Product Review: Using Banners on the Cheap for Maps

LS's First Dungeon - Page 2
The first dungeon I ever made. There’s a good 30 or 40 pages of this, from roughly when I was in second grade.

Full Disclosure: I received this product for free, in exchange for the review. I have done my best to honestly represent its quality here.

Like all good game masters, fantasy cartography is dear to my heart. I’ve been making maps of worlds and dungeons since I was a small child. Not good maps, mind you. I lack any semblance of artistic ability, but I always enjoy seeing an environment grow and come to life. Role playing games have given that little hobby of mine new dimension, as I actually get to see others explore my worlds, interact with them, and provide them with a depth and context that I could never create on my own. Often, as my worlds take on more epic proportions, I wish I had some way to immortalize them. I once spent a month re-drawing an entire world by hand, then laminating it, just for that purpose.

So a little over a month ago, when I was approached by a company called Banners on the Cheap to evaluate their products for mapmaking purposes, I jumped at the chance. There’s a lot to like about the idea. Not only do you get to see your world laid out on a huge surface, but vinyl has a nice weightiness to it as a material. It’s certainly not as cool as having your map painted on leather or something more reminiscent of a fantasy setting, but being more durable than paper is a huge plus in my eyes.

Based on my conversations with BotC prior to agreeing to the deal, we did hit upon one snag. There was some concern that the printing process they use might not be rated for cartography. Maps have details which are much finer than those found on a typical banner image. Truth be told, one I learned that, I didn’t expect to be happy with the product. I even spent a few idle moments drafting a disappointed review in my head. None the less I spent some time in Hexographer expanding my current game world. I then uploaded the map to their website and waited for it to arrive. A couple days ago, this is what I received:

Banners on the Cheap print of my ToKiMo Game World

Wow. Just…wow. I’m still feeling a little bit of shock over how cool this looks. That’s my game world, and it’s huge! 3’x3′ didn’t sound quite so large in my head. I could hang it on a wall if I wanted, or lay it out on a table for my players to move around on during gameplay.

Here’s another photograph, with the Pathfinder Core Rulebook used as a reference, just to give you an idea of how massive this thing is:

Banners on the Cheap Map of my ToKiMo Game World, with the PFCRB for comparison

I chose to use a map made with Hexographer for a few reasons. Firstly, it would be the most personally useful to me–so I had some selfish motivation there. As I mentioned above, this is my current game world. Having a nice big version of the map will be an interesting tool to use as I plan adventures. Rather than examining landscapes on a computer monitor, I can do it on a table. Which is how I like to plan my games anyway.

My biggest reason for choosing a Hexographer map, however, is that it was easy to scale. I could have uploaded my Negune world map (which is far more sentimental than the map I ended up using) but I doubt it would have printed well. My pencil scratches look alright on an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper, but I doubt they’d look quite so good when blown up to this size. On top of that, Hexographer takes my (lack of) artistic talents out of the equation. Many GMs are familiar with Hexographer, and what maps produced with it look like. My hope is that having a ‘baseline’ for the art, which everyone is familiar with, will help my clumsy photographs convey the quality of the printing.

Regarding that quality, there is some fuzziness which may not be apparent in the larger shots above. Personally it doesn’t bother me. The lines are crisp, the icons and text are easily legible, and unless I look closely I don’t really even notice it. However, the more artistically inclined might find the grainy texture disappointing. I’ve done my best to capture it in these two pictures. Please forgive my amateurish lighting in the second photo:

Banners on the Cheap Map of LS' Campaign World - Plains of Nalew

Banners on the Cheap Map of LS' Campaign World - Plains of Nalew

Now, for myself, I tend to stick to large scale maps like this one. Maps which cover miles upon miles of terrain. However, I know that others like mats which represent a single battlefield. So in their interest, I tested the mat with wet-erase markers. It worked just as well as my blank battle mats do, so that’s a huge bonus:

Banners on the Cheap Map - LS' game world

Drawing a cute lil’ ship in the water. Sail, little ship! Sail!

Banners on the Cheap Map - LS' Game World

This ship is immune to even the most diligent of finger rubbing!

Banners on the Cheap Map - LS' Game World

Oh no! Water! The ship’s one weakness! Which, in retrospect, is a terrible weakness for a ship to have!

For those same people, I also placed a mini on the map to give them an idea of what the scale is like. For the record, this map’s hexagons are set to 200px by 200px in Hexographer.

Banners on the Cheap Map - LS' Game World

“By Vecna’s Balls! With the ship gone, I will surely drown in all of this armor!”

Regarding the service itself, I really only have nice things to say. Uploading my map was extremely simple. I just selected the size of the banner I wanted, and uploaded an image. I was then shown how the image would be positioned on the banner, and fiddled with my image until it looked the way I wanted on the preview. I received the product over a week earlier than they estimated. And the price is easily affordable. With the mounting grommets (which are an extra I tacked on) the map above cost less than $25. More than you’d probably want to spend on every gaming session, but not so much as to be unreasonable if you were planning something special, or hoping to immortalize your game world. And there are smaller sizes than 3′ by 3′ too. A 2′ by 2′ banner is priced at about $10!

Normally, when I review something, I tend to be pretty harsh. I’ve sometimes even worried that I’m too harsh, since I doubt Robin D. Laws would like me very much if he and I ever met. But I don’t see much to dislike here. This is a cool service which fills a niche within the role playing community. The company itself is actively reaching out to us as potential clients by asking tabletop bloggers to review their products. And it’s pretty damned cheap. I do most of my printing at Office Depot, and I’ve occasionally had simple paper printings which cost more than $10 just because the paper was larger than 8.5″ x 11″.

