Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why I hate character customization options

If you've played D&D very long, and I assume anyone reading this blog has more than passing familiarity with the game, you probably know what I mean by character customization.  Both Classic and Advanced D&D spawned a seemingly endless series of supplemental materials brimming with new classes, sub-classes, kits, skills, weapon mastery, combat maneuvers, character backgrounds, etc, etc, etc.

I understand the desire to play a particular sort of character. A good deal of the fun of D&D is in fleshing out your character and making him or her unique.  Where I disagree is the notion that every variation on an archetype must be codified in game mechanics.

In the first place, all those extra classes, sub-classes, kits, and what-have-you rarely or never add anything truly unique to the character creation and development options.  A swashbuckler, an archer, a barbarian, and a soldier all fit squarely within the fighter archetype.  All can be realized in game simply by equipping and playing a fighter character in a fitting way. 

Given that, why the enthusiasm for mechanically distinguishing sub-classes?  My hypothesis is that it's a convenient excuse to hand out bonuses.  Far more often than not, customization options, in game mechanic terms, are little more than bundles of bonuses.  Attack or damage bonuses with certain weapons or in certain situations, defensive bonuses, hit point bonuses, saving throw bonuses, movement bonuses, bonus spells, bonus skills - you name it, there's probably a specialty class or an optional skill that grants it.

But why give players extra perks for playing their characters as they would have anyway?  If I want my fighter to be a barbarian, he's going to use an axe whether or not he gets +1 to hit with it.  If I want to be a swashbuckler, I'll deal with the disadvantages of light armor and play up the advantages, rather than demand an AC bonus while lightly armored.  I don't need bonus spells to have my magic-user learn and memorize fire spells to play a fire mage, nor do I need special powers to play a cleric as a witch hunter or a scholarly monk. 

True, you may say, it's possible to differentiate characters that way, but what's wrong with distinguishing them with special bonuses?  Shouldn't a professional archer be a better shot with a bow than a plain old fighter?  I have two answers to those objections.  Firstly, it's a step down the road toward what I might call combat inflation.  By name level, if not before, a fighter is already able to hit pretty much any AC more often than not, especially if he's got a strength bonus and a magic weapon.  That +1 bonus may seem small by itself, but they add up, especially if you allow multiple modes of customization to stack.  Add ability score adjustments to the mix, and you're looking at a character that's hitting a lot more often than the baseline for someone of his class and level. The inevitable breakdown in the rules that creeps in at high levels is brought a step nearer.

Secondly, by asserting that an archer should be better at archery than a vanilla fighting man, we're moving the game away from a class and level-based system and toward a skill-based one.  Skill-based games are fine if that's what you like, but bolting it onto the class and level system creates some problems and redundancies.  In the class and level system, a character's competency in all areas is represented more abstractly.  Level advancement models the character's increasing skill generally, implicitly encompassing skill with all weapons and techniques he can employ.  A skill-based system attempts a more granular approach; instead of a general aggregate of skills, it aims at tracking each individual skill separately.

It's not unrealistic to suppose that a fighter might train more intensively with a bow, and less with other weapons, but bolting on elements of a skill system to a class and level system doesn't model this very well.  The archery specialist gets his bonus with bows stacked on top of his overall skill growth represented by his level - he gets to double-dip, as it were.  He has an advantage with his bow, and he can use every other weapon allowed him with all the usual proficiency of his class and level.  Meanwhile, the generalist fighter gains nothing for his choice not to specialize.  He's worse than the archer with bows, and no better with sword, spear, mace, or axe.  The same holds true for situational bonuses - a cavalier sub-class might have a bonus fighting from horseback, making him superior to a standard fighter when mounted, and no worse on foot.

One might be tempted to solve this double-dip syndrome by imposing a penalty on non-specialty activities.  Consider, though, how often a character in your game is forced to use a weapon other than his weapon of choice.  Not very?  Then a penalty to other weapons really doesn't balance out a bonus with a preferred weapon.  As noted above, you're just granting a bonus for using the weapon the player would already choose, and penalizing others that won't be used anyway.  The logical result is for everyone to play some sort of specialist, everyone gets a bonus, and the baseline level of ability gets bumped a step toward that inevitable breaking point.

All of this is not to say that I necessarily think all attempts to expand options are bad, but the urge to codify every possible variation has consequences to game play that I don't think are very often given full consideration.  It may add a touch of realism and some extra bells and whistles, but at the expense of added complexity and bonus inflation that skews game balance.  Is it worth it?  Not to me, but of course, your mileage may vary.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Villain agency

Player agency has been a pretty hot topic in the old school gaming blogosphere.  In case you've missed all of the excellent treatments of the subject by more illustrious bloggers than I, the gist is that the players should be able to make real choices, and those choices should affect outcomes in the game.  This is opposed to the "railroad" style of game, where player choice is limited and exerts a limited effect on the events of the adventure, in order to achieve a desired story progression or outcome.  So far as I'm aware, though, nobody has devoted much attention to the other side of the coin - the agency of the players' adversaries in the adventure.  Villain agency is an important consideration in fostering player agency; after all, the players' choices are much less meaningful if the adventure is inevitably going to end in a pitched battle with the villain and his top henchmen in the Big Room of Climactic Combat.

Not every adventure will even have a villain in the usual sense of the word, of course, but the standard formula in those that do is usually a classic railroad from the villain's point of view.  The Big Bad commits some nefarious act, holes up in the last room at the bottom of the dungeon, and waits there for the party to come beat the stuffing out of him/her/it.  Aside from the inciting incident of the adventure, the villain's role is mostly passive, his destiny a preordained death at the hands of the heroic adventurers.  At most, the villain has pre-programmed acts to commit at various points to keep the plot moving ahead, leaving the DM to constrain the PCs so as not to render the villain's next scripted action a complete non-sequitur. 

In a true sandbox campaign, though, a villain should be able to react to the heroes' interference with his plans, either to thwart them or to try to stay one step ahead.  He should be able to use all his wits and every resource at his disposal to achieve his diabolical aims, or failing that, to escape and fight another day.  He should be able to roll with the punches and adapt to changing circumstances.  His defeat shouldn't be preordained any more than the PCs' victory should be.

What the villain chooses to do depends on several factors:  The villain's personality and goals, his current circumstances, the resources available to him, and most importantly, what he knows.  

