Saturday, August 29, 2015

My very own fantasy heartbreaker

For a while now I've been pondering, thought-experimenting, writing, deleting, and rewriting some ideas for house rules and tweaks to B/X D&D.  It's becoming apparent that the project has mutated into something more than just a collection of house rules, and has taken on full-blown fantasy heartbreaker status.

Does the OSR really need yet another clone-ish rule set?  Probably not, but it's in my head, and it needs to get out.  The worst that could happen is that the RPG community collectively shrugs and goes on about its business, right?  And of course some of the new mechanics should work perfectly well as house rules dropped into B/X or Labyrinth Lord or some other D&D-like game, so there is that potential value to it.

So, I've given the project a name:  Goblins and Greatswords.  Alliterative names are sort of traditional for this kind of thing, aren't they?  Plus, I can use the term GM, simultaneously the generic "Game Master" and the specific "Goblin Master," so as not to confuse anyone with a new abbreviation.

What's G&G all about, then?  Well, it's a lot like B/X D&D in spirit.  It's a lot like B/X D&D in many ways, actually, but with some refinements, tweaks, and substitutions.  I won't call them "improvements" because B/X is already an outstanding game.  Let's say they're changes that may facilitate certain experiences and styles of play.  Ease of understanding, ease of use in play, and ease of character creation - hallmarks of B/X - are major design goals with G&G too.  The rules should make intuitive sense, be easy to pick up, and readily stick in your brain once you've used them in play a few times.  It should be possible to have all the relevant information easily accessible on character sheets and a GM screen or other brief reference sheet.  

So...G&G has a class and level system, but with a little more flexibility to make the character you want to play.  It shouldn't overwhelm you with options, though, or require ridiculous long-term planning, and the more it avoids the necessity or the opportunity for obsessive min-maxing, the better. 

Want to play a stealthy fighter, or a cleric with a background as a street thief, or a thief who dabbles in magic, or a pious wizard?  No problem.  Every character gets a secondary talent, in addition to standard class abilities.  The list is pretty short, including some watered-down skills of other classes and a few others that aren't tied to any class.  It's a single choice, made at character creation, and after that all you have to do is update it when you level up, like you would thief abilities, spells per day, or attack rolls.

It will use a race-as-class paradigm, but each race will have two or three racial classes, each of which is an interpretation of a human class through lens of the race's unique physical and mental perspective.  A dwarf whose primary job is to fight doesn't necessarily approach it in the same way that human warriors do, for instance.

Combat is still D&D-ish, but with the d20 attack roll determining damage too. It turns out that this little tweak of combining the attack roll and damage roll also allows some pretty cool things with weapon properties and special combat maneuvers, without getting too fussy or fiddly or overpowered.

Any class can use any weapon, though only skilled fighters will get the most out of big heavy damage-dealing weapons.  Armor is also usable by everyone, but imposes limitations on things like stealth and spell-casting that not-so-subtly direct thieves and mages toward more archetypal armor (or lack thereof) without expressly forbidding anything.

I have the beginnings of grappling rules that do what you need grappling rules to do without a lot of complicated math and modifiers or tedious bookkeeping in the middle of battle.

Spell casting rules are still a little hazy, but I have the rudiments of some spell acquisition rules that gently encourage an informal sort of specialization - it's cheaper and easier to learn new spells that are related to spells you already know.  Spell lists will be overhauled to emphasize mystery, mysticism, and subtle power rather than big flashy explosions and lots of damage.

Default economy is silver standard, and characters start poor.  No plate and shield at level 1 here!  XP progression will be in smaller numbers, on the order of a tenth of traditional D&D-alikes, but treasure hoards are also much smaller. XP will also be granted for discovery - finding new places, facing new creatures, and so on, and for defeating (not necessarily killing, or even in combat) enemies and monsters. 

Magic item lists will need an overhaul to fit the subtle-magic theme, and the way magic weapons and armor work will need to be tweaked so as not to overwhelm the combat system with bonus inflation while still being important and useful. 

  Expect a series of posts, interspersed around various other ramblings (more Dark Fey, anyone?) in the coming months. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A trusty sword

This came about as an offshoot of my thoughts in the last post about a special piece of equipment for each character.  One of the potential consequences of using that little quasi-rule is that a character, or the player of the character, may develop an emotional attachment to an item. 

