Wednesday, August 7, 2019

DM best practices: Transparency, or Down with the DM screen!

Over many years of playing D&D and reading OSR blogs, I've developed some pretty strong views on DMing. Many of these thoughts have to do with transparency at the game table. DM screens have long been considered an essential piece of equipment by many, so obviously a lot of other people consider the transparency vs. secrecy issue important. The truth (as I see it) is that screens are often more of a hindrance to good gaming than a help, and most of the stuff that goes on behind them ought to be done in the open, for all to see.

DM transparency fosters player trust. The less you hide from the players, the more they can have confidence that you're not secretly screwing them or coddling some particular favorite character, or the entire party. They'll become better players when they can clearly see how their decisions play out through the impartial application of rules and dice rolls.

But transparency also enhances the experience of the DM, too, by removing some of the temptation to fudge dice rolls in pursuit of a predetermined narrative. If you want to tell stories with total narrative control, write some form of traditional fiction. D&D is a game, not a novel, and a large part of the fun for both players and DM is seeing how things turn out in often unforeseeable and unexpected ways. DMing is a different skill set to writing. It's learning to roll with the punches, to adapt on the fly as you incorporate the results of the players' choices, the rules of the game, and the roll of the dice into the emerging chain of events. You can't develop the skills of a good DM by exercising the control of a novelist, and so you deprive yourself and your players of a lot of the uniqueness of playing D&D vs. writing or reading a book.

Below are some of my guidelines for DM transparency -- all of which, at some point during my DMing career, I was in the habit of routinely violating, and thus providing me plenty of first-hand experiences on which to reflect over the years.

1. Roll dice in the open. Whether it's attacks and damage, saving throws, or wandering monster checks, there's no reason why the players shouldn't see the roll. If it's something that a player really shouldn't know immediately, leave the die alone after the roll if possible, and show it to the players after the situation is resolved. (Even then, it's possible to handle rolls such as a thief's hiding and sneaking in such a way that no secrecy is needed -- for instance, roll only when someone is in a position to notice the thief, and thus the result is immediately known to the player.)

2. Don't roll dice unless you intend to abide by the results. Rolling and then disregarding the result gives the players the correct impression that the dice don't really matter; you're going to overrule them whenever they don't produce the result you want. If the outcome of some proposed action is abundantly clear to you, don't dilute the authority of the dice by making a pointless roll. Own that decision, and announce it without touching the dice. "DM fiat" like this is perfectly acceptable in many instances, such as reactions and wandering monster checks, and at least less problematic in cases when you just want to cut the players a break. (Frank Mentzer gives an example in his Basic Set of a character with 3 hp being attacked by a monster using a 1d8 damage weapon, advising the DM to roll the dice and then announce 2 points of damage, whatever the actual result. I think this is terrible advice. If you must be lenient to a new player, make it clear that's what you're doing, and leave the dice out of it. Own it!)
Also, don't roll dice just to make players nervous. Don't roll for encounters if you intend to just choose whether one will occur or not, or indeed, have already decided it won't.

3. Be clear with the players about the odds of success when they want to try something not explicitly addressed in the rules, at least as far as their characters would be able to observe and discern. "You estimate about a 75% chance of leaping over the chasm." "If you try that, you'll need a roll of 5 or better on 1d6." "No, there's no conceivable way that could work, and you'll almost certainly die if you try it." Then stick to that assessment. "You're not sure if that would work or not" is an acceptable answer in cases where the characters would truly be unable to assess the odds, but that should be an uncommon scenario, and a strong signal to the players that they might need to seek more information.

4. Don't make it arbitrarily impossible for players to gain information. Allow them to discover it when their actions would reasonably be expected to reveal it, even if their learning it spoils some big plan of yours or takes things in a direction you didn't anticipate. If they search the right area, they find what's there to be found. If they ask the right question, and the NPC would know and has no motive for withholding the answer, give it to them. If you feel players haven't been specific enough in describing their actions, prompt them to be more specific -- "How exactly are you examining the wall? Visually only, by prodding with a stick, or touching it with your hands?" -- but don't pixel bitch and don't expect them to read your mind.

5. Don't play "Gotcha!" Provide clues and foreshadowing of danger, so players can make informed choices. Clues don't always have to be blatant and in-your-face, but it should be possible to notice them with reasonable efforts and possible to deduce their meaning and significance. Number 4 is very much in effect: If players do something that would reveal the presence of a trap or hazard, it's your duty as DM to allow them to find it, not create rationalizations for not revealing it because you're so proud of your design and would feel slighted if you don't get to spring it.