First, know your villain.  Who is he?  What is his ultimate objective?  What are his tastes and preferences and preferred methods?  Is he subtle or straightforward, cruel or cloying, treacherous or honorable, cold and calculating or hot-tempered?  A brutal warlord, a scheming royal adviser, and an ancient dragon might react very differently to the same situation.

Next, figure out the channels through which the villain receives information and is apprised of his plan's progress, both in his lair and in the wider world beyond.  In order to take action and deploy his resources, a villain needs information.  While it's possible for a bad guy to be oblivious to the PCs until they're knocking down the door to his throne room on dungeon level 10, it isn't likely, and having it occur frequently strains credibility.  Any villain worth his salt should be keeping tabs on his plans, at least occasionally.  This could include regular reports from his lieutenants and flunkies, personal inspections of key areas either openly or by stealth, magical scrying, non-human spies such as birds or rats, or tripwires and other traps that trigger alarms. 

How long does it take him to become aware that a band of adventurers is snooping around his hideout and slaughtering his minions?  How much can he learn about them and what they're up to, and how quickly?  If he has informants in town, he might know before the party even sets out.  Any minions who survive an encounter with the heroes will likely rat them out, and may be able to give a detailed account of their appearance and abilities.  Even if the PCs leave no survivors, they're sending a message, albeit delayed and ambiguous, when the minions are missed.

How much the villain can discover about the PCs will certainly affect how he reacts to them.  Their mere presence in his lair could mean they're just another band of looters, an inconvenience but not a dire threat.  If he knows that they're investigating something for which he's responsible, the threat level goes up a notch, and if he learns that they're carrying the magical Macguffin that can ruin his plans, it's Defcon 1!

It probably goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that it's critically important to keep villain knowledge separate from DM knowledge.  If there's no way for the villain to know something, he shouldn't act on it, and if the players manage to keep information from him, or feed him misinformation, or use whatever of his faults and foibles they might deduce or discover against him, they should absolutely reap the rewards of clever strategy.  

What the villain does with what he knows depends on his personality as well as a few other factors.

What is he doing currently, and how important is it to his overall goal?  A villain whose current objective is to sacrifice the king's daughter at a particular evil shrine during a particular celestial alignment has very different options open to him than one who is patiently gathering an army of monsters and brigands in the remote hills of the kingdom.

What is his relationship to the people or creatures who share his lair?  Are they ideologically committed to his cause?  Does he secure their cooperation through bribery, fear, or blackmail?  Are they just neighbors, indifferent to him and his plans, or even unwitting innocents?  Or are they as hostile toward him as they are toward the PCs when they descend into the dungeon?

What resources are available to him?  Consider not only material and monetary resources, but his connections in the campaign world.  Is he on good terms with a tribe of ogres or the shadier elements in the local merchants' guild?  Does he have the king wrapped around his little finger, or the peasants of the kingdom duped into thinking he's a champion of the people?  Does he have some dirt on the captain of the guard to compel his cooperation?  How much time does he have?

Depending on the villain's temperament, resources, circumstances, and information, any number of options for action are open to him when heroes come crashing through his gates.  Here are just a few...

Mobilize the lair's defenses.

Try to buy off the party to leave him alone.

Try to dupe or mislead the party into furthering his plans.

Deploy minions to divert or distract the party, either to buy time or to lead them into an ambush or an area where they can be confined.

Step up the timetable of his plans.

Relocate to another area in the dungeon, possibly leaving a trap or ambush in the original location.

Fortify his location.

Lay some false clues and misinformation in the party's path.

Attempt to goad the party into rash action.

Prepare an escape plan.

Emerge to confront the intruders.

Mount an all-out search and destroy mission.

Send for reinforcements if time allows.

Bottom line:  If the villain can't or won't make choices in response to the players' choices, how far does their agency really extend?  At the end of the adventure, whether the villain succeeds, fails, or escapes, it's much more satisfying to feel that it happened because the party's plans and actions outmaneuvered the villain's best efforts (or vice versa,) not merely because their characters' combat stats were better than his.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


D&D is sometimes distilled to a formula of fight monster, take treasure.  It's oversimplified, certainly.  There's much more to the game than that (or at least there ought to be!) but you'd be hard-pressed to find a D&D campaign in which that trope is completely absent.  It raises an interesting question:  Just what are all those creatures doing walking around with pockets full of gold and silver coins, or holed up with piles of them?  Where do they get them and what do they do with them?

Some unintelligent monsters might be like magpies, hoarding "shinies" both valuable and worthless; others might just accumulate odd bits of incidental loot carried by their victims, left forgotten in the piles of bones.  For dragons, it's an obsession, pure and simple, with no practical purpose.

But what about the evil humanoids - orcs, goblins, bugbears, ogres, and their ilk?  They're not mindless hoarders, nor incidental collectors.  I've never seen them portrayed as obsessive or compulsive about treasure, as dragons often are.  They're not great appreciators of the beauty of precious metals like dwarves and gnomes.  They can't eat gold and silver, nor make anything of practical use out of them.  No, humanity's brutish fantasy cousins value coins for the exact same reason that humans do: they can be exchanged for stuff.

The most common assumption, I think, is that orcs and goblins live by plunder.  In the most simplistic model, they raid for coins, gems, and jewelry.  In the slightly more realistic one, they take food, cloth, metal goods, ale and wine, slaves, livestock, and whatever else they can lay their filthy hands on.  The truth, though, is that orc does not live by raid alone. 

Raiding is a pretty dodgy business.  One week you might get a herd of sheep, the next a load of iron pots or a shipment of linen or a dozen captured caravan guards.  If the village nearest your lair is known for growing potatoes, that's probably what you'll get most of the time, even if you really need a good stiff drink or some new pants because your old ones are so full of holes they barely cover your orc-junk any more.  What's a humanoid to do?  Trade!  Exchange what you have for what you want.  Barter works, but coin opens up a lot more possibilities.