A little history can do that.  Suddenly you have a fighter who wants to hang onto a sword because it belonged to his late father and he wants to use it to bring honor to the family, or because it was a token given to him by his childhood sweetheart, or because he found it behind the stables and it was the sword he learned to fight with.  Sometimes an attachment might develop to a perfectly normal weapon with a distinctive appearance, or that was gained in a particulary memorable adventure.

Of course, these swords being normal and non-magical, it would be to the fighter's disadvantage to keep them when enchanted weapons are found during an adventure.  Role playing urges one thing, and gaming cries out for the opposite: to cast away a trusty weapon or suit of armor because it doesn't have a +1 or +2 attached to it. 

Where do legendary weapons come from, anyway?  Can a wizard just make one, or do they require something greater to light the spark within them?  What if they're born not of wizardly enchantment, but of a hero's bond to them, and the fame of being irrevocably linked with the hero and his deeds? 

 When a hero performs a truly heroic deed with a prized weapon or armor, and sincerely praises the item's virtue as a major factor in his victory, the item begins to "awaken."  When he or she turns down the opportunity to replace the item with an objectively superior or aesthetically more pleasing model, the bond is formed, the weapon's legend begins to grow, and it gains powers beyond a mere piece of steel.  Perhaps this process is analogous, more or less, to an ordinary human attaining level 1 in an adventuring class.  It is elevated above the level of its ordinary kin.

With each heroic deed, and each refusal of the hero to forsake his trusty armament, it gains renown until it "levels up."  It begins its enchanted life with the ability to harm creatures immune to normal weapons, and over time and great deeds, it gains other powers too: bonuses to attack and damage, special virtues against the hero's sworn foes, and so on.  The powers gained should always be in harmony with the personality and goals of the wielder.  It may even become conscious and able to communicate with its wielder, and because it is a thing born of his own soul, the two are always in perfect agreement - there is never the contest of wills that is so often fought with other intelligent weapons. 

If the hero should ever forsake the weapon, either abandoning it or giving it away to one unworthy of it, its spirit slowly diminishes, and its powers wither and die, and it becomes a sad lump of metal or wood once again.  The hero must honor his weapon by handing it down to a worthy successor.  If he dies before that is done, the weapon burns with the desire to carry on his legacy, and does not lose its powers, even if wielded by an unworthy person - only the scorn of its creator can destroy its spirit.  Of course if it has developed sentience, it does all it can to bend its new "master" to its own ends or to find a more worthy bearer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One cool item

After the stats are rolled and the class chosen, there comes the ritual of equipping a new character.  Players roll to see how much cash their rookie PCs have to spend, and then pore over the equipment lists and select the gear they think will be most useful.  To some it's a highlight of the character creation process; to others it's a tedious exercise that may be ameliorated by the offer of a set of pre-generated equipment packs.

What it isn't usually, but could be, is an opportunity to build a little bit of character background.

The "starting gold" (or silver, or whatever) isn't necessarily actual coin; it's the total value of stuff that the beginning adventurer is able to scrape together by any and all means.  That isn't a new idea; I've seen it bandied about a fair few times before.  But, if the new PC isn't buying all his or her equipment fresh from the local merchants and traders, where does it come from? 

That's where the fun comes in.  After the player has purchased equipment, whether in a pregen pack or a la carte, choose or roll randomly (1d8) one piece of equipment.

1-3 Weapon
4-6 Armor or shield/clothing
7 Class specific item (holy symbol, thieves' tools, spell book, etc.)
8 Miscellaneous equipment (item of at least 10 gp value or equivalent)

How was it acquired?
1 Gift or inheritance
2 Found it
3 Won it gambling
4 Stole it
5 Payment of a debt
6 Bought from a pawnbroker/junk dealer


Gift or inheritance:  Another character bequeathed the item to the new PC.  Roll 1d8 for the identity of the benefactor.  Roll any die for the person's sex: Even, female.  Odd, male.

     From whom?
     1 A parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle
     2 A sibling or cousin
     3 A mentor
     4 A friend
     5 A mysterious stranger
     6 An authority figure
     7 A romantic admirer (50% secret)
     8 A monster

Found it: The character discovered the item, apparently abandoned.  Roll 1d6 to determine where.