So, yeah, in conclusion, I hereby give my recommendation to Banners on the Cheap as a resource for printing maps. And if anyone ends up using it for a more artistic map, let me know! I could add the picture to this post to give people a better idea of what to expect.

 

Dungeon Crawling at a Crawl

Oldschool Style Adventure, Dungeon Crawling - Source UnknownDuring my recent Google+ game of OD&D with Brendan, one of my biggest surprises was how little the system surprised me. Prior to that game, the oldest form of Dungeons and Dragons I’d ever played was 3rd edition. So when I logged in to Google+, I thought I was about to encounter something unlike anything I’d ever played before. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last year reading OSR blogs, but the truth is, the game worked pretty much how I suspected it would. The mechanics were simpler than Pathfinder’s, but in exchange the game got off of the ground quickly and still had a lot of depth and action.

None the less, I have some things to consider. I’ve already mentioned how I was taken aback by the elegance of the initiative system we were using (which, as it turns out, is actually from Chainmail, not the OD&D booklets themselves). Today I’d like to briefly discuss something else which surprised me: how entertaining it can be to move at a snail’s pace.

If someone had told me a month ago that they’d played a 3-hour game where the party only investigated 5-ish rooms of a dungeon, I would have assumed the game was very boring. Unless those 5 rooms had an immense amount of things to do in them, I couldn’t have imagined enjoying an average of 36 minutes in each room. I was familiar with Game Masters who expected their players to treat every little thing as potentially lethal, and in fact I have a lot of respect for some of those game masters, I just didn’t think it was something I could enjoy myself.

Yet that’s exactly what we did, and I loved every minute of it. I not only prodded things that looked dangerous with my 10ft pole, I also detailed how I prodded them. When I opened the door, I didn’t say “I open the door with my 10ft pole.” I said “The door opens into this room, right? Alright, I stand 10ft away from the door, against the wall on the side with the hinges. Then I use the hook on my 10ft pole to latch onto the door handle and pull the door open.” I played that way because I was easy to hit, had 1hp, and didn’t want to die. And when I didn’t die, it felt like a god damned accomplishment.

I’ve been puzzling over why something which sounds so boring was so much fun, and I think the serious lethality of the game was a major factor. Most of the party had more survivability than I did*, but for my own part, any damage whatsoever would cause my death.** Finding ways to participate while still keeping myself relatively safe was a real challenge, and one I enjoyed. And as I said above, when the adventure was over and I had actually survived it, I felt special.

Another reason I think this style of play worked is that there were very few die rolls to speak of. The last time I ran a dungeon for my Pathfinder group, the rogue commented that he found checking for traps to be tedious. Rolling a D20, adding his modifier, comparing it to a number, over and over again. I talked about this and the problems with it way back in my skills overview. However, the other day was the first time I really saw the alternative in action, and it was beautiful. We only encountered a single trap—a pressure plate which activated a hidden crossbow—but we didn’t find it by rolling any dice. We found it because we said we walked around the room carefully, testing the ground with our 10ft poles as we went. Had I not done that, and found the body on the floor, I fully suspect Brendan would have shot me dead right there.

I also wonder if the simple process of character creation has anything to do with it. The characters were created almost entirely by rolling on tables, and my character sheet was literally written on an index card. Perhaps we were able to enjoy the lethality which necessitated our slow movement because we knew that even if we failed, and died, we could have our next character ready to go within minuets. In a game of Pathfinder, players have already invested so much in even level 1 characters, that a dungeon lethal enough to kill them in a single blow seems like an insane place to enter until much higher level.

It’s funny how something can sound extremely unpleasant until you actually give it a try. I don’t think this is something I could implement in a Pathfinder game. Player characters are too durable for a spike trap to terrify a Pathfinder Wizard anywhere near as much as it would terrify my OD&D Magic User. Still, I wonder if my players would enjoy this as much as I have. I may need to run an OD&D session or two sometime in the future!

*By ‘more survivability,’ I don’t mean much. Everybody started out by rolling 1d6 for their HP, with no bonuses to it based on constitution. On top of that, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage. So yes, any damage at all would kill me for sure. But any damage they took still had a potential to kill them as well. It’s not as though the fighter could be confident that he would be able to survive a few hits.

**I should note that my constitution is high enough that I am allowed to roll a saving throw to be unconscious, rather than dead. But that’s not exactly a safety net I want to rely on.

Colorful Characters 18: Laura Kraul

Spear Woman by LJF Hutch
Spear Woman” by LJFHutch

Laril Kraul spent his early years in a small village on the Venusian coast. For generations his family–along with most other families in the village–had been fishermen. Laril was taught to use a net and spear from a young age, and proved adept in their use. During his teen years, he even created and popularized a form of gladiatorial jousting within his village which used the tools (the spears were blunted, of course). As he grew older, however, he became increasingly aware of the fact that he was different from the others in the village. The responsibilities he was expected to shoulder were awkward for him, and he often fantasized about what it would be like to be other people within his village. To experience their lives, and everything that went with that.

When Laril reached manhood, he took his leave of the village. He had always been strong, and the call of adventure gave him ample opportunity to explore his feelings of discontentment. Mastery of his unusual weapons proved beneficial to adventuring life. After a handful of minor successes on his own, Laril was approached by a small band of dungeon delvers who were impressed with his deeds. They asked if he would like to join them as they hunted for treasures hidden in crypts beneath the earth, and Laril was happy to accept. Adventuring life was dangerous, and he’d been hoping to find some companions to mitigate some of that danger.

