Tuesday, December 4, 2012

At my game table of yore

While technically playing a roleplaying game requires nothing more than a copy of the rules, a set of dice, and some scrap paper, every gamer knows that there's an awful lot of information flying around the game table that needs keeping track.  Back in the long ago days as a teen-aged DM for my younger siblings and cousins, we had some fixtures on our game table that accomplished a lot of that pretty handily. 

To keep track of combat, we used a sheet of paper with a grid drawn with ruler and marker, under a piece of 1/4" thick glass about 14 inches square.  I think it was a grid of half-inch squares, but I can't recall for certain.  For a long time, the whole thing was physically attached to the center of the table with carefully applied duct tape.  We'd use a wet-erase marker to draw the walls and other features of each theater of battle.  For the combatants themselves, we had a jar of buttons.  On a bunch of the plainer ones, I had painted numbers with model paint; these were the monsters.  Players usually chose from among the cooler and more ornate buttons for their PC tokens. 

Nowadays we use miniatures, but I miss the button system and would like to get back to it.  Why?  Because with numbered buttons, it's easy to keep track of separate hit points for multiple monsters.  Because buttons don't tend to fall over if the table is jarred or somebody's hand twitches while moving a figure in a crowd.  Miniatures are cool and all, but I'm all about function over style.  Hopefully my current group of players will concur...

We also had a paper-and-glass character stat tracker, which was taped to the table at the DM's spot.  It had lines for about eight characters, and columns for listing Armor Class, hit points, and Notes.  The hit point space was amply large to accommodate adjustments due to wounds and healing.  Often I'd record the maximum hp in a different color.  The Notes column was used for such things as who was holding the light source or wielding the maybe-magical weapon the party discovered earlier.  There was plenty of room at the bottom margin to keep track of a small army of monster hit points during battles.

I heartily recommend wet-erase markers over dry-erase for the simple reason that things aren't going to be inadvertently smudged or erased when you lean on the table to reach something or deliver a dramatic oration.  The spray bottle of water and heavily blue-stained rags that we kept at the table became almost as symbolic of the game to us as the dice.

There was an extra slab of glass or two, which I'd sometimes lay atop the map of the adventure du jour, so I could mark the party's position and progress without marring the map itself with scratching and erasing.  This was about the only use I had for a screen at the table.  I didn't sit behind the screen myself, but had it to one side, protecting the all-important map from prying eyes. 

There are a few things about the old days that I don't miss much, too.  Back then, we didn't have access to a computer and printer, so actual character sheets were a semi-precious commodity.  New characters were scribbled on notebook paper, and generally didn't get a character sheet until 2nd level, when it had proven its ability to survive both the rigors of the dungeon and the fickle interest of the player. 

For a long time we had only one set of dice, and they were the butt-ugly dull plastic ones that came with the Moldvay Basic Set.  We used the hell out of 'em, though.  When we finally acquired the Mentzer Expert Set (I think Moldvay/Cook was technically already out of print, ours being a second-hand copy), we upgraded to the much higher-quality dice that came with that set.  We shared the dice between DM and all the players, and despite never having any issue with it other than the delay when someone sent a die clattering off the table, I like having several sets of dice on the table.  They're still mostly communal dice, except for my nieces, who got their own sets for Christmas last year. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On weird character races

Having just taken a look back at the inclusion of "player creatures" in classic D&D, it seems fitting now to ponder just what makes a good character race and/or class. I'm not talking just, or even mainly, about game balance and such, but rather about the difference between ones that capture the interest and imaginations of players in general, maybe even becoming iconic classics, and those that earn shrugs and end up forgotten and gathering dust on the RPG bookshelf. 

The most important ingredient, I think, is for the race to represent and exemplify some concept or ideal.  Embodying some particular facet of humanity gives a non-human race a sharper identity than simply packaging the whole spectrum of human diversity in different bodies with different powers.  It doesn't matter how awesome your new race's appearance or how cool the powers you give it; if it doesn't connect with something deep in a player's psyche, it's not likely to gain much traction.  To illustrate this point, let's consider the races that are considered an integral part of the core game, the demi-humans.

Dwarves (or dwarfs) and elves have a long and storied record in folklore.  In everything from Tolkien to Snow White, dwarves are strongly associated with mining, metal, and stone, and greed for gems and precious metals.  More abstractly, the dwarf race represents the stability and endurance of those materials, but also the rigidity and coarseness of stone, and craftsmanship, a desire to create things of beauty and value that long outlast their creators. 

Elves are avatars of immortality and timelessness, beauty and grace.  They are often portrayed as lacking or transcending the faults and frailties of humanity, but also lacking its drive and ambition, whiling away their eternal lifespans in song and communion with nature. 

Halflings lack the ancient pedigree of dwarves and elves, but the archetype is as old as humanity itself.  The halfling is the everyman who lives a simple honest life, aspiring to nothing greater than comfort for himself and those he cares for, of whom nothing great is expected.  Sometimes he represents childlike naivete and wonder also.  In heroic fantasy, the halfling is the underdog, the fish out of water, the unlikely hero who succeeds through sheer determination, whether he does so with wide-eyed enthusiasm or forever wishing that he was instead asleep in the plush chair by the hearth, well-stuffed with honey-cakes and tea. 

I don't know how well I've done capturing the essences of those races, but if I say the word "dwarf" or "elf" or "halfling" it means something to you beyond "short person with beard" or "pointy ears." 

Perhaps one reason the gnome, despite having a much firmer grounding in myth and legend than the halfling, is seen as a second-tier PC race at best (it doesn't even appear as a player character race/class in classic D&D) is that the archetype it's meant to portray is so nebulous.  Depending on your interpretation, it steps on the toes of the dwarf, the elf, and the halfling to some degree without offering anything distinctly gnomish for a player to latch onto.  Sure, they can be illusionists, but what does it mean to be a gnome?

So, here are my thoughts on what it takes to succeed as a PC race:
  • Embody some concept, philosophy, or archetype, such that it informs every aspect of the race's personality and behavior.  This can be a tricky, because it needs to be focused enough to be distinct and meaningful, yet not so narrow as to make the race a cliche or caricature.  (The much overused "warrior race" template is a good example of this.  There's a reason why the Star Trek writers gave Klingons an obsession with "honor" - to be credible as anything other than one-dimensional enemies, they needed to be more than just warriors.) 
  • The archetype must resonate with some inner yearning of the human psyche.  Who doesn't want to create something that outlasts his mortal life as dwarves do?  Who hasn't dreamed of being unconstrained by the shackles of time like an elf?  Who doesn't feel divided between the desire for simple comforts and the drive to achieve great things, as a halfling?  If a player can't grok what the race stands for on a deep level, it's unlikely to engender anything more than the much maligned "human with funny ears" type of roleplaying.
  • Players must be aware of what the race is all about.  The easiest way to do this is to adapt a creature from popular myth or folklore which they've already heard of.  Even if the race's character and personality have to be further focused and refined for the game, at least you have a starting point for understanding.  Whether a new race has mythological roots or is purely the spawn of your own warped imagination, it needs to be established in the campaign.  Players should have the chance to interact with members of the race and get a feel for it before it's thrust in front of them as a character option.  Some bloggers have mentioned the practice of requiring the player character party to establish contact and relations with new races to "unlock" them as playable races.
Some designers seem to try to differentiate races by the very superficial means of powers and abilities.  Just dropping in a race loaded with awesome powers appeals primarily to the superficial player - popularly known as the "munchkin" or "min-maxer," and if that's the sort of thing that catches fire in a campaign, I wouldn't have high hopes for the longevity of the campaign, let alone the race.  It's possible that by assigning powers a roleplaying niche might emerge, but in my opinion, trying to build an identity around a suite of powers is putting the cart before the horse.  Abilities should be an outgrowth of the race's personality and character, reflecting and accentuating its niche.

I should mention that when I refer to the success of a character race, I don't necessarily mean that it catches on universally, with the RPG hobby as a whole.  Probably far more often, something will catch on in someone's personal game, because of the way the GM runs it and the way he or she breathes life into a race in the context of the campaign.  The game design industry as a whole necessarily operates in broad strokes, where my campaign can be tailored to resonate with my individual players.    

Sometimes it's a player who falls into a role with such ease and enthusiasm that it makes the race come alive for others.  I remember a cousin of mine who did exactly that with the gremlin from the Top Ballista supplement, lifting the class from a mere novelty to full legitimacy in the campaign.  My wife did the same for the dryad (modified from the official Tall Tales of the Wee Folk version) in our current game.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking back at the Creature Crucible series

Way back in the heyday of classic D&D, when the RPG shelves at the book store were adorned with boxed rule sets with covers by Larry Elmore, Gazetteers of the Known World nations, and B and X series adventure modules, I stumbled upon something a bit different and was immediately enthralled.  What I had found was a book promising to open up all sorts of creatures as player character races.  The book was Tall Tales of the Wee Folk, the first in the Creature Crucible series, which focused on fairy and woodland creatures, and included rules for playing as dryads, centaurs, hsiao*, pixies, sprites, or even treants, plus a selection of entirely new creatures including leprechauns, brownies, and pookas.  