While settled humans and demihumans are a lot more industrious, and have a much greater variety of useful stuff to trade, they're not exactly open to it.  Respectable people don't do business with monsters.  An orc can't just walk into the local tavern and order a shot, nor visit the village mercantile for a bag of wheat and some new hobnailed boots.  It turns out, though, that human and demihuman bandits and brigands make excellent middlemen.  Other than being a bit rough and grubby, there's little about the average highwayman to arouse a merchant's suspicions, at least not enough to make him turn away perfectly good coin, and the highwayman has few scruples about trafficking with the orcs who raided the very same village the week before.  Such people might well be willing to sell their excess food, clothing, and weapons to the orcs in exchange for coin, or buy the wheat the orcs have stolen and cart it to the next village, pose as farmers or merchants, and sell it.  It's not only possible, but likely, that the local orc and goblin tribes have ties with the local criminal enterprises.  If there's an area of your campaign world where slavery is an accepted practice, they almost certainly do a brisk business with human slavers too - even (maybe especially) if the slave-holding nation is some distance away. 

Trade between the various tribes would be common and frequent, too.  The hobgoblins that live near the dwarf stronghold might jealously bar the lowland orcs from raiding there, but they'll gladly trade dwarven steel for purloined mutton.  Goblins who find themselves in possession of a surplus of tanned hides might negotiate an exchange with the forest kobolds who have a ton of squirrel meat.  If the kobolds don't need hides, they'll probably take coins, which they can turn around and use to buy spears from the gnolls. 

Such trade arrangements might be stable long-term arrangements, but could just as easily be quite tenuous and volatile.  If a band of brigands moves into the area and offers the bugbears a better deal on stolen food than the orcs, the bugbears might turn on the orcs, and the orcs might launch a turf war against the brigands to protect their niche.  Weaker tribes might well be the biggest wheeler-dealers of the local monster populations - if they can make themselves useful or even indispensable, they have less to worry about from the stronger tribes, and might even gain their protection.  Those kobolds might look like easy pickings, but the bugbears don't want to have to hunt squirrels for themselves, so don't mess!  In the human world, describing competition as cutthroat is just a metaphor, but among the humanoids, it can be a deadly reality.

If you spend a little effort outlining the trade and diplomatic relationships of the various humanoid clans and tribes and their shady human partners, you won't be caught guessing about the repercussions when your players wipe out that cave full of orcs.  You'll have a good idea who's going to be angry and seek revenge, who's going to be in dire straits if they don't find a new source of weapons, and who'd like to shake the PCs' hands for eliminating a rival.  All it takes is a little applied orconomics. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spell flavor: Magic Missile

Tired of boring old point-and-shoot magic missiles?  Test-fire one of these hot new variants today!  All guaranteed to function just like the book version, but with a style all their own.

The Magic Whip:  A whip of glowing orange magic appears in the caster's hand and may be lashed at the chosen target.  When the caster attains high enough levels to get multiple missiles, the whip gains additional "tails" which can strike together or independently at the caster's whim.

Orbiting Doom:  The spell conjures the appropriate number of egg-sized glowing orbs, which circle the magic-user until deployed, when they go slinging off toward their targets.

Spitfire:  The magic-user literally spits out the missiles from his or her mouth.  (That is one magic loogie!)

The Juggler:  The magic-user juggles the glowing missiles before flinging them at their targets.  A lot more impressive with more than one missile.

Thyatian Candle:  Tiny crackling missiles streak toward targets and burst into spectacular blooms of light on impact.

Eye Beams:  The caster's eyes glow and emit missiles.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Magical magic III - Arms and armor

Magic weapons - the stuff of legend, or the stuff of min/max munchkinism?  It all depends on how you use it and portray them in the game. 

There are two basic factors I can think of that would influence a player to choose for his character to use a particular weapon:
1) Effectiveness in combat.  A 1d8 weapon is better than a 1d6; a +2 is better than a +1. 
2) Because, in a role playing aesthetic sense, it's cool.  It complements or expands his or her conception of the character, adds flavor and flair, and connects the character to the campaign world.

The first is built right into the D&D game, and in the absence of deliberate emphasis on the second, is probably going to be the criterion to which most players default.  If that's how you enjoy playing the game, nothing else need be done.  The truth of the matter is that combat stats are always going to factor into weapon choice.  If you want them to be less of a factor, you just need to introduce some other factors that a player will have to weigh against the power of the attack bonus.

Two primary non-game mechanic ways to add color to weapons come to mind:  physical description and backstory.

What does the weapon look like?  Is it plain or ornate?  Is it made of typical or exotic materials?  Is it engraved or inlaid with designs or runes?  Is it adorned with precious stones, feathers, shark's teeth?  Is there a motif or theme to it?  A google image search returns pages and pages of fantasy swords, maces, axes, daggers, or whatever other weapon you care to see, if you're in need of inspiration.  If your players are fond of visual aides, print them off and paste them to 3x5 cards to hand out when the party finds the weapon.  (If you're of a Lawful persuasion, you may want to stick to images labeled for re-use, but hey, I'm not here to judge.)

Who made it?  For whom was it made?  Was it made for a specific purpose?  Where and how long ago?  Who has owned it and what has happened to it since then?  What notable deeds have been accomplished with it?  Does it have a name?

Ideally, both of those facets should be linked together, and possibly linked with the basic weapon stats and powers as well.  You can use any one of them as a starting point.

A few examples:

A sword+1 of charming commissioned by a dashing, romantic swashbuckler.  A slender elegant weapon with engraved thorny vines wrapping around the hilt and running the length of the blade.  In the pommel is a large ruby cut to resemble a rose blossom. 

A mace+1, +3 vs. magic users, crafted by a church hierarch for a famous witch hunter.  The haft is of plain, polished white oak with a sacred verse condemning the blasphemies of arcane magic carved along its length; the head is an elongated ball of cold-wrought iron plated in silver and engraved with runes of power.

A dagger+2 of holding commissioned by a master thief to assist her in daring robberies.  The thin, straight blade is made of dull, non-reflective steel.  The hilt is wrapped in fine wire in the pattern of a spider's web, with a round onyx set in the pommel.

A battle axe +2 made for a cruel warlord.  A wickedly sharp crescent shaped blade of gleaming steel with ornate inlays of black metal depicting demonic fanged faces, topped with a long spike.  The haft is of blackened ironwood.

It's not difficult to imagine players choosing or eschewing each of these weapons on the basis of its appearance and whether or not it harmonizes with the player's concept of his character.  A brooding barbarian might despise the rose sword, while a noble knight might be reluctant to take up the warlord's axe. 

It's even conceivable that players might become attached to a weapon that's become part of a character's signature style, and won't want to part with it even for a statistically superior one.