The group traveled together for several months, and their excursions were largely profitable. Laril took pleasure in the excitement of the hunt. The fact that he’d recovered more gold to than anyone in his village had ever seen before didn’t hurt either. Yet his discontentment remained. Even in the life he’d made for himself, he felt out of place.

About a year after joining the group, Laril and his companions were exploring a particularly dank cavern. They’d slain the troll who lived there, and were beginning to worry that the treasure the beast had supposedly hoarded was fake. It took them nearly an hour to find the chest, modestly sized, hidden under a pile of rocks. Its contents were hardly worth their trouble. A measly few bags of silver coins, a pair of jewels, and a jade-studded leather belt with a silver buckle. Everyone agreed the belt must be the greatest prize, and they rolled bones to see who would get it.

Laril won, and immediately began putting the belt on while his companions set about dividing the rest of the loot between themselves. He was surprised by how comfortable it felt. In fact it affected his comfort much more than he would have imagined a belt could. He began to comment to his companions that the belt seemed to be magical, only to have his thoughts interrupted by the sudden and hysterical laughter of his friends. He asked what was funny, and noticed that his voice sounded strange in his ears. Worried, he went to his pack and began to fumble around for the steel mirror he kept there. As he rummaged through his bag, he noticed something else:

He had breasts.

“It’s a belt of gender changing!” the group’s wizard called to him, having finally regained his breath. “A cursed item. You won’t be able to take it off without a spell ofRemove Curse.” Laril was silent for a long moment as he pondered this development. Despite a change which should have upset him, he still felt strangely…comfortable. More comfortable than she’d ever felt in her life. The nagging discontentment which had pestered her in otherwise quiet moments was nowhere to be found. She felt whole.

Laril remained silent for the moment, unsure of how to broach this issue with her fellows. But when the morning came and the wizard had prepared his spell, she knew she couldn’t go back. She refused to allow the Remove Curse spell to be cast upon her, stating that she was happier this way. The party was confused, and concluded that the belt must have additional magical properties they were unaware of–some manner of mind control. They took hold of her and held her in place while the wizard performed his spell. Laril protested, but the others were certain they were doing her a favor, and held fast.

The spell was completed, and the belt destroyed. Laril again found herself in a male body, once again disconcerted, once again less than whole. She was so overwhelmed by rage and loss that all she could do was sit and weep over the ruined remains of the belt that had changed her life. Her companions were concerned for her, and opted to remain another night without traveling, to allow her some time to work out whatever was wrong. The following morning, she informed them that she had come to two decisions.

The first was that she would no longer remain with them. Now that she’d found what she’d been looking for, she intended to waste no time in figuring out how to get it back.

“And the second thing?” they asked.

“My name is Laura.” she answered. Then left.

Laura Kraul (CR 5)

XP: 1,600
Female Human Fighter 6
LG humanoid
Init +8; Senses Perception -1


Defenses


AC 20, Flat Footed 14, Touch 16 [10 + Dex(4) + Armor(5) + Dodge(1)]
hp 53 (6d10 + 24)
Fort +7 Ref +6 Will + 1


Offense


Speed 30ft
Melee Shocking Burst Longspear + 9 (1d8 + 3 + 1d6 Electricity/x3 + 2d10 Electricity)
Melee Net +10 (Causes the Entangled condition)(Ranged Touch Attack)(10ft)


Stats


Str 16 (+3) Dex 19 (+4) Con 14 (+2) Int 11 (+1) Wis 9 (-1) Cha 13 (+1)
Base Atk +6/1; CMB +9; CMD 23
Feats Improved Initiative, Weapon Focus (Spear), Weapon Specialization (Spear), Dodge, Weapon Focus(Net), Quick Draw, Lunge, Toughness
Skills Craft (Boatswain)(+11), Knowledge (Engineering)(+11), Ride (+10), Survival (+5)
Languages Common, Dwarven
SQ
–Lunge: Can increase the reach of your melee attacks by 5ft in exchange for a -2 AC penalty.
Gear Slick Lightly Fortified Hide Armor; Mithril Shocking Burst Longspear; 3 Silk Nets; Backpack; 842 GP, Dagger, Bedroll, 10′ pole, steel mirror, 3 weeks rations, 1 lantern, 3 flasks of lantern oil, small jar of salt, fishing line, 3 hooks.

I Concede: OD&D Initiative is Superior

Charging into BattleThe other night, I participated in my very first OD&D game, played via Google+ with Brendan as the GM. I could be wrong, but I think Brendan may be only the second person to GM for me. He’s good, and the game went exceptionally well. One of the other players has already written a pretty thorough recap of the game, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that I have thus far made a good account of myself, considering that I’m easy to hit, have only 1 HP, and can prepare only a single spell per day. Instead, I’d like to focus on system analysis, specifically with regards to initiative.

In Pathfinder, initiative is mechanically simple. At the start of combat, following any surprise round, each participant in the combat rolls a twenty sided die. They then add their dexterity modifier to the number they rolled, and each of the battle’s participants are ranked. They then begin taking turns in descending order of initiative.  There are ways to gain an additional boost, or a penalty, to your initiative, but that’s the system in a nutshell. The mechanic is quite simple.

In OD&D, initiative is handled en masse. The battle’s participants are divided into groups (usually consisting of “the players” and “the stuff which wants to hurt the players.”) Each ‘side’ of the encounter then rolls a single six sided die. Whoever wins the roll is allowed to take their actions first, along with everyone else on their side. Once the winner’s turn is over, the other side takes their turn. Following that, initiative is rolled again to determine which side will go first in the next round.