I've since learned that the idea of monsters as player characters was not really new, going all the way back to the original edition of the game.  Even not knowing that, my early campaigns featured monsters as leveled NPCs who traveled with the player character party for a while - a few gnomes, a neanderthal, a phanaton from the Isle of Dread, using the Dwarf, Fighter, and Halfling class details, respectively.  As far as I know, though, this was the first supplement to really go all the way as far as detailing "monster" races for use as PCs.

Besides the new PC race/classes, the supplement included new spells, tons of background information on the races and the fairy court, some NPCs of the new classes, a setting (a fleshing-out of the Dreamlands magic point first introduced in the Elves of Alfheim Gazetteer), and a separate booklet of adventures featuring the new character classes.  The feel of the supplement draws heavily on the fairy folklore of the British Isles with a hearty dash of Shakespeare (while managing to fit the creatures of different origins, like the centaur, dryad, and faun, pretty seamlessly into the mix.)  True, it was sort of a "lite" version, downplaying the more sinister side often displayed by fairies in folklore, but it was still breaking pretty new ground for published D&D material.

Next came Top Ballista, which took a more gonzo route, giving us the flying city of Serraine (completely with magically-propelled gnomish airplanes and a Top Gun-flavored flying academy), plus gnomes, gremlins, harpies, and assorted other new PC fodder.   It represented a sharp departure from the tropes of classic fantasy, but since the setting was modular and mobile, it could easily be dropped into just about any campaign world, and the new classes worked just fine in more of a pure fantasy setting, too.

The Sea People sketched out the undersea kingdoms beneath the waves of the Known World's Sea of Dread and peopled them with PC and NPC merfolk, nixies, tritons, shark-kin, aquatic elves, and other water-breathing oddities.  More so than the other books in the series, this one was best suited for a campaign in the provided setting, and of little use outside it. 

Finally, there was Night Howlers, allowing players the option to play a character infected with lycanthropy (or to continue to play one unfortunate enough to be infected in the course of the campaign.)  In accordance with now-established formula, it detailed the Valley of the Wolves in the Principalities of Glantri and explored the society and politics of Glantrian werewolves. 

How useful the new classes and settings were depended a lot on the particular campaign, but they certainly offered a very different style and flavor from the usual human and demi-human-centric fare of the core rules.  Many of the classes offered entirely new special abilities, from the dryad's ability to shapechange to plant form, to the pooka's time manipulation and the gremlin's chaotic aura.  Even relatively mundane abilities like flying and water breathing clearly distinguished those characters from traditional sorts and opened up new adventuring and role-playing possibilities.

The greatest weakness of the Creature Crucible series was in balance between the classes, especially with regard to the original classes.  Player-creature classes tended to be a fair bit more powerful than traditional human and demi-human PCs, and often subsumed virtually all the powers of one of the old classes and topped them off with new abilities.

Part of this was due to an unfortunate (in my opinion) design decision to hew closely to each class's original monster description and the rules for monsters in general.  Player creatures used the attack tables for monsters of their Hit Dice, which meant an improvement of one point per level, outpacing the Fighter.  Player creatures almost universally had d8 Hit Dice, making them equal to the toughest classes in the original game, simply because all monsters use d8 for hit dice.  (A few creatures, those whose normal monster stats gave them less than a full Hit Die, used d4, but these were very much the minority.)  Quite a few start with more than one HD, and since all begin at or below "normal monster" level rather than 1st level, many ended up with ten or more HD by name level.  A pipsqueak pixie under these rules racked up a cool 10d8 by 9th level, better than a human fighter, and attacks as a 10 HD monster (THAC0 10) compared to a 9th level fighter's THAC0 of 15!  Throw in flight and invisibility, and the only reason ever to play a fighter is the ability to deal more damage - a pixie-sized sword is a 1d4 weapon.

Unfortunately that's not the worst of it.  The warrior sidhe class from the Wee Folk supplement has d8 hit dice, the ability to use any weapon or armor (provided they're not made of iron or steel), an elf-like ability to combine fighting and spell casting, invisibility, water breathing, and advancement to 36th level!  That's overpowered even by player-creature standards, and more than enough to give any of the original classes a justifiable inferiority complex. 

Some monster-to-PC options just seem ill-advised all the way around.  The sphinx from Top Ballista combines big Hit Dice, a tough natural AC, spell casting, natural attacks better than any weapon, and weapon and spell immunity, and then attempts to counterbalance that with gargantuan XP requirements.  The sphinx needs 300,000 XP for its first advancement!  The result is not only unbalanced, but nigh unplayable, considering that conventional characters will have left name level in the dust before the sphinx gets off square one.

Even back in my teens and twenties, I recognized how unbalanced some of this stuff was, and disallowed quite a few of the more wildly out-of-whack classes.  We also used the attack tables for the character class that most closely approximated the creature's style rather than the monster attack tables. Those tweaks helped keep the traditional classes viable alongside their player creature comrades, although the near-universal d8 hit die for the monster PCs meant that any of them tended to be more survivable at 1st level than anything but fighters and dwarves.  This added incentive to try a player creature instead of a traditional PC didn't bother me too much at the time, since it was an explicit objective to add some variety to the campaign roster, but I still consider it a design flaw.

With a little more discretion as to the types of monsters selected for conversion, and a more flexible mindset (i.e. not committed to exactly duplicating the stats for the "monster" version of a creature when designing its character stats) these supplements could have been a lot better.  Nonetheless, they did fulfill the purpose of adding some welcome spice to the campaign and I still have some fond memories of a few favorite player creatures.  Many an adventure wouldn't have been quite the same without Elmore the hsiao*, Lewis the guinea pig pooka, and Tonguie the gremlin. 

*For those unfamiliar with the classic D&D bestiary, hsiao are the quintessential "wise owls" - literally, being sapient giant owls capable of casting cleric spells.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Breaking the limits: Halflings

The third and final installment in my series on modifying race-as-class demi-humans to use the same level scale as the human classes...I've saved the best for last.  I know, a whole lot of people don't agree with me, apparently including the acknowledged father of the game, E. Gary Gygax himself, but I've always had a big soft spot for these little guys.  Whatever the reasons for halflings being included in the game, and however grudgingly it was done, they've always been a part of my D&D.  Anyway, without further ado: The Halfling.

The Halfling class as written, Moldvay and Mentzer editions

Hit dice: d6
Armor: Any, may use shields
Weapons: Any of appropriate size
Special abilities: Hide in wilderness 90%, hide in dungeons 2 in 6, +1 bonus to hit with missile weapons, -2 bonus to AC against creatures larger than man-sized, better saving throws.
Base XP: 2,000
Maximum level: 8
Beyond max level: Attack Ranks allow the halfling to continue improving attack rolls, to a maximum equivalent of a Fighter of level 22-24.  Also gains the combat options for high level fighters, multiple attacks, and half damage from magic and breath weapons.

The halfling as written is pretty tough in a scrape, equal to a fighter in ability to hit opponents, and with hit points about equal to a cleric.  Damage potential is a little bit inferior due to the size restriction on the weapons available to the class, but even so halflings have access to quite a few 1d6 weapons.  The halfling's forte, in my estimation, is not his ability to dish out damage, however, but his ability to avoid harm.  Halflings may wear any armor, and with Dexterity as a prime requisite, are more likely than most other classes to have an AC bonus, which makes them a little harder to hit, on average, than a human fighter.  Against some of the heaviest-hitting opponents - those larger than man-sized - they get a further bonus of -2.  Their ability to "disappear" in wilderness settings, and to a lesser extent in dungeons, is of course yet another way halflings can avoid harm.  At high levels, they receive both the dwarf's extra resistance to magic and the elf's resistance to dragon breath.

The Halfling, revised

The Halfling class really isn't too badly in need of toning down, but it could match its literary origins a little better, specifically in the area of fighting ability.  I'd definitely use the Cleric/Thief combat table progression rather than Fighter for a race which is rarely or never depicted with strong martial leanings. This helps prevent the humble Halfling from overtaking the Dwarf and Elf (both of which have higher XP requirements) in combat prowess.

The Halfling's stealth abilities, particularly outdoors, don't leave much room for improvement as the character gains experience.  Since we've slowed the class's combat progression, it makes sense that halfling characters should have some other improvements to look forward to as they level up, so I've adjusted the beginning chances to 50% to hide in wilderness and 30% in dungeons, with incremental improvement as the character gains levels. Tolkien's hobbits are prominently described as being exceptionally quiet of movement, so it makes sense that the Halfling class should have the ability to Move Silently as a thief of equal level as well, penalized by -20% if the character wears medium armor (chain, scale) and -40% for heavy armor (banded, plate.)