But wait, there's more!  What if you never told players exactly what the combat bonuses of their weapons were?  Just keep a record in your own notes, and apply them as needed.  Surely that would tilt the balance of coolness vs. combat stats even further in the direction of the former. 

Of course, you need to tell your player something about what effect his sword is having, which brings up another facet of description.  Unfortunately, as far as I know, no rule book has ever really explained how magical arms and armor work in-world.  They give bonuses to hit and damage or to armor class, but those pluses are completely disassociated from whatever in-game effects actually produce them.  You'll need to have an in-world explanation of how they work, so you'll have something to describe to players without simply reciting numbers.  Even if keeping weapon stats secret from your players isn't your style, I think being able to articulate what's actually happening when Cedric the fighter swings his enchanted sword at the dragon adds to the experience.  Here are a few ideas that come to mind.

1)  The weapon augments and synergizes with the combat skill of the wielder.  Perhaps over years of being used by heroes of legendary skill, their combat techniques imprint upon the weapon.  A new user finds himself moving more smoothly in combat, and reflexively using maneuvers he hadn't previously mastered, as if the weapon itself were guiding his hand.  (This way has some awesome potential in what it implies about really powerful weapons.  A sword+5 may very well have been used by not one, but several of the most renowned heroes or villains in the campaign world's history through the ages.  Perhaps a non-magical weapon could even spontaneously become enchanted in this way.)

2)  The weapon or armor may be unnaturally hard and durable, able to hold a keener edge or point (blades or piercing weapons,) pound through defenses (blunt weapons,) or resist those things (armor) better than those made of ordinary materials. 

3)  The weapon might discharge pure magical energy, similar to that of a magic missile, into the target on contact, breaking through defenses and causing more harm. 

4)  The weapon may be fortified with some substance that's anathema to a specific creature or class of creatures, like holy water for undead or wolfsbane for lycanthropes. 

Of course, there doesn't have to be one way that all magic weapons in the campaign work.  Some might be 1's, some 2's, some 3's, or something else entirely.  The exact method is part of the flavor of a particular weapon.

And that's it for magical armaments.  I didn't see much reason to rehash scarcity here, and I think I'll save the topic of applying conditions and costs to weapons for another post. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Making magic magical, part deux: Spells

Spells are probably the trickiest facet of restoring some magic to the magic system.  You can't very well keep the game mechanics of spells secret from players running magic-users and clerics.  I think it's still possible at least to take the spotlight off of them, though, and re-center the focus on magic rather than numbers.  Here are my thoughts on applying yesterday's points to spell casting for PCs and NPCs.

Scarcity:  The most obvious first step is to make NPC spell casters, particularly high level ones, uncommon and difficult to access.  Powerful spell casters have their own interests and agendas to attend to, and that shouldn't include being a spell vending machine to every peasant or wandering hooligan with coin to spend.  Clerics may be subject to rigorous strictures regarding when and for whom they perform miracles, their magic reserved for uses that advance the goals of the faith.  High level wizards go to great lengths to avoid distractions from their arcane research.  In short, if the PCs aren't high enough level to cast a particular spell themselves, getting someone else to do it should require a lot of persuasion and a sizable favor, at minimum.

Another issue to address under the scarcity heading is player character access to spells.  PC magic-users will probably find spell scrolls among the treasure hoards, and have opportunities to capture the spell books of defeated enemy mages.  In the past I've simply allowed PCs to scribe spells found in books and scrolls into their own books, but this can quickly lead to every character knowing every spell, and whatever spells you give to magic-using opponents will wind up in the party's arsenal in short order.  Sure, you can handcuff yourself by strictly limiting spell casting enemies, or come up with endless excuses as to why the defeated wizard's spell book can't be found or self-destructs and have your players feel cheated, but neither of those are much fun.

So, from now on, having a scroll or spell only assists a caster in researching the spell.  Spells in a spell book are not a straightforward list of the words to be spoken in casting, but rather notes, scribbled equations, diagrams, bits of magical theory, mnemonic devices that help a particular wizard remember things, and so on.  In order to scribe the spell into his own book, a PC spell caster must really understand the nuts and bolts of it and build his own version of it.  A spell book containing the spell will count as the library requirement as explained in the Spell Research sections of the rules.  The formula from the Rules Cyclopedia is:  (Caster's level + casters Intelligence) x2 - spell level x3 = Percentage chance of success; cost 1,000 gp per spell level, requires one week plus one day per spell level.

Having a book with the actual spell, rather than just tomes of general magic theory, might grant a bonus, but the point is that the character will still have to spend the money, put in the time, and roll the dice to see if he succeeds in understanding the spell well enough to add it to his repertoire.

If a spell is a recipe, a spell scroll is a cake mix - one shot, ready to use.  It doesn't in and of itself convey anything about the recipe.  The caster must break it down and analyze it to learn that, which consumes the scroll in the process.  I might allow a bonus to the chance to learn the spell from a scroll, since if it fails, the source material is gone and there's no second chance.

PCs in the same party may trade spells among themselves with the same nonchalance that players borrow books from each other.  If you want to curtail that practice, apply the same rules, but add the teacher's level to the chance of success, and halve the money cost.  You still have to pay for reagents, after all.

Description:  Here's where magic can really come alive.  Emphasize how the spell looks, sounds, feels (smells, tastes?) to the characters, rather than the mechanical effect it has on them.  What does it feel like to be hit by a magic missile?  Is it painful like being burned, shocked, stabbed, bludgeoned?  Does it sting like a whip or cause a numbing sensation?  Does it lacerate, bruise, or leave no marks at all?

"A tiny, twirling ring of gold sparks shoots from the wizard's fingertips, striking you with a sharp, stinging CRACK! You take five points of damage, as a momentary wave of nausea sweeps through you," is probably going to unnerve a player more than, "He casts a magic missile at you.  Take five points of damage."

This could be especially fun with spells that have no obvious visual components.  ESP might give the target (or the caster!) a brief headache.  Dispel magic might sound like a bubble popping, Protection from Evil could give a little surge of euphoria.  Skin prickling, chills, a flush of heat, the scent of ozone or of hot metal or fresh-cut grass, an itch, a flash of emotion, whatever seems to go with the spell in your mind.  Secondary sensory effects don't have to be limited to caster and target.  Those nearby when the spell is cast might feel something as well. (This might be a fun way to warn/scare the party when a particularly dreaded spell is being cast, and really make that next initiative roll important to them!)

