Saturday, April 28, 2012

Where Gygax meets Darwin

Have you ever wondered, as you're running a world full of fantastic creatures, how all those mythical and imaginary beasts came to be?  I'm not talking about how the game authors thought of them or what inspired them, but of their origins within the context of the game world.  Sure, some of them might be the products of a mad wizard's experiments, but that's a stock answer overused to the point of cliche. 

My question is, why couldn't some or most of the purely imaginary D&D menagerie (at least the ones that are truly living, not constructs or undead) have evolved naturally within the game world?  In the real world, convergent evolution has produced mammals (and in the past, reptiles) that look like fish, and mammals (and in the past, reptiles) that can fly like birds.  There are creatures that can can generate electricity as a defensive weapon, animals with built-in body armor, prehensile noses, color-changing skin, bioluminescence, crazy egg-laying mammals with bird-like beaks...

(I'm looking at YOU, Mr. Owlbear, fictitious-but-entirely-plausible cousin of the duckbill platypus!)

If the real world can produce an electric eel, why couldn't a world in which magic is every bit as real as electricity produce a basilisk or a blink dog without the intervention of a god or wizard?  If the real world can produce creatures that secrete paralytic chemicals, in a world where alchemy is real, why not one that secretes a substance that corrodes metal? 

Even the mythical hybrids like griffons, hippogriffs, and manticores could be the products of fantastic evolution, if we take them a little less literally, i.e. a griffon has parts that resemble those of an eagle and a lion, rather than literally being half eagle and half lion.  Oddly enough, one thing our real world evolutionary processes never seemed to produce is a vertebrate with more than four limbs, but I don't know of any sound scientific reason why such a thing couldn't have happened in a parallel reality.  Could all those critters with four legs and wings be members of the same fantasy classification?  Maybe dragons and griffons share a common ancestor. 

Is a stirge a mammal or a bird or something else?  Are lizard men descended from some species of dinosaur, or from a true lizard?  Are they related to troglodytes?  Is the four-limbed wyvern akin even distantly to the six-limbed dragon?  All of this probably has little or no relevance to the game itself, unless you have players who make it a point to learn the primeval origins of fantasy species, but it's fun to think about. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stealth and surprise

In a way, this post is a continuation of my ponderings on the skills of the thief class, but it necessarily encompasses the much broader topic of surprise in encounters too. 

Let us stipulate that the thief class does not have a monopoly on stealth.  We've all amused ourselves at some time or other by sneaking up behind a friend or a sibling and then startling the holy bejeebus out of him or her, and most of us have not trained as thieves.  Anyone can try to move quietly, and anyone can hide by ducking behind a curtain or a tree or around a corner.  Moving with absolute silence and hiding in nothing more substantive than shadows are the province of the thief, and to some extent, the halfling, class.  (Edit:  Here's where this brilliantly simple idea came from.  Thanks, Brendan.)

That leaves us with the questions of the game effects of moving quietly, moving silently, hiding, and hiding in shadows, and how they relate to surprise in encounters. 

According to the Basic Set rules (either Moldvay or Mentzer edition,) each side in an encounter has a 2 in 6 chance of being surprised.  There are all sorts of circumstances that could affect the chances of someone being surprised, including how vigilant or distracted he is, how stealthy the opposition is, and how much ambient noise there is in the location that would not alarm the listener but would mask warning sounds.  When some of those factors are unknown, the dice roll can be considered oracular with regard to the side whose precise current actions and circumstances are unknown.  If the roll indicates the monsters were surprised, perhaps they were arguing amongst themselves, intent upon a game of dice, or devouring a recent kill.  If the characters are surprised, it might mean that the monsters were taking great pains to be quiet.  Quite often in published adventures, some of these factors are made explicit, and explicit adjustments are made - the orcs are noted to be rip-roaring drunk and automatically surprised, or the kobolds have set an ambush and surprise on a roll of 1-4 instead of 1-2, or the goblin guards are watching the only entrance and surprised only on a 1.  There's nothing wrong with this, but if you don't care to figure out these details for every encounter, the usual 1 or 2 on 1d6 mechanic can reasonably be considered to subsume all those possibilities. 

