Referee’s Bookshelf: Woodland Warriors Complete

Simon Washbourne’s one-man small press operation Beyond Belief Games seems to have a knack for putting out fun little niche RPGs which adapt Dungeons & Dragons to interesting new purposes. Take, for instance, Woodland Warriors, an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry (so effectively “0th Edition” D&D with 3E-style saving throws and ascending AC) to cater to a gentler, cuddlier style of fantasy inspired by the likes of Redwall and Duncton Wood.

D’aww, badger!

The game comes with a default setting, the Alder Vale, centred on Stonewell Abbey, an institution founded by Abbess Ariella, a legendary adventurer of the past (she presumably hit domain level and retired). As you might expect from a Redwall-style game, the Abbey is inhabited by mildly anthropomorphised animals (incidentally, kudos to artist Darrel Miller for making the animal art look anthropomorphic without looking typically “furry”). Alignment is mostly arranged along species lines: you have the Kind, who like to co-operate, and whose communities are served and protected by the Abbey and from whose ranks the player characters are drawn from; you have the Wild, which includes reptiles and insects and most birds and a few of the other mammals – basically, anything which is either unintelligent in this world or which prefers to fend for itself in the wilderness. And then you have Vermin – rats, weasels, and other baddies who co-operate for the purpose of looting, pillaging, bullying and banditry!

So, right there you have a nice, clear assumed mode of play – player characters are Kind working for the Abbey to solve problems and protect their communities against the Vermin and the more aggressive members of the Wild, and when you hit a certain level you go do the domain management thing and set up your own community. (The default setting nicely signposts this, in fact, by having a second Abbey nearby founded by an adventurer from Stonewell Abbey.) The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is a nice example of the interesting stuff you can do with pre-Advanced D&D‘s three-alignment system if you come up with a rationale for it and follow through the consequences of that. But how’s the system?

Actually, not that bad! The main work Washbourne undertakes is in adapting OD&D/Swords & Wizardry so that it runs exclusively on six-sided dice. Saving throws can fairly easily be switched to D6-based target numbers, of course, but a little bit more finesse is demanded with the combat solution and Washbourne’s solution is actually quite elegant. Armour classes run in ascending order from 3 to 8, and each combat round you get to roll a number of D6 equal to your hit dice, with each die beating the AC of the opponent or opponents you are fighting causing a hit. Of course, this means you will need something extra to hit the higher ACs, so you can opt to roll less dice, and each die you forego adds 1 to the roll you get on all of the remaining dice. Naturally, fightery, tanky types get new hit dice at a faster rate when levelling compared to fragile wizardy types (a full hit die every other level, with a simple bonus at the in-between levels, which improves hit points but has no relevance to your combat rolls, is the fastest hit die progression), so right there you have an elegant way to spice up fighters, handle multiple attacks and combat against multiple opponents, and interesting choices in combat between making more attacks with an inferior chance to hit and making less attacks but hitting more reliably.

Nicely, Warriors (the fighter equivalent class) are also given odds of pulling off warrior stunts in combat – feats of physical prowess that don’t involve doing direct damage, like grappling an opponent or shoving them prone. Of course, arguably all PCs should have a chance to accomplish such stuff, but making the option explicit here and giving odds for warriors to accomplish this stuff does have the nice effect that in combat players of other classes are likely to hunker down and concentrate on playing to the strengths of their class, whilst warriors are more flexible in combat and can either go in for the kill or pull some other stunt, which I think is arguably how you want it to go if you want to have a class whose specific forte is being trained to get shit done in a combat situation. Another combat tweak is that when they hit 0 HP PCs do not die automatically – instead you have to make a Fortitude save to remain conscious, and if you go into negative hit points on the next round you have to  roll on a table to see the consequences, of which death is one option and unconsciousness is very likely. This helps make the game a little friendlier than by-the-book OD&D without detoothing it.