Amusingly, I recently encountered this rule during my ongoing perusal of the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was featured in Part 6 of that series, and at the time I was not impressed. To be specific, I wrote:

There seems to be an excessive amount of computation involved in determining the order of combat.

A comment which I now find rather ironic.

The problem is that while Pathfinder’s initiative mechanic is simple, it is not elegant. When my entire game group is all able to get together, I’ve got six players. Even the simplest encounter must include at least one foe for them to face, so that’s a total of seven initiatives to track at a minimum. When I ask for an initiative roll, I need to quickly write down the names and numbers of each person. This is often an awkward task, since I can’t write even simple initials as fast as my players are able to recite their initiative scores to me, and at some point I need to roll and record the initiative for the bad guys as well. Going through this arduous process isn’t just annoying for me, it’s damaging to the player’s experience as well. Deciding to fight an enemy is an exciting moment in gameplay, but when the group spends 30-60 seconds rolling and recording initiative, some of that excitement is drained.

That’s not even the end of it, because once initiative in Pathfinder has been recorded, it must betracked.Since it’s impossible to have the initiative order written down linearly (unless you want to re-write it after initially recording it, thus wasting more time) you need to bounce around on your list and do your best not to skip anybody. The best method I’ve come up with is to quickly draw a “bouncing line” between names on the list. But even this is a pretty hit-and-miss technique.

Keeping track of initiative in Pathfinder can be confusing

Comedic overstatement aside, these complaints are not what I would call game-breaking. Until recently, I would have even called them necessary evils. Evils which, frustrating as they may be, are minor in comparison with the benefits the system provides. Using Pathfinder’s initiative, players and player foes get mixed together in the combat order, creating an interesting and chaotic effect for battle. Additionally, it allows for individual characters to be particularly good, or particularly bad, at leaping into a fight. Rogues can move in quickly to attack before their foes are prepared, while a character who used dexterity as a dump stat is forced to deal with the consequences of that choice. Plus, it adds structure to the tactical combat, and I like tactical combat. There’s a lot of good to be said about how the system works.

By comparison, OD&D’s initiative mechanic sounds not only chaotic, but intrusive. At least with Pathfinder, order is determined at the start of combat, after which it only need to be referenced. Plus, when rolling as a group, how does one determine who in the group goes first? It all sounds pretty sketchy in theory.

In practice, however, OD&D’s initiative is simple, and surprisingly intuitive. Who goes first when the player group has initiative? Well…whoever feels like going first, that’s who. I can see how that question might pose a problem if you were running a game for children, but we’re all adults. We’ve stood in lines, waited at traffic lights, and given our bus seats to old ladies. We know how to be gracious, particularly when it doesn’t really matter who goes first. In function, the person who went first was whoever had an idea they were excited to try out. It even turned out to be a large benefit, since one of our players had never played the game before. He was able to wait until last during each round until he gained some confidence in how the game was played.

And since rolling for initiative is so simple, (a single opposed D6 roll, no modifiers), re-rolling it each round didn’t intrude on gameplay at all. If anything, it enhanced the excitement of combat. Remember above how I mentioned that Pathfinder’s initiative allows friends and foes to be mixed in the combat order, which makes things a little chaotic and exciting? That effect is enhanced when either you or your enemies might be able to take two turns in a row!

The system isn’t flawless. For example, I’m pretty sure there was a round or two where a PCs took an extra action than they should have, or no action at all. And as an avid player of rogues, I would be pretty disappointed to permanently shift to a system where I couldn’t jump the initiative order by a significant margin. But these are minor complaints. The bottom line is that OD&D’s initiative mechanic is better than Pathfinder’s. As such, I propose the following amendment to Pathfinder’s rules:

Initiative: At the start of combat, separate each of the battle’s participants into groups based on affiliation. (Most battles will be between two groups, but some battles may be between three or more). The member of each group who has the highest initiative modifier rolls 1d20 and adds their initiative modifier. The members of the group which rolled highest take their actions first, followed by the other groups in descending order of initiative.

Once everyone has taken a turn, initiative is re-rolled, again by the group member with the highest initiative modifier. The process repeats itself until combat has concluded.

I considered adding a few other mechanics in there, such as players with the Improved Initiative feat being moved into a separate group, or an incremental decrease in initiative bonuses as the combat goes on. But I think stuff like that would just complicate an otherwise simple mechanic, without adding anything of value to it. Though I might later amend the rule so that initiative bonuses only count during the first round.

I think this should serve as a good compromise between the two systems, and look forward to using it. Though I doubt I’ll be springing it on my current group just yet. I think they get a little confused by my constant re-tooling of the game’s mechanics.

Tabletop Items from A Link to the Past

I don’t know about you, but I really enjoyed my post from a couple weeks back about adapting the magic systems from Final Fantasy games to work in tabletop. As you may have noticed, I’ve been giving a lot of my attention to video games for the past few weeks. And while this is strictly a tabletop blog, it’s always more fun to write when I can write about something which is already on my mind, as opposed to trying to force myself to write about something I’m not really interested in at the moment. When I try to force it like that, I just end up doing a half-assed job. Besides: combining tho relatively unrelated things is always a great way to come up with some creative ideas.