With regard to the player characters' party, the 2 in 6 chance to surprise and to be surprised represents a typical party, including a couple of fighters in clunky metal armor, exercising typical caution and typical vigilance for a foray into dangerous environs.  If the players specify that their characters are taking greater pains to be stealthy or vigilant, it may warrant some adjustments.

In many ways, I think the official rules leave a lot to be desired when it comes to surprise and stealth and the relationship between the two.  What follows are my own interpretations of the rules and, where needed, house rules to supplement them.

Moving normally is the default assumption for both characters and monsters, with the default odds of surprise.  Characters or creatures who are alert and listening, according to the rules for making Hear Noise checks, will detect the noise from the party automatically, and will probably be surprised only in exceptional circumstances (e.g. invisible opponent.)

Moving quietly for a non-thief should require some sort of check.  Let's keep it simple and make it a d6 check, successful on a 1-3.  Modify it by the character's Dexterity adjustment to individual initiative.  A penalty should apply to characters in metal armor - say, +2.  Movement rate is reduced by half while moving quietly.  Thieves succeed automatically, and characters or monsters standing or sitting still and not talking are also considered to be automatically quiet.  Characters or creatures who are alert and listening will detect the noise from those moving quietly with a standard Hear Noise roll (1 on 1d6 for human, 1 or 2 for demihuman or monster, Hear Noise percentage for thieves) and are unlikely to be surprised.  Moving quietly and undetected increases the chance of surprising creatures encountered by 1, i.e. to a 1-3 on 1d6. 

 Moving silently can only be done by a thief or other character with the thief's Move Silently skill.  A thief can automatically move quietly whenever he or she chooses, and with no penalty to movement.  A thief may also attempt to move with utter silence, making no sound discernible by human hearing.  Listening for noise is useless.  Chance of surprising encountered creatures is 1-3 on 1d6.  A thief who fails to move silently is still moving quietly, with all the benefits described above.  A thief who remains motionless, as in hiding normally or in shadows, is automatically silent.

Note that either kind of stealthy movement requires everyone in the party to be using it successfully in order to gain any benefit.  It does no good for the thief to move with absolute silence if the clumsy fighter in plate mail is rattling like a wagon load of tin pots on a bumpy road.

Hiding can be done by anyone, provided there is some sort of cover or concealment.  Hiding in a completely bare, square room is futile, but a square room with alcoves offers some possibilities, and a square room packed with crates and barrels is rife with potential hiding places.  Characters or creatures in hiding are considered to be quiet, and may be detected by a successful Hear Noise check, though the listener will not necessarily know the exact source of the sounds nor what produces them.  Hidden characters or creatures, should they choose to spring out before they are found, surprise their opponents on a roll of 1-4 on 1d6. 

Hiding in shadows can only be accomplished by a thief or other with the Hide in Shadows skill.  A thief could try to hide in an empty square room, as long as there were some shadows or patches of darkness within it.  A thief striking from the shadows surprises on a 1-5, and the attack counts as a backstab.  This ability may be used in combat, but requires that the target's attention not be on the thief, that nobody else warns the target, and that the thief remains hidden for one full round prior to making his backstab attempt, forgoing all other action for that round.  In all editions that I've read, only the Mentzer edition Basic Rules allow a thief to move while hiding in shadows.  All other editions specify that the character must remain perfectly still; this makes the most sense to me.

Note that unlike quiet and silent movement, hiding and hiding in shadows are mutually exclusive; a thief may attempt one or the other but not both at the same time, and a failed attempt at the latter does not default to the former.  Naturally, either kind of hiding will be automatically unsuccessful against anyone watching the character at the time of the attempt. 

A creature's level of alertness will also affect its chance of being surprised.  Being completely absorbed in some task or activity makes it 1 point more likely to be surprised.  Being drunk, drowsy, or otherwise impaired likewise merits a 1-point penalty.  Doing nothing but watching and listening for approaching threats, as a vigilant sentry would do, garners a 1-point bonus if watching all directions, and a 2-point bonus if watching one direction specifically but a 2-point penalty if approached from the opposite direction.  If no extraneous noises are present, such a sentry should automatically detect normal movement, and receive a Hear Noise check to detect quiet movement as well, further reducing the chances of being surprised. 