Keep game mechanics away from players:  Tell the players how the spells affecting them make them feel, and apply the mechanical effects behind the DM screen.  You don't have to tell the player that the Blight spell gives him -1 to hit, just tell him that he feels unnerved or weakened or whatever and mentally subtract it from his rolls.  It isn't possible with every spell, but a good many of them can be handled this way.  I'm going to do this even when it's a spell cast by an ally, who knows the pluses and minuses of it, simply to shift the focus as much as possible.

Secret notes are a great way to keep knowledge from the rest of the table while sharing it with the player who needs to know.  If the evil priest casts Hold Person on someone's character, slip her a note requesting a saving throw, and her compatriots won't know for sure why her fighter just toppled and lies motionless on the ground with a blank, frozen stare.  Is she dead, unconscious, poisoned, paralyzed, or something else?  Should they check on her now and try to help her, fight on and hope she recovers when the battle is over, or is she beyond help already?  What should they prepare their defenses against to keep from sharing her fate in the next round?  Keep as much of the unknown as you can, well...unknown.  Almost needless to say, secret notes really lend themselves well to charm spells!

Variation:  The obvious one here is to arm your NPCs with spells to which the player characters don't (yet) have access.  Other editions of the game are fertile sources.  The Dragonsfoot forums and the  Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets blog have lots of cool stuff too. 

The less obvious (and potentially more fun!) way is to give NPCs custom re-fluffed variations of familiar spells.  Brilliant blue or pink fireballs, magic missiles that look like spinning saw blades of white light or nearly invisible distortions in the air like a ripple of heat?  Sure!  Does that wizard's Web spell come out as a random mass of sticky strands, or like the orderly web of an orb spider?  Does his Shield make an invisible barrier, or does it conjure a floating knight's shield that parries attacks?  A cleric's Hold Person might have a visual component, perhaps a crackle of electricity that zaps the target like a taser, or a silvery ethereal rope that wraps it from head to toe.  Remember how many different Water Breathing effects the Tri-Wizard Tournament contestants used in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?  When you don't call the spell by its rulebook name, "re-skinning" the same mechanical effect with a different description can make it seem completely unfamiliar and mysterious. 

Conditions:  Alright, this one is a bit tough to apply to spells, but it can be done occasionally.  Magic zones in the dungeon or wilderness where spells don't function quite as they should are one possibility.  Modifying spell descriptions to include conditions is another, though it requires some thought and work.  Making spells have unusual effects under very specific conditions that the players might discover by accident or rumor are still another.  Maybe rust monsters are vulnerable to Heat Metal, or large masses of metal within 50 feet will draw off a Lightning Bolt just like a lightning rod and zap anyone within 5 feet of it, rather than the intended targets.  Perhaps there's a certain type of mold that causes magic missiles cast nearby to splinter into tiny missiles that do 1 point of damage each.  There could be some magical ore that makes detection spells go haywire.  What if you CAN charm an undead creature, but only when a full moon occurs on the anniversary of its death?  Is there a danger of reflection when casting spells from air at a target under water or vice versa?

This is getting overly long, so I'll wrap it up here.  Next up, Magical Magic III, Arms and Armor.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Making magic magical

Back in January, I came across this post on B/X Blackrazor, in which JB rants about the lack of magic in D&D.  He's pretty hard on this game we love, but he's absolutely right.  Magic in D&D is reduced to a predictable bundle of statistical abstractions, with all the mystique and wonder distilled out of them.  Damage, saving throws, bonuses, penalties.  Yawn.

To some extent, this is just the nature of the beast.  You have to have a framework of rules to work with, or you're left with magic being purely arbitrary, and I think that violates a lot of the fundamental assumptions about what D&D is and why people enjoy playing it.  But while statistics for spells, magic items, and magical abilities may be inescapable within the framework of the game, that doesn't mean that those things need to be front and center in the players' minds.  I have in mind a few ideas to try out in my own game to remove the rules-mongering from center stage, and thus hopefully restore a bit of the wonder, or at least prevent my newer players from becoming jaded.  I plan on elaborating these points with regards to spells, arms and armor, magic items, and magical monsters in a series of upcoming posts, but here they are in brief and generic form: 

Scarcity.  If you want magic to be special, it can't be readily available.  Campaigns in which magic is everywhere usually end up feeling like it's an analog for technology, and succeed in making it as mundane as cell phones and airplanes and CAT scans to players.  "We have to travel 500 miles to the Mountain of Shadows?  Let's rent a magic carpet!"  "Bob's dead?  No problem; I have 5,000 gold pieces to go get him raised."  "Another +1 sword?  I go pawn it." 

Description, not labels:  Nothing strips away the mystique of a magical item or effect quite like referring to it by a generic name.  Oh, look, a suit of plate mail +2!  And that enemy wizard just cast magic missile at us. 
From now on, I'm never going to refer to magic by its rulebook name if I can help it.  Instead, I'm going to provide descriptions only.  I hope this induces my players to react to and interact with the described effect of the magic, rather than its statistical effect.

Keep game mechanics away from the players:  Accordingly, I'm only going to refer to mechanical effects when absolutely necessary, such as telling players how much damage their characters take and when to roll a saving throw.  Bonuses and penalties to attacks and other actions will be applied behind the scenes, while giving them only a verbal, rather than mathematical description of the effect.  Instead of, "You're under a Blight spell, -1 penalty to hit!" it'll be something along the lines of, "You suddenly feel shaky and uncertain, your sword arm wavering as you draw it back to deliver a blow."  Let the players draw their own conclusions.

Variation:  Magic shouldn't appear in predictable forms with cookie-cutter effects.  Make every magic item unique in some way.  Devise a few non-standard spells for NPC casters to use.  Tweak the powers of monsters to foil player expectations.

Conditions:  Most basic D&D magic items and spells always work and have few or no costs to their use.  That makes them predictable.  Add some conditions to their use.  Does it only work for females, or during a new moon, or underground?  Add some costs or adverse effects to give would-be users pause.  Make the conditions and limitations logical.  Have in-world reasons why they work when and how they do.  Besides keeping the players guessing, it can add some excellent flavor to the campaign.