I’ve always been a fan of the Zelda games published by Nintendo. And while I lost interest in new titles after literally falling asleep during the endless sailing of Wind Waker, I still regularly go back to re-play the games published before that. And the best among those, as well as my personal favorite game of all time, the The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I could go on for pages about why this game is so good (and I’m pretty sure I have) but that’s all beside the point. Like most Zelda games, A Link to the Past contains a multitude of items which the player must collect in order to complete their quest. Some are pretty standard fare, while others are so unusual that they never really showed up again in later Zelda games.

I’ve always wanted to play a Zelda themed tabletop game, but never really encountered a group that would be right for it, or a system which would fit it well. (Though I am aware of the D20 Zelda system). None the less, there’s no reason elements from the games can’t find their way into your Pathfinder or D&D campaign!

A Link to the Past - Bow & Silver Arrow IconThe bow and arrow are kind of a weak start to this post, since they’re already pretty standard fare in fantasy adventure games. However, in LttP, the player must eventually acquire silver arrows. These are significantly more powerful (equivalent to about two or three times the damage of normal arrows, if I recall) and are required if you wish to defeat the game’s final boss. The idea of a creature which is immune to anything but a certain kind of arrow is interesting. But, I’ll grant you, not particularly special.

A Link to the Past Red BoomerangNow this is a little more interesting. Boomerangs are a fascinating and exotic weapon which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a tabletop game before. And while its real-world use is far less impressive than the fantastical variations found in anime and video games, the mundane item is none the less worth thinking about on its own. With regards to the boomerangs specifically show in A Link to the Past, however, they were primarily used for two things. First, when they struck one of the game’s bad guys, the character would normally freeze in place for a few moments, unless it was particularly powerful. Secondly, the boomerang could be used to retrieve items which were out of reach.

That second use might be a little too video-game-y for a tabletop game, but a “Boomerang of Freezing” or “Boomerang of Time Stop” could be a really fun item to give to your PCs. It would allow them to dispose of enemies in a much stealthier manner if they can be quick about it, or could provide an important edge during a large combat. The only thing I would change is that, like a real boomerang, this one shouldn’t return to the wielder if it hits something.

A Link to the Past Hookshot IconThis is probably the single most peculiar item which appears in LttP. None the less it has gone on to become one of the most iconic tools in Link’s inventory throughout the series: the hookshot. In its function its pretty simple; you hold onto the handle with one hand, and can fire a heavy-duty spearhead attached to a chain from one end. The spearhead lodges itself in wood, and some other surfaces, and the chain then retracts, pulling you towards whatever object you hooked on to. It was a lot of fun to use in the game, and was probably the only fantastical item which was mechanical, rather than magical.

In a tabletop game, I don’t think this has quite as much potential. Firstly, the nature of a tabletop game doesn’t really allow for Zelda-style puzzle solving, which is largely what the hookshot was used for. Secondly, while it could certainly still be used as a climbing implement, I think players would probably have some questions about how it works. If the spearhead is buried deep enough into a surface that it can support a character’s weight, then how is the character ever able to remove it?

Maybe that problem could be solved by replacing the spearhead with a magical adhesive which comes un-stuck with a command word? If that was the case, then this could be a game-changing item for low level characters. It’s almost as potent as a fly spell for avoiding obstacles. They could use it to scale walls, cover gaps, easily hide on ceilings, and so much more! Though perhaps a ‘grip’ mechanic would be in order. Something like they can only hold on to it for a number of minutes equal to their strength modifier?

A Link to the Past: Bombs IconI’m funny when it comes to gunpowder in my campaigns. For the most part, I prefer to avoid guns. I’m sure it can be done very well, but it takes away from my preferred flavor of gameplay. Despite that, I have no problem with cannons, or explosive devices like bombs. I like the idea that a major city might have one or two people in it who make explosive devices, and sell them at a high price. Players would have a difficult time carrying more than a few at a time, but if they could get them into a strategic location, they could blast their way through a dungeon wall, or obliterate a powerful monster.

A Link to the past: Magic Dust iconThe magic dust was a bizarre little item. Functionally, it was really only needed once in the entire game, as part of a little side-quest to halve the amount of magic each of your spells consumed. But it also transformed some of your enemies into different kinds of creatures, making them much less dangerous, or even helpful! And that sounds like a blast to me. The players find a small leather pouch which appears to be filled with glitter. Anytime a handful is sprinkled on something, the GM comes up with a random, wacky effect. And after a few handfuls, the pouch is empty, preventing it from becoming over-used.

A Link to the Past Fire Rod IconA rod which shoots fire from it is just about the most mundane magical item I can imagine. But when I think about the Rod of Fire in LttP, I realize that its primary function wasn’t in combat. More than anything else, it was used to light torches, and that I find interesting. What if a fantasy adventure game had a Rod of Fire which was able to shoot a ball of non-magical fire up to a great distance. Maybe 60 feet. If this fire struck an enemy, the damage it dealt would probably be minimal. The primary use of such a rod would be lighting something flammable, like a pool of oil, or a thatched roof cottage. Because of its limited function, it could have more uses than we’d normally allow with a similar item. Perhaps 10 uses per day, or 20, or even an unlimited number.

A Link to the Past Ice Rod IconThe ice rod in A Link to the Past is (obviously) very similar to the fire rod. So I see no reason why it shouldn’t be converted in the same way. It shoots a blast of freezing air up to 60ft, and covers anything it touches with a layer of ice. The trick with this is that it might be far more useful, or far less useful, than the fire rod, depending on what the GM wants ‘a layer of ice’ to mean. If it can actually freeze an enemy solid, then it should probably have more limited usage than the rod of fire. If its not powerful enough for that, but could instead be used to trip an enemy on a ice-slicked floor, then it could have unlimited uses as with the above.

