Are Thief Player Characters Still Relevant?

Albrecht Dürer - Cupid the Honey Thief. 1514
Since adopting more elements from OD&D into my gaming, a style that is less skill based and more player driven, I've noticed that many of my fellow tinkerers have opted to remove the thief player class from the game. Now, long-time readers of this blog know that even though I am very critical of skill based systems, my favorite class to play is the Thief. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

It's not that I think that the entire skill system is bad for the game, I just feel that systems like Pathfinder and modern D&D have allowed it to take center stage. It controls too much! People have gotten too reliant on them, and use the skill system to bypass fun parts of the game. It alters the flow, speeding it up, and I feel that it interferes with immersion.

To make a long story short, specifics can correct the problem of mechanical interference, but that doesn't mean that we should completely scrap the NWP system; and then we have the thief class. A skill based class that relies upon them to function.

In a game where the traps are specific, we know how they function and the players can locate them with tools or equipment, and come up with a plan which may or may not result in disarming them, where does the thief fit into this?

  • Thieves are more expendable.
  • They can figure out the hidden workings of advanced traps.
  • They do more for the team than just disarm and locate traps.

Handling Checks

In my last post, I suggested that we try to stick to specifics as much as possible. The DM listens to the plan, and translates the odds of success to the d%; however, there are times when the players are going to have to make checks. In times like these, I prefer the d20. It is fast, fair, and usually in the player's favor.

d% Thief Checks

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I never really thought about it before, why do thieves roll d% for thief ability checks? I suppose that it is just a hang-over from 1st Edition AD&D. It gives the illusion of player control, but it really isn't all that functional.

As a player, the thief skill system doesn't work at early levels of play and offers no challenge at higher levels. The best games are when you are gambling with your character's life. As a player, if something is dangerous, I'm not going to even attempt it unless I've got at least a 70%. If things get desperate, I may attempt it at 50%, but never below that. If something has no risk, I will just sit there and roll dice until we all get bored or it works . . . hours and hours later in game time. That sucks, and that isn't playing the game.

I know that there is a huge population of gamers who think that the NWP system is broken, but I don't feel that it is, of course, the way that I design my games I enforce no reliance upon the system to use it. It can allow a user to bypass an obstacle, or make a section easier if you are successful, but play doesn't stop because of a failed check; that is a symptom of bad design. It all boils down to percentages, the d20 just uses increments of 5%. If a character has a DEX of 15, with a -2 to his ability check, he's got a 65% of succeeding. That is actually lower standards than I would normally allow for a dangerous task that will kill me if the dice say no. 


It was this book that got folks prepared for 3e. It focused on a reliance on skills over the traditional game. It even stripped the class system that we all loved in favor of building some character class that made it even slower to roll up new characters, and caused players to stop play to look at the weird rules in this thing. I hated it. I'm still not a fan.

Regardless if you like the book or not, it did say something interesting . . . if you could find it. It suggested turning thief skills into NWP. How stupid is that? I mean, it goes against years and years of tradition! Besides, thief players aren't going to want to sacrifice NWP slots on skills that they used to have from the start of the game, right?

RAVENLOFT: Masque of the Red Death

This boxed Campaign setting actually predates the Skills & Powers book, but it had lots of mechanics which were unique to it. It isn't a medieval fantasy game, this one takes place in our world during the 1890's. It altered all of the classes, but the most affected were the Thieves.

All of the characters had been depowered, there are no super-heroes in this game, what makes them playable is the skill system, however, this still isn't a skill based game. You aren't going to find the Pathfinder like rules which are overly strict, you pick your skills which define your character, and you play. The skills are passive. You still use specifics over rolling the dice, but I digress.

Thieves are no longer a class. While the other classes still use skills, the class that is dependent upon them is called Tradesmen. If a character doesn't use magic, and can't be defined as a soldier, they automatically become Tradesmen, thus, this is the dominant class.

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It is still possible to play thieves, but since all traditional thief skills have to be purchased with NWP slots, you've got to build them. The skills function as NWP too, you don't have to build them up through gaining levels, if you chose to know how to pick locks, then you can pick locks.

As a fan of thieves, this method works great! I always preferred to play against the grain. I never played The Greymouser type thieves, I could probably count the times that I've used Pick Pockets on one hand, and I never started building it up until I was satisfied with my other scores.  It just sat there, ignored. In this system, I don't have to pick it at all! I can replace it with some other skill that I want instead, something useful to me and how I want to play my character.

But wait . . . didn't I just say that Skills & Powers was stupid?