     1 On the side of the road
     2 Left behind at an inn or tavern
     3 In the marketplace after hours
     4 In an alley
     5 In an abandoned building
     6 On a dead body
     7 Buried in a field
     8 In a hollow tree

Won it gambling: The character won the item on a bet or in a game of chance.

Stole it: The character or an associate purloined the item from its previous owner.  (If the player doesn't wish the character to have larceny in his or her past, the item was awarded in a judgment against the previous owner for an offense against the character or his or her family.)

 Payment of a debt: The character received the item as payment for a debt owed to him or his family.

Note that the item doesn't necessarily have to be acquired recently, right as the character begins an adventuring career.  It could be, but it could just as easily have been in his or her possession for months or years prior.

OTHER DETAILS

Previous owner is (1d3)

1 Alive
2 Dead
3 Missing for 1d10 years

Appearance of the item (1d6)

1 Shabby
2 Plain
3 Ornate
4 Elegant
5 Antiquated
6 Weird

Special properties (1d8)

1 Has great sentimental value to previous owner
2 Unusually durable
3 Sign or symbol:  Of a guild, a noble family, a secret society, a military order, a pirate captain, a merchant house, a religious cult, or whatever you like.
4 More valuable than typical (book price x 1d4+1)
5 Secret: The item conceals a secret, such as a map drawn on the back of a breastplate, a diary inside a hidden compartment in a backpack, a document rolled up inside a weapon's hollow hilt, or a password engraved on a blade.
6 Stolen: The item was taken from its rightful owner.
7 Part of a matched set (Where are the other parts?)
8 Roll again twice


Why go to the bother of figuring out these seemingly inconsequential details?  Because it's a quick and easy way to give a character some background, some points of reference in the game world, and maybe some motivations and adventure hooks.  Details can be created right away, or left vague and filled in as the campaign progresses.

Why did the character's mother give him an old sword?  How did she come to have it herself?

Who was that nameless hooded man who gave the cleric a gold holy symbol, and why?

A childhood friend gave the fighter her shield, but has since died.  Will she carry that shield in memory of her friend, even passing up better ones?

The magic-user finds a navigation chart on a page at the back of his spell book, marking a location that's impossible to get to just yet.  Will the party gather treasure in eager anticipation of discovering what's there?

It turns out that the suit of armor you picked up from the pawnbroker is stolen, and that device on the breastplate is the seal of the royal guard.  Surely that won't lead to trouble, will it?

After adventuring for a while, you meet another adventurer who carries a sword that's a perfect match for your dagger.  Does friendship, rivalry, or mutual curiosity ensue?

The clasp on the cloak your brother gave you is the badge of a secret society.  You only find out when you meet members and they treat you as one of them.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Time, the Master Resource

Last post, I rambled about resource management, and how it makes up all or most of the "game" aspect of D&D.  The majority of in-game decisions revolve around resource use.  And the most important resource, the One Resource to Rule Them All, is Time.

Time determines the relative value of other resources, and thus shapes the style of play in the game.

The "fifteen minute adventuring day" becomes a viable strategy when, outside of an immediate encounter, time is cheap.  There's no need to economize on the use of spells and other daily powers, because at virtually any time you can call a halt and rest for eight hours, and all your spells are restored.  What's more, cheap time also cheapens any resource which can be acquired or restored by expending spells, including hit points.  You can be less discriminating about fights when you know you can retreat and camp for a day or two and completely replenish your hit points before heading back into the dungeon.  And when spells are cheap, temporary magic items like potions and scrolls become both extremely precious by comparison and next to worthless because players seldom want to use them.  Cheap time also makes equipment management incredibly easy.  So what if it's two weeks' walk back to town for iron spikes and holy water?

A "cheap time" game will probably tend to feature a lot of combat because of a reduced incentive to conserve hit points over the long haul of an adventure, and spell-casters may overshadow fighters and thieves because of a reduced incentive to economize on spell use, which would otherwise be a balancing factor.

