Tag Archives: old school

Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different (B

The Service Industry

Caveat: I’ve never been a big fan of “crafting” in MMOs and the like.  The idea of spending hours on a computer game collecting different artifacts to put together something for sale just doesn’t do it for me.  That’s why I have a job.  That’s why I have hobbies.  I don’t want to spend my leisure time “crafting” virtual products for sale.  If you are the kind of person who does, you will probably disagree with the assessment in this article.

Recently, over on Google+, I shared a few thoughts with Brian Fitzpatrick on a prospective Alchemist class for old-school D&D.  Now first, let me say that Brian is in good company.  I’m not sure how many versions of an Alchemist class have been developed for D&D, between retro-clones, heartbreakers, Dragon Magazine, Pathfinder, and unattributed home brews, but I’m sure its up there in the Top 10.  He’s not breaking new ground, but he’s not trying to get blood from a stone either.

Once upon a time, I loved the idea of NPC classes.  Because more is better, right?  In a class-based system, the only way to achieve these expressions of diversity is through new classes.  It’s not like a skill or advantage-based system where I can spend a few points and BOOM!  I’m an alchemist, bitches!

The trouble is, those sorts of classes don’t really work in an adventure/exploration heavy game like D&D.  A character class focused solely on a support role just isn’t going to be fun to play over the long haul by the majority of players.  Because they never really get a chance to step into the spotlight when it counts.    Sure, I’m sure there are a handful of games that sort of class will fit like a glove, but the traditional “let’s explore” D&D game, not so much.

Besides, the rules already provide guidelines for the creation of potions and alchemical devices by clerics, magic-users and elves (even the other character types too, if the GM is flexible and willing to be extrapolate a bit).  This makes perfect sense.  After all, if we look at the life and career of Isaac Newton, its reasonable that in a quasi-historical fantasy setting all of these skills would have gone together.  A “wizard” would of course be able to cook up alchemical concoctions.  That would be assumed in the background and training.  So you already have the framework for your adventuring alchemist.  You can make it as simple or robust as you need it to be.

So my response to Brian was, rather than a class, why not just come up with a more detailed alchemy service?  Because that’s what it really comes down to: service and cost.  The party hires an alchemist to keep them afloat in healing potions, greek fire, and (in the case of Brian’s class) keep their magic items charged.  That stuff really isn’t the bread and butter of adventuring PCs, so lets mitigate it to a support role.  Brian disagrees with me on the merits of the class.  Which is fine.  As I’ve said, he’s in good company and I’m hardly the final word in game design.  His argument is as follows:

…I think the party alchemist, especially in a longer campaign with more spellcasters, could be extremely useful. Perhaps not all the time, but more often than not… Here are a few possibilities.

  • Imagine having the ability for both a Cleric and an Alchemist to temporarily enchant or improve weapons for the battle at hand
  • Or recharging an expended magic item at a critical juncture
  • Or creating a scroll, potion or powder from an unused spell at the end of the day “just in case” the party needs it at a future time

If we make the alchemist at lower levels (1-5) more useful for those three tasks, as well as give them a few additional abilities or spells, I think that would be enough to make this a useful player class.

Sure.  Or you could simply tweak the magic item research and fabrication rules as they are and achieve almost the same effect without having to wedge a player into a largely supportive role.


  • Clerics and magic users can already temporarily enhance weapons for the battle at hand without the extra step of alchemy.
  • Recharging expended magic item sounds great, but removes the necessity of further exploration to replace expended resources.  Plus, most magic items replicate spell effects, allowing you to put your other limited resources elsewhere.
  • The rules already allow this to some degree.  Building a class around it is unnecessary.

And that’s really what’s at issue here.  Unless alchemy is going to be a big feature of your game (and it could be!), building a class doesn’t really add value to the game.  Instead, it provides a character that isn’t as capable as a magic-user or cleric that is focused on downtime activities and with more equipment and resource requirements.  See, a magic-user is just as capable whether or not he can find a steady supply of mandrake root to create this or that potion.  An alchemist would need to have that same, if not more, utility and versatility.

I’m not saying an adventuring alchemist isn’t a cool idea.  But I do think it needs to have a bigger niche than, “you want me to recharge that for ya?”

But I didn’t write this whole thing to shoot down Brian’s hopes and dreams.  No, see I want to redirect him a little.  Because what I DO NEED, as a DM AND as a player, is a reason to travel 300 miles over land and sea to seek out a MASTER alchemist as opposed to hiring that guy in the base town.  And I need a justification as to why that dude charges x10 as much for his services, other than that his calling card reads “Master Alchemist.”