It is. It provides very little motivation to play-test the ideas held within it, however, this system has been play-tested at my table, and it works. It works amazingly well! Masque of the Red Death, to myself and the other members of the club, made D&D fun again. Its higher level of challenge changed not just how we game, but how we see the game itself.

  • Thieves are all different
  • Thief skills work from the start
  • The challenge is consistent, regardless of level
  • The thief skill system does not place limitations upon the system as a whole
As a DM I am sold, and the players are happy with the results that they get. This will be adapted into all future D&D games.

But Percentages gave more to the game than yes or no answers

As a player, I was always torn. I like rolling my own results, but sometimes I wanted the DM to keep the actual results a secret from me. I wanted to simulate thinking that I'm moving silently but not really being sure if I am or not. As a DM, these thoughts were amplified, but I was stuck because I couldn't figure out how to simulate the event without taking away player agency. This system actually allows that.

Either the DM can translate the d20s into percentages, or tell the player who succeeded their check that they believe that they have found a route which is possible to move silently and hide in shadows, then get confirmation that they still want to do the action or not. If they do, then the DM rolls the percentile check to see exactly how quiet they are.

The point is that no matter what we do, we've taken the traditional Thief Skills System, which was closed and set in its way, and changed it into a Skill System which allows the player and the DM to open it up when they want to.

  • Players can no longer get a 95% chance of success
  • A perceived penalty imposed on low ability scores
  • Player's who do want to play traditional thieves hate this
  • A psychological loss of control
  • Requires a talented DM to function
  • Cleaner Character Sheets
  • The Level Cap has been removed
  •  Custom Characters without breaking the system
  • Fast and Easy NPCs who are competent without cheating
  • Creating Hirelings that grow with the game and aren't static
  • Easier to level up (and level down)
  • Rewards Imaginative Play
  • Skills can be given to Races without weird limitations

Before closing, something needs to be addressed. Since the players are spending slots on abilities, should they get more slots to spend? The answer is no. They still get the same amount. This is balanced by the abilities themselves being useful as soon as they are chosen.

Unmodified skill checks do place caps on abilities. DEX of 18 = 90%, and on the low end, 9 = 45%.

The 3d6 method of STAT Generation prefers to give results in the 11-13 range, which gives you some good numbers that are fun to gamble with, 55%-65% but aren't fixed in my games, they go up and down. If you choose, the Thief Ability Table found in the 2e DMG can be used in conjunction with this system if you need to lean on it now and then. Since the system is open, we can change the difficulty level of a task as we see fit.

Most of the time, it really doesn't matter. The core Thief System is a nitpicker. Either the thief can pick a lock, or he can't. The players can decide to break the door, spend a spell opening the door, or ignore the door and walk away from it. Who cares if the Thief picks a lock? Why impose that restriction at all?


Streamlining The AD&D Skill System

The cool thing about having a Blog is that it allows you to go back in time and see how your thoughts and opinions about things have changed. G+ User, Stan has gone back into my archives and corrected a mistake that I had made in regards to The Non-Weapon Proficiency Mechanics.

Since writing that article, I have unknowingly adopted a set of house-rules that allows more freedom for everybody based on principles I've learned from researching Original Dungeons & Dragons and have a deeper understanding of how players interacted with the world before those systems were in place. 

It goes back to Open & Closed systems. The NWP system is designed to be closed, but it is also designed to be opened up by the players and the DM when it needs to be. What defines this need is the level of detail.


The proficiencies are guidelines, they help players get a clear idea of who their character is. They are tools which a player can use to tell the DM that they can do something very well. 

Having a proficiency is a pass. The player is not limited to these skills, but having these skills defined and written down allows that player to use them, and get extra-XP for using them well. 

Owning a Proficiency is proof that your character can definitely do this, and may even go beyond what is defined in the handbook.


This system is primarily the total domain of the player, DMs don't use this system, only players do. It is up to the players to remember these things and use them wisely. Since having a skill is a pass, when the DM asks how the character knows something, and they refer to the specific skill, the conversation is either over, or the DM can have them roll a skill check if that needs to happen. 

It is also up to the player if they want to risk rolling the dice to perform a task or to start a dialog and get specifics. 

Example: The player has an investigative skill which allows a methodic search of an area via the dice. The player can automatically use this when searching a room, but a failure is a failure. Alternatively any player, even those that do not have this skill, can ask for details. They can interact with the setting and the DM will tell them the results. Once this is done and the player believes that they have exhausted the place, they can say that they would like to do a skill check, and see what happens.


