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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sorry, we're closed

On further reflection, I think perhaps it's time to abandon this project entirely, and seek for more fruitful fields.  Sometimes a point is reached at which one realizes he simply has no more to say, and at such time he would be wise to cease the flow of words than to persist in pouring them forth to no purpose.  What is here will remain here, for any who care to revisit it, but no more will be added.

Again, thanks to those who have read and found something of value here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


After having this blog connected to my Google+ profile for a couple years, I've decided that was a mistake, and reverted to my old faceless blogger profile.  I find that things are better when nobody knows who you are.  Content will continue to be published.  My identity is not relevant to that.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Comfort and healing

I can't claim any credit for the idea behind this post, which came from another blog that I can't recall.  If it's yours, or you know where it originated, please do come forth so I can bestow credit where credit is due.

(Edit: The core idea came from Telecanter's Receding Rules.  A lot more is covered there than merely healing rates, so go check it out if you haven't already.)

Anyway, the basic idea is that the comfort of characters affects their rate of healing, and comfort includes such things as entertainment as well as food and drink, lodgings, etc.  My contribution to the cause is to codify these factors into a very simple system, utilizing a slight modification of the standard B/X ability score modifier table.

First, the "comfort score" is determined, starting with a base of 11.  This assumes reasonable shelter from the elements (could be a house, an inn, or a sturdy pavilion or yurt), a basic bed such as a cot or straw pallet, adequate warmth, and basic food and drink (bread and cheese, porridge, or similar, plus water or other beverage of ordinary quality.)

Add 1 point for each of the following that applies:
  • Comfortable bed (soft mattress, clean linens, etc.)
  • Good food and/or drink (Hearty fare, i.e. not simple gruel or bread and cheese, nor preserved rations.  Roast fowl or a chunky meat stew are enough to qualify.)
  • Abundant food and drink (Everyone can eat their fill, and then some.)
  • Heartening entertainment (Music or storytelling or whatever else seems appropriate.)
  • Care of a healer (No more than four patients per healer.)
  • Full rest (No other significant activity for 24 hours.)
  • Hygiene: Opportunity for bathing, washing, and grooming.
  • Creature comforts (Robe and slippers, tea, incense, or whatever else makes a character feel really comfortable.)
  • Pleasing environment (Neat and tidy indoor area with appealing decor, or an outdoor place of great natural beauty.)

Subtract one point for each of the following that applies:
  • Inhospitable climate (Hot or cold, rainy.) (Negated by rudimentary shelter and/or campfire, if appropriate.)
  • Very inhospitable climate (Bitter cold, sweltering heat. heavy rain, hail.) (Cumulative with the above.  Negated by full shelter and/or fire, if appropriate.)
  • Sleeping on ground 
  • Sleeping on hard, rough surface (A dungeon floor, for example. Cumulative with the above.)
  • Iron rations (Unappealing preserved food, e.g. hardtack and salt pork.)
  • Short rations (Stretching rations farther than they're intended, or living on foraged food.)
  • Interrupted sleep (Guard rotation, or actually being attacked or otherwise disturbed.)
  • Frightening/unsettling environment (Haunted, cursed, inhabited by monsters, etc.)
  • Unsanitary conditions (Muck, slime, corpses, horrible smells, etc.)

Base rate of healing is 1d4 points per day, modified by the "comfort score" as if it were an ability score:

 Less than 3            -4*
           3                          -3**      
      4-5                        -2***
                                     6-8                        -1                                     
9-12  No adjustment
13-15                   +1
16-17                   +2
18                         +3
19 or more           +4

* No spell memorization/restoring spell slots possible
** May not memorize or restore slots for highest two spell levels known
*** May not memorize or restore slots for highest level of spells known

Penalties may reduce a roll to zero or less, in which case no healing takes place and the character's condition may actually deteriorate.