A Link to the Past The Bombos MedallionUm…I’m not really sure what to do with this one. Or with any of the medallions, actually. They cause some extremely powerful magical effects. In the game, the Bombos medallion causes a pillar of fire to spiral outwards from your character, followed by dozens of explosions which kill absolutely everything on the screen. If I were to include these three medallions in a game, I think the only way to do it would be to boost their power way up, but make them extremely difficult to use–and probably more likely to be in the hands of a villain. The Bombos Medallion, for example, can only be used during a lunar eclipse. It causes a pillar of fire to descend from the sky, and spiral outwards from the location of the caster until the end of the eclipse. Its destructive force could easily level a city. This is the hydrogen bomb of a fantasy world.

A Link to the Past: Ether Medallion IconInterestingly, the Bombos medallion is the only one which actually has a powerful effect. The other two medallions have impressive animations, but are functionally single-use items, which are needed to enter certain dungeons in the game. When you use the Ether medallion, lightning comes down from the sky to strike your sword, and a dozen orbs of light start to spin around your character. In the game, all this does is allow you to is illuminate invisible walkways. It also opens the entrance to Misery Mire, but that’s not very easy to translate.

In a tabletop game, the Ether medallion can only be used during a solar eclipse. It creates 12 balls of light which can be moved only by someone holding the Ether medallion. These balls of light are permanent creations, and can never be unmade. The light they emit functions as a True Seeing spell, destroying any illusions or invisibility spells which may exist in the area.

A Link to the Past: The Quake Medallion IconIn the game, this is even less useful than the Ether Medallion. It literally has only one function: opening the entrance to the Turtle Rock dungeon. Given the fact that it not only causes a massive earthquake, but also creates lightning which arcs across the ground, I am not sure why this item doesn’t harm enemies. Well fuck that, we’re changing it.

The Quake Medallion can only be used when all of the planets are aligned. When this happens, the wielder can create a titanic earthquake which will devastate the landscape, and cause one major geological shift. By exerting a great force of will, the wielder can attempt to control what form this geological shift will take. Perhaps a towering mountain range will rise from the earth, or a dizzying crevasse will open at the wielder’s feet. Truly powerful wielders could even use it to create a permanent intersection with the elemental plane of earth.

A Link to the Past: Magic Hammer IconTruth be told, in the game, the only use for the ‘magic’ hammer is to pound in giant pegs which block your path. I guess they must be ‘magic’ pegs, which nobody can climb over. I can’t think of a good way to convert this to a tabletop gaming system, but there’s no reason to ignore the idea of a magic hammer. It’s a cool idea. Just use it to smash walls, or giant rocks, rather than pegs.

A Link to the Past: Flute IconWhile the Ocarina would come to play a central role in the Nintendo 64 Zelda games, in A Link to the Past, it was a pretty minor item. After the player completed a relatively simple side quest, the flute could be used to summon a miraculously strong duck which could whisk Link to a number of set locations on the world map. While that, again, is pretty video-game-y, I think the idea of a musical instrument which summons animal companions has a lot of potential. Not only is it flavorful, but it has the potential to grow more useful over time. Lets say that the flute has a simple song inscribed on it, which will summon a horse for the character to ride. But if the character decides to invest more time in the instrument, he can discover other songs which summon other types of animals to come to his or her aide.

A Link to the Past: Bug Catching net IconThe hammer is an ostensibly magical item which turns out to be pretty mundane in function. The opposite is true of the bug catching net. Supposedly it’s just a mundane net, owned by a kid who likes to study insects. But clearly it’s quite a bit more than that, since it can be used to deflect balls of magical death fired at you from sorcerers.

No, seriously.

While I don’t see that being really useful in a tabletop game, one of its other uses in LttP was catching faeries. In the game these are used as an ‘extra life,’ but in a tabletop game their use could be more grounded. Perhaps faeries are required to cast a single spell for anyone who captures them? Could be a fun alternative to always telling your players that they need to find a wizard.

A Link to the Past: The Book of Mudora IconI’ve already written absofuckinglutely extensively about language, so I won’t return to that concept here. The Book of Mudora allows Link to read tablets written in ancient Hylian, which often causes a big effect. Since it apparently magically allows him to read a different language, what about a book which does that same thing? Either the book allows the wielder to read one specific language, or all languages. It functions by touching the book to a sample of writing which you would like to read, then opening the book. Whatever page you open to will have that same writing on it, but you will magically be able to read it.

A Link to the Past Cane of Somaria IconWhile the Hookshot is definitely the most peculiar item to appear in A Link to the Past, I think The Cane of Somoria is probably the most interesting. At least in terms of its potential tabletop applications. Using the cane creates a block, very much like a standard stone block which might be found in numerous locations throughout the game. The block can be pushed around, or even picked up and thrown. Only one block can be created at a time, but if the cane is used while a block is already created, the block is destroyed, sending blasts of energy in four directions.

Now, a tabletop game is never going to be able to support puzzles the way a zelda game can. Putting blocks on top of buttons, or pushing blocks around so you can use them to climb, is simply not interesting in a tabletop game. But that doesn’t matter, because the ability to create a block out of nothing is both strange, and useful. Players could find a multitude of applications for it, even if you were to remove the ability to cause the block to explode. Though, regarding that, I think perhaps instead of beams of energy, the exploding block should simply send shrapnel 10ft in all directions.