One other aspect of surprise and stealth that I've found sorely lacking is the distinction between observing the other party without being observed yourself and simply catching the other off-guard.  If you surprise the goblins, can you choose to slip away unnoticed, or do you just have a few seconds to get an uncontested first strike or a head start on them before they can react?  The Expert Rules clearly state, with regard to wilderness encounters, that, "Any group may always avoid an encounter if it surprises another group," which very heavily implies that the surprising group notices the other group without being noticed itself.  I'm tentatively going to say that this could be applied in most dungeon encounters as well, except for those where it would be obviously ridiculous.  If you surprise a group of goblins in the corridor, you've spotted them first, and can choose whether to attack or quickly duck back around the corner.  If you surprise a group of goblins by bashing down the door to their room, you can get the drop on them or run like hell while they stand gawking, but they certainly know you were there!

Whew!  Definitely my most long-winded post in quite a while, but hopefully illuminating and/or useful.  Comments and critiques are welcome.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's d12 o'clock!

The poor twelve-sided die doesn't see much action in most D&D games.  It's in an awkward in-between range, where gamers tend to prefer bell curves over equal probabilities.  The d12 ends up losing the popularity contest to 2d6.

I'm pretty sure...well, quite sure, actually, that somebody somewhere has already had this idea.  It's one of those things that's so obvious once it's there in my head that I can't imagine that it hasn't been thought of before, but I can't recall ever seeing it, so I'll throw it out there now.

The d12 is just about ideal for randomly determining time of day.  Roll any die you like to determine a.m. or p.m. (even or odd) and then give the old d12 a roll to find the hour.

By the same token, if you need to determine a direction, the d12 rises to the task, using the clock face analogues for relative directions.  Someone got disarmed and you want to know where his dagger went?  Roll a d12.  12 is straight in front, 6 is directly behind, with all points in between covered.  An encounter in the wilderness that could be approaching from any direction?  Roll a d12.  Dragon coming in fast at 3 o'clock!

Not so useless after all.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Of keeps and borderlands

Back in my formative days of D&D, when the Moldvay Basic Set opened the door to the mythic twilit realm of dungeon adventuring for me, the dungeon to which that door led was the Caves of Chaos.  For what seemed like an eternity - a FUN eternity - there were no other modules.  The Basic Set, and the copy of B2 included with it, were acquired second-hand by a relative, and I had no earthly idea at that time where to buy any other D&D products.  The Keep on the Borderlands was the center of our little universe, and it delivered, big time.

It's no exaggeration to say that B2 was entirely responsible for informing my ideas of what a dungeon should look like and how it should work.  Gary Gygax had thoughtfully marked a location on the map called the Cave of the Unknown, and stated that it was for me to map and stock the dungeon therein.  For the first few game sessions, I left the cave undeveloped, and reluctantly decided to follow his advice and not allow the party to find it, even if they carefully searched the very square that contained it.  When that proved unnecessary, because they never ventured close to it, and I had gained a bit of confidence that this game was going to be something we'd be doing for a good while, I scavenged some graph paper, drew a map of three dungeon levels, and wrote up a dungeon key.

I was very proud of my Cave of the Unknown, not least because it completely avoided being a cheap knockoff of the Caves of Chaos yet still, in my eyes, remained true to the feel of the setting.  Rather than copying the warrens of orcs and goblins, I made this cave a network of chambers inhabited by weird and reclusive creatures of the dark, things that did not go raiding against the keep and its environs, but seldom left the eternal night of the underworld - shriekers, cave locusts, a few troglodytes, an ochre jelly.  It featured a great central cavern deep enough to be part of all three dungeon levels, and in its lower reaches was a still underground lake that my players eventually dubbed the Lonely Water.

As the Caves, Chaos and Unknown, were explored, their monstrous denizens rooted out, and their treasures plundered, I expanded the wilderness map.  There were more caves, some ruins, a dreaded sheer-sided mountain where a red dragon lived, and a swamp in which the party of 3rd level characters managed to dispatch a black dragon.  As they continued into the wild, the woods gave way to grassland and to desert, and the characters discovered a beleaguered sister keep...

Eventually we did buy and play other modules, but they never quite captured the same magic.  I tried to write my own adventures, in the mold of those modules and the ones published in Dungeon magazine, and they were fun, but not Keep fun.  It certainly wasn't that the stories were bad, per se.  It's only recently, as I look back with 25 years of hindsight, and maybe even more significantly, the combined insights of a lot of other (and often wiser) people doing exactly the same thing, that I understand why B2 rocked while other modules faltered.