What we end up with is a class that has some of the Thief's stealth capability, without intruding into the province of lock-picking, trap disarming, or backstabbing, and some of the Fighter's capability in combat without rivaling its damage potential or overall competence in battle.  The strengths of the Halfling class are evasion and avoidance, making it distinct from both of those classes.

Higher levels

Beyond 8th level (the halfling's last hit die), a halfling gains 1 hp per level.  I don't think the Fighter combat options are all that appropriate to the class, so instead I've added a couple abilities that build  upon the Halfling's role as a master of avoidance and evasion.  Fortunately there's no need to create a whole new XP table for the Halfling; at low levels it's identical to the Fighter table, and so the Fighter table will serve perfectly well all the way to level 36.  Thus, only levels in which the Halfling gains or improves abilities are detailed in the table below.  Hiding skills are standardized to use d% for both wilderness and dungeon.

Level                           Abilities                                       Hiding:  Wilderness#    Dungeon#
1                   -2 AC bonus vs. large, +1 to hit with missiles              50%              30%
2                                                                                                  55%              32%
3                                                                                                  60%              35%
4                                                                                                  64%              37%
5                                                                                                  68%              39%
6                                                                                                  72%              41%
7                                                                                                  76%              43%
8                   +2 to hit with missiles                                               80%             45%
9                                                                                                   84%             47%
10                 Half damage from magic, save for 1/4                          88%             49%
11                                                                                                  91%             50%
12                 Evasion*, Goad**                                                        93%             51%
13                                                                                                  95%             52%
14                 -3 AC bonus vs. large opponents                                  97%            53%
15                                                                                                   98%            54%
16                                                                                                   99%            55%
18                 Half damage from dragon breath, save for 1/4
24                 Two attacks per round@
27                 -4 AC bonus vs. large opponents
30                 +3 to hit with missiles
33                 +4 to hit with missiles
36                 -5 AC bonus vs. large opponents

* The halfling foregoes all attacks and spends the round evading the attacks of opponents.  All attacks against the character are at -4 to hit.  This does stack with the usual bonuses against creatures larger than man-sized.

** Rather than attacking with his or her own weapon, the halfling attempts to turn a large opponent's strength against it by getting so close to the opponent as to make any attack against the halfling risk hitting the attacker itself instead.  The halfling rolls an unmodified attack vs. AC 5 to get close to a vulnerable spot and maintain a position there.  This could be actually clinging to the opponent, or simply darting in and sheltering beneath its bulk, so close that it can't get a clear swing in.  Each attack directed at the halfling, whether by the primary opponent or another, is made at a penalty of -2.  If the halfling is hit, he takes normal damage, and is dislodged from his position, ending the Goad maneuver.  On a miss, a new attack is rolled with no penalty against the primary opponent, causing full damage to the opponent if it hits.  The Goad continues until the halfling is hit, makes a direct attack, or moves away from the opponent.   

For example, a halfling fighting two giants uses a Goad maneuver and latches herself onto one's thigh.  It foolishly swings its club at her and misses, so it must roll again against its own AC.  It hits and damages itself.  Its partner also swings at the pesky halfling and misses, thus the second giant ends up attacking the first as well.  During the next round, the first giant lands a successful attack on the halfling, so her Goad is ended, and the second giant may attack her normally.

If the opponent does not attempt to attack the halfling before the halfling's next combat action, the halfling may attack with a +4 bonus due to its advantageous position.  Note that a smart opponent may minimize the risk to itself by using grappling attacks to grab the offending halfling rather than swinging deadly weapons dangerously near its own body.

# Maximum hiding ability is reached at level 16.

@ Multiple attacks may be applied to sling, short bow, and thrown missiles as well as melee attacks.

Saving throws

Halfling saving throws are identical to those of the Dwarf class.  Suggestions for handling high level Halfling saves are the same as for Dwarves, here

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Breaking the limits: Elves

Continuing my project to rebuild the race-as-class demihumans of classic D&D to operate on the same framework of level advancement as the human classes, and at the same time distinguish them...I give you the Elf.

The Elf class as written, Moldvay/Cook and Mentzer editions

Hit Dice: d6 (+2 hp at 10th level)
Armor: Any, may use shields
Weapons: Any
Special abilities: Magic spells, infravision 60' range, immune to ghoul paralysis, find secret doors 2 in 6, bonus languages
Base XP: 4,000
Maximum level: 10
Beyond max level: Attack Ranks allow the elf to improve attack rolls up to the equivalent of Fighter level 25-27.  Also high level combat options for fighters, multiple attacks, and half damage from dragon breath.

The Elf is a versatile and formidable character combining most of the abilities of the fighter and magic-user classes.  Other than the level limit, the only balancing factor is the high XP requirement for advancement - twice that of the fighter class or 1.6 times that of the magic-user.  Because of this, an elf character often lags a level or two behind the other members of an adventuring party.  Fighters, dwarves, and even halflings are likely to have a full hit die or more over the party elf, and so are more capable of taking on high-risk opponents in melee.  The magic-user is going to get the big bang spells well before the elf (20,000 XP to reach 5th level for the M-U vs. 32,000 for the elf.)  On the other hand, the elf's armor and superior hit points make him a little more likely to survive to that level.  Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race.

The Elf, revised

Looking at a class that offers the best of both worlds of fighter and magic-user, and a healthy smattering of perks on top of that, the first impulse is to tone it down considerably.  I'm a bit reluctant to do that, though, for a couple reasons.  One is that in most of the literary and mythic references, elves are held in awe by humans, so my impression is that they're supposed to be powerful.  The other is that what I'm after is not absolute parity of power between the classes, but a unique experience and valid reasons for playing each one.

That said, I'm not aware of any source material in which elves can see in total darkness, so infravision could be jettisoned without a drastic reimagining of the Elf archetype.  At most, elves are supposed to have sharper vision than humans, and to see better in low light like a moonlit night, not actual dark-vision.  The bonus for finding secret doors represents that well enough. 

Another way to differentiate the Elf from the Magic-user would be with modified spell lists.  The Elves of Alfheim Gazetteer (GAZ5) has such a list.  The Tall Tales of the Wee Folk supplement (PC1) has a list of Fairy Charms that would also serve nicely, and the free Companion Expansion from Barrataria Games has a "wildwood elf" class that uses the same spells as its druid class and would work nicely for the B/X elf as well.  If none of those lists really feels right, the easiest solution while staying true to the archetype would be to simply delete all spells that cause direct harm to a target creature, either through points of damage (magic missile, fireball, etc.) or otherwise (death spell, cloudkill, power word kill, and so on.)  This reserves the "weapon of mass destruction" role almost exclusively to the magic-user class.

Between those tweaks and the class's high XP requirements, I'd consider that done, but if that's not far enough for your taste, use the Cleric/Thief combat tables rather than the Fighter one.  Unless you're operating on a very Tolkienesque vision of elf as legendary warrior, blunting its combat progression a little doesn't strain the archetype at all.

Higher Levels

Up until 10th level, an elf character is considered to be "finding himself," exploring his affinities for both magic and physical combat.  At level 10, the elf must decide which vocation to pursue seriously.  Either path uses the same XP table.  An elf choosing combat as his or her primary vocation continues to advance on the Fighter combat matrix and gains 2 hp per level.  An elf choosing magic continues to advance on the Magic-user spell table, and on the Magic-user combat table once that exceeds the skill of a 10th-level fighter (which occurs at level 21 in the Mentzer Companion attack matrix), and gains 1 hp per level.

Note that the Elf Warrior is still able to cast spells up to the 10th level of ability, and the Elf Wizard is still able to use weapons and wear armor.

The special abilities listed below apply only to Elf Warriors.  Use the standard Magic-user spell tables for Elf Wizards.