Let's say our intrepid adventurers have had a rough go of things in an underground crypt, and barricade themselves in a dead-end chamber.  The place is pervaded by a deathly chill (-1), they're sleeping on the ground (-1), on a hard surface (-1), on iron rations (-1), interrupting their sleep to keep a constant watch (-1), and in a very unnerving place (-1), for a total penalty of -6.  That comes out to a Comfort score of 5, which is a -2 penalty to heal.  To bolster their flagging spirits, they break out the bottle of fine vintage brandy they found in one of the crypts, which adds +1, making their overall score a 6.  Their healing penalty is only -1, and their spell casters can recover all their spell levels normally.  (If they hadn't had the brandy, they could have risked the noise of singing a few heroic ballads to achieve the same effect.)

Once they make it back to town, they spend a week recovering in the luxurious villa they prudently purchased with some of their previous loot.  They have plush feather beds (+1), excellent food prepared by the villa staff (+1) in plenty (+1), they have nothing to do but rest and relax (+1), take hot baths (+1), enjoy all the luxuries of the well-to-do (+1), and in a very pleasing environment (+1) for a total Comfort score of 18.  

If desired, the Comfort score can be adjusted individually for each character's Constitution modifier; thus, hearty souls can recover quickly even in less than ideal circumstances, while the more delicate require greater ease and comfort to restore themselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dragon tactics for B/X

Dragons probably aren't the most appropriate opponents for levels 1-3, but of course it would have been a perverse design decision indeed to leave them out of even the introductory books of a game that's half named for them.  They really did seem like nigh-insuperable foes back when I was first poring over the monsters section of the Moldvay rulebook, especially the upper range of the dragon hierarchy, the terrible red dragon and the mighty gold.

That was with low-level PCs in mind, though.  Once the PCs gain several levels, they begin to rival the great monsters, at least at a glance.  A 6th-level fighter has about as many hit points as a white or black dragon, and maybe more if he has a bonus from Constitution.  Most likely he's going to have as good or better AC than most dragons, too, with magical armor and shield bonuses.   Dragons usually have the edge in physical attacks (a lowly white dragon has damage potential of up to 24 points per round, compared to the fighter's 1d8 or so plus Strength and magic - say, around 12 points max.  The dragon theoretically has an advantage in attack rolls (14 to hit AC 0 for a 6 HD white dragon) but a fighter at 4th level probably has similar odds (base 17 to hit AC 0, but with a combined bonus of +3 or more from Strength and magic, he at least equals the dragon.)  

(Random digression: This, in my mind, is a good argument in favor of limiting attack and damage bonuses from magical weapons.)

A B/X white dragon has 6 Hit Dice, an AC of 3 (equivalent to plate armor), and damage of 1d4/1d4/2d8 with its claw/claw/bite attack routine.  That's pretty tough for low-level PCs, but curiously, except for the better AC, ability to fly, and breath weapon, it's not far off from the stats of a tiger (6 HD, Dam 1d6/1d6/2d6) -a formidable foe, to be sure, but less than you might think.  While the correlation between size and HD in B/X is tenuous at best, taken together with attacks and damage it maps pretty well to size and strength.  The dragon's claw attacks do as much damage as a character with a dagger, and less than the tiger's claws.  Its bite is a little better than the tiger's, but the total damage potential is 24 in both cases.

(Random digression: A 3 HD giant crab also has damage potential of up to 24 points - 2 pincers for 2d6/2d6.  An overgrown crustacean is going to mess you up as much as a tiger or a dragon?  What?)

So, apparently a white dragon is roughly equivalent in size to a tiger.  Probably a longer, more sinuous shape, with smaller claws and bigger teeth, but still pretty close to the same overall bulk and strength.

More powerful dragon types have more Hit Dice, better ACs, and significantly more powerful physical attacks, but across the board, a dragon's biggest advantage over other foes is its breath weapon.  This inflicts automatic damage (no attack roll needed) equal to the dragon's current hit points, or half that if a save is made.  In theory, then, our white dragon could either knock a 6th level fighter (or a group of them - breath weapons are area attacks!) either to around 0 hp, or to around half their starting hp in one breath.  Lower level characters would most likely be slain outright on a failed save, and in very bad shape even on a successful save. A dragon can use its breath weapon three times per day, so if it doesn't wipe out the opposition on the first try, it can finish them off with a second blast.