Conversely, when time is dear, resources which are renewed by time become much more precious.  If taking an extra day to rest has important consequences (see below for more on ways to accomplish that) spell casters must conserve their spells and use them judiciously rather than "going nova" at the first combat encounter to show off or show up the non-casters in the party.  Fighters must likewise be more cautious about charging into combat when their hit points must last a whole day and not just one or two encounters.  Temporary magic items can mean the difference between victory and defeat when the party faces depletion of spells, hit points, and other resources but can't afford to take a break.

A game in which time is precious will probably tend toward a more circumspect approach to combat and a more systematic approach to exploration.  Play may also be more cautious at first, and become more reckless or even desperate as time grows short.

There are two basic ways to make time more costly.  The first is PC-centered: Make things happen that affect the PCs directly as time passes for them.  This includes rolling for wandering monsters and other random events with the potential to threaten the party and whittle down their resources.  One advantage of this method is that it doesn't require careful long-term tracking of time.  If you roll every other turn, you only need to remember whether or not you rolled last turn. 

That is, of course, a perfectly good method for raising the cost of time a little, but it has its limitations.  It adds an element of the unexpected, but if the party gets a little chewed up, they can still retreat and rest with impunity.  To really put the pressure on, things must happen outside the immediate sphere of influence of the player characters, external events that affect the success or failure of the party's goals, whether simply gathering loot or some more story-oriented objective.  That does require careful long-term tracking of time - hours, days, or even weeks, depending on the scope of the adventure and the campaign.

Making adventures that are truly time-sensitive is a much stronger way of applying time pressure, while bolstering and complementing the PC-centric method.  External time pressures are generally driven by in-fiction concerns rather than game mechanical ones.  A few examples, to stimulate the imagination:
  • The evil cult must perform their ritual sacrifice of a princess under a specific aspect of the stars, which occurs at a specific date and time.
  • The king is gravely ill and will die soon, unless the PCs return before then with the ingredients for a cure.
  •  The enemy warlord is mustering an army of monsters in the caves.  Each day that passes swells their numbers, and makes exploring the caves and finding the villain more difficult.
  • The pirate treasure is hidden in a sea cave that is only accessible for a few hours at the lowest tide of the month.
  • The vampire lord is out hunting.  Find and destroy his coffin before sunrise!  If you fail, he'll pack up and move to a new hideout, and more innocents will die and rise as undead.
  • The PCs have a hot tip to the location of a great treasure, but so does a rival party.  Who will find it first?
  • If you start a raid on the orc lair but leave to rest before you finish it, you might find that the monsters have bolstered their defenses when you return.
  • A PC's mentor has been framed by a rival and sentenced to death.  The party needs to solve the crime before the execution is carried out.

Some of these are inherently hard-and-fast deadlines - celestial conjunctions and tides happen when they happen.  Others are "soft" deadlines that may be subject to modification based on player actions and NPC reactions.  For instance, if the villain finds out the PCs are coming for him, he may quicken the pace of his evil plan or divert resources from it to deal with their interference, thereby pushing back the implementation of the plan.  Or, if the PCs are aware that rivals are seeking the same treasure they are, they may try to sabotage or delay them.  Strategic use of other resources may be used to "buy" more of the master resource of time, while inept management of other resources may squander it.

Players should generally be made aware at the outset that time is limited, and that the degree of success or failure may hinge on their management of it.  Sometimes their characters may know exactly how much time they have.  Other times, a more vague idea is appropriate and sufficient to keep them moving relentlessly forward.  In some cases, you might tell them a range, and then determine the actual time randomly - maybe even after the adventure is over!  For instance, inform them that, "The royal healer tells you the king will die in five to eight days without the elixir," keep track of how many days they spend in search of it, and then roll 1d4+4 when they return to see if they were in time.  (Sometimes it's fun to be surprised right along with the players, and to remind everybody that the most heroic efficiency can still come to naught, or a faltering effort can be rewarded by fate.  Making it an open roll avoids undermining the lesson that time matters with perceptions of DM fiat.)

The simplest way to implement a deadline, either hard or soft, is to track the time in days, which puts a cap on the number of times the party may rest and sharply limits their traveling back and forth.  If the stars align for the ritual in three days, then the party can afford to rest three times while exploring the ruins where the evil shrine is located.  If the king will die in a week, and the journey to and from the forest where the key ingredient for the cure grows is three days each way on foot, then the players have a single day to look for the ingredient - unless they devise some way to reduce travel time.