XP               Level               
600,000          10
800,000          11
1,000,000       12               Parry,* Disarm.**
1,200,000       13
1,400,000       14
1,600,000       15
1,800,000       16
2,000,000       17
2,200,000       18               Two attacks per round.***
2,400,000       19
2,600,000       20
2,800,000       21               Half damage from breath weapons, save for 1/4.
3,000,000       22
3,200,000       23
3,400,000       24
3,600,000       25
3,800,000       26
4,000,000       27
4,200,000       28
4,400,000       29
4,600,000       30               Three attacks per round.***
4,800,000       31
5,000,000       32
5,200,000       33
5,400,000       34
5,600,000       35
5,800,000       36

* The Elf Warrior may forego one attack per round in order to block a single incoming attack with a weapon held in hand.  The parry requires a successful saving throw vs. Death Ray.  On a made save, the attack is deflected and causes no damage.  Attacks from creatures larger than an ogre may not be parried in this way.
** A Disarm attempt requires a standard attack roll.  If the attack hits, the target must save vs. Paralysis.  If the save is missed, the target drops its weapon.  Unarmed opponents may not be disarmed.  Disarming an opponent wielding a two-handed weapon requires two consecutive successful disarm attempts, i.e. two in the same round or one at the end of a round and another at the beginning of the next round.
 (Parry and Disarm are variations on the Fighter Combat Options of the same names from the official Companion Set; if desired, use those mechanics unaltered rather than the ones given here.  Elves under these rules do NOT gain the Smash option.)
*** To reflect the perception of Elves as graceful beings, multiple attacks are possible only with a one-handed, non-bludgeoning weapon.  Multiple attacks can be applied to long or short bows as well, to simulate the Elf's fabled skill at archery.

Saving Throws

I strongly prefer the B/X saving throw progression over the Mentzer/Rules Cyclopedia tables, as it leaves a lot more room for improvement after level 10.  For Elf Warriors, use either the 10th level Elf saving throw or the Fighter save for the character's actual level, whichever is better.  Elf Wizards use Elf or Magic-user saves, again, whichever is better. (As far as Fighter and Magic-user saving throw tables, I prefer the ones from The B/X Companion over the official tables given in the TSR Companion and Master sets or the Rules Cyclopedia.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Breaking the limits: Dwarves

Since this is the first post in this little mini-series, let me state right up front what I'm going for.  My objective is a retool of the classic demi-human race/classes so that they're balanced with the human classes at all levels.  By "balanced" I don't mean, for example, that the dwarf class should be exactly equal in power with the fighter class, but that playing a dwarf should be a distinctly different experience, rather than just a fighter with a few extra perks.  Demi-humans in high level play should still advance in honest-to-Bob levels, not with clumsy kludges like Attack Ranks.

The Dwarf class as written (Moldvay and Mentzer editions)

Hit Dice: d8 (+3 hp per level after 9th)     
Armor: Any; may use shields     
Weapons: Any except long bow, two-handed sword
Special abilities: Infravision 60' range, 2 in 6 chance to detect slanting passages, traps, new construction, and shifting walls in underground settings, improved saving throws, bonus languages
Base XP: 2,200 (equivalent to fighter +10%)
Maximum level: 12
Beyond maximum level (Mentzer edition): Advancement in Attack Ranks which improve attack rolls in steps, reaching equivalent of Fighter level 25-27, multiple attacks and combat options for high level fighters, half damage from damage-causing spells and magical effects

A freshly rolled-up dwarf character can do just about everything a human fighter can do, with the exception of using a few large weapons.  With racial special abilities and better saving throws, the dwarf is the objectively superior character, at least in terms of game mechanics.   

The Dwarf, revised

The dwarf class badly needs some tweaks to make it more than just "Fighter Plus." 

The most obvious difference that comes to mind is in size and proportion.  A dwarf's short stocky frame is built for endurance, not for speed nor athletic feats.  A dwarf's base movement rate is 90'(30').  A dwarf character moves as if his or her encumbrance is one category heavier than it actually is, with a minimum of 30'(10').  Additionally, a dwarf can jump only half as far as a similarly encumbered human character, however high or far that is in your campaign.  (I have it on good authority that they do not suffer themselves to be tossed, either.)

Dwarves can't mount steeds larger than a pony or donkey without assistance, and can't comfortably ride a war horse.  I've seen this alluded to in a few sources, but so far as I know it's never been codified into an actual rule in classic D&D or its clones, so...here it is.

Those factors, plus the 10% XP penalty of the dwarf class relative to the fighter, differentiates the two enough for my taste.  If desired, though, a further handicap can be added which is an outgrowth of dwarves' resistance to magic:  A dwarf character could be required to fail a save vs. spells in order for beneficial magical effects, including spells, items, and potions, to have full effect.  Making the save halves the duration.  (This has no effect on magics whose duration is either instantaneous or permanent, such as a healing spell or gauntlets of ogre power.)  This means that the more levels a dwarf character gains, and the more its natural magic resistance tends to counter beneficial magic too.

Higher levels

Unfortunately, the similarity between dwarves and fighters at low levels has been extended at high levels.  Rather than allowing the two to grow apart, the official rules just give the dwarf the same suite of new abilities that they give the fighter.  I've left a few of the fighter abilities to preserve the dwarf's warrior role in an adventuring party, while expanding upon some other archetypal traits.

Dwarves above 9th level with this option gain 2 hp rather than 3.  Level advancement and additional abilities are as follows:

 XP           Level                              Notes

270,000       9            Gains ability to sense precious metals within 100', 2 in 6 chance.*
400,000     10
530,000     11
660,000     12            Detection abilities improve to 3 in 6.  Smash attack.**
790,000     13
920,000     14
1,050,000  15            Metal sense improves to 3 in 6.
1,180,000  16           
1,310,000  17
1,440,000  18            Magical attacks do 1/2 damage, save for 1/4.  Detection improves to 4 in 6.
1,570,000  19
1,700,000  20          
1,830,000  21           Two attacks per round.
1,960,000  22          
2,090,000  23
2,220,000  24           Detection improves to 5 in 6. 
2,350,000  25          
2,480,000  26          
2,610,000  27           Metal sense improves to 4 in 6.
2,740,000  28
2,870,000  29
3,000,000  30           Detection improves to 7 in 8
3,130,000  31
3,260,000  32
3,390,000  33          Metal sense improves to 5 in 6.
3,520,000  34
3,650,000  35
3,780,000  36         Metal sense improves to 7 in 8.

* The affinity that dwarves feel for precious metals is not merely psychological but physical as well.  For the average dwarf this attraction is instinctive and unconscious, but dwarves of name level and above become consciously aware of this "sixth sense."  The dwarf must concentrate for a full turn to use the ability, but it cannot be blocked except by magic.  Within 5' this detection takes only one round, and the dwarf can distinguish between different kinds of metals and even alloys.  Even with only very casual inspection, it's near impossible to fool a high level dwarf with debased coins or other inferior alloys.

** A dwarf wielding a weapon in both hands (including one-handed weapons with long hafts that can be gripped in two hands, like maces and war hammers) can deliver a crushing blow by taking a -4 penalty to the attack roll and a +4 penalty to AC.  If the attack hits, the dwarf adds his or her entire Strength score, rather than the Strength adjustment, to the damage rolled.  The manuever may be attempted with a weapon wielded one-handed, but only half the Strength score is added to damage.  (This is a modified version of the maneuver of the same name in the official Companion Set.  Use that iteration instead, if you prefer.  Dwarves do NOT receive the other Fighter combat options under these rules.)

Saving Throws

I highly prefer the saving throw progression from the Moldvay Basic Rules, which starts dwarves off at values of 10-11-12-13-14 (poison/death ray, magic wands, paralysis/petrification, dragon breath, and rod/staff/spell, respectively) from which JB extrapolates in his B/X Companion, instead of the 8-9-10-13-12 which inexplicably shows up in Cook Expert and persists in the Mentzer edition rules. 

With the B/X Companion, just use the numbers provided, with the two bumps after level 12 occurring at levels 18 and 30.  If you're using Cook Expert or Mentzer tables, subtract 1 from each category at level 18.  At level 30 and above, all saving throw values are 2.

That's it (for now) for dwarves.  Next up: The elf class gets a makeover.

President Evil

WARNING:  Political opinions ahead.  If reading unpopular ideas pisses you off, then you're going to hate this one, and should probably click away now so your head remains safely in the sand.

When I can't even escape election insanity on some of my favorite gaming blogs, it presses about ten of my berserk buttons at once.  I am sick, sick, sick up to my eyeballs of everyone going into multiple barking orgasms over This Glorious Day, when we choose our new Fearless Leader.
"Democracy is also a form of worship.  It is the worship of jackals by jackasses." -- H.L. Mencken
I'm sick of all the idiotic blather about how one party or the other is Evil Incarnate, and the other is the Knight in Shining Armor come to rescue us from them and our own hopeless incompetence, and you're a fool or a monster if you don't believe so.  Here's a little secret: Other than the rhetoric, there's precious little difference.  The D's and the R's are both profoundly authoritarian, and both fundamentally fascist - not in the hysterical and indefinite pejorative sense that the word is most often used these days, but in the proper economic definition of the cartelization of nominally private industry under state control.  Talk of "right" and "left" and the yawning chasm of difference between them is just so much hot air.
"When the government's boot is on your throat, whether it is a left boot or a right boot is of no consequence." -- Gary Lloyd
Don't you get it?  Government is just a big con game.  It's a coercive monopoly of violence, and its every act is predicated upon violence or the threat of violence.  It owes its very existence to theft, extortion, and murder.  It is not about peace, or order, or compassion, or any of the other nonsense you learned in your social studies classes.  It's not about assuring and protecting liberty, nor can it even be successfully adapted for that purpose.  Liberty and the state are polar opposites.  No, it's all about who should be forced to do what for whom.
"Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods." -- H.L. Mencken
And this whole "democracy" scam, supposedly the best form of government?  That's just a clever ploy to mollify the slaves by convincing them that they run the plantation.  Voting is not a right of free people.  It's a privilege granted to slaves.
"A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years." -- Lysander Spooner
Perhaps most of all, I'm sick of this asinine idea that we have some Moral Duty to cast our votes for a master, that we have no right to complain of our master's treatment if we do not vote, and working within this corrupt and immoral system is the Only True Way of effecting change. 

