Friday, April 6, 2018

Reaction table on 2d10

Charisma was the only ability score in classic D&D that didn't follow the standard progression of bonuses and penalties. Instead, the scores that normally gave a 2-point adjustment were held to 1 point, with 2 points coming only at the extremes of 3 and 18. That's because adjustments have an outsized impact on a 2d6 roll compared to their effects on the d20 rolls to which most of them are applied.

If that anomaly in an otherwise flawless symmetry ever bugged you, here's a solution: a 2d10 reaction table to accommodate the full range of ability adjustments. The odds of each reaction level are within a few tenths of a percentage point from the originals.


Roll (2d10 + modifiers)
Reaction
2-3
Immediate attack
4-8
Hostile; -2 to next roll
9-13
Neutral
14-18
Agreeable; +2 to next roll
19-20
Friendly

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Encumbrance simplified

Encumbrance is important if you really want to play up the physical resource management aspects of the game. A journey through trackless wilderness or being lost in the bowels of a haunted catacomb loses some of its suspense if a party can carry as many rations and torches as they can be bothered to write on their equipment lists.

It's also labeled as "Optional" for good reason. As written, it's one of the most tedious things to track at the game table, and a total momentum-killer.

Let's see if we can't minimize the drag and make encumbrance a practical rule to use.

To start out, forget that nonsense about calculating every coin of encumbrance. We'll use an increment of roughly ten pounds instead. Call it a carrying unit or a hundredweight (100 coins) or a stone (yeah, I know that's actually 14 pounds in the "real" world) or whatever you like.

Every character gets an allowance of 4 carrying units. If you like, modify it by the character's Strength adjustment. Up to this amount, the character is considered unencumbered.

Now, only tally up the really important stuff, and ignore miscellaneous gear, unless someone's carrying a really absurd amount of torches or holy water or something. Armor equals 1 carrying unit per point of AC (6 for plate, 4 for mail, 2 for leather, 1 for shield.) One large weapon, two medium weapons, or five small weapons are also 1 carrying unit. Two weeks of iron rations or one week of standard rations is 1 CU. A hundred coins, or anything roughly approaching it, is 1 CU. (If you prefer your coins a little less chunky, just set this to 200 or 500 coins to the CU, or whatever.)

Now here's the clever bit. Take the character's exploration movement rate, 120' per turn for standard human and demihuman characters. For every CU over the character's basic allowance, subtract 10 from this number. That's the character's encumbered movement per turn. When you need to convert to encounter movement, just round up, so e.g. a rate of 120, 110, or 100 is still 40' per round.

Every time a character picks up or drops some significant item, just add or subtract 10 from the base movement rate. Ignore the piddly stuff until it seems that someone's really accumulating a hoard of it, and then just tack on another CU. No tedious mucking about with a calculator; just add or subtract a factor of 10 from movement and get on with the game.

Assuming no Strength adjustments, an average character will hit 0' per turn at 16 carrying units. At a glance that's a little less forgiving than the classic D&D standard, which has movement at 30'(10') when carrying 1601 or more coins of encumbrance, and 0' at 2401 coins, but given the generous fudge factor built in to this scheme, it's pretty damn close.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Simplified spellcasting

Despite the game's overall simplicity, the spell memorization and casting rules of classic D&D have always seemed overly complicated and cumbersome. I get the rationale behind it. Just like choosing which supplies and equipment to carry on a given expedition, it adds an element of planning and resource management to magic which you wouldn't get in a system that allows free-casting from among all the spells a character knows. I just don't think it does it very effectively. It's a lot of referring to charts and tables and lists, a lot of extra bookkeeping for the player, and in my own experience encourages players to default to load up on multiples of a few high-powered combat spells and avoid other potentially useful spells.

What I'm looking at is essentially a spell-point system, but one that utilizes minimal math and dead simple tracking that eliminates the need to refer to charts and tables, while retaining an element of resource preparation and management.