The idea that a character only knows what is on the character sheet is preposterous and self-limiting for no real benefit to the player or to the game. The DM is going to have to invent fast throw-away mechanics at the table on a case-by-case basis. Specifics dictate what can and cannot be done. Doing something that you aren't proficient at on a regular basis may equal gaining a proficiency.

For instance, if the game is played in the mountains for several months, the players are going to have a really good chance of understanding what they are doing. How can we translate this though? 

  • The DM can just have them roll a STAT check to see if they picked it up, and just give it to them if they are successful.
  • The Player can write it in once a new Prof. slot becomes available if they chose to.
  • All slots beyond those chosen at the creation of the character are left blank until a skill is learned through specifics.
That last one doesn't work so well, all of your players will end up having the same skills which defeat the purpose. 

There is a myth about open Skill systems, that goes along the lines of the Player taking advantage of the DM. Players going out of their way to change the tone of the game. The player CAN try anything, however, every hair-brained scheme takes the time to execute, time that the player probably doesn't have. I've been playing this way for a while now and so far my players have all embraced the tone of the game and do their best to preserve it. 

As DM, I reserve the right to ask the player how they learned this new skill, if they can't tell me, they don't get it. My players so far have written down things that would have been handy in the past. Things that they had picked up along the way but I didn't give it to them for free, and I do give out skills for free if they had been earned.

The question, "How did you learn this?", is a good governor for the skill system. Slots don't have to be filled up right away, and the question goes back to the player; "How can I learn this skill?"


Torches: We are doing them wrong

Forgotten Arts & Crafts, Wilderness Survival Guides, American Indian crafts and Depression Methods are among my favorite Non-Fiction Book Subjects. Simple living comes in handy regardless of income.

My father raised us to remember these things and see their value. My grandfather believed that electricity was a fad, and preferred the old ways more often than not. He had a tractor, but for tedious jobs such as picking corn, he took the horse and cart out to the fields, his logic being that the horse just kept following him, he didn't have to stop working to go move the machine. 

I do the same thing for my children, I raise them to be self-reliant and to know where they came from. It has been hard to adjust to city life, but I am doing my best. For vacation we tend to go camping, there are many important skills that one can learn from primitive camping, the most important being self-reliance.

In regards to light, we have modern battery-powered lanterns, but we leave them at home. Those things are terrible! They do nothing but draw bugs and batteries are very expensive compared to other forms of fuel. Instead, we use railroad lanterns. Not only is the fuel cheaper (and a hell of a lot cleaner!), but the light doesn't draw insects and doesn't kill your night vision., these are easy to make, and we've done it! They suck. The fire itself blinds you, in fiction, they always have the person in the lead carrying the torch, but it should be the person in the back, though it does get passed around a lot. The torch-bearer really can't see very far, you can't even see the ground which is a problem, and it is harder than you think to hold a torch above your head and out of your eyes. Even a lantern will do the same thing unless it is fixed with a shield, you don't want the light to be too bright, just bright enough.

Cab drivers who drove at night had to keep the flame itself out of their eyes, seeing the ground was imperative because of potholes. Nobody wanted to drive at night, even with a light source, because moving around is dangerous. People did it, but people also got lost on their own properties and drowned in rivers.

In regards to cave exploration, torches aren't the best idea. The best option is a candle, low levels of light to highlight your surroundings. They told you more than just your surroundings, the flame is sensitive to changes in air quality, professional miners preferred candles to lanterns, it wasn't just budget concerns. Even today you'll see a lot of miners smoking, they watch the smoke to see the air flow. Once battery operated light came about, that is when people started carrying canaries. would be shocked at how deep the old-timers got inside of caves, and these weren't professional spelunkers, these were just everyday locals who took some time off and wanted to see things that nobody else had seen. They used candles, and they'd climb deep inside of these things until they either got scared, ran out of time, or could progress no more because of the muck. They'd mark their spot with their name and usually the date, and these writings are still in there.

What does this have to do with D&D games? Nothing. We're dealing with fantasy, it is just easier to have tunnels that you can stand upright in, the rule-of-cool dictates a lot of stuff! I do give them raw caves to explore when I want to. Passages that aren't 5'x5'. I'll also get picky about supplies if that is the game, but we rarely play that game.
Typically, I'll do the math and how many torches you bring in dictates how far in one can go and get back out again. I'm also a creep, demihumans don't need as much light to see in the dark as men do, and once a demihuman gets beyond the range of men, the underground world becomes more habitable for them, fungus and stones radiate light that they can see, but humans and normal elves cannot.