If we're ever to be free of our masters, it is not going to be through working with them, within the system.  If, by some quirk of fate, the exercise of the franchise affords some entirely unintended opportunity to hold the wolf of the state at bay, there is no shame in using it so, but it should be done with the loathing and contempt with which a gladiator-slave might use the sword given him by Caesar to fend off the lion set upon him by Caesar, not with fawning gratitude and worship for Caesar's wisdom and benevolence in providing the sword. 

If there is to be any significant progress in the direction of freedom, it must come not from working with the system, but from defying it whenever possible, openly or in secret, in large ways or small.  It must come from withdrawing our blindly-given consent to its tyranny, even if only within our own hearts.
"Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces." -- Etienne de la Boetie

End transmission.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled gaming content.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Demi-human levels

Well, here's a topic that hasn't been done to death, huh?  And not controversial in the least!  To limit, or not to limit, that is the question!

First, in the interest of full disclosure:  I love demi-humans.  Yes, even halflings.  Alright, especially halflings.  For myself, I find the standard arguments in favor of level limits to be unconvincing at best, and completely off the mark at worst.

Balancing special abilities and perks:  In campaigns that don't advance to high levels, level limits are obviously a moot point.  When a campaign does run into epic levels, demi-humans are quickly outclassed by their human counterparts.  Perhaps even worse, there's nothing left for them to look forward to, no greater heights to strive after.  They just hit the wall, and that's it.  It's a two-wrongs-make-a-right theory of game design, and there's nothing of balance in it.  There's simply an imbalance at low levels, and an imbalance in the opposite direction at high levels.

Maintaining a human-centric focus in the campaign:  Using level limts for this purpose seems like a jerk move to me, a way to weasel around just barring non-human PCs outright.  It's perfectly legit to run a campaign for human characters only if that's your bag.  And if it is, why compromise in a way that really satisfies neither your desire for a human-based campaign nor the player's desire to run a non-human character?  There are other ways to limit non-human PCs, using diegetic and role-playing means rather than dissuading players from choosing them by capping their levels.  Some referees allow only human PCs at the start of a campaign, and then allow the players to "unlock" new races as the party establishes contact with non-human populations.  Even if demi-human PCs are allowed from the start, the campaign can be steered into a more or less human-centric track by playing up the prejudices and misconceptions that demi-humans would endure in an overwhelmingly human population.  This is certainly a hindrance, and maybe a deterrent to some players, but it's something that a player can work with if he or she choose to take on that role, not a hard-and-fast cap on how good their characters can become.  

Maintaining the supremacy of the human race in the campaign world:  It's sometimes argued that the extremely long-lived demi-humans, having so many more years to gain experience, would vastly overpower the humans.  However, it doesn't necessarily follow that a greater proportion of them will take up adventuring careers and attain high levels.  Most dwarves, elves, and halflings are going to be unexceptional farmers, laborers, and crafters who will never see Level 2, just like most humans.  Among those who do, the mortality rates are going to be pretty close to what they are for humans, and the longer an adventuring career continues, the greater the cumulative chance of it ending badly.  A 25th level elf has about the same chance of dying while trying to reach level 26 as a 25th level human fighter.  The members of those species who are most likely to live out those long life spans are precisely the ones who don't go chasing dragons for fun and profit.

If the overall balance of power in the campaign is still a concern, there's no reason why you can't decide that the long-lived races tend to lose interest in improving their class skills over the decades or centuries.  It may be prevalent in the halfling spirit to give in to the lure of hearth and home around level 8 or so.  Perhaps the average elf tires of violence and strife relatively quickly, and turns to a life of song and merriment or quiet contemplation of nature.  Dwarven adventurers may succumb to their inborn urge to craft things of lasting beauty and trade in the battle axe for a smith's hammer.  Defining demi-human cultures this way can not only help to explain the relative power and prestige of the races in the campaign but add color and life as well.  What it shouldn't do is straitjacket player characters, who are, whether human or demi-human, fundamentally exceptional examples of their kind.  It should define the behavior of NPCs, not player characters.  It's essentially the referee telling the player, "Your character wouldn't do that."

There is one possible justification for level limits I can think of that does have some merit.  It doesn't apply to classic D&D with race-as-class demi-humans, but it's worth mentioniong anyway.

Curbing min-maxing behavior:  When race and class are separate, and thus demi-human characters choose from the same set of classes as humans, there could be a tendency to choose the race that's naturally superior in a given class.  This is probably exacerbated by a system that differentiates races by adjustments to ability scores, and further if an "arrange to taste" method of ability score generation is used.  If you have the choice to play your preferred class as a human with no adjustments, or as another race that gets a bonus to the class's prime requisite at the cost of a point or two from another less important ability, who's going to choose human?  A hard limit on level advancement, though...that stings a bit, and makes the choice far less obvious.  I'm still not saying it's a good reason for level limits.  There are certainly better ways of going about balancing the races than that. 

I do understand the need, even in a race-as-class system like B/X, to make playing a demi-human really feel different.  I'll grant that level limits do that.  Knowing that your dwarf is going to hit the wall at 12th level really does give it a different feel from playing a fighter.  I just don't think it's the best way to accomplish even such a worthy goal as that, either.

Over the next few posts, I'm going to take a look at ways of breaking the level limits without breaking the game, and make playing a dwarf, elf, or halfling character feel special and different from the human archetypes sometimes associated with them. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Spooks and spirits

 A few paranormal beasties for your Halloween enjoyment.


Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 1* to 4*
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1 point to 1d4
No. Appearing: 1d6 (1d6)
Save as: Magic-user:6
Morale: 5
Alignment: Neutral

In some places, the boundary between the material world and strange outer realms is compromised, either temporarily or permanently, allowing psychic and magical energies and shreds of ectoplasmic stuff to seep through from beyond.  Sometimes these energies agglomerate and attain a semi-sentient state.  The bizarre ghost-like entities that result are known as phantasms.  A phantasm may have almost any appearance imaginable.  They typically have features of humans or other "normal" creatures - eyes, noses, mouths, arms and hands, claws, etc. - but not necessarily in normal numbers or placement.  

Phantasms are incorporeal, and can pass through solid objects with ease.  They also have minor telekinetic powers which enable them to manipulate small objects at close range.  The creatures are curious and malevolently playful, and items left unattended in a phantasm-haunted area are unlikely to remain where the owner left them.  Phantasms are generally non-combatant; their "attacks" consist of colliding with a target, exerting a hard bump of psychokinetic force that leaves the target dazed and splattered with a residue of ectoplasmic slime. 

Being insubstantial, phantasms can be harmed only by magic weapons and spells.  They share the immunities of the undead to all sleep, charm, hold, and mind-affecting magic, but are not truly undead and cannot be turned by clerics.


Armor Class: 0
Hit Dice: 1/2*
Move: 300' (100')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d2+special
No. Appearing: 1d20
Save as: Normal human
Alignment: Neutral

 These minor spirits are left behind in places where sentient creatures have died but lacked unfinished business or sheer strength of will to bind them fully to the mortal plane as ghosts or similar entities.  Instead, each creature leaves behind a "psychic smudge" of energy.  Wisps appear as faintly glowing balls or ribbons of vapor with no discernible features.  Being incorporeal and unconstrained by the laws of gravity and inertia, wisps may hover and move with startling rapidity, changing speed and direction instantaneously.

Though unintelligent, wisps can sense psychic disturbances nearby, including strong emotions such as anger and fear, and are easily agitated by them.  They attack by literally flying through their target, inflicting a numbing chill that causes 1-2 points of damage and the temporary loss of 1 point of Dexterity.  This loss lasts for one day, or until removed with a dispel evil or restoration spell.  A creature reduced to 0 Dexterity is paralyzed for the duration.

Wisps are immune to non-magical weapons and to all spells except dispel evil and those that inflict damage through raw magical power, such as magic missile.  Weapons empowered with a bless spell inflict 1 point of damage per hit.  Wisps are turned as zombies.