If you look at B/X and AD&D, you’ll see roughly the same thing:

B/X D&D (Expert Rulebook)
Alchemist (1000 gp/month): If given the formula or a sample, an alchemist may make a potion at half the normal time and cost. They may also conduct research into different types of potions at twice the cost and time required for a magic-user.

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
Alchemist (300 gp/month):
This profession handles the compounding of magical substances, and the advantages of employing an alchemist are detailed under the section FABRICATION OF MAGIC ITEMS, Potions. Alchemists will only be found in cities unless you specifically locate one elsewhere. It will require an offer of 10 to 100 gold pieces bonus money, plus a well-stocked laboratory, plus the assurance of not less than a full year of employment, to attract one to service.

There really isn’t anything there that sets one apart from the other.  So there is just as much benefit to tracking down the famed Isaac Newton at University in England as dropping into Ted’s Apothecary and Lubricants for all of your alchemical needs.  What I’m proposing would serve the game well would be to grade hirelings by degrees of skill (I’d recommend three tiers to avoid getting too granular and keep the book keeping manageable), with different rates and some different capabilities attached.  Ted’s A & L might be a great place to go for low level potions.  But for the real heavy hitters (like recharging your wand of fireballs or a potion of super heroism), you have to seek out a Master.  And I think it would be worthwhile to do this across the board.  There should be a difference between hiring the Black Company and Wallace’s Band of Ne’er-do-Wells.  And there really is no guidance on how to do it right now.

I’m going to come back to this eventually on my own, but I suspect someone just as smart and twice as dedicated has already beaten me to the punch on this one.  And if not, someone needs to.  In the meantime, don’t give up hope on your Alchemist class, Brian.  I hear the one in the Arcanum is a fantastic starting point!


Holding Things Back

Over on the Kobold Press blog, they recently published an article, Steely Gaze and Lethal Blows, about injecting pulp-style combat into Pathfinder and DnD.  While an interesting concept, what really struck me was a quote from the old 1980’s Conan movie:

“In time, his victories could not easily be counted… he was taken to the east, a great prize, where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets.”

One of the continuous themes I read about with old school games is how they push exploration and discovery in the milieu.  And while modern games don’t prohibit this, most kneecap it by front-loading all the rules and capabilities for the players’ eyes.  Pretty much every system that offers a scheme of advantages/disadvantages, or exception-based rules, does this.  If I create a character in one of these systems, I know everything my character will ever be capable of.  I know how to qualify for the highest ranking Feats, what a master of my fighting style is capable of,

Nothing is held back.  It’s all there in menu format for the players to pick and choose from, to plan out their characters’ fortune.  And the only hurdle in their way is a list of prerequisites or requirements.

Hooray for player empowerment!

But its entirely at the cost of discovery and mystery.  Boo for GM world building!

What if every character capability wasn’t available for you to examine from the start?  What if the Feats, Advantages, Edges, Talents, even Skills and Specializations available to your character at any given time were entirely dependent on where your character is in the campaign world?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thought about Fighting Traditions in Witch Hunter, so let’s look through that lense.  In 1689/90, the city of Frankfurt hosted three swordsman guilds: The Brotherhood of St. Mark (Marxbruder), Federfetcher, and the Brotherhood of St. Luke (which was not a formally recognized guild and is described as a society of hooligans).  Now, lets say Marxbruder and Federfetcher both cover the same Fighting Tradition, but each offer a different assortment of fighting styles (talents) a member might choose to advance in.  Want to know what those are?  Join the guild!  They’ll be happy to tell you…then.

Oh, you want them to divulge their secrets before you sign on the dotted line?  Sorry, Charlie.

Bottomline: There should be benefits and rewards to exploring the game world.

But what if I make the wrong choice?  There’s a wrong choice?  How would you know?  Why would you know?

But what if I want a style the guild doesn’t offer?  Easy.  Either resign your membership and join another guild…and face the consequences of doing so.  Or leave town and seek out another guild, or better yet a master in the tradition, who can teach you this technique.

Where can I find this guy?  Ask around.  Follow leads.  Travel.  Talk.  Explore the world around you!

In one of the first continuous campaigns I played in, magic fluctuated on a geographic basis.  So when the party mage got himself killed, the rest of us traveled half way across the continent to have him raised.  Was it convenient?  No.  Was travel hand waved?  Hell no!  Was it fun and rewarding?  Hell yes!

We’ve been doing this with magic in our games forEVER.  The mage finds a cool tome in the library of Alexandria and now has the chance to learn a couple of new spells, some the player knows about and some that are completely new.  Why should talents, feats, edges, fighting styles, and even skills be any different?