6. Don't cut corners, and don't "guesstimate" after the fact. Do the math! I've known DMs who will look at dice rolls and decide ex post facto whether or not they succeed, which is a gross misuse of dice. This could be due to simple laziness or to an unspoken desire for a certain amount of "fudge factor" to allow for DM fiat at the margins. Either way, it's bad form. Could be considered a corollary of Number 2 above: Don't have players roll dice if you're not going to abide by the results, objectively and consistently. As a sub-corollary of this point, don't fudge monster stats in the middle of a fight to nudge things in the way you want them to go. You can faithfully count every pip of the dice rolls, but tweaking ACs or hit points en media res is having exactly the same effect as being fuzzy with the pips. It's just moving the goalposts in a different way, and it's a dick move.

In summation, there are some things that are rightly and properly hidden from the players, and it is the DM's prerogative alone to know in advance, for the sake of an exciting and entertaining game. By all means, do keep setting details (e.g. dungeon maps, the locations of monsters and treasure, the monsters' motives, the villain's plans, shocking details about the setting's history, the identity of the true heir to the throne, and so forth) secret -- but only until the players discover them in play. All of it ought to be discoverable in play, and everything that happens to the characters should be transparent. Players ought to see the rolls that determine their characters' fates, including all the attack rolls, damage rolls, and saving throws, both their own and those of their opponents.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Thoughts on searching

One of the rules which almost always tempted me to fudge dice rolls was the roll for finding secret doors.

Moldvay states: The DM should only check for finding a secret door if a player says that the character is searching for one and is searching for one in the correct area. (emphasis in original)

What's wrong with that? Choosing when and where to search for secret doors is something of a skill and an art. Searching every ten-foot section of wall in the dungeon is wildly impractical at best; players must be discerning in deciding where and when to search. I don't know about you, but it's always a huge disappointment to me when my players, through some turn of cleverness or deductive reasoning, suspect a secret door, and search the very spot, and the dice dictate they remain oblivious. And if you roll only when there's a secret door there in the first place, you immediately provide the player with that knowledge, while the character is forbidden to act upon it. Although each character is explicitly stated to have only one chance to find a given secret door, the dice roll is practically an invitation for everyone in the party to try until someone succeeds or everyone has failed, which could become a rather tedious exercise.

This is an instance in which I think player skill should absolutely trump random chance, and if player skill is to be rewarded, then there is no point at all to rolling. Instead, if you pick the right spot and spend a turn scrutinizing it, and you'll find whatever's there to be found. That doesn't necessarily mean that you must announce, "You find a secret door!" There just has to be something for the players and characters to interact with, whether it's some feature of the door itself or the hidden trigger that opens it. "You find a seam in the wall," or "One block is of a slightly different shade than the rest of the wall" will do nicely to prompt further investigation or action.

The same principle serves well for most dungeon searches, not just secret doors. (Searching for something in the wilderness or other large area is a whole other can of worms.) Though perception checks and the like aren't a formal part of classic D&D, I know many DMs use them for all manner of searches and observations, and I think that's also a mistake, and an unnecessary complication to boot.

According to Moldvay Basic, searching a 10'x10' area takes one character one turn (under TIME, page B19,) a rule of thumb that works equally well whether the area in question is vertical or horizontal. (For a secret door search, the wall should NOT be considered part of the adjacent 10'x10' section of floor, and vice versa!) Presumably, since no dice mechanics are given, under most circumstances the task should succeed automatically, and the character finds whatever is there to be found. No silly perception checks or search rolls needed; you just automatically reward the player's action with information. As above, it's often more interesting to name interesting features the character may further interact with rather than immediately drill down to the bedrock. A small wooden box may be found without immediately disclosing its contents, for instance, or a rack of many stoppered glass bottles may be noted without listing what's in each one. The further investigation implied may or may not take another turn beyond the initial search (if the player chooses to pursue it, of course.)

Of course, it is just a rule of thumb, and may be tweaked when necessary, though this should be the exception and not the rule. For instance, if the party discovers a very cluttered 20'x20' storeroom, you might decide it takes a character two turns to complete a reasonably thorough search of each 10'x10' area. The party might decide to assign two characters to a particular 10'-square area, and thus complete the search in a single turn. (I personally wouldn't allow extra manpower to ever reduce search time below one turn, for ease of timekeeping, and because of the "too many cooks in the kitchen" principle.)

