Posts Tagged ‘Labyrinth Lord’

Days of Mutant Future Past

Over at the Blog of Fate, Eddy’s responded to What I learned in the Mutant Future. Justin also weighed in on the comments to the original post. Both of them commented that nostalgia for Gamma World was a driving factor in enjoying our lunch game. I’m not sure it was for me; the main thing I enjoyed was finding character-based solutions to our strange problems.

Justin brought up the point that early Dungeons & Dragons, and thus, by extension, games like Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, are more surveys than settings. His implication is that that makes it harder to develop a story from the components, but I think that’s a matter of approach.

I’ve long believed that the most important stories in gaming are the ones that emerge from the experience, rather than those that exist before play. Ron Edwards has taken a very aggressive “Story Now” perspective, where he contends that the emergent story needs to be apparent during play. I could really go either way on that.

There are other kinds of emergence in question, though. Emergence from random elements is something Eddy and I have covered pretty well in our posts on the Mutant Future game.

I wonder, though, if that stands in contrast to emergence from player choice. As Zak S notes:

If PCs are traveling overland from one place to some other distant place, and I want to have something unexpected happen on the way there, the thing that happens should usually have something to do with the decisions the PCs made about how to get there. (Method of transportation, route, what they brought with them, etc.) Otherwise I feel like it’s not as much of a sandbox. i.e. If they take the west route and so I roll on the Random Wilderness Encounter Table or I take the East route and so I roll on the Random Wilderness Encounter table, that’s not as fun or interesting as making what happens a consequence of a meaningful strategic decision.

Here we have another case where divining events from random elements can diminish the importance of player choice. Now, as Zak goes on to discuss, stepping around this particular problem is pretty trivial. It’s still, though, a limit on how random — and potentially on how procedural — you want to go.

I think that in our Mutant Future game, a lot of our choices were reduced in significance by the game world’s random responses. And yet, both choice and randomness are at the root of the old school.

Eddy’s response alluded to the D&D game I’m prepping for the company retreat, and I’m going to try tweaking my methods here. The players are going to be presented with a developed micro-setting that offers a number of worthwhile things to do… as well as random encounters. I’m going to do my best to make sure that their choices have a discernible impact on the content and challenges they encounter.

Finally, we have emergence from stereotype, something I’m interested in with regards to classic D&D. At what point does my character stop being “a dwarf” and start being “Bjorn Thornhaller?” Evolving a character from type is a common device in literature, and it’s certainly something that happens in roleplaying games. How does that process work in a sandbox narrative?

What I learned in the Mutant Future

In the world of men, there are few things duller than waiting for a maintenance dude. Waiting for the end is probably one of them. Right now, I’m doing the former and thinking a bit about the latter.

At White Wolf/CCP, we have an informal tradition I call the six shooter. You’ve played one shots, right? This is like that, only spread out over a couple of weeks. We play on our lunch hour, and we get to experiment with different rules and styles. It’s a tradition that’s produced mafia sagas,* Catch 40k, and the epic Pugmeier campaign setting.

The most recent was Eddy’s Mutant Future game. Mutant Future is essentially a Labyrinth Lord homage to Gamma World. It plays up the strange, impossible aspects of post-apocalyptic gaming, rather than Fallout‘s satire or the well-intentioned seriousness of the White Wolf Gamma World.

This was also the first old school experiment I’ve been in that wasn’t firmly rooted in the Dungeons & Dragons subgenre. Eddy built a little section of the irradiated futurescape for us, but he also pushed the game’s random elements hard. I enjoyed this, but I think it grew to annoy him as a GM.

Characters were close to pure random… we got to allocate our ability scores, but I chose to just take them in order. I ended up as a two-headed robot named “Bjorn XL,” with Exceptional Sense (Fashion). My companions were an octopus man, a deaf mutant with a mule sidekick, and Doc Savage.**

In practice, we were subdivided into Team Smart and Team Dumb. Justin’s mutant and Bjorn were both completely clueless with technology, while Doc and the octopus were practically made of knowledge.