Whilst it does not have a full blown skill system, Woodland Warriors does give all PCs ratings in Notice, Lore and Persuade, which behave like saving throws in that you get a target number to roll based on your attributes, class and level. This gives a nice, elegant way of adjudicating spotting hidden stuff, knowing obscure facts and winning over strangers (though the referee is encouraged to either dispense with the roll or provide bonuses if they already think the NPC would be particularly receptive or hostile to the suggestion in question) which differentiates characters without locking anyone out of those capabilities and would make a neat addition to other editions and variants of TSR-era no-skills D&D.

The classes on offer are all cutesy woodland takes on the standard D&D stuff; notably, full blown rogues are an NPC class for Vermin, though the PC Scout class covers a lot of the territory you’d want a thief class to cover with the difference that Scouts don’t do lockpicking, disguise, or sleight of hand/pickpocketing and are slightly better at handling traps, whilst Scouts move faster than Rogues and have a tracking ability (so a Rogue could probably steal a Scout’s purse, but might have trouble getting away after the fact). Races are, naturally, swapped out for various species of snuggly animal, with the PC choices being Badgers and Moles (who both make good Warriors), Hedgehogs (reasonable Warriors and Friars), Mice (who make the best Scouts) and Squirrels (who can turn their hand to more or less anything). Levels run from 1 to 6, which is enough to make the higher grades of PC and NPC interestingly powerful without getting overwhelming.

Woodland Warriors is presented as an RPG for children and adults alike, and I think it broadly succeeds. Certainly, the rules are presented clearly enough that any child capable of handling them and motivated to try to run a game from the book, and the choice of subject matter is apt – I remember the Redwall stuff being a big deal amongst older primary school and younger secondary school kids when I was growing up, which is about the age when an interest in RPGs often develops. In addition, even though I never read the Redwall stuff myself, Woodland Warriors presents this balance of perilous adventure and inoffensive coziness which is really endearing and I could definitely see myself running or playing this. (If you are a Redwall fan, this game is more or less perfect for you unless you absolutely hate class/level systems.)

Who wants to be a human Monk when you can be an Otter Wayfarer?

The core book is rounded off with a sample adventure and a very brief rundown of the Alder Vale setting with some adventure seeds. For those who want a somewhat meatier setting, Greyrock Isle is a short and sweet supplement providing a few new rules (Hare and Otter PCs and two new classes Talespinners, who are kind of like Bards, and Wayfarers, who are kind of like Monks), but whose main attraction is its detailing of the titular island, an offshore settlement of Kind recently overrun by a band of Vermin led by the villainous wolverine Vorstang, who has overthrown the legitimate ruler (the otter Lord Redmantle) and set himself up as self-proclaimed Lord of Greyrock. Suggestions are provided on how to get the PCs involved, whether they start out as residents of Greyrock or visit the island in the course of an ongoing campaign. The primary assumption is that the PCs are going to work towards ousting Vorstang in some fashion, with a local band of outlaws led by the hedgehog Warburton (Lord Redmantle’s constable before the invasion) being an obvious group of allies (or local PCs), but other than this it’s explicitly presented as a sandbox, with the major locations on the island and the effect the occupation has had on them detailed and adventure seeds and suggestions scattered about. It’s another bare-bones setting, but it’s a nice example of how to present a sandbox setting in a format decidedly different from the “hex crawl” format beloved of the OSR, and also an example of how a sandbox doesn’t have to be static and doesn’t even have to lack an obvious campaign premise – it just can’t dictate where the action goes once the PCs show up.

The Out West supplement is a somewhat meatier prospect, since it deals with a sharply divergent genre – namely, it adapts Woodland Warriors to cater to a Western setting where magic, whilst fading from the world, is still very much an active force. Player characters are assumed to be Drifters who wander from town to town righting wrongs before settling down should they survive to 6th level. Distinctly American varieties of PC Kind – Raccoons and Prairie Dogs – are offered, as are rules for guns (and how armour class is reduced against them), and the classes get a comprehensive rewrite to better fit the Wild West (so your cleric equivalent is now a wandering Preacher). The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is maintained for some good old fashioned white hat/black hat action, and in perhaps my favourite setting tweak the Vermin are now referred to as Varmints. There’s also a nice sample setting plus some sparse but evocative background details suggesting how the Abbeys have evolved and come to the New World since the medieval era of the default setting.