That's all for now.  Up next, Part Deux: Spells

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Playing the fool

Playing a character with low (or high) scores in Strength, Dexterity, and/or Constitution poses no great difficulties.  (Low scores may make things difficult for the character within the game, but as far as role playing by the player and adjudicating effects by the DM, it's pretty straightforward.)  Those physical abilities, and all the actions and effects relating to them, exist entirely within the game.  There's no overlap between the player's body and the character's.  

It's when we get into the abilities of the mind - Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma - that the potential for dissonance appears.  The boundary between the mind of the player and the imaginary mind of the character is ambiguous at best.  Where do you draw the line, and how do you make the mental ability scores of the character matter in play without sacrificing the agency of the player?

In the old Moldvay edition Basic set, there's a pretty famous example of character creation - a fighter by the name of Morgan Ironwolf.  Now, Morgan's ability scores aren't half bad overall, but she does suffer from two low ones: a 7 in Intelligence, and 8 Charisma.  Not the brightest flame in the candelabra, and a bit abrasive.  

Later on, Moldvay uses Morgan in a couple of narratives illustrating how the game is played.  The interesting thing here is that Morgan is clearly not played "stupid," nor does the DM ever tell her player, "Morgan isn't smart enough to come up with that."  The logical inference from this, and it's one with which I agree wholeheartedly, is not to limit the player's choices at all.  If the player can think of it, the character can too.  This isn't such a far-fetched way to handle things.  People who are overall not too bright do occasionally hit upon some pretty good ideas, and geniuses make some really silly errors.  Remember also that the character sees, hears, and feels much more in the setting than you're able to describe to the player and that the player is able to absorb and envision from your description.  The player may be smarter than the character, but he's acting on much less information than the character would have arrayed before him.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the fact that players have more time to figure things out than their characters do, and also aren't under the duress of a life-or-death situation, can be considered to balance things out between a player of average intelligence and his genius character.

How, then, do the scores affect the game at all?  If they don't, they become tempting "dump stats" if you allow any score-swapping or point exchanging during character creation, and even if you don't, they're useful only to classes that have them as prime requisites for the XP bonuses they confer.  Having players roll ability checks to see if their characters know or can do something is one possibility, but not one that I'd want to use.  As a player of a low-intelligence character, I'd find it immensely frustrating to be told I can't attempt what I want to attempt because the dice say my character could never think of it.  Conversely, it seems unfair to routinely reward a player with information unasked for simply because he rolls under 18 on d20.  Fortunately, there are ways to simulate the character's mental abilities in-game without hamstringing player agency.

Intelligence:  By the rules, Intelligence affects a character's literacy and the number of languages known.  Enforcing these things can go a long way toward making Intelligence relevant to the game.  If a player has his low-intelligence PC look at a book, just say, "The squiggles on the page mean nothing to you, and there aren't any pictures," or, "You make out just enough to see that it seems to be a history of the realm, but there are too many big words for you to make much sense of it."  Remember, too, that illiterate PCs can't read scrolls, including ones like scrolls of protection that can be used by any class.  

When it comes to languages, limit the number of commonly used tongues to 4-10, including a couple human and demi-human languages and a few for monsters, and make sure the party encounters people and creatures who speak them fairly often.  Be sure to tell your players which languages are most common, and which are a bit more esoteric, and let them make informed decisions.  An intelligent character who chooses one bonus language from a list of 30, without knowing which of them he's likely to use, is getting a very rare advantage, at best.  One who chooses from a list of 6, knowing that they may often be useful, has a real edge over his average compatriot who only knows his native tongue.

Finally, role play it, even if the player doesn't.  NPCs should react according to their perceptions of the PC.  A very smart NPC might naturally tend to address his words to the PC whom he perceives as being close to his own intellectual caliber.  A moderately clever but egotistical or insecure NPC might secretly gravitate toward the average and slow members of the party to highlight his own brilliance and shun those who would eclipse him.  A halfwit might be in awe of a genius, or might just find him irritating.  The possibilities are endless.  Play them up, and make your NPCs a little more lifelike and memorable in the process.  You might even draw a reluctant role-player into taking a more active approach to portraying his character.

Wisdom:  By the rules, Wisdom affects saving throws vs. magical effects.  I'm considering expanding it to any other saving throw where common sense or intuition could play a role.  Pretty much anything that involves a split-second decision.  I see Wisdom, at least partly, as the character's subconscious, processing all the memories of his life's experiences and the subtle stimuli that are beneath his conscious notice.  It's that subconscious voice that's going to tell him whether it's better to flatten himself to the floor or duck behind his shield as that fireball hurtles at him.  It's his subconscious that's going to register the significance of the faint scraping noise a heartbeat before that axe trap swings out from the wall.  It's that uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach that might have him on guard just enough to look away in time when he steps around the corner right into the gaze of a medusa.  Wisdom also represents will power, which is the order of the day when resisting any sort of compulsion, magical or otherwise, that allows a saving throw.

Characters are constantly getting adjustments for actions involving their physical abilities.  Saving throws come into play far less often than attack and damage rolls and armor class.  I don't think it's overkill to make Wisdom adjustments apply to all or most saves, and makes the ability a little more relevant in the game.

Charisma:  Probably the most misunderstood and disregarded stat in all of role playing.  I admit that I seldom, if ever, remembered to apply the rules to which Charisma made a difference, back in the old days.  This is one ability that can be quite powerful when played by the book, though.  Consider that while Strength and Dexterity may affect the chances of each individual attack to hit and do damage, and Constitution exerts an influence over whether or not you'll survive a combat, Charisma can affect whether the combat occurs at all.  In Moldvay Basic, when a monster or NPC is encountered, a reaction is rolled on 2d6.  A roll of 3-5 is hostile; a 5 will be rolled 4 times in 36, about an 11% chance.  That means that, 11% of the time, a +1 bonus will make the difference between a hostile encounter and a neutral one.  A roll of 12 on the dice means the monster is friendly.  A mere +1 Charisma bonus triples the odds of that happening!  Over the long  haul, a party with a charismatic negotiator or two is likely to reach the climactic encounter of the adventure in better shape and with more resources than one without, simply by massaging those reaction rolls up a notch to avoid battle or even gain allies.