Is a dice roll ever appropriate? In fact, I'd argue that sometimes it is. Sometimes the players may wish to conduct a very hasty search, and the chance of success could be reduced proportionately with the time spent. If they want to spend only a turn rifling through a 200-square foot room, perhaps they'll have a 50% chance to find an important feature or item. Again, for the sake of timekeeping, I wouldn't allow even a hasty search to take less than one turn; the party could just search a larger area in the same amount of time. It would be simple enough to add a modest bonus for high Intelligence or Wisdom (logical or intuitive sense for where items might be hidden) or for characters like thieves, making them a little more effective at hurried ransacking.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Monster Manual II: Shadow Mastiff

When it comes to monstrous canines in D&D, there are wolves and dire wolves, staples of wilderness adventure thanks to their long history of real world notoriety, blink dogs, which I don't think I've ever used in actual play, and hellhounds, which in my opinion don't live up to their name (Big dogs that breathe fire? So basically a small furry flightless dragon. Yawn.) Then you've got the shadow mastiff from the MMII, a creepy, otherworldly beast that can howl at the moon in my campaign world any time. They have a nice Hound of the Baskervilles feel to them that really stokes my imagination.

The MMII states that they're found mainly on the Plane of Shadows (whatever that is) but in my mind they fit perfectly well in any forlorn, shadow-haunted place in a campaign world. Dark forests, foggy moors, gloomy mountain passes, the dreary halls of some abandoned fortress ... I would have no qualms about deploying a pack of shadow mastiffs in any of them.

They're listed as semi-intelligent (the same rating as normal dogs and wolves) and of Neutral alignment with evil tendencies. Obviously they're not going to be hatching evil plots, so I interpret the evil leanings as a mean or cruel streak. Maybe they take pleasure in killing, inflicting harm, and spreading terror, rather than simply hunting for survival.

Led Zeppelin wrote a song about me, but never mentioned me in the lyrics.

The shadow mastiff is remarkably simple and straightforward for an AD&D creature. It's not wildly overpowered or loaded with a laundry list of spell effect powers "usable once per round, one at a time, at will" or any such complications. It's an easy conversion to B/X.

Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 4**
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 2-8
No. Appearing: 1-8 (4-16)
Save As: Fighter:2
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Neutral

Shadow mastiffs appear to be large, shadowy-black canines. They are able to blend into shadows, surprising on a roll of 1-4. In dim, shadowy conditions, they can attack and then retreat into shadows on a roll of 1-3 on 1d6 so opponents are unable to attack in return. They hate bright light, and are unable to hide in shadows in well-lit conditions. Bright light also reduces their movement by half and they suffer -2 to all attack rolls; their morale drops to 6.

Shadow mastiffs travel in packs. The baying of a pack (at least 4 mastiffs) causes fear and panic in a 120' radius, forcing any creature of less than 4 HD that fails a saving throw vs. spells to flee for 2d6 rounds.

A shadow mastiff lair may contain 2-5 pups, who are non-combatant and at the DM's discretion may be trained or sold for 100-400 gp each.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Monster Manual II: Korred

Here's another creature for those fey-haunted woods of a campaign world. Besides being incredibly strong for their size, korreds as described in the MMII have some rather peculiar habits. They love to dance, and they are noted to always carry bags containing shears, hair, and unspecified other items. Why they carry around such a collection of oddments is left to the imagination of the DM. It could be either an odd compulsion or some practical habit -- perhaps they're the jolly barbers of the fairy court? Maybe they fulfill other functions of medieval barbers, too, and thus stow things like strong alcohol, medicinal herbs, pliers, and teeth. (Could they be the source of the legends of tooth fairies??)

Setting aside all the possible reasons why they tote around those bags, they are able to cause their hair clippings to weave into animated ropes to bind and immobilize foes, which is a pretty cool power. The one that always comes to my mind first, though, is their ability to stun opponents with their laughter. I always imagine it as a great jovial booming laugh, as if even being attacked can't diminish their mirth, but it could easily be sinister, derisive, or maniacal too. Their listed alignment of Chaotic neutral makes just about anything a possibility. It also seems to indicate that they could potentially be friends, foes, annoyances, or comic relief to a party of adventurers on any given day.

Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!

Here's my take on a B/X korred.

Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 5+1
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 3-8
No. Appearing: 0 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter: 5
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: See below
Alignment: Neutral

Korreds are a dance-loving woodland folk of small stature but immense strength, with wild hair and beards and goat-like legs. All korreds carry cudgels (clubs) and bags containing shears, hair, and other curious odds and ends. They may weave locks of hair into animated ropes and snares, each having AC5 and 4 hit points, which can immobilize a man-sized opponent if a saving throw vs. death ray is failed. In combat, a korred attacks with either its cudgel or shears, and may also throw small boulders to a range of 90' for 3-8 points of damage. In the hands of a human or demihuman, the korred's weapons do 1-4 points of damage, as an ordinary club or dagger.

A korred may laugh three times per day, stunning all foes within 60' who fail a save vs. paralysis for 1-4 rounds. There is a 1 in 4 chance that any group of two or more korreds has gathered to dance, and anyone interrupting them must save vs. spells or join the dance, losing 1-4 hit points per round from exhaustion until they fall unconscious for 1-6 hours, they are restrained, or the korreds flee.

Korreds normally collect no treasure, but if the items in their sacks are sprinkled with holy water they turn to solid gold of 50-300 gp value.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Ability scores revisited

For a variety of reasons, I've always been a fan of 3d6 in order when generating ability scores for D&D characters. However, after spending an embarrassing amount of time generating characters at (Why is this SO MUCH FUN?!) some potential flaws have become apparent. Firstly, "hopeless" characters with no above-average scores and multiple way-below-average ones are a lot more common than you might think. Moldvay's suggestion of allowing players to discard such a character and roll a new is an acceptable patch, but is, to my mind, an inelegant solution at best.

Many people wouldn't consider the inverse of this, a character with no low scores and multiple very high ones, to be much of a problem. (I, on the other hand, have been sorely tempted to fudge scores downward if I roll an uber-character, because I find such characters profoundly uninteresting ...) Depending on the players and the group as a whole, it may not be, but in my groups, having one character with an 18 and a 16 and a couple 13s can easily make those who have a 14 in their prime requisite, a 7 or 8 in another score, and a bunch of 9s and 10s feel inadequate, especially if they're playing the same class as the super character. Imagine being the fighter with 14 Strength and 8 Dexterity on the same team as the guy with 18 Strength, 13 Dexterity, and 16 Constitution, and you might feel a twinge of resentment at being constantly upstaged.

One ubiquitous response to this has been to use methods that alter the distribution of ability scores -- typically toward the high end of the scale -- 4d6 drop lowest and other, even more extreme, dice-rolling schemes. What I'm looking at is something similar that will weight randomly-rolled scores toward the middle of the scale. The characters I find most appealing are the ones with abilities mostly in the average range, with one or two particular talents and weaknesses. That fighter above -- the St 14, Dx 8 guy -- would be a blast to play ... provided he doesn't have to work alongside a lot of people like that other guy who overshadow him in every way.

Anyway, to get to the actual point, I've been running some dice-rolling simulations on, and the method that produces the most pleasing results to me is 2d6+3. Yes, I'm aware that doesn't allow the full official range of scores from 3 to 18, and I'm entirely OK with that. Let me show you why.

With 2d6+3, you'll get ability scores from 5 to 15, with an average of exactly 10 (compared to 10.5 for 3d6) with a smaller standard deviation. Extremes are a little less common, and the really extreme scores aren't possible to roll straight. A 13 score is a legitimate talent that only 16% of characters will have naturally. But wait, there's still the point-trading aspect of B/X to consider: You can increase an ability by 1 point, at the cost of lowering another by 2. By the book, you can only raise a prime requisite, and can't lower any score below 9, but we can expand that to allow raising or lowering of any score, but no score may be lowered below 6 (or raised above 18.) You want that +2 or +3 bonus? That kind of exceptional talent is reserved to those who work and sacrifice for it! You might be born with the potential to be amazingly strong, smart, charismatic or whatever (a 14 or 15 natural score) but developing it to that degree is a choice, one that requires trade-offs. This way, characters who are truly amazing in an ability are going to be relatively uncommon, and those with 16s or higher in more than one ability are exceedingly rare ... plus, they'll almost certainly be balanced with mediocrity in other areas.

As for the lower limit of 5 created by this method, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. A -1 ability score penalty is a relative common thing, but I'm fine with -2 being exceedingly rare and -3 being beneath the range of a typical adventurer. This also leaves a little room for playing around with ability score loss due to curses, permanent injuries, etc. if that sort of thing tickles your fancy.