Draw, Varmint!

Westerns are a tricky genre to handle because whilst many details of a medieval setting aren’t really reflected in the modern world – there isn’t exactly much Saxon-vs-Norman strife in England these days, for instance – the American West is close enough to our time that many injustices of the time seem much more immediate, especially considering how Westerns were prominently used in the first half of the twentieth century to teach and reinforce traditional values modern players may be uncomfortable with. Here I raised an eye at prairie dogs being presented as Native American analogues, because animals weren’t really mapped to real world ethnicities or social classes in the default setting (the Kind/Vermin split not really matching any specific medieval cultural divide since, of course, bandits and loyal subjects sprang from the same stock back in the day). Elsewhere in the book though it is made clear that the New World was home to a diverse range of Kind and Wild and Varmints, so the game doesn’t seem to be deliberately out to homogenise Native American cultures, though since only Prairie Dogs are consistently portrayed as mapping to those cultures whilst Raccoons aren’t it’s still a little problematic.

At the same time, it specifically says that the Kind of Old and New Worlds were allies and friends from the start, which I guess means we are going with an idealised Old West where the cute fuzzy animals are respecting each other and co-operating in a way which shames the actual human track record on these counts. On the one hand, this makes sense since the default setting is an idealised medieval idyll, but on the other hand whilst I don’t know many people who get deeply upset about the Harrowing of the North or are directly disadvantaged by it there are plenty of people today who (with all the justification in the world) regard the colonisation of the American West as genocide and there are people who are enduring hard circumstances which were directly caused by that process. That doesn’t mean I want to ban Westerns as such, but it does mean that I personally have qualms about Westerns which sugarcoat or outright ignore these issues. That goes double when those Westerns are pitched as being suitable for children, because your early exposure to and exploration of a historical period (even through the lens of fiction) will often strongly influence your subsequent ideas about it. I am reasonably sure that most adult readers who do not have some ideological commitment to the myth of the Old West can recognise that this is a much cleaner take on the period than real history suggests. For kids, the supplement could really do with a caveat to note that it deals with a contentious bit of history in a sanitised fashion, and encouraging reading around the subject if they want to learn more about it. With this in mind, though, the supplement does at least do a successful job of presenting an OD&D-ish implementation of the Western genre, and the idea of playing a Raccoon gunslinger taking on a mean gang of ratty desperadoes does have a certain appeal.

This is a hardcore rat.

By far the meatiest supplement is At Sea, presenting a pirate-themed alternate setting, decent ship-to-ship combat rules, notes on positions on pirate ships and how you obtain and keep hold of them, and – perhaps most significantly – rules for playing Vermin. After all, banditry on the high seas isn’t very Kind, so the default assumption is that you are playing crew members on a mean, Vermin-infested pirate ship. (It is a shame that doggies have not been featured much in Woodland Warriors to this point – possibly due to their domesticated status – because this supplement cries out for crews of mangy hounds suffering from Vitamin C deficiency…)

Naturally, as well as a range of Vermin types (Foxes, Rats, Shrews, Snakes, Stoats and Weasels), there’s the usual reskinning of classes to suit the setting better. There’s a neat necromancer class that could be useful for creating adversaries in the Woodland Warriors default setting, but the real prize here is the Sawbones class – capable of rescuing fellow PCs from death through the brutal, rusty, anaesthetic-free medium of shipboard surgery. With the slightly more fatal death rules, PCs can expect to sooner or later lose a limb or two to the sawbones’ attention, particularly since you don’t need to be down at 0 HP to be at risk – if you are wounded and fail your recovery-over-time rolls three times in a row, the wound goes gangrenous, and it’s amputation or death! How can you not love that?