As important events draw near, you may want to use a finer time scale, in hours or turns.  (Rounds really are probably most appropriate to scenes in which the PCs are present.)  It isn't necessary to track small increments of time when an event is still far off, so don't feel obliged to keep track of the Brotherhood of Chaos turn by turn if it's still twelve hours until the stars align for the ritual sacrifice.  At that point, things outside the immediate vicinity of the PC party can be tracked in broad strokes.  An hour or two before, though, might be a different story.  You might mark down turn by turn where the major forces of the cult will be and what they'll be doing, absent party interference.  When the party does interfere, and the cult responds, you can move the NPCs and monsters on the map according to their movement rates, turn by turn just as the PCs move.

 Making an adventure time-sensitive shouldn't add much to your prep time, though.  Make a simple time line, and mark the important events on it.  As the days pass, cross them off, and note any changes in future events caused by the PCs' actions.  Draw loops and arrows to indicate events which are moved ahead or back on the time line, and write brief notes as to why and how the altered timing affects the event.  If the villain marches his forces against the kingdom ahead of schedule to beat the PCs to the punch, for example, note what it costs him to do so - maybe his forces are not at optimum strength, or siege engines are left behind.

Here's a very simple time line showing the three days from the start of the adventure to the "deadline" and the twelve turns (two hours) immediately preceding the deadline.  Note that a longer or more complex timeline may include "blank" days between those labeled with events, just like not every turn in the short-term time line has an associated event.


Protip: Draw or print up time tracker sheets before a session. Check boxes are easy to make by using the "q" key with the Wingdings font.  Make a generic time sheet with several lines of boxes for ordinary dungeon exploration - it's easy to mark the end of light source and spell durations next to the appropriate turn box, and you'll know exactly when they expire as you check off turns.  Print a few more blank time sheets to use when you need to track durations of effects in rounds during encounters.  (Ordinarily I'd recommend hand-writing the events on a printed time sheet, but obviously I needed a fully electronic image for the blog, and I don't have a scanner, so I typed these in.)

All of this should not be construed to imply that a plain old-fashioned dungeon crawl with no external time constraints is a bad thing and should never be done.  That sort of adventure can be great fun, as decades of players and DMs have confirmed, and in fact it might be just the thing for the next session after a tense "timed" adventure.  It also doesn't mean that the time limits you impose should always be tight and make for razor-thin margins for error.  You don't have to be brutal with time to make time an important factor in player decisions.  Often a bit of wiggle room, which allows for greater discretion in decision-making, will make for more interesting choices and trade-offs, while still making clear that time is not unlimited.

One point which I think is paramount:  When you do impose time constraints on an adventure, you should stick to them, and let the players experience the consequences, good or bad, or what's the point of it at all?  By all means, modify the sequence of events logically in response to player actions, but once you make a decision, don't waffle, and don't fudge to try to set up a dramatic climax or to give the players unearned help.  This is D&D, not Hollywood.  The story doesn't have to end with rescuing the princess in the nick of time.  It could end by sneaking her out of her cell on the first day of her captivity, by rescuing her from the guards marching her through the corridors toward the altar an hour before the ceremony, or by fleeing in terror and shame from the eldritch horror summoned by her death.  For time to fulfill its role as the Master Resource, the players' management of it must produce real results, not illusionary ones.

For ideas on managing campaign events between adventures, see this old post.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The resource management game

Old school D&D is a game of resource management.  I don't mean merely that resource management is an aspect of the game; it literally is the game.  The "game" part of a role-playing game like D&D (distinct from the "role-playing" aspect) is all about deploying resources most effectively to achieve some goal.  Virtually every decision during a game session involves acquiring resources, expending resources, or conserving resources.  Most of the game's mechanics define resources and the relationships between them.  Even the dice-rolling parts of the game are really resource management challenges, as they tell us how rapidly resources such as hit points are used up, and inform such resource-based decisions as whether to use an emergency potion or spell or whether to cut losses and retreat.

Uncertainty is what makes the game exciting, and that uncertainty usually can be expressed in terms of resources:  How much is completing this objective going to cost us?  Do we have enough?  How can we make sure we end up with enough and a margin of error?