So how can I implement this in my own game?  Well, for one thing, when that shiny new supplement rolls out on the treadmill, don’t allow it.  Oh, the players can read it all they want, but none of it is available to them.  No, carefully go through all the new abilities and make them available on a case-by-case basis.  A retired adventurer in the village of Hommlet can teach you an assortment of Knacks, or a Feat.

Wait?  Training?!  GROAN!!!  There’s no reason training in any game system needs to mirror the old AD&D training system.  That system was put in place to siphon off the vast treasure characters were amassing and assumed that players had multiple characters active in the game world at any given time (time keeping).  In a game like Witch Hunter, the orders would have access to masters and trainers, so gaining access is more a matter of geography than finances.  And time?  If the game assumes combing through a library looking for some odd detail on an obscure line of supernatural beastie, then why would we then assume it takes more than a week (downtime) to master a fighting style or Talent?

A week of downtime?  GROAN!!!  Ok, you need more incentive.  How about this, while training costs time and/or money, what if it also lowered SP costs?  Say – to pull a number out of the air – by 0.6.  This reduces the cost of a basic Talent in Witch Hunter to 30 SP, the cost of a skill specialization.  A Greater Talent would cost 45 SP, and a Heroic 60 (that’s a 30 point discount!).  Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, not all Talents would be available for this sort of treatment.  Maybe 2 or 3 in any particular location.  And the ones that are available don’t need to be advertised.  There’s no bulletin in the town square that reads, “looking for a good deal on Talents?” Think of them more like easter eggs embedded in the game world.

And what are the rest of the players suppose to do while my character is learning the finer aspects of Incredible Reflexes?  What else?  Find nasty evil stuff that’s going on around them to eliminate.  What?  You guys aren’t good enough to find a witch in all of Copenhagen?


The Art of Letting Go…

I’ve found myself conflicted of late, so I thought I’d share my dilemma here in hopes that some other GMs reading this will find it insightful…or something.

As a GM, I constantly find myself in a struggle between two conflicting sensibilities.

The game belongs to the players.  It’s their story to tell.  My job, as I see it, is to act as referee and translator of sorts.  Yes, I adjudicate success and failure in terms of the rules, but I also work to translate the players’ desired actions that into terms of game mechanics.  Beyond that, I’m supposed to be a disinterested party.

Except I’m not.

See, behind the scenes, I have an agenda.  I have agents and villains scheming in the shadows, plots and plans that I am eager to unveil and reveal for the players to foil or die trying.  Part of my job is to help set the pace of the game, and the last thing I want is loitering.  Pushing the players, getting their characters from point A to point Z, however they choose to do it, serves my agenda.

But my agenda isn’t important.  Because the belongs to them.  It’s their story to tell.  See where I’m going here?

When the PCs arrive at any port o’ call, part of my job as GM is to open avenues for them.  They create some of these avenues (“I need a new sword.  Where can I get one?”).  The rest I serve up as hooks.  The more hooks in the water, the more opportunities for adventure, the more each player can add to the story, the more complex and vibrant the world fields…

…and the more points I create between Point A and Point Z.  And that is where my struggle lies.

My current dilemma is the city of Frankfurt am Main, where my players are fast approaching.  Right now, upon arrival, they have 2 major plot points to chew on:
1) Deliver recovered goods to a Witch Hunter chapterhouse
2) Figure out why a banker has put up a large sum for the death of one of the cadre.

One is pretty straightforward and easy.  The other, not so much (and I’m not saying which is which).  But those two plot points puts the focus on two principle characters in a group of 6.  That doesn’t seem fair.  Everyone one of these characters has a detailed background with plenty of ammunition for a small subplot.  And its what those players do with those little subplots that make the game interesting.  Sometimes those subplots grow into big plot points just because players get interested in them.

Years ago, playing 7th Sea, one of the players kept the sword of a NPC who died well in battle.  He invested a lot into this sword, purchasing an ornamental, velvet lined case, tracked down the NPC’s next of kin, all with the intention of returning the sword to that individual.

Then one of the other players hid the sword.  Not in a dickish “I throw it into the sphere of annihilation and laugh mockingly” way.  It was more of a prank.  But damn if that didn’t turn into a major issue for around three sessions as the player moved heaven and earth to recover a sword that had been possessed by an NPC that had only appeared once months earlier in game.

Players.  What can you do?

So despite the screaming objections of the brilliant, legend-in-his-own-mind storyteller that lurks in my brain, I’m inclined to start baiting a few hooks.  And if it takes us until December to leave Frankfurt, so be it.  Hopefully some epic memories will come from it.

The game belongs to the players.  It’s their story to tell.

The villains will be waiting.