Of course, Charisma also affects the number of retainers a PC may have at a time, and their morale.  Retainer morale is checked at the conclusion of each adventure, and failing the roll means the NPC will not adventure with that party again.  A character with average Charisma gives the retainers a base morale score of 7.  That means there's roughly a 42% chance that at the end of the adventure, the retainer says, "See ya!" and whatever you've invested in his training and equipment heads out the door with him.  Having a 13-15 Charisma knocks that chance down to about 28%; at 16-17, 17%, and with an 18, it's a mere 8%. 

A final note on Charisma:  One of the strawman arguments I see put forth in favor of "roll" playing rather than role playing is that it's unfair to penalize an uncharismatic player by making him or her role play an encounter rather than simply roll a die against the character's Charisma or some social skill in a skill system.  Nonsense!  Never, or at least very seldom, should a player be allowed simply to say, "I talk to them," and roll a Charisma check to resolve the encounter.  The player should have to decide what to say, and say it in character.  It's up to the DM to interpret the player's words in light of the character's Charisma.  If the player is socially awkward, stammers and stutters, the DM should take the content of what he says, and imagine how it would sound if articulated by his 16 Charisma character.  Conversely, the smooth-talking player should expect to have his character's speech infused with shifty eyes, nervous tics, or a surly tone if he's playing a character with a score of 5. 

This rule of thumb can be applied to the other mental abilities as well.  A player who explains a concept to an NPC haltingly and in small words, while actually playing a character of 16 Intelligence, might be interpreted by the DM to have spoken eloquently, with proper use of precise language and terminology.  A brilliant player speaking for a crude barbarian with a score of 6 might likewise find the NPC reacting as if he had infused his statement with grunts and hand gestures when words fail him.  

Of course, if you have dedicated role players at your game table, you'll find them incorporating those ability scores into how they portray their characters all on their own.  The dull-witted fighter might speak in monosyllables or always favor the simplest course of action; the unwise thief might be headstrong or reckless; the socially inept mage might be taciturn or arrogant or gruff.  If your players aren't so enthusiastic about playing their roles strictly by their ability scores, don't worry about it, and definitely don't give in to the urge to penalize them for "bad" role playing because they're acting smarter or wiser or smoother than their scores might indicate, or worse, tell them, "Your character isn't smart enough to think of that." 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Average Joes

Once upon a time, long ago, I rolled up a character for a one-shot adventure with a group of friends of a son of a coworker of my mom's.  <insert Darth Vader/Dark Helmet joke here>  I rolled my character using whatever their house rules for rolling characters were, and decided he'd make a good thief.  "What's your Dex?" the DM asks.
It's a 16.  That seems pretty damn good to me.
 His comment:  "Ouch!" 

When I joined the 2nd Edition AD&D group, I rolled up a fighter with a Strength score of 17.  I had arranged his other scores, as the DM's system allowed, and put the next-highest score in Wisdom, because that's how I imagined the character I wanted to play.  No remarks this time, but every other fighter in the party had an 18 plus percentile strength, as well as superior Constitution and Dexterity, and my fighter's high Wisdom really didn't even out the odds much.  He wasn't bad at all in combat, but the others almost always outshone him.

Some editions of the game just dispense with the ritual of random rolls altogether, and give characters maximum scores in their prime requisites.  The implication is clear:  A character with anything less is inferior, if not outright hopeless.  Who would ever want to play someone who isn't absolutely awesome beyond the ken of mere mortals?

Well, I would, for one. 

Some of the most beloved - and dare I say, compelling and interesting - heroes of novels and films weren't superhuman.  Harry Potter didn't have 18 Intelligence.  William in A Knight's Tale wasn't lifting boulders over his head.  Bilbo was brave, and a pretty good aim with a thrown rock according to Tolkien, but I doubt anybody would read about him and think he had any higher than a 13 or 14 in Dexterity.  Frodo's greatest asset was his Wisdom; in the abilities for which his classic D&D class is known (Strength and Dexterity) he probably wouldn't have rated more than 10 or so.  I doubt even Aragorn had a single 18. 

My point is that Average Joes are cool.  Weaknesses are interesting.  I liked playing my lowly enlisted man in a party of knights.  In one of my games, he would have been exceptional without being a one-man world destroyer.  Among a group of supermen, he was an underdog, but that just meant he had something to prove, as well as a humble identity to take pride in and try to hold on to.  I don't even remember his name now, but I remember how I played him.

I think that the style of play that forces every character into the uppermost strata of the ability score scale just to be considered viable necessarily closes off the vast spectrum of tactical and role playing possibilities at the other end.  Low and average ability scores aren't inherently unplayable, if you don't design your campaign to make them that way.  Moreover, in a milieu where a low score is challenging rather than crippling, and an average score is, well, average, a high score actually becomes a valuable advantage, rather than a minimum requirement for survival.

I say, encourage your players to take up the challenge of the Average Joe.  Play a thief with a 9 Dexterity, or a wizard of middling intellect.  Embrace the philosophy that what sets player characters apart from the mass of zero-level NPCs is not their ability scores, but the courage and doggedness to take risks, face dangers, and hone their skills to advance in levels. 

Now I almost wish I was on the other side of the DM's screen, so I could take on the role of the naive but determined farm lad with a Strength of 10 who dons chain mail and hefts a spear in his quest to make a name for himself....I bet he makes it, too, if he ever gets the chance.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Picking the lock

DM:  The guard patrol disappears around the corner, leaving you alone with the massive iron-bound door behind which the princess is securely locked.

First level thief:  I quickly get out my tools and try to spring the lock! 

DM:  Roll your Open Locks skill.

Thief:  24. 

DM:  You're unable to open the lock.

Thief:  Ugh!  I SUCK!

It's no secret that until he lies, cheats, and steals his way to name level or so, a thief by the book is pretty lousy at his chosen profession.  It's so obvious that people have even remarked on how miraculous it would be for the average non-adventurer thief to ever eke out a living picking pockets or burglarizing shops and homes.  A first level thief is going to fail at his bread-and-butter abilities at least three times in four.  It's hard to imagine any in-game rationale for why anyone would choose such a life of larceny, when even mucking out stables is likely to be more lucrative over the long haul, not to mention much less likely to lead to the lockup or the gallows. 

In the dungeon, the thief's theoretically useful skills are long shots at best.  At low levels of play, they fail far more often than not, and when you fail, you fail.  There are no shades of success, no second chances.  If you roll poorly, that lock stays locked.  Period.