A magic-user maintains a spell book with all spells known, but can only memorize one spell level per level of experience, plus or minus the Intelligence modifier (minimum of 1 spell level in the event of Int penalties.) Thus, a 4th-level magic-user with Intelligence 14 (+1 bonus) could memorize five spell levels, in any combination the player desires. That could be five 1st level spells, two 1st and one 3rd level, one 1st and one 4th level, or any combination that adds to five.

A magic-user has two spell points per level of experience per day, which can be used to cast any memorized spell as often as desired, so long as the caster has enough spell points remaining. A full night's rest will restore all spell points, and lesser rest periods might restore them partially. Our level 4 MU from above would have eight spell points per day.

This ends up giving low-level magic-users a little bit of a power-up, and high level ones significantly less total firepower, as you can see in the table below:

Character
Level
Standard
Total Spells
Standard
Total Spell Levels
Revised
Total Spell Levels
1
1
1
2
2
2
2
4
3
3
4
6
4
4
6
8
5
5
9
10
6
6
12
12
7
8
17
14
8
10
23
16
9
12
31
18
10
14
40
20
11
16
47
22
12
19
60
24
13
21
69
26
14
22
73
28

This might seem unfair to higher-level characters, but I think the gains in versatility compensate for the loss of total power. How many of those extra spell levels are destined to go uncast because they're tied up in spells that weren't useful for situations faced in that day's adventure? In the standard system, if a player wants to be able to cast plenty of fireball spells, it comes only at the expense of the ability to cast other spells, especially of the niche and utility variety. In the revised system, the player can choose a single instance of fireball and a few utility spells too. If the latter prove useful, the character has access to them, and if not, the power can be channeled into extra fireballs with none going to waste.

You might also notice that a caster won't necessarily be able to memorize a spell of every level he or she can cast. Again, I think the ability to use every last spell point through the versatility of limited free-casting plus the ability to memorize any combination of spells (e.g. a  high-level caster could choose all 1st and 2nd-level spells if desired, or a mid-level mage could forgo low-level spells completely in order to take a single 6th-level spell, is sufficient compensation. It's an interesting resource management choice, while limiting the sheer bulk of decisions to make when selecting spells to memorize.

Bottom line, if you know your character's level and the levels of spells, you know exactly how many spell levels he or she can memorize and cast without consulting a chart, and within those limits you have carte blanche. If you can add and subtract single-digit numbers, the on-the-fly bookkeeping is a breeze. You don't have to keep track of which specific spells you've cast; it's literally as easy as tracking hit points.

A few consequences of this system that I think could prove fun, useful, and/or interesting:


  • It makes the Intelligence adjustment relevant in ways other than XP bonuses, without making an 18 Intelligence virtually mandatory. A magic-user gains (or loses) a little versatility based on Int, but not overall firepower. 
  • It allows for partial restoration of spell points, such as through less than a full night's rest or magic items such as potions that restore a point or three.
  • It allows for magic items that aid in casting, such as a wand that reduces the casting cost of a particular spell or category of spells (fire, charm, detection, etc.) by a point, or a hat that allows an extra spell level to be memorized.
  • You could easily add a rule for casting beyond one's ability using hit points (1d4 damage/spell level, cannot be restored magically but only by rest?) after the character's spell points are expended, and/or a rule for casting non-memorized spells from a spell book at a greater spell point cost. 
  • The linear warrior/quadratic wizard conundrum is somewhat mitigated. 


This is what I'm going to use for my Goblins & Greatswords fantasy heartbreaker, but it seems that it should transplant pretty well into any old school edition of D&D without too much fuss.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Goblins and Greatswords: A resolution to the thief skills conundrum?

I've been busy with lots of other things lately, but after letting ideas ferment in the back of my head for a while, it's time to take up the mantle of amateur game designer once again and look at my fantasy heartbreaker project with fresh eyes.