Elves can see normally at night above ground, starlight is enough, but it is reversed, the Dwarvish folk needs to carry a light source.

Candles are preferred, lanterns break, but the oil can be used to make a torch. To light a torch you only need one stick, but you've got to bring enough cloth and fuel with you. The problem with light is that it gives your position away. Enemy sentries typically sit in the dark, living spaces are lit, but that is it. Golin will sometimes light passages to help sentries see intruders sneaking around in the dark (if they are paying attention), so light itself is part of their survival plan.

The players tried to utilize the Permanent Light Spell, which works great in unoccupied caves and dungeons, but since you've got to put it out to sneak around, and recast it, it can be terribly expensive.

That is the game that we prefer to play. One of stealth. I have also found that it is difficult to put a torch out, the fastest way is with water, a slower way is to smother it with dirt, the slowest way is to tap and roll it around on stone, which is also noisy. I don't think that I've ever used these experiments in a game before. Maybe stripping it off with a sword real quick and stamping it out would work? That might be a fun game!

Gothic Earth Session 10: Return to the Haunted Belalp #3

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Played last weekend and it was fantastic! The players didn't know what to do next, session 9 had been an intense investigation that ended with a conclusion. They had no leads and low morale. The Village of Belalp was going to have a big party celebrating the end of the Witch murders, and the biggest scumbag in town made it look like he was the hero. Oddly enough, the players didn't want to attend this party.

I figured that this would be a good time to head back to Belalp #3, and have a dungeon crawl. This would be their 3rd trip down into its depths, and there is a lot to do down there, so it was a good time to open it up some more.

 Designing Kobolds

In Switzerland, the word for Fairies is Kobold. Above ground, Kobolds are seen as benevolent and helpful nature spirits, but below ground, they are twisted and evil. I've been using the word Kobold as well as Tommyknockers. The mine is haunted, but not all of the spirits in the place are dead.

I had never run kobold monsters. Never! In my power-gaming days, I saw them as too weak. They are weaker than the lowly goblin. As a DM, I just never had a place for them. Goblins in my worlds usually take the spot of booby trap-ambush experts, so in the book they stayed, until this dungeon.

I modified them some. I gave them a natural ability to turn invisible at will, and added “Spook”. I wanted them to be different, so while my goblins are traditionally forced into the wilderness, these sneaky things can quietly live among us. They are physically weaker than goblins, even a child could beat one up, so psychologically they had to be different, they depend on people. They are expert thieves. They rely on these skills to survive and are happy to live like rats. For the most part, their traps are designed as warnings and are more insulting in nature than dangerous, however, they rely on very dangerous traps to keep them safe. The tripwires for kobold traps are a bit more ingenious than Goblin's need. Traps are their primary method of attack, but for the most part, they are not nearly as aggressive as goblins are.

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The mine is a tricky dungeon. It is designed to open up over time; I don't enforce this; if the players find a secret door they find a secret door. It features a backstory that evolves and tells itself through play; it predates human history, first opened by Gnomes who lived here for centuries. Romans and Medieval men moved in to terrorize them, it was always the same story, the gnomes would allow the humans to share the wealth of the mine, as long as they kept to their sections, but without fail the humans wanted the whole thing for themselves.

There was a massacre, the humans crossed a line and murdered gnome women and children, ancient blood ran in rivers. The survivors of this genocide swore revenge, and something within the gnomes minds became twisted, they killed every last human in that mine. Not just killed, this was not war, this was murder. After the deed was done, and the Adrenalin wore off, they had time to reflect on what they had done. They had won nothing. Their families were still dead, they were still alone, and one gnome, in particular, believed something else; that he was cursed. He murdered his accomplices while they slept, leaving him totally isolated and insane. Rage was his motivation, it was all gone, the gods had abandoned them, and existence itself was punishment. He is still here.

This story is told in the Gnome section of the mine. This area, hidden from the main mine through residual illusion and kobold ingenuity, is being used by a small community of kobold miners who work sections that the humans don't.

There are other mysteries to be discovered in regards to the kobolds, but that is the story that the players have learned so far. Communication with them is very difficult, both are reduced to drawing pictures in the dirt, or pantomime.

The players stumbled upon their living quarters and stayed passive. Some communication was accomplished, the kobolds knew that if they attacked they'd be slaughtered, they'd die fighting if they had to, but they didn't want that. The kobolds were able to ask the party to kill some nasty spiders who also lived in these gnomish tunnels, which wasn't too difficult for the players, but impossible for the kobolds.

Heroic NPCs, how much is too much?