Armor Class:7
Hit Dice: 8**
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1
Damage: Special
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Save as: Magic-user:8
Morale: 12
Alignment: Chaotic

The terrible banemage is the undead remains of a magic-user who has had his or her magical ability completely burned out.  Typically this occurs as a result of an act of great hubris, such as attempting a magic spell or ritual far beyond the caster's power.  The resulting abomination is a creature devoid of all intellect and all ambition besides an overwhelming hunger for magic to fill the burned-out void within. 

A banemage appears much as it did in life, but its skin is a sickly pale gray and its eyes are completely black.  It instinctively senses the presence of magic within 150' and will move toward it.  Within 20' of the monster, all magical effects are dispelled as the enchantment is absorbed.  Spells cast at the creature from a greater range are likewise absorbed as soon as they enter its near vicinity.  In combat, the banemage seeks to touch sources of magical power, including magic armor, weapons, and other items.  The monster prefers to target spell casters or creatures with innate magical abilities. Its touch drains the highest-level spell from a spell caster's memory, and the victim must save vs. paralysis or fall into a trance and allow the banemage to feed, losing an additional spell per round until rescued.  Once all spells are gone, the banemage feeds on the character's very life force, draining one energy level per round.  Should a magic-user be completely drained of spells and life force in this way, he or she will rise as a banemage in 1d4 hours.  Creatures with innate magic, rather than spell casting ability, are simply energy drained in the manner of a caster after his spells are gone.

If no spell casters or creatures with magical life force are available, the banemage targets magic iems. Its touch drains one "plus" from a magical weapon or armor, or 1d100 charges from a charged item.  Potions and scrolls are instantly destroyed.  Permanent items without pluses are deactivated for 1 day per hit; three hits renders the item forever non-magical.  Even artifacts are not immune to the monster's insatiable leeching; such powerful items are deactivated for 1 day per hit, and permanently destroyed after 10 hits. 

Banemages are immune to magical weapons of all kinds.  In fact, striking it with a magic weapon drains the weapon's enchantment exactly as if the creature had touched it with its own attack.  They are also invulnerable to most normal weapons.  Only weapons of non-enchanted silver or wood will harm it.  Banemages are turned as vampires.

The monster derives neither comfort nor sustenance from its magic-draining attacks; it is simply driven by a mindless, bottomless hunger for that which it has lost.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Free NPCs at Shortymonster!

As usual, I'm a little late to this bandwagon, but a little more than a week ago Shortymonster's blog reached 10,000 page views, and he's celebrating it by writing up a free NPC for anyone who asks.  I just snagged a good one for my Keep on the Borderlands campaign.  Sometimes a little outside input can really stir things up and get fresh ideas percolating! 

If you haven't already, go get one for yourself, and check out a few of his other posts while you're there.  (There's some really good stuff on medieval combat and horror in RPGs if you comb through the older posts.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Companions, side by side

Every gamer who cut his or her role-playing teeth on the Moldvay Basic edition of D&D knows that the promised Companion Set detailing character levels 15-36 and all the epic adventuring rules to go with them never actually materialized. Instead, the game got a reboot with the Mentzer Basic and Expert sets, which were then followed by a Companion and a Master set.  The Mentzer rules are mechanically very similar, though not quite identical, to Moldvay/Cook (or B/X), but differ considerably in the overall "feel" of the presentation.  It wasn't perfect for fans of B/X, but for a long time it was the best we had. 

Now we've got a couple more options, courtesy of the OSR, that purport to fill the niche of a Companion rules expansion.  The Companion Expansion: Characters, Spells, Monsters, and Magic Items by Barrataria Games and The B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, a.k.a. JB of the B/X Blackrazor blog.  These two supplements, despite their similar names and some overlap, have significantly different emphasis.  I realize I'm pretty late to the party here, but I thought I'd weigh in with my assessment of the pros and cons of each, as compared to the official Mentzer edition Companion.

The official Companion Rules for D&D:  The Mentzer Companion set includes rules for advancement to level 25 for human characters (levels 26-36 were held back for the Master Rules set), several new sub-classes available to fighters and clerics at 9th level and higher, high level combat options for fighters, rules for high-experience dwarves, elves, and halflings to continue improving beyond their formal level limits, some new weapons and armor, new spells, new monsters, new magic items, a system for mass combat, a system for ruling a dominion, rules for unarmed combat, and a brief section on adventuring in other planes of existence.  Most of this is simply extrapolating from and building on the preceding rule sets.  The major exceptions to this are the War Machine mass combat rules, the unarmed combat rules, and the dominion rules, all of which (apologies to Frank Mentzer) feel wildly out of place in the classic D&D game.  In particular, the War Machine and dominion rules manage to be vastly more complex than typical for the game, yet frustratingly vague in certain key areas.  There's a tremendous amount of prep necessary to calculate the strength of forces in the War Machine, for instance, and a boatload of math to do on the fly during play, but how long is the battle represented by one roll in the War Machine rules?  The book doesn't say.  The rules for dominion accounting and confidence checks are similarly over-detailed yet nebulous in critical areas.

Companion Expansion: Characters, Spells, Monsters, and Magic Items:  Pretty much what it says on the cover.  Barrataria's Companion features tables taking the core human classes to level 36, several new classes, new spell lists, new monsters, and new magic items.  New skills are provided for high-level thieves, since their basic abilities top out at level 14 in B/X and its clones.  There are no options for demi-humans to grow beyond their formal level limits, although halflings in this supplement go to level 12 instead of the more traditional level 8.  Additional demi-human classes include gnomes, wildwood elves, half-elves, half-orcs, and half-ogres.  Added human classes include the illusionist, druid, and bard, fairly close analogs of the AD&D classes of the same names, and the scout, an approximation of AD&D's ranger.

The new spells section includes entirely new spell lists, one for illusionists, gnomes, and bards, and another for druids and wildwood elves.  Most of the new spells are simply adaptations of spells from the AD&D game.  It's still useful, in that it adds spells that actually fit the flavor of the classic (non-"Advanced") game, saving you the work of poring over spell lists and descriptions from various sources, digging out the good stuff, and compiling it in a single list.

The monsters section likewise draws heavily on AD&D, as well as creatures from classic D&D adventure modules (or perhaps the Creature Catalog.) 

I'm not so knowledgeable about AD&D magic items, but I suspect that the magic items also draw on material from that game, plus a few I recognize from The Book of Marvelous Magic.

Despite the heavy reliance on AD&D as source material, the whole thing has a pretty strong Classic D&D feel to it, and I wouldn't hesitate to use most of the material in my own game.  Since it's available as a free PDF, there's no reason not to at least check it out.

One of the appendices has an alternative combat table that slows advancement at higher levels by reducing the steps from two points at once.  The upshot is that THAC0s for all classes bottom out at 5 points higher than they would otherwise.  This is a nice addition for groups interested in high-level play but without quite so much power inflation.

B/X Companion: I could justifiably say here that I've saved the best for last.  No new character classes are included (save the optional bard class presented as an example of how to add classes to the game), but the core human classes are extended to level 36, with multiple attack rules for fighters, advanced skills for thieves, and high level spells for clerics and magic users.  Demi-humans get what amounts to a more streamlined version of Mentzer's system for continuing to improve beyond level limits.  I've always found this to be kind of a silly workaround - it would make a lot more sense in my opinion just to raise or abolish level limits - but given that JB set out to bring the B/X game to its promised pinnacle rather than to create a new system or an updated clone, it makes sense that he takes pains to avoid contradicting the canon of those earlier rule sets.

The spells chapter includes some Mentzer-edition clones and a few welcome AD&D retreads, but also has several additions that to the best of my knowledge are original to the game, including a few that are at least hinted at in the official rule sets and thus long overdue.

Monsters are a melange of AD&D adaptations and new creatures, drawing from literature (balrogs, in the guise of the Bane Lord, black orcs, the terrible Jabberwocky and its fell compatriots from the famous poem), folklore (leprechaun, wendigo, banshee) and more modern inspirations (quicksilver golem and plague zombie.)  There's also a new sub-category of monsters, the Greater Undead, which are immune to turning.  Now you can safely use an undead creature as a Big Bad in your campaign without fear that it will be anticlimactically reduced in a single round to a smear of soot on the dungeon floor because a high level cleric waved a holy symbol in its face.

There's also a goodly selection of new magical items which nicely fit the B/X feel, and random tables that integrate them with the items from the previous rules.

Where the B/X Companion really shines, though, is in the new rules for mass combat and dominion rule so essential to really epic high level play.  In sharp contrast to the baroque kludges of the official Companion Set, JB gives us a simple, abstract, and versatile mass combat resolution system that relies on existing statistics - Armor Class, Hit Dice, damage rolls, and Morale scores.  No more futzing with Basic Force Ratings and Battle Ratings and how many weeks the leader of the force has spent training with the troops.  The math is only slightly more difficult than that of normal D&D combat.  Modifiers for tactics and special battle conditions can be applied as simply as you would a situational modifier in standard combat, as a +1 or -1 to the damage rolls used to resolve each battle.  No more guessing about the time frame, either - mass combat is resolved in "Clashes" equal to 6 standard game turns.