Of course, if the PCs get the drop on the dragon - either surprising it or winning initiative the first round - and manage to do some significant damage to it, they also reduce the damage it can do with its breath.  This is virtually essential for successfully fighting a dragon.  More so than in almost any other situation in the game, surprise and initiative can make the difference between victory and a rout or TPK.

Clearly, then, these B/X dragons are not the gargantuan monsters depicted in fantasy art (including that of most editions of D&D.)  They aren't Smaug.  (The Mentzer edition Companion set provides stats and write-ups for such epic beasts, though they should probably be exceedingly rare, maybe no more than a small handful in an entire campaign world.)  While they are physically robust and well-armored, B/X dragons aren't world destroyers.  If they were no more than their physical bulk, armored hides, claws, and teeth, they'd be tough, but predictably beatable by a party with enough experience.

Even more than their legendary breath weapons, it's the intelligence and cunning of dragons that truly set them apart from run-of-the-mill monsters.  Dragons should absolutely not be played like zombies, charging headlong into battle and fighting until slain.  A toe-to-toe fight between a powerful party and a dragon should almost never happen.  Even dragons not intelligent enough to talk or use magic will be clever and devious opponents.  A party that expects to walk into a dragon's lair and cut it down through sheer force of arms and magic should generally have a very bad time, even if every one of them individually has more levels than the dragon has Hit Dice, because dragons play their advantages to the hilt.  Defeating a dragon should require them to outfox the beast, not merely outfight it.

If there were a book like The Art of War written by dragons for dragons, it would probably include the following pieces of advice:

  • The first strike is decisive.  Be aware of your opponent before he is aware of you.
  • Whenever possible, observe and learn the strength of your opponents.  Engage them in conversation, if you can talk, and if you can do so without endangering yourself unduly.  Humans who come poking around in a dragon's lair are either very formidable or very foolish, but the greatest fool is you if you mistake one sort for the other.
  • Your lair is your fortress.  Know it to the last detail.  Set traps and alarms on every entrance, especially if you plan on sleeping there.  Block the entrances that are of no use to you.  Conceal the others if possible, and consider moving if you can't.
  • Unite and conquer!  Use terrain to your advantage, to force your enemies to approach you together so that you may wipe them out at once with a breath attack.  Do not allow them to surround you and bring all their attacks to bear on you at once.  Hallways and narrow defiles are your allies; huge chambers with low ceilings are deathtraps. 
  • Choose the time and place of a fight to suit you.  Don't fight on your enemies' terms if you can help it.  Outdoors, the choice is almost always yours, because you can fly. 
  • Use your wings.  When fighting outdoors, don't stand there on the ground while your enemies swarm over you.  Take to the air; use your mobility to attack individuals separated from the rest, and take off again before the others can come to their aid.  If you've chosen a particularly spacious cavern for your lair, you can use flying tactics there too.
  • Employ henchmen, hench-monsters, servitors, dragon cultists, etc. to act as guards, spies, and providers of tribute in the form of treasure and fresh meat.  Don't ever trust them completely, though.
  • If you have the use of magic spells or items, use them, especially if they facilitate one of the above strategies. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Weighing in on the fantasy female art controversy

If you're on Google Plus and have any RPG bloggers in your circles, there's a good chance you saw this post from Gnome Stew, and a firestorm of reactions to it.  I actually think the author comes close to making a few good points - and then buries them in his ridiculous angst over what other people might think of him for buying an RPG book with scantily clad women on the cover (and even more bizarrely, worrying about what they'll think of him for talking to an immodestly dressed young female sales rep at a game con.  The only reason I can think of to be so afraid that people will think he's a dirty old man is if...he's a dirty old man, and the whole time he's talking to her about tank games he can think of nothing but how much he wants to bone her.)