On those mythic Borderlands, the player characters didn't just take part in a story, they were the story.  I'm reminded of a concept from my studies of economics - central planning vs. spontaneous order.  In a centrally planned economy, one person or small group of people decide what is to be produced and how - in essence, an economy organized by the command of a ruling elite.  No matter how smart and benevolent they might be, they are always imposing their own preferences upon the masses, who have little say in the direction of things.  In an economy of spontaneous order, it's precisely the desires of the consuming public that determine what is to be produced and how.  Those story-centric modules are examples of adventures centrally planned by the author; no matter how wonderful and dramatic the story he or she has written, it's still imposed upon the players, whose freedom is therefore limited in order to keep them within the parameters of the plan.  The stories that emerged on the Borderlands were the product of the spontaneous interaction of the players with each other and the game world.  Gary and I supplied the raw materials, and the players determined what stories they wanted to produce with them.  The lack of central direction didn't make for incoherent or unsatisfying stories; it made for stories that the players cared about, and that in turn made them more exciting and compelling.

When I ran modules with an explicit goal and story, I was always a little bit uneasy.  There was a pressure that was not present while watching the party marauding around the Borderlands.  This was a one shot deal!  What if I dropped it on the party before they were strong enough to complete it, or when they were already too strong and it was a boring cake walk?  What if they went off the rails and forced me to wing it, rendering the remaining content of the module - content that I had paid for! - useless and irrelevant, and spoiling the predetermined selection of possible cool endings the author had foreseen?

That was never an issue with the sandbox of the Borderlands and my homebrew extensions of it.  If the players got bored with the path they had chosen, or decided that they had bitten off more than they could chew, they were free to veer off in some other direction.  Maybe the path they abandoned would still be there when they felt ready, maybe someone else in the campaign world would have dealt with it by then, or maybe it would have evolved into something different in the intervening time.  Whatever happened, the story was never ruined, because it was always the player characters, not the setting and not the NPCs and monsters in it, who were the story.

There's one more reason why the sandbox of spontaneous order appeals so much to me, perhaps a more selfish reason, but important nonetheless.  Much of the fun for the players on the other side of the screen is discovering the world you've brought to life for them, all the dangers and wonders and surprises.  Giving them as much rein as possible allows me, as DM, to experience that thrill of discovery too.  There may be no surprises for me in the dungeon; I may know every nook and cranny of it, every monster and magical oddity waiting in every chamber, but when I give over control to the players, I can still be surprised by the twists and turns of the story that takes place in the dungeon as they write it.  As DM, I'm playing the game to have fun too, and when it comes down to it, I'll take the fun of discovery over the fun of control any day.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rules-lite wound system

The debate over hit points, what they are and what they aren't, has been hashed out pretty thoroughly already.  Luck, combat skill, divine favor, whatever the explanation by which you care to rationalize it, the generally accepted bottom line is that hit points are far more representative of the ability to avoid bodily harm than the actual capacity of the body to soak up damage.  A character with 24 hp can't survive being run through three times with a long sword.  Through one of those factors noted above, or a combination of them, he evades the brunt of attacks that get past his defenses to seriously threaten him, sustaining only superficial hurt to his body but depleting his reserves of stamina, confidence, the favor of the gods, or what-have-you.  Only when those reserves are used up do the blows start connecting for real, rending flesh and breaking bones.

In the rules as written - whether you personally consider it a feature or a bug - a character's health is binary in nature.  Either a character is dead or alive.  A character with 1 hp left functions in all ways but one exactly as he would at full hp.  The next hit in combat will kill him, but until that happens, his ability to hit and damage, and to walk, run, jump, swim, climb, think, carry weight, talk, use class skills, and so on and so forth, is completely unhindered.  To put it in a nutshell, the game doesn't attempt to model any of the effects we might expect from being wounded.  Given the abstract nature of hit points, we can't even say for sure whether the character who takes damage has been wounded, until he's wounded to the death.