I was able to get my two wizard NPCs some XP, they are low level and both were able to use spells which the players themselves didn't have access too. I like playing them, they are totally in over their head but have no idea. This game the players had to first find them, they had gotten spooked by a kobold and when they ran, they put out their candles and were now lost in the dark.

Playing NPCs of this nature is a challenge, you don't want to take anything away from the players. You can give hints sometimes, and I often forget that they are even there, I got caught not rolling Saving Throws for traps. I coughed it up as NPC immunity, the odds of them making their saves would be annoyingly terrible and only serve to irritate the players and me. I want them there.

I got the idea from watching a show on the Syfy Network called “Ghost Mine” and wanted to incorporate it into this story. They supply the motivation to keep this mine open. If they die or aren't there, it will close and have economic repercussions on the village of Belalp which really needs this place to survive. If these investigators aren't there, the village won't be either; else the party will get paid to work here full-time and that isn't what this adventure is about either.

The mine is a piece of the Belalp Puzzle, but it isn't the point of the adventure. Is it railroading to keep these NPC's hiding behind the party, or as safe comic relief? I don't think so, they are an element of the design. They are open to attacks; when picking targets I remember that they are there, but they aren't destined to die in a trap. Not yet at least. If they bite it during an attack, then we'll deal with that. That is also up to the party. So far, they feel responsible for the safety of the investigators. One almost got eaten by a giant spider, and they hustled, took risks, and were able to save her. When she used her spell, it also furthered the story.

 1st Level Mage To The Rescue!

The problem was a weird one. The spider webs chocking the hall needed to be burned, but nobody had any torches or oil because the cleric was using magic to light the place. The wood in the gnome ruins is ancient and not fit for anything. The party was going to have to go all the way back just to get something to burn the webs out, which was boring, so I offered up my NPC. She is a horrible wizard who has no confidence in her abilities, but she had gotten the spell to work a couple of times. She told the party that she needed some components which could be found in the area, namely bat-poop and some spiderweb clippings. She ground it up and made a powder which she poured into her hand and blew onto the webs, then she said the magic words . . . and! Nothing happened.

She apologized for getting everybody's hopes up when a web shot out of the passage and got her, quickly pulling her in. Without even thinking the party all raced through the webbing, everybody getting stuck but one person who was able to get a hold of the NPC's foot, and THEN the fire spell was activated, forcing everybody to make a saving throw vs. spell for half damage.

That, to me, was more interesting than having to leave the dungeon. They got to be heroes, and I got to burn them all, so it was a win-win. Was I manipulating the game? Yes, but sometimes I think that the DM has to. This scene needed a bit of spice, and I wanted to remind the party that the investigators were there. They had to serve a purpose. Do you think that I over did it?

The hall was cleared and the creepy spiders were dispatched, opening a hall that hasn't been seen by even the kobolds. That is where they found the bulk of the gnome story, in a room, at the end of the hall is a temple to a Gnomish God, the floor glittering with huge piles of cursed gems and a pickax stuck in the statue of the god. The heroes were able to pry that pickaxe out of the statues head, hoping that maybe that would end the curse . . . it didn't. The mystic used her sense of touch to learn what had happened in this place, it wasn't perfect, but she does know that the angry gnome who put that pickax there still haunted the dark.

Instead of murdering the kobolds, they figured out that the things were using an ancient gnome press to mint coins. Why they are doing this, the party has no idea; well, actually that isn't true. They have an idea, but they don't like it and aren't sure what to make out of it. Anyway, they decided to pay the kobolds off and figured out a way to tell them that the mine was to be shared. They could work their section, but they had to leave the human section alone, and not scare or attack any more miners, nor sabotage any more equipment. The kobolds agreed, and the mine was reopened.


In regards to what the kobolds are up to, they got a clue. One of the kobolds pulled out a small bone statue of a dragon, calling it Zudet. The PC Wizard, instead of going up to the village right away had gone to the city of Brig to research the area and had found mention of a medieval settlement somewhere in the mountains called Zudet Castle. He also learned that an archaic name for the Alpine Skinks that infest the area every Spring and Summer is “Spawn of Zudet”. Is Zudet some kind of Pagan god? A symbol of some kind? Or is the statue literal?

There has been other news in town! But, that will have to wait until next game. This one is in the bag!

Suggested Blog Post, and an Anti-Module Rant (Free-Writting)

I am working on an article now, and it isn't ready. I do, however, like to try and post something at least once a week, this will be one of those free writing, unedited, first-draft things, so consider yourself warned.