On the dominion front, the rules for dominion population and income are extremely simple, and confidence is checked with a variation of the standard 2d6 reaction roll.  One seriously wonders how such an obvious existing mechanic was passed over in favor of the weird agglomeration featured in the Mentzer Companion.  There are even rules for how many peasants can be levied from the local population in times of need, an unfortunate omission from previous editions.

In the tradition of the previous sets, there's also a fair amount of miscellaneous advice on running the game, none particularly ground-breaking but all generally sound. 

I found the $12.99 price tag for the PDF a bit steep, but having read it now, I don't regret buying it at all.

All three books have their strengths.  For my own game, when and if it reaches those rarefied epic levels of play, I'll probably use the B/X Companion as the core, drawing on the others for additional content like monsters, spells, and additional classes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thief skills, redux

I think I've finally got my thoughts all settled and sorted on how the skills of the thief class will work in my game.  This all started out as an effort to make low-level thieves not totally incompetent at their profession while still allowing them to benefit from gaining levels.  My aim was to utilize the existing percentage tables, but interpreted in a way that emphasizes time and risk management rather than a simple pass or fail roll that low-level thieves would fail far more often than not.  These interpretations should work with the thief skill tables of any old school D&D edition or clone.

Included are optional ability score modifications to the skill roll, which apply a +5% bonus (or -5% penalty) for each point of the standard ability modifier for the given score, i.e. -15% for an ability modifier of -3 to +15% for a modifier of +3.  Also included are suggestions for non-thief characters to attempt some of the functions and activities normally considered to be the province of thieves alone.  (Optional modifiers should apply only for actual thief characters, not to non-thieves attempting thiefly skills.)

Open Locks:  A thief is not limited to one attempt per lock.  The first attempt is to pick the lock in one round.  Failing that, the thief may make a second attempt at picking it in one minute.  If that fails too, then each additional attempt takes one full turn.  Any roll of 00 jams the lock in some way - something inside the lock breaks, or a pick snaps off, and no further attempts may be made. The higher a thief's level, the more likely that he or she can spring a lock quickly and cleanly, but any thief can open just about any lock, given enough time.

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves:  A character of any other class may make a one-time attempt with a 5% chance of success to pick a lock in 1d4 turns.  The lock is jammed on a roll of 75 or higher.  Any character may attempt to break open a lock by force.  This is noisy, destroys the lock, and may, depending on circumstances, damage the contents of a locked container.

Find Traps: Area traps are resolved through player-referee dialog and don't require the specialized skills of the thief.  Traps on doors and containers are resolved using the thief's percentages.  Find Traps may be attempted as many times as desired, at a cost of one turn per attempt, rolled secretly by the referee.  A container or door may be trapped multiple times, each requiring a successful roll to find.

Optional modification: Intelligence

 For non-thieves:  As mentioned above, area traps can be detected by anyone.  Even chest and door traps may have clues that a non-thief can detect and interpret - a skeleton sprawled in front of the chest, a dart stuck in the wall opposite the door, etc.  Otherwise, any character specifically looking for traps has a 5% chance to notice them.  The attempt may be repeated if desired.

Remove Traps: A thief may make more than one attempt at removing a trap, but at increased risk.  The first attempt triggers the trap only on a roll of 00.  If the thief tries again, it represents pressing his/her luck and fingers-crossed guesswork (e.g. "Do I cut the red wire or the blue one?") The trap is triggered on a roll greater than twice the chance of success, or a roll of 95 or greater.  Third and subsequent attempts set off the trap on any failed roll.  Each attempt is considered to take one turn.

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves: Removing traps by an untrained person is a dangerous and foolhardy endeavor; the chance of success is the same as a first level thief, but failing by 10 or more triggers the trap, even on the first roll.  Second and subsequent attempts trigger the trap on any failed roll.

Pick Pockets: This skill works without modification from Moldvay/Cook Basic; i.e. the chance is modified by -5% for each level of the target above 5th, and on a roll greater than twice the adjusted chance of success the attempt is noticed by the victim. 

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves:  A base 10% chance of success, modified by the target's level as normal, with the usual chance of detection.  Clearly risky business for the unskilled!

Climb Walls: A thief may remain on a wall (whether actively climbing or simply holding on) for one round per level before a check need be made; in other words, no roll is needed to attempt a climb, only to continue it or maintain position over time.  Climbing is at the rate of 5' to 20' per round, depending on the difficulty of the wall, at the referee's discretion; the player should be informed of this prior to beginning the climb.  A failed climbing roll results in a fall from the character's elevation at the time of the failed check.  For each successive period of climbing or clinging to the wall, the check is made at a cumulative -10% penalty.  For example, a 3rd level thief would make an unmodified check after 3 rounds, a roll at -10% at 6 rounds, -20% at 9 rounds, and so on.

Optional modification: Strength

For non-thieves: A non-thief character not wearing metal armor must roll under his or her Dexterity score on 1d20, to begin the climb.  Thereafter, the character may remain on the wall for a number of rounds equal to half his or her level, rounded up, before another check must be made.  Each subsequent check is made with a cumulative +2 penalty.  A character with 18 Dexterity is thus slightly inferior to a 1st level thief.  Climbing of this sort cannot be attempted while heavily encumbered.

Move Silently: On a successful roll, the thief is moving with absolute silence, making no noise discernible to human or demi-human ears, and will automatically surprise anyone not looking in his or her direction.  On a failed roll, the thief is still moving quietly, gaining +1 to surprise opponents.  All attempts at silent movement are at half normal movement rate; a thief who desires only quiet movement may do so automatically at full movement. 

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves: Non-thieves may not move silently, but move quietly on a roll of 1-4 on 1d6, modified by the character's Dexterity bonus or penalty, with an additional penalty of +1 for wearing metal armor (but never greater than a 5 in 6 chance nor less than 1 in 6.)  Quiet movement is at half normal movement rate.  Moving quietly improves the odds of surprising opponents and reduces the chances of being surprised by 1 in 6, and may also reduce wandering monster checks at the referee's discretion.

Hide in Shadows: On a successful roll, the thief manages to conceal him- or herself in a patch of darkness.  This can be attempted only when shadows are present, and is automatically unsuccessful with regard to anyone actually looking at the thief when the attempt is made.  The thief must remain motionless in order to remain hidden.  The thief may break from cover and attempt a backstab attack on any creature unaware of his or her presence and passing within 10' with automatic surprise.  Note that this skill may be used in combat, provided the thief is not engaged in melee, and that all enemies are at least potentially distracted in the chaos of battle and unable to keep an eye on the thief.

Optional modification: Wisdom

For non-thieves: Hiding in shadows is simply not possible for non-thieves.  Hiding in the ordinary sense is accomplished by dialog between player and referee.  A character who successfully hides may ambush others, gaining a +2 bonus to surprise.

Hear Noise: This skill applies to listening for and discerning sounds which would otherwise go either completely unheard or fail to register in the awareness of an untrained person.  No roll is needed for something that, in the referee's judgment, would be audible to anyone, such as a conversation at normal speaking volume behind an ordinary door.  At the referee's option, a check may enable the thief to discern the actual content of such a conversation, though, provided the thief understands the language being spoken.

Optional modification: Wisdom

For non-thieves: The rules provide for a 1 in 6 chance for non-thief humans, and 2 in 6 for demi-humans, to detect noise as a thief character does.

Read Languages: Rather than gaining a flat 80% at 4th level, this skill follows the same progression as Open Locks.

Optional modification: Intelligence

For non-thieves: Not applicable.  Learn the language or use magic.

Previous posts on related topics:
Picking the lock
Thief dilemma: traps
Stealth and surprise

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Of the unquiet dead and things that go bump in the night

It's that time of year, when all things eerie, paranormal, and macabre have their day in the s...er, flickering torchlight, so I thought I'd muse for a bit on the undead as represented in old school D&D.

When I was new to D&D, and perusing the bestiary section of the rules, the very idea of undead monsters was chilling, creepy, fascinating.  These were things that existed outside the laws that govern living creatures. Except, of course, in the rules they really weren't.  They had Armor Classes and Hit Dice and Morale scores just like every other monster, and over time the veneer of wonder wore away and they started to feel like just another hit point total to whittle down in armed combat.