I myself tend to shy away from overtly sexual images on RPG book covers - not because of a prudish fear of BadWrongArt, but because they don't evoke what I like in a game of adventure and exploration.  When I say "overtly sexual images," I'm not just referring to immodest attire, though that generally is part of it.  Other factors, such as the absurdity of the costume, exaggerated body proportions, and the pose and facial expression of the subject figure into it as much if not more.  Anyway, if the primary theme of the piece is to scream "SEX!" it's highly likely that I'll pass it by, because my game is not about sex, it's about adventure, heroism, mystery, magic, and so on.  Images of beautiful women (or handsome men), even barely dressed ones, don't automatically violate or detract from that theme of adventure; in fact, a certain measure of sexuality can fit right in or even enhance it.  It's OK if a picture whispers of sexuality; I'd just prefer that it not shout.  If the sexuality overwhelms the other elements (or if there are no other elements in the first place), it puts me off.  If its primary message is not "Come explore this exotic world!" but "F*#& me now, big boy!" it's not evoking the qualities I value in a fantasy story or RPG.  If the cover picture can't tell a much broader story than "Sexy Elf Babe is Sexy!" then I can't help but think that the entire product possesses a similar lack of quality and depth.  Maybe that impression is mistaken, but it's incumbent upon the publisher of the work to accurately portray its content, and an overtly sexual image on a product that's not fundamentally about sex is a disservice to the work.

Here's a good example of what (in my opinion, at least) is a skillful inclusion of beauty and sex appeal as part of a greater story told by the picture, rather than ham-fisted use of cheesecake.  This is the cover image of the Book of Marvelous Magic.  The subject is attractive and showing some leg, definitely not lacking in sex appeal, but she also looks like a spell-caster to be taken seriously.  She is not merely inviting the viewer to look at her body; she is acting as a guide to the world of magical treasures promised by the book's title.  I could see her as an actual adventurer or adversary in a fantasy world, not just eye candy.  (It also doesn't hurt that the artist averts the cliche of Sexy Means Boobs!  Overused cliches are not bad simply because they're overused, but using less cliche ways to convey the desired theme is awesome.)

Some more opinions, of varying relevance:

I don't find chainmail bikinis and other types of revealing armor offensive so much as I find them so laughably absurd that it detracts from my ability to take the entire work seriously.  An enchantress in a scandalous outfit, sure, I can buy that.  A warrior princess in metal lingerie?  Please.  Make her a naked berserker painted in runes of protection, and I'll find her credible.  If you're going to wear armor, though, then wear actual armor!

I don't object to scantily-clad characters or even overtly sexual ones, per se, so long as they're only part of the full spectrum of the fantasy world being depicted.  Sex is a facet of human life, and some people really do go out of their way to flaunt what they've got, after all.  I just prefer that it be part of a broader variety, not the only art in the book.  You might also want to refrain from going Full Sexy on the cover.  An interior illustration doesn't necessarily give the impression that it's the primary focus of the work.  A cover does.

Modestly-clad people can still be appealing.  In fact, they don't even have to be perfectly proportioned or conventionally beautiful.  It would be refreshing to see fantasy art depicting women of plain looks, decked out for adventure, in dynamic poses, with looks of curiosity or mischief or heroic determination on their faces.  That's it's own kind of allure, and often superior to traditional beauty.  (Men too, for that matter, although males who lack Matinee Idol looks are a lot more common in fantasy art than less than gorgeous women, in my experience.)

I apply the same standard to male sexuality as to female when it comes to fantasy art.  A male subject with wildly exaggerated muscles or wearing a plate and mail thong earns an eye-roll every bit as hard as anti-gravity breasts in an iron bikini.  If he's realistically proportioned and his nudity fits with a larger story told by the picture, then it's all good.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dead simple B/X skills

While I strongly prefer the ease of a class and level system of character development over a skill-based one, there are times when a player rightly expects that something in the character's background should apply to a task or problem in an adventure.  Here's a quick and dirty system that has roots in an already existing B/X rule.