Our adventure took us across shanty towns, irradiated suburbs, and a drive-in that had become home to Mants.***

So, what did I learn:

  • Maintaining a GM’s sense of a living world can be as important as maintaining it for the players. Sandbox campaigns are in vogue right now, but I think Eddy felt the encounter table turned it into more of a beach, with the occasional wave washing in and leaving unpredictable flotsam in the game.
  • The turn order of classic D&D produces the occasional stumble with people who don’t use it often, but it’s a lot of fun.
  • Hirelings. Man, these guys are like the cornerstone of high-fatality old school gaming.
  • I don’t like playing characters with highly specific special abilities that I only get to use occasionally. I want to participate frequently, even if my character ends up failing.
  • Narrating failures: still the best part of having a PC.
  • Just listen to the damn octopus.

Randomness really was the key factor here. I generally find random characters liberating, because I don’t have to come up with a killer concept before I know how the game feels. In the friction between mechanical choices and the world I’m exploring, I find my character.

On the other hand, having random, highly specific traits can be a little frustrating. I couldn’t find a single good moment to bring up Bjorn’s second head, something I would have loved to make a signature of the character.

Eddy made the choice to go balls-out on random elements, and I think he found that broke his rhythm as a GM. That’s something I’m keeping in mind as I design the game for the company retreat.

I find I need to build a certain amount of momentum going into a game, at which point the crazy ideas just start pouring out of my head. Random elements are good to help build that momentum, and also for having crazy rebounds build up.

I recognize now, though, that if the world doesn’t stay coherent in my mind, I’m likely to get frustrated and lose momentum.

Does that happen to you folks? Do you find that there are certain places in your game rhythm where chance is more valuable than others?


* Note to my roommate: it was multi-generational, so it really was a saga.

** When given the opportunity, I will always play a thief or a robot. Similarly, John Chambers will always play Doc Savage.

*** Exactly what they sound like. If you ever run into them, you should know that they do have a Mant-queen.

What makes a thief?

(In which, as a remedy for an unquiet mind, I begin designing a thief class for my Swords & Wizardry/Labyrinth Lord/Rules Cyclopedia game.)

The thief is my favorite fantasy character class. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are my favorite fantasy heroes. My definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the Rules Cyclopedia, which prominently features the class, along with a really nice illustration. (Wearing all her clothes, too!)

I loved the thief in Hero’s Quest and Quest for Glory. I love Thief: The Dark Project and Assassin’s Creed, and I’ve been making sneaky bastards in The Elder Scrolls games the whole way through. I adore sneaking around ruins by night in real life.*

This is all by way of saying that I don’t care if the thief wasn’t in D&D until Greyhawk, there’s going to be one in my old-school D&D game. You know why the thief wasn’t there in 1974? Too busy looting shit, probably. Or selling ill-gotten booty to some slim, dark girl who wanted coffee afterwards. Or the thief was there the whole time, but so fucking stealthy even his saving throw matrix was invisible.

Mm. Unfortunately, that leaves me with a problem. I love the D&D thief, but I don’t actually like the D&D thief. The class’s skills are all calibrated to fail wildly if you roll them at low levels.**

This is fine if you’re running a long term game, where the thief will gradually grow into his role. (Particularly with some clever interpretations.) It will not do for the next D&D game I’m scheduled to run.

That game’s only going to be a couple of sessions long, and while I’m looking forward to low-level characters that can die easily in drunken*** accidents, they also need to be able to accomplish things right off the bat.

So let’s write a new thief, shall we?


First, we need inspirations, and that means first, the Gray Mouser.

(I’m skipping Quest for Glory, for the sake of brevity.)