The Woodland Warriors Complete book (available via Lulu) gathers together the core book and all the supplements in a single handy A5 volume. There was talk of an In Space supplement coming out at some point, but this seems to have gone on the back burner. As it stands, Woodland Warriors is one of the most endearing RPGs I’ve ever seen on its own merits, as well as being a neat model for handling talking animal characters for those who want to add a dose of whimsy to their Dungeons & Dragons game worlds – certainly, I personally haven’t actually ruled against subcultures of intelligent talking animals existing in my own D&D setting…

AD&D: I am PUMPED

So, the most recent Roll20 session ended with the player characters in, not to put too fine a point on it, dire straits. A brace of lucky rolls on my part let a goblin patrol get a bunch of hits on the PCs; had we gone with rules as written, two PCs would be dead, but instead I went with these rather fun critical hit rules and the shit has consequently hit the fan in a somewhat more interesting way. Shim’s character now has a cool new scar, and Dan’s character has a broken left arm and a severed right arm.

This is possibly the nastiest thing to happen to the PCs in a tabetop session I’ve ever presided over (with the honourable exception of Paranoia) in terms of rendering PCs close to death or unplayability. Obviously in horror games there have been dire threats and direr consequences, but that’s a somewhat different thing from breaking a player’s character and having them roll up a new one.

This outcome was not planned; it stemmed from a combination of the players being steered into an area where the goblins would be patrolling by their guide, me making a roll to determine that the patrol would run into them, and a series of bad luck following on from that. The players were consciously taking a risk by a) pushing deeper into the dungeon and b) launching into combat when their magic-user was out of gas, but even so I don’t think they were expecting the trouble they got (and if they’d been a little unluckier this could well have turned into a TPK).

This outcome has me really excited as a referee.

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AD&D: A Useful Cliche

One of the features of my Dungeons & Dragons campaign is that there is a major dungeon conveniently located directly beneath the main city. This is, of course, a well-worn cliche – see Waterdeep and Undermountain, for instance, and the dungeons underneath Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk respectively were within a convenient distance of a nearby town.

However, as I recently discovered it’s a cliche which can help out a lot. Two players couldn’t make it to our most recent session, but as Dan pointed out there are advantages to pushing on and playing anyway under such circumstances – most notably, it means people don’t feel obliged to turn up to any session. (That sounds like a bad thing until you realise that making a game feel like an obligation is the first step to it feeling like a chore – plus if you do feel that obligation, missing a session feels like a disaster and so when you inevitably do miss a session you can end up feeling less invested in the game as a result.)

That said, I’m not usually up as a GM for having absent players’ characters present in a session, even as mute cardboard cutouts who stand at the back, for several reasons:

  • I don’t like the split in IC/OOC knowledge it makes; it’s enough of a job holding back stuff you know OOC but not IC, but if you end up knowing stuff IC you didn’t actually experience OOC that is just a headache.
  • I’d feel bad as a GM if something happened in such a session and a player was like “oh, man, my character would have had a major response to that, it’s a shame I wasn’t there” – for the same reason I dislike it when that happens when I was a player. (Worst case ever: coming back after a break of a few sessions where I couldn’t make it to discover that my character now had a magical hand due to various stuff he did under the GM’s control.) Better to have them saying “It’s a shame my character missed that” than “It’s a shame that my character was there but didn’t react in the way I would have wanted to because I wasn’t there”.
  • I just don’t like risking people’s PCs in their absence, but I don’t want to give them mysterious temporary plot immunity, so keeping them offstage is easier.

This policy meant that the party was two characters down, which meant that the party’s skills set and numbers were at a point where exploring the main dungeon would have been very unwise. So, I put an offer on the table: either we postpone, or I run a brief one-session side quest for the remaining players based around one of their characters’ interests. (As it happened, I was able to weave in links between the side quest and the party’s main investigation, so that helps.)