There are many different kinds of resources, and their differences and the interactions between them define the mechanical play of the game.  Resource use forms a sort of economy within the game.  Different resources are more useful or less useful to attaining different goals.  Some are very versatile, and some are very specific.  Resources can also be exchanged for other resources.  For instance, time, a spell, or a potion may be exchanged for hit points. 

Resources come in both renewable and non-renewable kinds.  "Renewable" here means that the resource is fairly easily replenished by expending time (i.e. time is easily converted into this resource); thus spells are a renewable resource because they may be regained after a period of rest, while a potion is non-renewable, because once it's consumed, it's gone. Hit points are also a renewable resource.

Some resources are used steadily and/or predictably, at the players' discretion.  Food, for instance, is consumed at a predictable rate, and may also be expended for other purposes (e.g. distracting a pursuing monster) simply by making the choice to do so.  Others are consumed in more haphazard fashion which is not entirely within the players' control.  Those are the instances in which dice are rolled to determine if and when and how much of a resource is used.  A party might win a fight without expending any hit points at all if they roll well and their opponents roll poorly, or it might cost them dearly if the rolls (and roles) are reversed.

Below, a partial list and discussion of resources frequently utilized in D&D adventures and campaigns.

Treasure

The most obvious resource is in the form of coin, but gems, jewelry, and other items of great exchange value count too.  Gaining treasure is often the main goal of adventuring.  In the XP-for-treasure paradigm of classic D&D, it's the driving force behind character advancement, but it's also an important resource for use during (and between) adventures.  Aside from its function of generating XP, treasure is used almost exclusively as a means to gain other resources by purchasing them from other characters or creatures.  It may purchase food and water, equipment, labor, information, and access.  Often treasure may be expended in lieu of other resources; for example, by bribing monsters the party would otherwise have to fight and expend hit points and spells defeating, or by purchasing passage on a ship to save the resource of time when traveling long distances.

The carousing house rules popular in the OSR add a further element of resource management to the game, by forcing players to decide whether to expend treasure on carousing (or a character-appropriate equivalent, such as research or charity), thus "purchasing" additional power, hit points, etc., or to save it for more direct purchases of equipment, information, and so on.  The rules-as-written generally allow them to have their XP and eat it too.

Equipment

Much common adventuring equipment is geared toward conserving other resources, particulary hit points and character lives.  Armor directly reduces the amount of hp lost in combat, while weapons minimize it indirectly by neutralizing foes faster.  Poles and thieves' tools reduce the threat of traps.  Even the humble Large Sack allows greater amounts of resources to be carried.

Other items, such as ropes and grappling hooks, allow access to places the party might not otherwise be able to reach.  

Generally, adventuring equipment is pretty durable, but there are situations that can force characters to expend these items.  An iron spike pounded into a rock wall probably can't be recovered in usable shape, nor can the rope secured to the top of a cliff by which the party descends to the bottom.  Even weapons and armor are sometimes subject to damage or destruction.  It's usually best for the DM to warn players if something they want to do will cause the loss of a piece of equipment, so that it becomes an interesting choice rather than a "Gotcha!" moment.  "Sure, you can use your 10' pole to vault over the Floor of Lava.  It looks like you'll make it easily that way, but the pole is probably toast.  Do you still want to do it?"

 Food and Water

Rations and water are a resource to be managed, but one that's often hand-waved because DMs and players deem that the effort of tracking them does not appreciably add to the fun of an adventure. Hand-waving food and water removes a great deal of the pressure of time management, though, especially for wilderness adventures and other forays lasting longer than a day or two.  Provisions are generally replenished by expending treasure to purchase them, by spending time to forage for them, or by spending spells to create them. 

Hit Points

Character health and vitality are such an important resource that the game provides a special statistic just for tracking them.  Things like character class and level and the availability of healing determine whether they're a scarce resource or an abundant one, and whether management of them occurs in the context of individual encounters (such as when hp may be recovered by a "short rest" afterward) or whether it's stretched out over the full length of an adventure.  Hit points may be replenished through time, spells, or physical resources (potions or healing herbs.)