Obviously, this scheme isn't for everyone, but if you like the idea of adventurers being superior to the common man in courage and determination more than raw ability, it might be worth a try.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Monster Manual II: Pyrolisk

You might be familiar with the term "palette swap" -- taking a character or creature, usually in a video game, and changing its colors and stats to make a "new" one. Sometimes it's incredibly cheesy, but done right, it can be pretty awesome. The pyrolisk, a palette swap of the more familiar cockatrice, is pretty awesome.

The MMII describes the pyrolisk as nearly identical to its petrifying cousin, except for a single red feather in its tail plumage and a reddish cast to its wings. Unlike the turn-to-stone touch of the cockatrice, the pyrolisk has a gaze attack that causes opponents to burst into flames from the inside! Instead of a statue of yourself, you end up as a charred corpse. It also has the ability to cause fire sources nearby to explode into fireworks, as the spell pyrotechnics, which has no analog in B/X -- a power certainly worth translating if you can imagine the party's torches and lanterns going off like Roman candles!

Besides an interesting change-up of an otherwise familiar creature, that single red tail feather could be a prime ingredient of fire-based magical items or new spells, making an encounter with pyrolisks a potentially lucrative enterprise rather than something to reflexively run away from.

You can't see it here, but one of his feathers is definitely red.

My B/X pyrolisk would look something like this:

Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 4+1**
Move: 90' (30')
     Flying: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1-6
No. Appearing: 1-3 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter:4
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: D
Alignment: Neutral

Nearly identical to the cockatrice except for a reddish cast to its wings and a single red feather in its tail, the pyrolisk has a gaze that can cause a creature to burst into flames from within, killing it instantly unless a saving throw vs. death ray is made. On a successful save, the victim takes 2d6 points of damage. Any creature resistant to fire, such as from a spell or ring, is immune to the gaze attack, and an individual may only be affected once by the gaze of a particular pyrolisk. The gaze can be avoided in the usual manner, though the pyrolisk is not affected by its own reflection. If not using its gaze attack, it can cause a fire source within sight to explode into a shower of flame and sparks 10 times its original size, inflicting 1-6 points of damage to everyone within the explosion radius, after which the fire is extinguished. Pyrolisks are immune to all fire damage, normal or magical.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Monster Manual II: Quicklings

Long, long ago*, in a galaxy not so far away, I received the AD&D (1st edition) Monster Manual II as a Christmas present. I didn't play AD&D; I ran a mix of B/X and BECMI, but I also didn't really understand the differences between any of those games, and those big hardcover books full of stuff I had never seen before just called to me. Some of the different stats and terminology confused me at first, but it didn't take long to sort it out to my satisfaction. Some of the creatures didn't fit my campaign world/play style at all, but there were also many that would have been right at home in B/X with a little modification, quite a few of which I used for exactly those purposes. This post and those to follow are about some of my particular favorites.

* Since I also received Weird Al Yankovic's "Even Worse" album, that would pin it down to 1988.

Quicklings captured my imagination at first sight. I've always loved dark, enchanted forests teeming with potentially malevolent fey-types as an adventure setting, so right away, they fit right in. These little bastards are CRAZY fast, and I can picture them flitting from tree trunk to tree trunk, unnerving adventurers who barely catch sight of them from the corners of their eyes, staying just out of direct view until they have the PCs right where they want them ...

"Live long and suffer!"

Their stats are a bit wonky for B/X play (1-1/2 Hit Dice?) and they have some powers that reference AD&D spells, which for the most part are rather superfluous, so they'll need a little tidying-up. Properly B/X-ified, they might look something like this:

Armor Class: -3
Hit Dice: 1+1**
Move: 900' (300')
Attacks: 3
Damage: 1d4-1 (dagger)
No. Appearing: 2d4 (2d8)
Save As: Cleric:14
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: U+V
Alignment: Chaotic

Quicklings are a small, slender, humanoid race, perhaps distantly related to gnomes or halflings, who dabbled in dangerous magics. They live in dark, enchanted or evil wooded areas. Due to their incredible speed and reflexes, they are never surprised but surprise opponents on a roll of 1-4 and can make three attacks per round with their daggers. Any group of 10 or more quicklings will have a leader with 3 Hit Dice who uses poisoned blades that will cause victims to fall into a drugged sleep for 1d4 turns unless a save vs. poison is made. There is also a 25% chance of a quickling spellcaster who functions as a magic-user of level 1-4.