user of saves vs. abilities, usually preferring a simple X-in-6 roll on 1d6. But there are times when rolling against a character’s applicable ability score is appropriate and I don’t hesitate to go that route if I think or feel that it’s appropriate in the situation. It’s entirely possible that the non-weapon proficiency system in late 1e and 2e AD&D (which I never really cared for) soured me on roll-under-ability checks.

One place that I’ve been considering using them is a save vs. Constitution as a character’s saving throw to avoid death when falling below 0 hit points. (Kilgore’s B/X calls exactly 0 hit points “incapacitated until the end of the turn” instead of dead, and characters reduced below 0 get one final roll to pull through.) Currently, our “save vs. death” is rolled on the “Death Ray or Poison” column, but since I permit arranging ability scores as desired, a player has a chance to have some say over his or her PC’s ability to fend off the Angel of Death.

However, I’m trying to de-empahsize the importance of ability scores in my game and using saves vs. abilities is bound to INCREASE the value of good scores when I’d rather that players don’t worry about them so darn much.

Finally, I am more and more coming to the realization that it’s easier and (usually) better to just tell a player that his or her character succeeds if it’s something that isn’t very difficult and exact timing doesn’t particularly matter. Sneaking past a sleeping guard might not require a check at all if the PC is alone, careful, and not wearing metal armor. On the other hand, if I have decided that sneaking past that particular guard is going to be very difficult, the attempt will probably fail unless the PC is a thief using Move Silently. Ruling on actions with a simple “yes you can” or “no, that seems pretty unlikely given the circumstances” is quick and easy if you are fair and consistent about it. Of course, if the player REALLY wants to push it on the pretty unlikely stuff, let them try, consider a save vs. ability to resolve it, and let the dice fall where they may.

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Killed by Goblins

I’ve been working on B/X combat using a grid and testing some things, using the Caves of Chaos in B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. I keep a stack of characters on 3×5 index cards ready at all times, and I grabbed a few randomly to use for the solo play-through.

As most who have ventured into the Caves of Chaos are aware, one rarely gets out of there clean. Though my solo test party has fared surprisingly well so far, they did suffer a loss against some of the goblins, with the party’s fighter falling during a particularly nasty fight.

Adding a sting to the loss is the fact that the character killed was one of the first I rolled up for my stack of cards quite a while ago and the token I used for him was one of the first I created, meant more as a test than for actual use.

If it makes you feel any better, VerHagen (wherever you are), the normally-reserved halfling archer pretty much berserked when you fell, slaughtering the remaining goblins in a fit of rage and despair. The rest of the party had never seen her behave like that before, but she didn’t really want to talk about it afterwards.

3x5 Index Card character sheet and 1" token
VerHagen the Veteran, Taken From Us Too Soon
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Acolytes and Scrolls

Just ran into an issue that I don’t believe has ever come up in one of my Classic D&D games before: a 1st-level cleric came into possession of a clerical scroll with two spells. Can 1st-level clerics cast the spells on scrolls?

There is no question in AD&D, of course, since 1st-level clerics in in AD&D can cast spells. But clerics in Classic D&D (B/X in this case) cannot cast spells until 2nd level. I happen to like this rule immensely, but now I am wondering about this acolyte and his scroll.

I decided that–unless I found a compelling case saying otherwise–the cleric COULD read the holy words and tap into the holy powers that they trigger. It just seems to make sense to me and 1st-level characters are squishy enough already.

Lo and behold, I found this question asked on a Dragonsfoot thread from 2014 and it’s even specifically asking about B/X. Even more surprising, the strong majority opinion was that, yes, 1st-level clerics can use clerical spell scrolls. I feel slightly validated.

I’m definitely inclined to allow it. Especially since I have scaled back turning the undead a bit. Even though I tend to see clerics more as mystic warriors than priestly medics, their ability to access the divine power or the Light (or the Darkness) is a fundamental component of the class.

So let it be written, so let it be done. Unless someone convinces me otherwise.

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