I've toyed with a lot of ideas, all of which have strong appeal for one reason or another, and also some drawbacks, and I've tried to pick and choose and integrate the ones that offer the lowest costs for the biggest bang.  As a playable beta version looms, the skills system is finally coming together.

My design goals here were simplicity and intuitive ease, with minimal dice rolling, but at the same time providing a relative wealth of information beyond a mere pass/fail. Scalability to higher levels is a must so improvement is meaningful, but at the same time it shouldn't make low-level characters incompetent at their professions.  The math should be minimal and easy for the average person to calculate in his or her head.

What I've settled on for the playtest version is a roll-under system using 2d12 (showing some love for the traditionally least-used polyhedron!) with target numbers rising as skills improve.  Unlike a percentile dice system, it's easy to apply standard adjustments of -3 to +3, while retaining an advantage of the roll-under format, allowing the individual dice to add meaning beyond the pass/fail binary.  The rising target numbers allow only low rolls to succeed with low skill, but increasingly large rolls to succeed with growing proficiency.

On any successful roll, the lower of the two d12s is read as the degree of success.  If, say, your healing skill is 11, and you make a healing roll with a 6 and a 4, you heal four points of damage.  Easy.  This provides more skilled characters with the possibility of getting bigger and better results than less skilled ones, as well as simply succeeding more often. If your low die was a 10, you probably rolled pretty high, and with a roll-under system, that means you blew it unless your skill level is superlative.  This is exactly what I want.

If you roll doubles, you've scored either a critical success or a critical failure, with either an enhanced outcome or a mishap resulting.  The higher a character's skill, of course, the more likely that a critical roll will be a success instead of a failure.  A roll of double 6, for instance, would be a critical failure for a character with a skill of 11, but a critical success for one with a skill of 13. Again, pretty easy.

This does entail having a table relating character levels to target numbers, rather than the simple bonus-per-level progression I had envisioned early on, but that was the easiest wish to give up, and I get a lot of functionality and flexibility in return.

Here are some examples of how this system will work with specific skills:

Healing
: The degree of success die indicates how many points of damage are healed or the bonus to a fresh saving throw against disease or poison.  Critical success doubles the degree of success (both dice are "lowest" so add them together!)  Critical failure causes some amount of damage to the patient, probably also equal to the low die rolled.

Tinker: Each lock and trap has a number of Difficulty Points, similar to hit points for creatures.  The degree of success represents how many Difficulty Points are subtracted for each attempt to pick a lock or disarm a trap.  Critical success doubles the degree of success, as above.  Critical failure adds points back on, and if the number exceeds the device's original Difficulty Points, something bad happens -- lock has stymied the character, the trap has been triggered, etc.

Stealth: The degree of success is subtracted from the distance of an encounter.  Critical success doubles; critical failure makes detection automatic.  Say, a character wants to sneak.  The GM knows there are bugbears nearby, and rolls an encounter distance of 60 feet.  The player gets a degree of success of 4, which means the character can sneak within 20 feet of the bugbears without being noticed.  Of course, as GM, you don't tell the player -- let him decide how far he wants to push his luck!

Legerdemain (a.k.a. picking pockets and the like): Any success means the character got hold of what he was after, but if the target scores a higher degree of success on an Alertness check, the attempt is noticed, whether it succeeded or failed.  Critical success doubles the degree of success, and critical failure means automatic detection.

Alertness:  The degree of success determines how far away, in tens of feet, the character can discern and identify sounds or other anomalies.  Critical success doubles, as always, and critical failure indicates a misperception in direction, distance, or some other vital factor.  Alertness can be used to counter Stealth or Legerdemain.

Cipher: The degree of success times 10 represents the approximate percentage of a work that the character can understand.  Critical success doubles this, while critical failure will result in a crucial misinterpretation.

Athletics: The degree of success adds to the character's movement rate while running, swimming, or climbing, probably at the rate of x5 feet, x2 feet, and x1 feet, respectively.  Critical success doubles, and critical failure might be a stumble or a fall.