A Link to the Past: Cane of Byrna IconThe Cane of Byrna is, unfortunately, not as interesting as its red counterpart. At the cost of rapidly draining your magical energy, it makes you invulnerable to any kind of damage. I suppose the best way to adapt this for tabletop would be to make it usable only by casters. Upon using it, they become invulnerable to any kind of damage for 1 minute, at the cost of the top half of their remaining spellcasting ability for the day. As an example, if a Wizard has three 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell remaining for the day, they lose their second level spell, and one 1st level spell of the GM’s choosing.

A Link to the Past: The Magic Cape IconIf I had to give A Link to the Past one criticism, it would be that some of the items should have been more useful, and had less overlap. Functionally, the Magic Cape is identical to the Cane of Byrna. It drains magic extremely quickly, and in turn makes you invulnerable. The only difference is that it also makes you invisible, and allows you to pass through a certain kind of in-game hazard called a ‘bumper.’

Capes of invisibility, or capes which allow you to pass through walls, are hardly ideas foreign to fantasy adventure games. I have nothing of value to add.

A link to the Past: Magic Mirror IconThe Magic Mirror was part of the game’s central mechanic. In order to work properly in a tabletop game, the entire campaign would need to be designed around it. (Or, at least, the entire adventure where the mirror was featured). Essentially, A Link to the Past had two similar world maps: the ‘Light World’ which was the game’s primary setting, and the ‘Dark World’ which had been corrupted by the villain. Many of the game’s puzzles involved strategically traveling between the two worlds, which the mirror allowed the player to do–though only in one direction, from the dark world to the light one.

I think it would be really fun to build an entire campaign around the concept. Have an alternate universe where everything is much worse. For example, in the game’s main world, a dragon is attempting to destroy the kingdom. The same is happening in the dark world, but on top of it, the king is a tyrant. The players could find a way to gain audience with the goodly king, then use the mirror in his throne room to change realms, and take the tyrant by surprise!

A Link to the Past: The Mirror Shield IconAgain, tabletop games are not well suited to Zelda style puzzles. So you can’t have a ton of rooms in your dungeon where the players must use their shields to reflect a beam of light onto the right spot. However, in LttP, the mirror shield is largely used to deflect lasers, which got me thinking: what about a shield which can ‘bounce’ a spell back at the caster?

It couldn’t work 100% of the time, of course. The wielder would need to identify that a spell was being cast, and they’d need to get between the caster and the target for it to work. And perhaps the shield would only work 1-5 times per day. But it could be a very interesting magical item for a party to have. Fighting an evoker? No problem, bounce those fireballs right back. Doing battle with a necromancer? Bang, she just finger-of-death’d herself.

A Link to the Past Pegasus Boots IconThe Pegasus boots allow link to charge up, and dash quickly in a straight line, which is a little more interesting than boots which simply make you move more quickly. Perhaps these boots could double the effectiveness of a character’s charging maneuvers?

A Link to the Past: The Power Glove IconNote that the power glove (lol, obscure product placement?) doesn’t necessarily increase Link’s carrying capacity, only what he can lift. I find that much more interesting. Sure, with enough bags of holding, encumbrance stops being a problem for players. But they can still only lift so much weight. But with these amazing gloves, they could lift boulders equal to four times their weight! That would be pretty cool.

This post ended up going on for far longer than I intended, so I’ll wrap it up quickly here. I will note that there are a handful of items I skipped because I honestly can’t think of anything to say about them. I mean…the lantern? Whoop-de-doo. It’s a lantern. They cost 2 silver pieces and are part of most adventurer’s starting gear. But if you can come up with a neat way to adapt the lantern, or the jars, or the flippers, etc. to a tabletop game, leave it in the comments! Or if you’ve got a better idea of how to adapt one of the items listed above, leave that too!

EDIT: Oh, holy shit, this is my 200th post. Go me!

Product Review: AD&D First Edition Reprints

AD&D 1st Edition Reprints, all three covers

They’re finally here, the reprints of Gygax’s three original AD&D books. I received the email from my friendly local game store on Thursday, and drove up there yesterday to pick them up. And let me tell you: these books are nice. The covers look fantastic, with each looking unique and incorporating the original art, while still maintaining a thematic look between them. The covers are textured as well, with indentations on both the front and the back, corresponding to the darker patterns in the image above. I particularly like how the books have no bar codes or ISBD numbers on the exterior. Aside from a re-printing of the dark pattern on the front, there isn’t even anything printed on the backs. Very classy looking.

AD&D 1st Edition Reprints, the backs of all three booksEach of the books came wrapped in plastic, and bound by a piece of paper with a faux-wax seal for the Gygax Memorial printed on them. As I’m sure most people are aware, a percentage of the profits from each book purchased will go to support the Gygax Memorial Fund, which seeks to build a statue of Gary in his hometown of Lake Geneva Wisconsin. These pieces of paper are also where the ISBN number and bar code can be found, on the back side. Again, very nice. They also use this area to list the books original publication date, and notes whether the book was originally published first, second, or third out of the three.

The Paper Bindings from all three 1st edition AD&D ReprintsThe spine of these books looks fantastic as well. I’m curious to know if the symbols used here have any meaning which I’m not aware of. Or maybe they’re just meant to look cool, I don’t know. The actual binding of the book is similar to more modern books, with the page glued together in small bunches. It would have been cool if they’d used the same super-sturdy binding methods used in the original 1970s books, but I’d be kind of surprised if there were even any printing houses left which offered that.