Here's a little system I've been working on to add some verisimilitude, tension, and drama to the game, by attempting to simulate injuries within the framework of hit points.  It bears some similarities to other systems I've seen that calculate a "wound threshold" based on a percentage of a character's hit points, but hopefully this is both easier to apply and a better model.  Rather than using a table for hit locations and applying specific effects, this system abstracts the effects of wounds.  It assumes that a penalty to attack may result just as easily from being unable to bear weight on an injured leg as from an injury to the sword arm, and a penalty to movement may result from the pain of a body wound as well as from a leg or foot wound.  If one were so inclined, it would be relatively simple to draw up a hit location chart and apply specific effects according to which body part is wounded, but the abstract way is enough for my purposes.

The basic rule is this:  Any single attack that does damage equal to or greater than 1/4 of a character's current hit points will inflict a wound that hinders his or her ability to move, fight, and function.

An attack that does between 1/4 and 1/2 of the target's current hit points in damage inflicts a light wound. Such a wound imposes a -1 penalty to the character's attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks, but not damage rolls.  Light wounds heal naturally by resting (i.e. no travel, combat, or other strenuous activity) for 1d6+3 days.  If desired, this may be adjusted by the character's Constitution bonus or penalty.

An attack that does between 1/2 and 3/4 of the target's current hit points in damage inflicts a serious wound. Attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks are impaired by -2; armor class and damage rolls are reduced by 1 point.  Movement is reduced by half. The wound will heal naturally.  During the first 1d6+3 days of rest, the wound is reduced to a light wound.  It takes another 1d4 weeks of rest for the lingering effects to disappear.  If not healed by magic, a serious wound will likely leave behind a prominent scar.  Left untreated, serious wounds easily become infected and may lead to death or loss of a limb.

An attack that does 3/4 or more of the target's current hit points in damage, without reducing it to 0 or below, inflicts a critical wound.  Attack rolls, saves, and ability checks suffer a -4 penalty, and AC and damage rolls are reduced by 2 points. Movement is reduced by two thirds, rounded up.  Without expert or magical assistance, critical wounds are almost certain to develop infections or other complications.  Critical wounds will heal naturally, but maybe not fully.  In 1d6+3 days under the care of a healer or herbalist, the wound is effectively reduced to a serious wound.  After an additional 1d4 weeks of rest, a saving throw vs. death ray must be made; if successful, the wound is reduced to a light wound.  In another 2d4 weeks, a second save is attempted, and if successful the remaining light wound effects heal and the character makes a full recovery.  If either save is failed, the character is permanently disabled, retaining the penalties of either a serious wound or a light wound.  

Wound effects are cumulative if the character should sustain more than one wound.

Magical healing spells may be used to cure wounds in addition to restoring hit points.  Each use of a spell affects only one wound, so a character who has sustained multiple wounds will need multiple healing spells.  A cure light wounds spell or equivalent will reduced the severity of a wound by one level (light to none, serious to light, critical to serious.)  A cure serious wounds spell reduces severity by two levels, and a cure critical wounds spell reduces it by three levels, i.e. it will completely heal any one wound.   A cureall spell will simultaneously heal all wounds suffered by the target of the spell. 

Only one form of magical healing applies to any given wound.  A second spell used on the same wound will supersede the first if it is more powerful, but they do not stack.  For example:  A character suffers a critical wound.  The party's cleric casts a cure light wounds spell, reducing it by one wound level to a serious wound.  A second cure light wounds spell will have no further effect, except to restore more hit points.  If the cleric later casts a cure serious wounds spell, it reduces the original wound by two steps, to a light wound.

One of the things I like about this system, at least in theory, is that as a character is worn down in combat, it becomes progressively more likely that any given hit will wound him, whereas with a wound threshold based on a percentage of total hit points it's equally easy or difficult to inflict a wound at any point in battle.  I think using a percentage of current hit points rather than total is more in keeping with hp as ability to avoid injury.

This is yet another of those things I'm going to be play testing soon, but as yet its purely a theoretical system, and any input is welcome.

Bonus:  How about  new cleric spell especially for the system?