If you're lucky enough to have relatively new and inexperienced players, or at least some who haven't read and internalized the monster descriptions and stats from the rules, this may not even be an issue.  That actually is the case for me right now.  I could drop a wight or a wraith into a dungeon room, and when the PCs blundered into that room they'd be freaked out, just as my original group was at the first appearance of the wight in the crypt in the Caves of Chaos.  But if I did that, they'd eventually become jaded too, and since I'd prefer to forestall that and preserve as much of the mysterious creepy-weird-scary vibe of the undead as possible, I'd prefer to avoid portraying undead as just so much sword-fodder.  Here are a few things I can think of to make encounters with undead unique and compelling.

Description:  The appearance of undead monsters is as diverse as that of the humans and demi-humans from which they arise.  Giving them unique descriptions where appropriate helps make them more than just bundles of stats.  What do they wear?  Are they male or female or too far gone to even tell?  Are they skinny, emaciated, fat, muscular and hulking?  Do they have hair, facial hair, or other features that would have distinguished them in life?  How do they move?  Shambling like Hollywood zombies, on all fours like feral things, crouching and leaping, gliding...?  Don't forget the other senses besides sight.  Do they moan, gurgle, snarl, scream, hiss, mutter incoherently?  Undead with a rotting physical body might well smell like a charnel pit, but even incorporeal wraiths, specters, and ghosts might have a particular scent that betrays their presence, whether that be wood smoke, a salty sea breeze, whiskey, roses, or something else associated with the life or death of the creature's former living self.

Motives:  Undead aren't necessarily motivated by the same things that mortal men and beasts are, or perhaps more accurately, they often are but in twisted and distorted ways.  Often, undead have one all-consuming motivation.  Unlike living creatures, they have no biological needs.  They are never distracted by the demands of mere survival, either as individuals or species.  They do not need food, drink, or shelter, and they have no biological drive to reproduce.  That means that, whatever it is that does drive them, they may pursue it with a single-mindedness (or single-mindlessness) far beyond the most powerful mortal obsession.  Ghouls are consumed by a desire to feed on flesh.  Malice toward the living is a common motive, as is guarding some place, object, or person.  Sure, those are classics, but why limit yourself?  Why couldn't an undead creature be driven by a primal need to create more of its own kind - to reproduce, as it were?  How about other human motivations, taken to extremes, like self-preservation (maybe the creature isn't even aware that it's dead!), companionship, knowledge, greed, envy, vanity, lust, longing for something lost, compassion, religious fervor, bigotry...Play it straight up, or subvert it in ironic and disturbing ways.

Powers:  The stock powers of undead by the book aren't all that scary if only described in game terms.  You're paralyzed.  You're diseased.  You lose a level.  At the very least, they should get colorful, unsettling descriptions in-game.  What does being energy drained feel like?  Does it chill you to the bone or create a temporary link between you and the undead, flooding your mind with the monster's ghastly tormented thoughts?

Change up powers, if you think of something more suitable to a particular monster, that really fits its history and motives.  You can also add side effects to powers, things that have trivial or no mechanical effects, but that unnerve the players.  Residual dreams or visions, phobias, minor disfigurements like white hair or ashen skin, inexplicable cravings for raw meat, chills, and other effects can be either temporary or permanent while imposing no mechanical hindrances on a character.

Tactics:  How many scary stories have the heroes simply slugging it out toe-to-toe with a supernatural adversary immediately upon encountering it?  Not many.  In most cases, spooks and spirits are elusive and devious opponents.  Often the undead don't engage in direct combat at all, but entice or frighten their victims into stumbling into other hazards.  Even when they do directly attack characters, it shouldn't feel as if the PCs are just fighting another warrior who happens to be rotting or translucent.  There should be something uncanny about the way the creature fights, and it should use its powers - including things that aren't actually listed as powers, such as being incorporeal or impervious to pain - to maximum effect, even if that effect is only descriptive rather than mechanical.  A zombie fights relentlessly, and couldn't care less about being menaced, or even stabbed, with a sword.  A wraith or spectre is the ultimate hit-and-run attacker, being able to pass through solid matter with absolute silence to surprise its foes and then quickly retreating through walls or into solid ground where the PCs can't follow, only to strike again at a time of its choosing.  A pack of ghouls might share a telepathic link that enables them to utilize tactics seemingly beyond their simple feral intellects.

Some examples

  • A wraith child, with large tearful eyes, who is horribly lonely and desperately wants companionship.  She does not attack at first, but plays on the party's sympathy, desperately trying to hold hands or embrace one of them.  Her touch inflicts a chilling energy drain.  When the victim recoils from her, she cries pitifully and "attacks," seeking to reestablish physical contact.
  • A spectre who was once a reclusive scholar, and now haunts the ruins of his library.  He jealously guards his collected knowledge, and still thirsts for more.  His touch inflicts the usual double energy drain, by actually siphoning off the victim's knowledge; after a battle, he attempts to transcribe this newly acquired knowledge into books, though in his undead state it produces only bizarre scribblings intelligible only to him.  If presented with a book or other source of written information, and not currently threatened, he will at once immerse himself in it for 2d4 turns, to the point of being oblivious to all else but a direct attack against him.
  • A wight who was once a painter is now driven to gather models so that he may continue his artistic pursuits.  He targets particularly attractive women; those he successfully drains become his companions and subjects.  When encountered, they may be nude or dressed in some tattered finery.  He still "paints," smearing blood, mud, and ashes on stone walls or scraps of canvas; the results are grotesque and frightening parodies of life and beauty.
  • A revenant, formerly a soldier and battlefield medic driven to madness and suicide by the suffering he witnessed.  He ignores healthy folk, but can sense pain within 100 yards, whether from injury or illness, and is driven to end the misery of those poor suffering individuals - even those who are certain to recover if left alone.  He attacks with a poisonous touch that also causes numbness, paradoxically speaking words of soothing comfort as he does so.
  • A wraith, a coward in life, still exists in terror of pain and death.  When encountered, he warns the characters to stay back and leave him alone, becoming more hysterical the longer they remain.  If anyone advances toward him, no matter how non-threateningly, he attacks with the desperate fury of a cornered animal.  Unaware of his true condition, he is still desperately afraid of weapons, even those that can't actually harm his insubstantial form.  If struck by a weapon that can't hurt him, he is only 25% likely to notice (he can't feel pain), but if he does, he screams, "I'm hit!  I'm hit!" and flees immediately.  A hit from a weapon that can harm him automatically causes him to flee.
  • A ghost, wraith, or specter driven by a desire for vengeance against its murderer.  Those who survive its attack are thereafter afflicted with nightmares of the creature's last moments of life.  A dispel evil spell will remove the effect; otherwise only revenge against the murderer will end the nightmares.  The dreams contain clues to the killer's identity, perhaps as obvious as a clear view of his face, or perhaps more subtle.  The spirit may desire the killer's death, or may be appeased by exposing and disgracing the murderer (especially if the killer is himself deceased.)
  • A pack of ghouls, the remnants of a notorious band of highwaymen.  Despite their ghoulish need to feed on human flesh, they still instinctively prefer to attack wealthy-looking individuals or parties, ignoring the destitute and impoverished.  Curiously, they have no actual interest in the treasure of their victims, only in their meat and the marrow in their bones.  Travelers are warned to let these abandoned troves lie, for the ghouls may still be nearby, and anyone picking up the loot may become their next target.  In an area where the rich gain their wealth by oppressing the lower classes, these ghouls might even gain a reputation as ghastly champions of the common folk - undead Robin Hoods.

Non-human undead

Sometimes using undead that aren't, or weren't, human can evoke horror and revulsion when players might be accustomed to the human variety.  Consider a horde of zombie halflings, or dwarf-wraiths who perished in a mining accident, still guarding the vein of ore.  How shocked might the players be to come upon an ogre, its back toward them, hunched over a meal, only to have it turn and reveal a face like one of the walkers from The Walking Dead, rotten teeth dripping with gore?  Would the gaze of a ghost-medusa still petrify, or would it take on new powers?  If ghouls hunt in packs, why not a pack of ghoul-wolves?  There are even things like undead dragons to be found in the pages of official rules and supplements.

The rules specifically mention making zombies and skeletons of dead things other than humans.  (See animate dead spell description.)  Other standard undead can be modified as well, perhaps adding a Hit Die or two to corporeal forms to represent the fact that their nerves and vital organs are no longer functional or vulnerable.  Incorporeal ones could either use the standard stats for the undead form (bulk makes little difference when you no longer have a body!) or the Hit Dice of its original form (maybe that represented its strength of spirit as well as physical endurance, and so still applies in ethereal undeath.)  Whether you allow bugbear wights or grizzly bear spectres might depend on the underpinnings and assumptions of your campaign setting, e.g. whether those creatures have "souls" that can live on after death, or whether their corpses can be animated.

The goal here is not to simply make bigger undead with more HD and higher damage potential, but to horrify the players with things outside their experience and expectations.