Here’s where having the dungeon conveniently close to a major population centre: cities are excellent sources of side quests and adventure hooks. You can have pretty much any sort of institution there and it’s expected that there’ll always be something to do. Small rural hamlets are expected to have quiet days where there just isn’t much going on of note, but cities never sleep, it’s kind of a celebrated feature of theirs. Having one of the city’s institutions send an urgent request to the PCs is a side quest possibility that will never get old thanks to the sheer number of institutions that could possibly exist in a city. In addition, the large marketplaces mean that players can believably kit up for a side adventure before heading out.

As fun as your Village of Hommlet may be, sooner or later it’s got to either dry up as an adventure source or start feeling unusually and especially unlucky when it comes to crises which farmers are willing to pay gold to solve. Not so your city! I begin to suspect that Gygax’s placing of the City of Greyhawk right next to his megadungeon was no mere exercise in Fritz Leiber appreciation (though that would be reasonable enough in itself), and was more than a mere concession to IC convenience when it came to travel time and finding somewhere to spend all those copper pieces dredged up from the depths: it was actually a conscious and deliberate placement of one bustling and inexhaustible adventure location next to another.

AD&D: What Roll20 Lacks

Had another Dungeons & Dragons session over Roll20 which went fairly well; we tried our hand at running an abstract combat without the use of maps or tokens to see how that worked and it seemed to be quite viable, and the party got a chance to talk to some NPCs and plan their next move. However, something did occur to me in the course of play which seems to be a major disadvantage of the Roll20 setup.

We don’t use webcams in our game; Vent, so far as I know, doesn’t support them, and using the built-in chat software provided in Roll20 (which does have webcam support) proved unstable. As far as I can tell, everyone prefers it this way anyway. However, that does mean I lack an important bit of feedback – body language. When, as a GM, I’m talking a lot – as happened this session – and the players are listening silently that usually means one of two things: either everyone is really into the game and hanging on my every word, or they’re bored out of their tiny skulls (usually the latter, because I’ve never known players who were excited and engaged with a game to stay silent for very long). I have no idea which (if either) of these is the case in the most recent session. Usually, you can tell from people’s body language, but of course that isn’t the case here.

It was pointed out that a disadvantage of push-to-talk is that you don’t get so much in the way of acknowledgement noises like “uh-huh” and “hmmm” and so on from the other people in the conversation, which is another important feedback route we are missing. That said, push-to-talk has proved so useful in minimising people talking over each other (and in generally not hearing people breathe or eat) that I’m loathe to dispense with it.

I would like to find a solution to this so I guess I have to look carefully at the Roll20 format and see where real-time feedback can occur instead (obviously post-session feedback does help, but it doesn’t help during the session itself). We’ve not been using Roll20’s integrated chat features very much except for rolling dice; perhaps I should suggest that the players use it to make any little comments or asides they want to make but which they don’t consider significant enough to merit going out over Vent?

Playing at the World, Winning at History

(Note: I know I try to keep this blog mostly devoted to documentation of actual play, but I think this is the appropriate place to put this. I started this review thinking it might be interesting reading on Ferretbrain, but on balance I think the subject matter, whilst fascinating as an example of subcultural history, is still probably too niche for a more general audience. Hence its appearance here.)