There are lots of proposed solutions out there, the most obvious being simply to augment the thief's percentages somehow, whether by granting bonuses for high dexterity, introducing "master lockpicks" and similar items, allowing a thief to specialize in an ability or two, or starting player characters above first level.  This strikes me as an a crude patch that mitigates a broken mechanic somewhat, but really doesn't address its underlying problems.         

Others suggest applying situational bonuses or penalties.  For example, at low levels, the thief encounters a lot of poor quality locks that give a bonus to the skill roll.  Besides failing to address the underlying problem, it seems to me that this renders the improvements that come with level advancement meaningless.  If a thief at low level is going to be picking shoddy locks, at mid-level average locks, and at high level masterwork locks, such that his adjusted chance is pretty much the same, what's the point?  You might as well just assign him a percentage somewhere in the mid-level range regardless of his level, and dispense with all the lock quality tomfoolery.

JB, of the excellent B/X Blackrazor blog, takes the radical route, and allows thieves to succeed at their abilities automatically  (with some exceptions and caveats.)  I'm not entirely enamored with this, but it's at least an intriguing alternative.  It certainly would make the player of the thief feel that his character is contributing to the party's success, and in the unique way the class was intended to contribute, rather than as a lightly armored third rate combatant.  What I don't like about it is that it takes away much of the point of leveling up.  The thief improves as a combatant, but not as a thief.  For the most part, he's already as good as he's going to get in that department.

Nonetheless, I like the basic idea that given enough time, a thief is almost certain to succeed - the key phrase being, "given enough time."  I want to play up the time management angle suggested by JB a little bit more.  Instead of a flat one turn to pick a lock, how about rolling against the thief's Open Locks percentage, with the level of success or failure determining how long it takes him to do the job?  Here's a tentative idea of how that might work:

Roll succeeds, half of listed percentage or less:  1d6 rounds.
Roll succeeds, more than half of listed percentage:  1d6 minutes
Roll fails by 10 points or fewer:  1 turn
Roll fails by 11-40 points:  1d4 turns
Roll fails by 41-80 points:  2d4 turns
Roll fails by 81+ points: 1d4 hours
Roll plus penalties exceeds 100%:  Character is unable to open the lock, but may try again after gaining a level

Time taken beyond a few rounds is assumed to involve finding the right pick for the job, probing and studying the mechanism of the lock, false starts and failed attempts, and similar fiddling about.

Now the thief's skill level, and the roll against it, actually mean something, without there having to be a large chance of total failure.  A more skilled thief has a better chance of picking the lock quickly and cleanly, but even a novice can succeed if he has time to devote to the task.  In adventures with a time-sensitive goal, or where the DM uses wandering monster checks, this can have some serious consequences that add a lot more drama to the adventure than a simple pass/fail check.  The player of the thief and his party have choices to make.  Is whatever's in that chest worth staying in one place for an hour while the plans of the evil cult proceed apace?  How can they buy the thief some more time to get that door open so they can escape?  Failure becomes a choice, a reaction by the players to the situation at hand, not an inescapable result forced upon them by an unlucky roll of the dice, but the dice and the character's skill are still relevant.

I'm not sure yet how, or if, a similar approach can be applied to the other thief skills, but lock picking is one of the most important roles of thieves in my game, and I really like the potential of this system of qualified success instead of total success or total failure.  I'll definitely be giving it some more thought, but in the mean time... 

DM:  The guard patrol disappears around the corner, leaving you alone with the massive iron-bound door behind which the princess is securely locked.

First level thief:  I quickly get out my tools and try to spring the lock! 

DM:  Roll your Open Locks skill.

Thief:  24.

DM:  You start probing the lock mechanism, but it's a bit tricky, and the pressure of the situation isn't doing anything for the steadiness of your hand.  You almost have it, but your probe slips and the tumbler falls back into place!  You feel so close to figuring out the trick of it, but you hear faint footsteps from the western corridor...What do you want to do?

Thief:  Ugh!  I keep trying!  Just how close are those footsteps, anyway?

The adventure begins!

Back in the long ago days of my teenage years - so long ago as to fall in a bygone millennium - I discovered a red box containing a couple of booklets and a handful of bizarre plastic dice.  One of my aunts had stumbled upon it, I think, at a garage sale perhaps, and thought that some of us might be interested in it.  For whatever reason, it never made it from her hands directly to ours, but ended up forgotten on my grandmother's coffee table, until I happened upon it, and intrigued by the picture of the scene of dungeon mayhem on the cover, opened it up.
That copy of the Tom Moldvay-edited D&D basic set launched a DMing career that lasted into my twenties, as I guided my younger siblings and cousins through dungeon crawls, wilderness expeditions, and tavern brawls, from the first fumbling forays in the Caves of Chaos to the Isle of Dread and on into the wider Known World and beyond. 
I never lost interest in the game, not really, but my players moved on, and I was a DM without a group - still buying and reading the sourcebooks every time I had some money to spare, still hatching epic adventures in my head, all dressed up and nowhere to go.  For a while in the early 2000s I fell in with another group, as a player this time, playing 2nd edition AD&D - fun while it lasted, but ultimately, for a variety of reasons, not a good long-term fit for me, and I reluctantly bow out.  Several years pass with hardly a thought of D&D, as such; my books and dice are packed away in boxes, and the void is filled with fantasy novels and computer RPGs.
Now, suddenly, with some interest from one of my brothers and his family, I find myself back in the game.  And what timing!  It's as if I'm a DM version of Rip van Winkle, but instead of awakening to find everything changed, I step right into a resurgence of old school gaming, a whole internet full of forums and blogs, each linking to others like the rooms in some vast dungeon waiting to be explored. 
It's amazing how many people are out there who have thought so long and deeply about this peculiar hobby, and how full of brilliant ideas they are. 
I've found it impossible to read them and not have a few ideas of my own, and at last I felt inspired and motivated to put some of them down in words, to add my own little trove to the ever-growing megadungeon that is the online presence of the "old school revolution."  If you're reading this, you've stumbled upon the secret door that opens into my corner of this vast complex, and I leave all assessments of the brilliance of my ideas, or lack thereof, to your faculties of judgment. 
Welcome to the Dragon's Flagon, fellow traveler!