Any fool can attempt any action at "Untrained" level of ability, which never changes.  Characters who study a skill as part of their adventuring repertoire will improve as they level, at one of three different rates: Basic, Professional, or Elite.  A character can, and probably will, have different skills at different rates of progression, but keeping track requires no more than recording the relative ability with each skill and updating the numbers on the character sheet with each level gain.

Here's the tentative advancement table, which allows for chances ranging from 10.42% for an untrained person to 99.31% for an Elite practitioner at the pinnacle of his career.  (Double 12 is always a critical failure!)  A character with a Professional level skill would begin with a 19.44% chance of success and a maximum degree of success of 3 (unless a critical boosts it to 6 or 8, of course!)  These are subject to adjustment for relevant ability scores, but I prefer to leave it to the GM and player to decide which ability, if any, applies in a given situation.  Foiling a particular lock might hinge on Wit or Agility, while climbing a specific wall may require Might or Agility, for instance.  It's also a very simple matter to apply other bonuses or penalties if the task is deemed particularly easy or difficult.

It all looks a bit complicated in print, but I'm hopeful that it will become second nature with minimal practice.

Level
Untrained
Basic
Professional
Elite
1
6
7
8
9
2
6
7
9
10
3
6
8
9
11
4
6
8
10
12
5
6
9
11
13
6
6
9
11
14
7
6
10
12
15
8
6
10
13
16
9
6
11
13
17
10
6
11
14
18
11
6
12
15
19
12
6
12
15
20
13
6
13
16
21
14
6
13
17
22
15
6
14
17
23
16
6
14
18
24

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dwarves and magic


The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
                    --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit


Dwarves in most old school versions of D&D are described as being highly resistant to magic and having no aptitude for it themselves.  OD&D dwarves are always fighting men.  B/X and BECMI have dwarf race-classes that don't allow for magic-use.  First edition AD&D says, "Because of their very nature, dwarves are non-magical and do not ever use magic spells" and then contradicts that statement with a note that dwarf clerics exist as an NPC class only and may attain level 8.

Literature and folklore, of course, have not always portrayed dwarves as non-magical beings.  Even Tolkien, whose dwarves are arguably the archetype for D&D dwarves, seems to imply otherwise, as illustrated in the quote above.

Second edition AD&D made cleric an option for dwarf player-characters, and the Dwarves of Rockhome Gazetteer added a BECMI dwarf-cleric class.  The BECMI dwarf-cleric was essentially the same as its human counterpart, but with dwarf saving throws, axes and hammers instead of blunt weapons, and minus the ability to turn undead.  The Gazetteer also provides rules for dwarves to craft magical weapons and armor, as befits their reputation of master smiths.  I think some later editions of D&D have even opened the magic-user/wizard class to the dwarf race, but once again, that's no more than saying you're basically the same as a human magic-user, but you're short and live underground.

I'd like something that feels a little different from human and elf spell-casting, something that makes playing a dwarven spell-user a special experience.

But what should dwarven magic look like?  What should it do?  How do dwarves invoke magical power?

My first thought is that their magic should be limited to the things traditionally associated with dwarves -- elemental earth (stone, metal, gems) and elemental fire (the forge.)  They shouldn't be able to, say, charm people or turn invisible or polymorph themselves into animals, but they absolutely should be able to shape stone or make it transparent, heat or cool metal, mend or break metal or stone objects, and so on.

I'd probably make dwarves only able to affect earth or fire materials directly.  For instance, a dwarf spellcaster could cast resist fire on a suit of plate or mail armor, and it would protect the wearer, but he couldn't cast it directly on an ally, nor on a suit of leather armor or wizard's robes.