Party Members

A character is typically the very last resource a player wants to spend to achieve party goals - at least, his or her own character! - but heroic sacrifice is a well-established trope of the genre.  Henchmen and hirelings might be considered more expendable in order to conserve other resources such as magic and player-character hit points and lives.  Of course, the more liberally players expend the resource of henchman and hireling lives, the more difficult it may be to replenish their supply.

Losing party members means losing the utility of all that character's abilities, from the most fantastic to the most mundane.  Not only can a dead henchman not inflict a little damage on the orcs while drawing off some of their attacks, he's not going to carry your loot either!

A party member may be recovered through the use of powerful magic, or replaced by rolling up another.

Sometimes a character may be "expended" temporarily, as when a party member is paralyzed, unconscious, confined, or taken hostage, and thus unable to contribute for a time.  

Spells

The spells of clerics, magic-users, and other spell-casting classes are another resource to be carefully managed.  Spells are an extremely versatile resource, which can often be spent in lieu of other resources, such as hit points, equipment, and time.  Some spells are expended to restore or augment other resources - healing spells restore lost hit points; create food and water grant extra provisions; summoning spells provide extra "henchmen."  Spells are typically replenished by time.

Temporary Magic Items

Potions and scrolls are non-renewable resources which can accomplish just about anything that can be done with magic spells, and sometimes a few things that can't.  Because they're non-renewable, some players will hold onto them forever, waiting for the perfect moment when they'll make the difference between glorious victory and crushing defeat. (A moment that's unlikely ever to arrive, and even less likely to be recognized except in hindsight.)

Light

Dungeon delving without light is tantamount to suicide!  The number of torches or the amount of lamp oil carried prescribes a limit on the length of time that may be spent prowling about underground.  Some DMs go so far as to house-rule away continual light spells and dark vision abilities of elves and dwarves so as not to dilute the fear of running out of light during a dungeon crawl.  Light as a resource is an effective way of making time matter, at least while in the dungeon.

Information

This is a wonderful, versatile resource, one that a smart party will be willing to expend other resources to obtain.  Good information often pays off more than the cost of obtaining it, as it may allow the party to conserve other resources.  Expending a read magic spell to decipher the inscription on a crypt allows players to make a more informed decision on whether to open it.  Does it contain treasure that may aid them in their quest, or undead monsters that will grind down their supply of hit points and combat spells?  Expending a turn of time to search for secret doors may allow them to bypass needless conflicts on their way to their objective.

Conversely, the characters may have information they do not wish others to know - the resource of secrets.  For instance, it may cost the party a lot less in spells, equipment, and hp if the Big Bad Evil Guy doesn't know their plans, and even better for them if he doesn't even know they're coming for him.  Lesser resources may be wisely spent in preserving the resource of secrecy to spend when it is to the greatest advantage.  Secrets may also be used to purchase other resources.

Often the characters may have information that's of value to someone else, and may use it to gain virtually any other resource which the other party can supply, such as treasure, magic, food, or other information.

Finally, characters may possess or acquire information that someone else does not want them to divulge, which gives them tremendous leverage over that person.  Such knowledge is an incredibly powerful resource under the right circumstances, but it's usually a one-shot deal.  Once it's used, it can't be recovered.

Reputation and relationships

Players can expend all kinds of resources building up the resource of a character's or a party's reputation and relationships with other denizens of the campaign world.  Reputation can be spent judiciously to acquire resources from willing NPCs - the count assigns the party a squad of men-at-arms, the merchant lets them hire a ship and crew at a steep discount, the peasants hide them from the evil sheriff's men, etc.  Using it in this way generally entails some maintenance costs if you want to be able to count on help again in the future, of course.

Reputation can also be sacrificed in extreme situations.  The king has entrusted them with access to the most secure parts of the castle.  He'll never trust them again when they use their access to steal the crown jewels, but maybe that's what it takes to save a PC's family from certain death.  The evil warlord's cowardly advisor surrenders because the party has earned a reputation for mercy - a reputation that will be severely damaged after they reluctantly agree to torture him for information.  Such uses of reputation are often one time only, and the resource may never fully be restored.

...and then there's the Master Resource...

Time!