Whatever the character did before he or she became an adventurer is his or her skill set.  The default assumption is that the PC possesses these skills at an apprentice level.  In game terms, this means that the PC has a 2 in 6 chance to succeed at tasks related to these skills - in exactly the same way that a dwarf character has a 2 in 6 chance to detect certain features of mines and caves, because all dwarves are taught basic mining skills.

This chance is for things that, in the judgment of the DM, are so difficult that an ordinary layperson would have little hope of success.  In the interest of not discouraging players from attempting actions simply because their characters don't have a particular skill, the layperson should succeed on a roll of 1 on 1d6.)  A mere apprentice isn't a sure thing, either, but he's still twice as good as the layperson.

Some actions may be so basic that even a person with no special training can succeed without much difficulty.  For example, a character with a background as a pearl diver might be a better swimmer than everyone else in the party, but anyone ought to be able to swim unencumbered in a calm lake without need of a die roll.  On the other hand, maybe the DM deems retrieving an object from 30 feet of water in choppy seas to be a difficult task.  Any character may attempt it, but the pearl diver has the best chance of success.

If an obstacle or task would ordinarily require a roll which affords an unskilled character a good chance of success, then the DM may rule that a character with the relevant expertise succeeds automatically.  For example, if the dive above allowed a 3 in 6 chance for any fool to succeed, then the pearl diver might succeed without a roll - it's routine stuff for him.

Very rarely, if ever, should a d6 skill roll determine a character's death or survival.  In the example above of the dive, either the character succeeds or comes up gasping for air, having failed to retrieve the item.  Of course, other things could happen while the character is underwater - a shark could attack, or he could get his foot trapped in a giant clam - but a failed skill roll, in and of itself, should rarely be lethal, and then only with advance warning from the DM that the task is so hazardous.

Most characters should start with one trade, i.e. one broad skill set.  Dwarves may choose one other trade in addition to mining (or at the DM's option may double up on mining and start as journeymen with a 3 in 6 skill roll.)  Additional skills may be learned, and old ones improved, at the DM's discretion.  This isn't something that can be done during a week off beween adventures; it should require either a long period of down time (at least several months) or extensive use of skills during adventures.  For instance, if the party advances a couple levels in a series of maritime adventures, it's reasonable to allow them to gain an apprentice's proficiency in seamanship - provided, of course, that they're actively assisting the captain and sailors in piloting the vessel.  If the party magic-user stays below decks studying history books, he's not going to learn much about ships and the sea.

Gaining greater proficiency bumps the chance of success up by 1 point, i.e. to 3 in 6.  This should require that the character spend an even greater amount of time learning and practicing than is required for apprentice-level skill, or that it be central to his or her adventures for at least three or four levels of experience.  Increasing to 4 in 6 or better should really be beyond the scope of an adventurer; this level of skill is the province of people who make it their lifelong vocation, not vagabonds and thrill-seekers who dabble in it on the side.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Critical hits

I don't think that any of the "old school" editions of D&D ever formally enshrined the wildly popular "critical hit" rule.  It's certainly not in B/X or BECMI. My experience with AD&D (both 1st and 2nd edition) is fairly limited, but I don't recall seeing critical hits in those rulebooks, either.  I can't even imagine such a thing being included in OD&D.

Actually, I should say that none of these editions had a universal critical hit rule.  Old school D&D does, however feature quite a few special cases that specify a special effect which occurs on a high enough attack roll.  Such ad hoc applications don't constitute true critical hit rules, but they do conform to the general concept.

Peruse the monster chapter in the Expert Rules (Cook or Mentzer) and you'll notice at the beginning a list of special attacks.  Two stand out: Swallow and Swoop.  A swallow attack occurs on a natural 20, and for larger creatures may occur on lower numbers as well.  The most iconic example of a Swallow attack is that of the purple worm, which succeeds on an attack roll which exceeds the minimum roll needed by 4 or more.  Swoop attacks are used by flying creatures; on a roll of 18 or better, the creature grasps the target and flies away with it if it can lift the target's weight.  Some other special moves, such as a bear's "hug" attack which is activated by two successful paw strikes, have some shades of critical hit to them as well.