Although the idea of a scholarly examination of the history of Dungeons & Dragons may sound like an exercise which can only be interesting to hobbyists, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is also a genuinely interesting artifact in its own right, since it’s not so much a cultural history as a subcultural history. Peterson’s methodology is to begin with a detailed and focused examination of the specific subculture that Dungeons & Dragons arose in – the wargaming fandom which had grown up around Avalon Hill’s board-and-counter wargames and various miniatures wargames – and details how Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their early players and collaborators met through this fandom and what each of the main inventors of the game contributed. Following this introduction, Peterson then spends three chapters more closely investigating the history of wargaming, the fantasy genre, and the concept of roleplaying itself, and how each of the three are incorporated into the original game. This is important not only as a means of giving the game an autopsy and seeing what it ticks, but also to try and recapture the point of view of wargamers and fantasy fans of the era when coming to the fifth chapter, which examines the reception of the game, the development of the fan community, and the interactions between TSR and that community (and some of TSR’s internal politics) during the period between the original release of the game and 1977 – an appropriate enough point to leave the detailed history of the game, since it is then that the original three-booklet boxed set began to be supplanted by the new J. Eric Holmes-edited basic set and the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. An epilogue gives a brief overview of the wider impact of the game – its influence on early videogames (both CRPGs and text adventures which Peterson notes rely on a similar “dialogic” structure to tabletop RPGs) in particular, but also the cultural controversy surrounding the game (which, like most impotent accusations of Satanism levied at pop culture, did wonders for sales).

What sets the book apart from previous accounts of the history of the hobby is Peterson’s deliberate attempts to excise anecdotal accounts offered up years after the fact from his considerations. So far as I can tell, Peterson conducted no interviews when it came to compiling this history; instead, he has consulted a mountain of source material from the eras under discussion, ranging from centuries-old German kriegsspiel manuals to the magazines and fanzines which served as the forums for gaming and fandom discussion in the pre-Internet era. In the process of doing so he accomplishes an unparalleled level of detail and can unpick who is responsible for what innovation whilst setting aside the frequently self-contradictory and self-aggrandising claims made by various parties years after the event.

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AD&D: Vent Validated

We had the second session of our Roll20 AD&D game yesterday, this time turning off voice broadcasting in Roll20 and using Vent instead. After a false start in order to sort out technical issues (apparently you need to specifically tell Vent servers to be nice to Macs, which seems mildly faffy to me), I actually found it worked much more smoothly than Tokbox. Although some people did suffer crashes, on the whole it was still vastly more stable than Tokbox ever was, which allowed for play to continue mostly interrupted through the session. In addition, we were talking over each other somewhat less this time, which was perhaps just a side effect of the group being more used to each other but I think was also helped by the way Vent works – the little speaker icon by your name goes green when you hit your push-to-talk key, so you have a visual indication of when someone’s speaking.

We also were able to tackle another issue we had last time, where people were sometimes moving their tokens to indicate that their character had moved and sometimes moved them to show where they intend to move, which led to some ambiguity and people triggering combat when they perhaps hadn’t meant to. The solution we hit on entailed using Roll20’s ping function to indicate where characters intend to move, and then move the token only when they actually move, so the fighters get a chance to suggest they go ahead when the mage seems to be trying to take point. This is something which won’t necessarily come up all the time in the campaign, but I’m still glad we’re working these things out now – I’m running a map-and-counters dungeon adventure first primarily to give us this sort of test run of Roll20’s features.

As far as the actual session went, it consisted mostly of exploration with an outburst of combat at the end. I’m doing an experiment here where I’m presenting an old school dungeon (in that there are a lot of rooms which are just kind of abandoned) but trying to avoid letting it get too tedious by running what is essentially a chase through it – the characters are in pursuit of a gang of kobolds and are following their trail through the dungeon, so they usually know which way they need to go. That said, the different sectors of the dungeon level do have histories beyond being a backdrop for a chase, which adds flavour to spice up the process of exploration.

One thing I did notice about the game is how even mostly-empty dungeons can create tension – to the point where passing down a narrow corridor proved worrisome for the players because it looked like an ambush site. Likewise, despite the fact that the players had successfully stopped any of the kobolds they’d encountered so far from escaping, some of the kobolds’ traps weren’t activated, but they still managed to cause the players concern.

Next time, the players should – provided there’s no mishaps – be in a position to bring the chase to a close, at which point depending on how it resolves they’ll have several options for taking things further.