Oaks Spalding has been doing some phenomenal work on his blog Save Versus All Wands, my favorite being "Why Do Player's Enjoy Being Puppets?", there is also a link in there to another good article where he defends Gygax from a younger user of D&D. Both are very well written and if you haven't seen them yet, well, there they are.

Now at the end of the article, I would like to point out a comment. A very negative comment that is strange, apparently there is a large enough caucus of people who believe some strange things and are loud enough to be heard. The most obvious belief is that there is only one way to play the game, and that is through modules. I've seen this opinion crop up a lot in the last few weeks, and it is okay to feel that way. If modules are your thing GREAT! They personally bore me to death, but to each their own. What bothers me is the aggressiveness of the campaign. At first, I thought that it was a joke. Many of us are networked together to take the game back from Corporate America and restore it back where it belongs, at the table.

Our goal should be a simple one, remove all prep. Run a game for anybody at any time any place. Perilous Dreamer from The Ruins of Murkhill is an example of a Dungeon MASTER, notice the stress on the Master.  We call ourselves Dungeon Masters, but for most of us, we're students.

I have studied lots of modules, I've got a good collection of them from all different eras. I have never run most of them, modules to me are more trouble than what they are worth. They say that they help you save time, but I must be doing it wrong because after reading, memorizing, correcting errors, tailoring it to my table, chopping it up so it's better organized, adding to it, cutting out garbage, I spent more time prepping the thing than I ever have just done my own thing.  The worst part about modules is that, without fail, half way through, after I'm done prepping the thing, I get bored of it. I had played this game during prep, I don't get to play it at the game table. That, to me, sucks. Another thing that sucks is that at the end of the day, this wasn't "OUR" game, it was somebody else's, I was just an editor. I felt like this soon after DMing and getting screwed by TSR, and being tricked into thinking that it was a failure of mine that my setting doesn't comply with the latest and greatest published version of it.

By studying a good variety of modules, and being critical about the content, figuring out what works, what is a trap, what we hate or love about something, I learned what has been done already and can begin making my own design choices. The game is customized solely for those who show up on gameday. I am no longer studying modules, they are repetitive, repeating the same formula over and over again, the newer the module the more it hides its formula but the formula is still a repetition of the old ones.

I have found fresher ideas by directing my studies to war games. I find that applying wargaming theories to D&D creates a more open world that feels more complex than it really is. A story does not have to dictate progress, I enjoy that element, but I am not a slave to it. Committing to actions, making decisions, interacting with the world around them, that is what dictates progress. In a video game, if you lose a scenario you have to try again until you win, this isn't the case in D&D. That is part of what makes it work, if you fail, the world doesn't stop, it keeps going.

I used to think that the DM was in charge of the content, but they aren't. The player is. The DM designed things, but the more open the better. If you have an interesting design, the players will do their damnedest to find it, and if you did a really good job, then they won't even notice that they haven't found it yet.

If the story plays itself out as a reaction to the players, constantly changing and morphing into something that was not predicted by the designer, is it actually a story, or is it something else?

This stuff all sounds very complicated, but it isn't. The only prep that I really need to do prior to the game is to mentally put myself in this place. If my players are at a loss for what they should be doing, I can give them different options, but typically this isn't the case.

Dave Arneson's True Genius (Review)

Half way through reading Robert J. Kuntz's book, DAVE ARNESON'S TRUE GENIUS, I wrote the following response on the Ruins of Murkhill BBS

You have, I feel, given the best definition of what it is that we do. Describing to others why we sit around a table and play pretend either ends well or it doesn't. You also identify and clarify thoughts that I have had about the system for years but in a concise way which both strengthens and expands what I have been grasping at for so long.

I had taken a very long break from gaming, and when I came back to it, I played MUCH differently than I did as a youngster. The game functions better, we took our time and just did what we wanted to. You go into a house to search it, there is no dice for that now, I make the player search it. One of the club's founding members returned for a game, he had heard that it wasn't just a hack and slash anymore and he got curious about it. During play he'd try old tactics that rely on dice, and would get frustrated when I forced him to use his brain instead; however, the very next session he came back ready to go.

I had a hard time grasping what I did, what was different, and I finally figured it out! I allowed the player's thoughts and ideas to become more important to the game than the dice. If the player can't mentally accomplish a goal, or just becomes overwhelmed, we can always use the dice, but we don't have to. People come first, not the system. This philosophy, once it takes hold, changes the dynamics of the game in a positive way. This book really reinforces this principle, and even extends my personal awareness of how far this knowledge can really take us.

Thank you!