How does a dwarf go about casting spells?  Tolkien's line gives me some ideas.  Rhythmic, sonorous chants are one possibility, or perhaps one element, of dwarven spellcasting.  Hammers falling like ringing bells is the other.  Perhaps a dwarf needs a hammer with which to strike the item he wishes to enchant.  This wouldn't just be a symbolic or ceremonial striking, but striking in a precise way and a precise number of blows to create whatever magical resonance is desired.  This might make many spells take longer than a round to cast, and pretty much eliminates the possibility of ranged effects, and I'm comfortable with that.

All of this probably entails creating a new spell list, possibly utilizing existing spells from various editions and completely new ones.  I think I'll soon be combing through spell lists and pondering unique new effects to compose such a list.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Quick thought on wandering monster checks

A very short post today.

In B/X, the rules specify rolling for wandering monsters every other turn in the dungeon, with a 1 on 1d6 indicating that an encounter will take place next turn.  For whatever reason, I always had trouble with this "every other turn" procedure.  I'd forget whether I had rolled or not last turn; sometimes I ended up rolling several turns in a row, and sometimes I'd skip several turns, distracted by more pressing matters.

Well, wait a second - we've got that seldom-used d12 just lying around.  How about rolling every turn, with a 1 on 1d12 indicating an encounter?  The odds aren't quite identical, but are within 1% of being equivalent to 1 on 1d6 every other turn, and it's one less thing I have to remember from turn to turn at the game table.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The art of picking a pocket

Of all the classic thief abilities, the one that seems to see use least frequently in my games is Pick Pockets. I blame the rather unimaginative name, as well as some misconceptions that I and my players have held about the ability.

As a young DM, I saw pocket picking as an act of stealth: You sneak up on someone, and if you manage to do so unnoticed, you carefully fish about in his pockets.  This, obviously, made it extremely difficult to pull off a pocket-picking, because it inevitably required a Move Silently roll to get close enough to the target.  Making one roll with a relatively low probability of success is bad enough; requiring two made it essentially pointless even to attempt.

But the classic pickpocket operates in a crowded marketplace, not a dark dungeon, and probably the most classic ploy is bumping into someone and surreptitiously relieving him of his valuables while pretending to apologize and dust him off.  That's much less about stealth and much more about manipulating the target's attention and perception.  Through a combination of words, gestures, eye contact, and other subtle techniques, the thief draws the mark's attention where he wants it, and away from what he's really doing.

What else might a thief do with such a talent for misdirection?  Planting an item on the mark is an obvious possibility -- the reverse of a traditional pocket-picking.  A sneak attack for double damage, a.k.a. "backstabbing" is another one.  A good line of patter keeps the target from noticing the dagger which the thief intends to stick between his ribs.  If the thief is good enough at it, he might even be able to pull it off in a crowded room without giving himself away.

Simple faux-magic tricks (i.e. prestidigitation) can be carried out with panache, as can all sorts of variants of the old shell game.  Switching a desired object for a worthless replacement right under the nose of the owner?  Absolutely.  Need a lock of someone's hair for some nefarious alchemical purpose?  Roll the dice.  Slipping poison or a sleeping draught into a goblet of wine?  Yep, that too.  Or maybe you'd rather save the king's life by switching his poisoned goblet for a safe one, without making a big scene.  Same principle applies. 

As DM, I'd ask the player for a general description of the character's "cover" -- what's his excuse for getting close to the mark and what's he saying or doing to divert attention and suspicion while he works?  Maybe he's flirting, or pretending to admire a piece of jewelry worn by the mark, or chatting with her about the artistic merits of a painting they're gazing upon.  If it seems decently plausible, roll the dice and see if he succeeds.

"Pick pockets" strongly implies that the ability is only good for picking pockets, but the same set of skills that allow a thief to lift items off an unsuspecting mark are useful for a multitude of other sneaky things as well. Terms like sleight-of-hand or (my new personal favorite) legerdemain are much less constraining, encouraging more imaginative use of the technique.  Pretty much anything a player can think to try that involves diverting a mark's attention away from some small manual task could be considered an application of this versatile skill.