[EDIT: It looks as though I was wrong on this point. Brendan of Untimately has corrected me:]

The bindings on the reprints are section sewn, which is probably about the highest quality book binding available (though it depends how the sections are attached to the spine, and I can’t see that). If you flip to the center of the sections, you can see the stitches. The new books probably have better bindings than the first original printings, despite how well the originals have held up.

1st edition AD&D Reprints Book Spines for all three books

Now this is kind of cool, because it’s honestly pretty uncommon: gilded edges. I think the only other books I own with gilded edges on the pages are my copy of the christian bible, and my copy of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a little ostentatious, but I think it’s warranted given how historically important these books are, and how much love the community has for the man who wrote them.

I put a little too much light into this pictures, so you you could see the edges glisten.

1st edition AD&D Reprints Gilded Edges for all three booksAnd, of course, as with most books that have gilded edges, these books each have ribbon bookmarks. Curiously, though, each book’s ribbon has a different width. I’m not sure how to explain that, except to point out that the width of the ribbon seems to correspond with the thickness of the book.

1st edition AD&D Reprints Ribbon Bookmarks for all three booksI thought it would be nice to compare the reprints to the original editions, but unfortunately I only have the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, and have not yet gotten my hands on the original Player’s Handbook or Monster Manual. Still, one works with what one has, so here are the two DMGs, side by side. It’s at this point that I would like to give Wizards of the Coast my most profound thanks for not placing their logo anywhere on the outside of the reprinted books. They could have done so, and honestly I don’t think anyone could blame them if they did. They invested money in producing this product, and have every right to but their trademark on it. But they didn’t, and that demonstrates a respect which I find commendable.

1st edition AD&D Reprints: New DMG and original DMG side by side

Here’s the iconic title page of the DMG, with the original on the left and the reprint on the right. The newer book uses higher quality paper and printing, which is nice. Darlene Pekul’s Unicorn is rendered a little more darkly than in the original book, but it also appears more crisp on the page. I also notice that the original copyright information has been removed, and the legal information at the bottom has been expanded. Which, of course, makes logical sense.What doesn’t make  sense to me is that on the following page, the foreword, they removed the caption at the bottom which explained the cover. Originally it read:

“Cover: The book cover painting shows an encounter between three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire. The fabled City of Brass can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil.”

I suppose the thinking may have been that since the cover art was different, it was no longer appropriate to reference adventurers who were not depicted. But since the efreet was still there, it seems some mention is in order.

I wonder if, perhaps, the text for this book was taken from the original 1983 reprint. The one with different cover art, which Gygax ostensibly preferred.

1st Edition AD&D Reprints: Copyright page compared between original and reprint editions

On the Contents page, I notice that the printing seems to be a little more dense than in my original copy. The last entry on page 3 in my copy is “Aerial Travel,” while the reprint has two more lines after that, ending on “Waterborne Adventures.” You’ll probably need to open this image in a new tab if you want to read the text.

1st Edition AD&D Reprints: Index page discrepency between original edition and reprint

I flipped to the final pages to see if they matched up, and they’re actually quite different! I’m not terribly surprised that the Gencon advertisement was removed, but the information the two books end on is completely different! While the original ends with an Index page, the reprint ends with an appendix which appears to deal with henchmen and hirelings. I also notice that while my original copy ends on page 232, this reprint ends on page 240! Where did they add an extra eight pages?

1st Edition AD&D Reprints: Last page comparison, original versus reprint

I did some looking, and it appears there are two additional appendices listed on the Contents page: APPENDIX O: ENCUMBRANCE OF STANDARD ITEMS, and APPENDIX P: CREATING A PARTY ON THE SPUR OF THE MOMENT. Neither of these is included in my original copy of the book, but at this point I’m going to assume that they were added by Gygax himself to later printings. I don’t see why Wizards would add this stuff. However, those two sections don’t take up much room, and end on page 227. Following them are the glossary, afterword, and index, printed pretty much the same as they are in my original text.

But while the 1979 print of the book ends after the Index, Wizards has a splash-page notice about the Gygax memorial, followed by four pages of additional tables. I’m really kinda confused about their placement, here. If they were added in previous reprints of the book, then why did Wizards place their splash page 4 page before the end of the book? If they were NOT in previous printings of the book, then why did Wizards add them?

That weirdness aside, there’s a very nice touch at the end of the index where Wizards kindly printed the old TSR wizard logo.

1st Edition AD&D Reprints: End of Index, TSR Logo on Reprint

All in all, these are easily worth the $100 I dropped on them, and I recommend that everyone who doesn’t own a copy of these books go out and do the same. Show your support for the Gygax memorial, and show Wizards of the Coast that there’s a market for a more traditional style of role playing game.

And now that I finally own a complete set of AD&D books, I suspect I’ll find excuses to use them. Hee hee hee…

EDIT 1/22/13: I normally prefer not to edit a post once it has gone live. Particularly not such an old post as this. However, I still see a lot of people sharing this post and using it to help make the decision of whether or not they’d like to spend money on these books. As such, I think it’s important that I include some new information which I’ve become aware of.

Much of the iconic art in these books was not well preserved in the reprints. Almost all of it has been significantly darkened, often obscuring details. Some of it even has strange artifacts which were not present at all in the original prints.

You can view art comparisons in this Imgur album. The degradation of the art’s quality is clear, and I have confirmed it by looking through my original and reprinted copies of the DMG.

(I would love to host those images here, but unfortunately I cannot find a means to contact the original uploader, and I’ve not intention of stealing his or her content. If anyone who knows the mysterious ways of Imgur would like to help me contact them, I would be appreciative.)

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