Player characters aren't entirely left out.  The Companion Set (the C in BECMI) has the sword of slicing, a magical weapon which reduces the target instantly to 0 hp on an attack roll of 19 or 20 if a save vs. death ray is failed, and inflicts triple damage even if the save is made.  AD&D has the vorpal sword and sword of sharpness, which inflict their severing effects on a high enough attack roll.  There are also the optional Weapon Mastery rules of the Mentzer edition Master Set and the Rules Cyclopedia, which grant a few weapons the ability to inflict double damage or other special effects on a high attack roll at high levels of mastery.

So, the basis for critical hits, at least in narrow applications, really is all right there in the manual.  How much these narrowly focused cases inspired or influenced the broader application of critical hit rules I have no idea.  It does seem rather strange that, with all the wildly unbalancing stuff the official rules poured into the game, a relatively mild tweak like the critical hit has remained exclusively the province of house-ruling, never even meriting an Optional Rules mention from the folks at TSR.

There's no single right way to implement a critical hit rule.  Different variations have different mechanical effects in play.

  • Critical hit on a natural 20 has the virtue of making them fairly infrequent, but also has the effect of making criticals against heavily armored targets as likely as against unarmored ones.  Also, if you have a target that a character can only hit with a 20, every time he does manage to penetrate its defenses he does critical damage, which seems a bit wonky.
  • Critical hit when the roll exceeds the number needed by a certain amount tends to give fighters (and monsters!) an advantage over other classes, and makes heavily armored targets less susceptible than lightly armored ones, but also drastically ramps up the damage potential, and thus the lethality, of combat.  If a critical happens on an attack that succeeds by 5 or more, then a 1st level fighter with no bonuses fighting an AC 6 monster - pretty typical for a low-level opponent - is going to crit on an 18-20.  With a +2 bonus from Strength, that widens to 16-20, or 25% of all attacks, and fully half of those that hit will be criticals.  You can set the "buffer" number higher than 5, of course, but as the characters advance in level, criticals will become more common.  Not that that's automatically a bad thing, because they're probably going up against opponents with a lot more hp, as well as having more themselves.
  • The most common result of a critical hit is double damage.  Rolling twice the number of dice gives a solid average, and minimizes the chances that your glorious crit does chump damage, but also decreases the odds of max damage.  Rolling the usual dice and doubling the result gives a higher chance of max damage, but also a higher chance of minimum - the spread is exactly the same as for a non-critical. 
  • Or, just do the attack's max damage without rolling, which makes every critical hit a solid blow without inflating total damage potential.
  • Or, roll on a Death and Dismemberment table, which typically has results ranging from minor but flavorful to actual death and dismemberment.
  • Another option is for a critical hit to provide an opportunity for another attack roll, perhaps repeated if the second roll also qualifies for a critical.  If used with the standard Natural 20 crit rule, it provides some of the advantages of both methods of determining whether a critical hit has occurred.  It's a relatively uncommon occurrence, and you've got to succeed at a second attack roll in order to capitalize on it, so characters with good attack probabilities do better, and targets with poorer ACs fare worse.  This one is the front-runner for my personal favorite.
  • Yet another option is for stunts and special attacks called by a player to occur on a critical, as in the Simple Combat Maneuvers from Telecanter's house rules.  No extra damage, just extra possibilities.  Could be used in conjunction with one of the other options - if you don't call for the attack to do something cool, a natural 20 just defaults to the other critical hit option.
  • Finally, exploding damage dice are also a critical hit mechanic of a sort, which operates independently from the attack roll, and instead is activated by rolling the maximum on the damage dice.  Each time the maximum is rolled, the dice are rolled again and the result is added to the total.  This increases the average damage by a fairly trivial amount, but with a small chance to inflict a lot more damage than the weapon's usual range.