Besides being a resource unto itself, time affects the use of every other.  All too often, time is treated as a costless resource, and therefore freely exchanged for any other that may be in short supply.  The infamous "fifteen minute adventuring day" is a direct result of this.  Making time too cheap also contributes to the ridiculous conservation of temporary magic items - why expend a potion that's gone forever, if you can use a spell that you get back after a rest?

In fact, time as the Master Resource really deserve a post all to itself...which is coming up next!


Sunday, July 5, 2015

A half-baked idea for high-level characters

I don't have a lot of mental energy to devote to RPGs right now, so I'm presenting this as a bare-bones idea.  If anyone wants to take it and flesh it out, modify it, or fold, spindle, and mutilate it into something else, feel absolutely free to do so.

It's often said that high-level D&D is about domain-level play rather than dungeon crawling and fighting ever-bigger and badder monsters.  High-level play is also plagued by breakdowns in game mechanics as hit points, attack rolls, saving throws, thief skills, etc. continue to grow with each level. 

Well, how about all those things max out, or at least slow down drastically, around name level?  Characters don't get too much better at bashing monsters after name level.  Instead, each class starts building abilities and skills appropriate to domain-level play.

Fighters get bonuses and special maneuvers for leading armies in mass combat.

Magic-users and clerics learn magic rituals that affect entire domains and may last weeks or months, but consume large amounts of resources and take days to cast, instead of just getting bigger and flashier guns to fire off in a combat round or an exploration turn.  That would require writing up a new list of high-level spells.  Maybe all spells of level 7 and up are of this type.

Thieves could become skilled in political subterfuge, intelligence gathering, maintaining a stable of alternate identities, etc.

I don't have any specific game mechanics yet, but it seems like this might be a good way to keep high-level play interesting and keep level advancement relevant without breaking the power curve too badly.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dark fey: Bugbears

Shhh!  Did you hear that?  That scraping sound - something under the bed, or in the closet?  You heard that because he wanted you to hear it.  When he doesn't wish to be heard, he is as stealthy as midnight's own wings.  He thrives on your fear, savors it like an intoxicating drink.  And there is no keeping him out.  His joints bend every which way you please, and his bones are all of gristle that flexes without breaking.  He can pry doors and windows with his long clever fingers, or squeeze through gaps and hide in crannies you'd never think to check before blowing out your lamp.

 He likes to taunt and tease with little noises, bumps and scrapes and huffing breaths.  He knows you won't dare spring from your bed and flee.  You're in his power now.  Then, perhaps, as you tremble beneath your blankets, praying for the dawn to come, he'll unfold himself, all seven or eight long and gangly feet of him, and let you see the shadow he casts in the moonlight upon the wall, but only for an instant.  The next you'll see of him is his great leering face, with its mad, bloodshot eyes, its straggly hair, and above all its too-wide grin full of gleaming yellow fangs. 

No, my lass, don't cry for your father or your mother.  He'll kill them, with nary a thought, with his sharp barbed knife or his strong grasping hands.  It isn't them he wants.  It's you. 

Into his great black sack you'll go, with bones and snails and bits of rats, and then he'll steal back to his dark lair where he dwells with all his brothers.  What will he do with you there?  Oh, fear not, he doesn't want to eat you.  He's far too lazy for that.  The bogey-folk never do for themselves what they could have done by helpful slaves instead, nothing, anyway, except frightening people and stealing naughty, lazy little children. 

And so you'll dig and dig and dig in their dank smelly tunnels, and catch rats and toads and worms for their dinners, and you'll grow up there in the darkness among them.  Oh, they'll take a shine to all-grown folk sometimes too, and spirit them away to the dark mines, but for those ones, the toil and the drudgery are all they have to look forward to for the rest of their born days.  Only one in a hundred ever slips away and manages to find his way out of the depths of the lair to feel the warmth of the sun again.

Little children, though...especially little children who whine and complain and won't do their chores as they're asked...those are their favorites, for they remind them of themselves.  They might take a real liking to you, and frighten you extra-special, because that's their way.  And if you amuse them with your cowering and sobbing, and if you eat your slugs and worms like a good little lass, and if in the end you put down your spade in spite of all their frightening and scaring, and show yourself to be as stubbornly lazy as they are...well, you might just grow up to be one of them.