Copyright Three Line Studios
After finishing reading the book, my thoughts about it really haven't changed. The book contains a bit of personal history from an original designer; but, it isn't a history book. The book has no mechanics, nor does it tell you how to design worlds; what this book does do is that it describes the engine that makes the game so addictive and allows you, the reader, to understand the engine for yourself. True Genius is much longer than the page count, it is interactive as it requires you to take the ideas presented to continue the thought processes and what they mean to you personally.

The engine itself is larger than Dungeons & Dragons, in fact, Dungeons & Dragons places limitations upon it to stop it from reaching its full potential. The purpose of the game system isn't to help you, the end user, nor does it govern or improve the engine, the primary purpose of Dungeons & Dragons is to sell you Modules and to pretend that it is the best at what it does, when this is far from the truth.

If you are ready for this book, it is here, but beware that it will challenge what you know and encourage you to evolve. It exposes things that other designers know but don't want you to. The only critical issue I have with the book is that I feel that it could had been improved by a harsher editor, I sure wouldn't want that job! On average, most people have a 9th Grade reading level, however since this is a hobby primarily made up of readers, that average is probably somewhere in the collage level, still, I find it to be a bit too academic minded at times. Some find his word choices to be either intellectually intimidating, or thought provoking. The man is describing something that has never been fully described yet, with ideas as large as this (the engine), language itself is slow to catch up. This barrier has always been an obstacle, going right back to Arneson.

What I was hopping from this book were some insights on Dave's behavior while in the company, which are addressed, very clearly. I also wanted to know what Mr. Arneson's lost notes said, they, regrettably, are gone, but Rob does elude to some motivations of why this is. While those notes have no doubt been destroyed, Rob Kuntz, I believe, does his best to describe the contents of them. They didn't describe D&D, there was no D&D, they attempted to define the engine itself, which, like I said, is the exciting part of this book. This engine is the focus, and it, my friends is a very large yet illusive concept. The intent of the engine wasn't to recreate games that had already happened, it can do that, but as a resource, it is capable of so much more; how much more will only be discovered once we unshackle ourselves from the influences of people who aren't even at our gaming tables.

The target audience for this title is for those who are very very advanced. Those who have noticed the limitations set in place by their system of choice; any system. It is also of interest to those who study the history of our hobby, the information presented here is first-hand accounts, however that is not its goal, outside of helping you grasp what the engine is and how it was restricted right from the gate.

If you are serious, or just on the fence about developing your own designs, as I was; this book will provide motivation and direction. It defies my normal grade standards as it isn't a DM or Player Guide, it isn't something that you can apply to your current system, it is it's own thing. I will, however, state that this book is important. It's ultimate goal overshadows the status quo and forces you to question it. It also sets out to, hopefully, allow the hobby to grow beyond its current stagnation set in place by traditional formulas and be allowed to take greater leaps into future innovative designs. Wouldn't that be nice? 

The book itself is only available on the Three Studios webpage if you are waiting for it to come out digitally, I've been told that that isn't going to happen. A Kindle version would had been nice, but for the small press, Amazon takes a huge bite and leaves the Author unfairly compensated.

Gothic Earth Session 9: Burn The Witches (Experimental Design Notes)

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This session report is mostly about game design; we tried something new and the players got a ton of work done. I've tried a couple of times to write up the notes into some linear fashion but they always turned into short stories, so instead, I will make this very brief.

 In session 8 the players got one over on me. For years I have always been able to get away with mobs. Lynchings involving lots of people are dangerous and wicked things! For the most part, my players have never been able to settle one down; until session 8. Through very good Role-play and quick thinking, the players were able to stop the terrified and riled up citizens of Belalp from playing into the villain's game plan.

From the enemies point of view, this was a well-thought out and calculated move that was critical to the master plan. There are agents operating within the village of Belalp, and one specifically was going to be rewarded that night. They had framed the old woman, instigated a lynching, and planned to use it as a distraction to steal a baby for a vile ritual which would greatly increase the agent's power as well as the mastermind's.

This didn't happen, the mastermind found themselves perilously exposed to discovery, the evidence against the old woman was solid enough to cause a gut reaction but not good enough to withstand any close scrutiny, and no baby was stolen; thus no ritual was performed and the plan was thwarted.

The players definitely earned this win! They now had a chance to force an encounter with the enemy before it had a chance to reach its full potential. The players had been able to give themselves a three-day window to figure out what is going on, identify the enemy agent, and deal with them.

The elements of having the perfect game were there: Allow the agent to steal the baby, accurately predict where the ritual was to take place and catch her and her boss in the act. Of course, we all know that the perfect game is an elusive thing, but the potential was there.