The Gray Mouser

When asked to assemble a crew of junior heroes to save Rime Isle (Swords and Ice Magic), Fafhrd assembles a crew of “berserks” and the Mouser a crew of “fighter-thieves.” Fritz Leiber probably wasn’t talking in D&D terms, but he was certainly aware of the vocabulary.****

Our thief class, then, represents a “fighter-thief.” This is a guy who’s sneaky when he needs to be, and brash when there’s a hottie involved. The thief becomes a subclass or cousin class of the fighter, brother to the berserk.

Both Fafhrd and the Mouser were accomplished second-story men. In “Ill-Met in Lankhmar,” they do this badass Assassin’s Creed shit while trying to escape Thieves’ House with their precious hit points. In “Claws from the Night,” they again go climbing the roofs and shattered towers of Lankhmar.

So. Climbing, with a dash of parkour. Probably slightly more Daniel Craig than Altair, but that’s the general idea. Cool.

The Mouser’s a skilled swordsman, so this isn’t going to be the kind of thief who shies from a fight. He’s a swashbuckler, through and through.

The Mouser loves to collect magical paraphernalia, but this seems to be mostly a pose. (“Adept’s Gambit.”) He has some training in white magic, which he never uses. He performs some impressive black magic, but only once. (“The Unholy Grail.”) He casts a spell from a scroll Sheelba gives him, and the outcome is either that he’s a badass wizard and doesn’t know it, or that Sheelba’s safety instructions were accurate. (“The Lords of Quarmall.”)

As much as I adore this aspect of the Mouser, and as much as it’s an aspect of Greyhawk‘s thief, I think I’ll leave it aside.

Bilbo Baggins

The bravest little hobbit of them all posed as an “expert treasure hunter.” Bilbo’s main thing was being clever, and to a lesser extent, quick. His most thiefly actions were his various deceptions, against his party members and his enemies alike.

These, unfortunately, don’t translate well to a mechanic in a game without social mechanics. I might allow a Charisma check, but that’s for an individual character, not a class.

Bilbo did, however, have a knack for finding treasure. Sting, the arkenstone, the One Ring… pretty good, all told. So that’s what my thief inherits from him: a better chance of finding treasure.

Altair and Ezio

The aforementioned parkour and pickpocketing… plus, sneak attacks. My favorite thing in Assassin’s Creed is the stealth kill. This is an argument for keeping backstab. As if I needed one.


Alright. So we want our thief to sneak, climb, roof-run, find treasure, and sneak attack. All of these are abilities that we can implement without stealing the thunder from other classes, or from clever player description.

The cardinal rule of these abilities is that a thief can do them under conditions where no one else can. So, every character can climb some things, but the thief can climb sheer surfaces. Anybody can surprise an enemy, but the thief can surprise more often, and exploit the opening better. Anybody can find treasure, but the thief finds caches where no one else would think to look.

Climbing and Running

The thief can cross broken terrain, rooftops, or any kind of other obstacle course at full speed. With a saving throw, the thief can also pass an enemy or group of enemies who would otherwise block the character’s path.

(Inspiration in part from the obnoxiously capable Rules Cyclopedia mystic.)

Surprise Attack

Most characters surprise on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 (LL p. 50, RC p.92). If this fails, the thief may make a saving throw to surprise anyway. Further, any hit a thief scores in a surprise round is a critical.

(I thought about giving thieves the Advanced Edition Companion Assassinate ability, but it seems a little much.)

Find Treasure

The thief has very good instincts about where people and creatures keep their valuables. I’m keeping it simple, for now, and following Labyrinth Lord‘s version of the elf secret door mechanic:

On a roll of 1-2 on 1d6, the thief can find a hidden cache of treasure.


* This is a horrible idea, I know.

** It’s my argument that the Greyhawk thief’s skills, as well as many other percentages in OD&D, aren’t meant to be rolled, but I have to do more research to back that up.

*** Likely both players and characters. Company retreat.

**** Leiber and gaming! A perfect subject for a future post.