I wanted things to be tense, as well as frantic; I've toyed around with time-based adventures before, but never really was all that happy with the results. My villains had their work cut out for them, they had a lot to do in a very small window, they had to strengthen the evidence against the old women, create another diversion, set the groundwork for a fast and precise kidnapping, and complete the ritual while the old woman burned, preferably along with the PC's.

I decided to try something new, I really enjoy strategy games and I thought that this scenario would fit that format in a very interesting way. Instead of using a clock to count time, the players, and the villains had a limited amount of actions allotted to them to complete their goals.

Now there is a problem with this, strategy games are difficult, you have to experiment for a while until you hit upon formulas that work, D&D is very different. There are no redos in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no take-backs, either. I had to figure out a way to make this game fair for both sides; while I enjoy strategy games, my players might not, and it is them on the hot-seat, not me. 

So, I got to designing. I decided that 13 Actions might be enough; it would hopefully give them enough wiggle room to let them make an error or two without the entire thing becoming impossible to win. I wanted a really good challenge, and a difficult game, but not something that was too mentally demanding.

Prior to play, I laid out the ground rules.

  • Play is broken up into a set number of actions. Day 1 has 3 actions, Days 2 and 3 each have 5. 
  • At the end of the game, Events will play themselves out, independently.
  • The party is not allowed to split up, each action must be done as a team. This is out of fairness to the enemy who has the same amount of actions as the players do.
  • Movement Rates are going to be ignored, it is free to walk in all civilized spaces, but there is a charge of 3 actions if one goes out into the wilderness.
  • There is no need to go out into the wilderness.
  • While the players are limited in actions, once one is declared, you are allowed as much time as you need to to explore the location and complete the action.
We took our time before beginning, this is a strange playstyle and I wasn't sure if it would work or not, we were play-testing. I let them know that if I feel that the game failed because of something that I did, then we'd replay it in a more traditional game. By the third day I knew that the game had worked.


I kept some rules of play a secret for pacing reasons, I also had to keep the game fair. Like I said, D&D doesn't give one much time to think, evidence has to be loud enough so that puzzles can be solved in real-time at the table.

At the end of each day, if they went back to their cabin they got a free turn which was used as a briefing. The NPC ally Dr. Van Helsing would talk with them about what they had figured out. Now Van Helsing, in order to function, had his own motivations and biases. I didn't give anything away, I just asked leading questions so that they could have a better chance of thinking clearly and faster than if they had just been left to ponder this stuff on their own. I did limit the number of times that Van Helsing could eliminate a false lead and point them into a different direction.

In regards to enemy activity, for the most part, I kept it so that when the heroes made a move, the enemy moved at the same time. I had a short list dictating daily objectives for the enemy, however, they were not limited to these actions, they had to be responsive to the players. An attack meant to draw attention to itself would force the players to make a decision, complete their planned action and let the police handle the attack, or investigate the scene itself. As always, my villains played to win. Some enemy actions were just distractions while others were productive. Some went undetected, while others; since the players were close to the locations in question, were noticed.

If at anytime the enemy and the player chose the same location, I would have rolled a secret initiative but this never came up. What I ended up with was a nice clean investigation game, it made in-town exploration exciting, everyone was on the same page, and running the NPCs was a breeze!

The time required to play this scenario out was perfect for the time we had allotted to us, as DM I was able to maintain a strong grip on pacing, which was important because I wanted the players to experience the pressure that their characters were under. They were able to acquire LOTS of information about the village and the people who live there (too much to write here). They had to choose their moves wisely, they did make a few errors which I had expected, but by the last turn I judged that the game had succeeded, they knew who the agent was, what her plan was, now they just had to predict her last move.

The game wasn't perfect for either side. That last turn was one of the most intense moments that I had ever had in D&D, I so wanted to help them, they had almost played the perfect game but this last move had to be precise for them to pull it off. In the end, they made the wrong decision but this was a really difficult game. They still ended up winning. The agent hiding in the village of Belalp was exposed and became a loose end, the mastermind knew that it was just a matter of time before she led the heroes right to them, so the agent was eliminated.

The heroes were able to stop the enemy from thripling its strength, but the agent who eliminated his co-conspirators and former boss is now a local hero as he was able to steal all of the glory from the players and become untouchable.

Over all, this was a very well played game that was demanding on the players' skill to get a job done in a limited amount of time that was simulated perfectly. It was definitely gamey, the mechanics were more out in the open than I normally have them, but it more than made up for it in playability. This is something that I will definitely be doing again.


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