Level 1
Range: Touch
Duration:  1 hour
Effect:  One creature

This spell reduces pain in the target creature.  For the duration of the spell, all of the recipient's wounds are treated as if one level lower than they actually are, including wounds sustained after the spell has been cast.  Thus, a character suffering the effects of two light wounds and one serious wound functions as if suffering from only one light wound.  Any further wounds sustained during the spell's duration are also treated as one level lower; thus new light wounds have no effect until it expires, new serious wounds are treated as light, and new critical wounds are treated as serious.  If the recipient engages in any strenuous activity during the spell's duration, when it expires he or she must make a saving throw vs. death ray or suffer 1d8 points of damage due to aggravating injuries.  If cast on an uninjured creature, and no wounds are inflicted while the spell is in effect, no saving throw is necessary and no damage is incurred. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thief dilemma: traps

Continuing the examination of thief class abilities (begun here), I come now to Find and Remove Traps, and find myself in a bit of a quandary.

In the first place, I really, really like the idea of player agency in finding traps.  (See here and here for a much more in-depth look at this concept.)  It's much more interesting and provides greater immersion for the players to use the DM's descriptions to find traps.  This can be initiated either from the DM's initial description of a new area, or by the players stating that their characters are examining specific features. Consider:

DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall.
Thief:  I check for traps.
DM:  (rolling)  You don't find anything.


DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall.
Thief:  Without getting too close, I look at the walls and ceiling in that section of the corridor.
DM:  You see a pattern of holes in the right wall, and a set of shallow gouges in the left wall that seem to match.  There's nothing unusual about the ceiling.
Thief:  I examine the floor, looking for a trip wire or pressure plate.
DM:  One of the floor blocks is very slightly elevated above the level of the rest of the floor.

In my opinion, the second scenario is far more fun and interesting.  The "problem," if it can be called such, is that it renders the thief's Find Traps and Remove Traps skills irrelevant (or at least less relevant,) because it relies entirely on player (and DM) skill.  It allows characters to determine, or at least strongly suspect, the existence of a trap, and suggests ways that it might be avoided or nullified.  It doesn't require a thief at all; indeed, a fighter, a magic-user, or even a normal zero-level human could do it. 

This certainly intrudes upon the role of the thief, insofar as neutralizing traps is concerned.  (Quite a few old schoolers have noted that the addition of the thief class itself to the original D&D game usurped the shared function of trap finding from all the other classes, so this could be seen as restoring the proper order of things.)  Even though I'm a fan of the thief class, I think it's more than a fair trade, modifying the traditional role of one class for the sake of a more interesting and immersive game experience, but it raises a few questions.  What good, then, are the Find and Remove Traps abilities?  Should they be dropped entirely, or is there still a unique niche for the thief as trap finder?  I can see a strong argument in favor of keeping and using them in certain circumstances.

Dealing with traps as in the second example above requires that the DM be able to visualize the trap (else how could he describe it?) and have a basic understanding of its component parts and how it works.  It requires also that some aspects of the trap are visible to the player characters and discernible as something potentially hazardous.  Those conditions lend themselves best to area traps - those that affect a room or a stretch of corridor, for example - as opposed to item traps, such as a poison needle in the latch of a chest. 

I, for one, am hard-pressed to describe just what the trigger for a poison needle or a gas trap protecting a treasure chest would look like.  Besides making it difficult to describe such a thing, that also makes me skeptical of the ability of a cautious but untrained person to notice it.  Unless someone is familiar with all the bits and bobs of locks, hasps, door knobs, and such, how is he going to notice something amiss?  Imagine that someone has sabotaged the engine of a car, but that you know next to nothing about auto repair.  Whatever gizmo the saboteur has implanted under the hood is going to be indistinguishable from all the proper components of the car's guts to you.  You might see it, but it will utterly fail to register in your mind as anything untoward, even if you're looking for something untoward.

You can probably assume that the designer of the trap has taken great pains to make the external trigger of the trap both as small and as indistinguishable from the rest of the item as possible.  A specialist, someone who knows what he's looking for, has a chance to see it for what it is, but anyone else won't.  It's probably also a safe bet that most of the trap mechanism is housed within the chest, out of sight and out of reach, thus making disarming it difficult and delicate work.  You need someone with both knowledge of trap design and a practiced, steady hand.  So, yes, there is still a role for the thief as a trap detection and removal specialist, and the Find and Remove Traps skills will still see some use.

I actually don't see a need to modify the implementation of the skills much, within this restricted sphere.  Traps are hard to spot, so the low percentage of a low-level thief makes sense.  A thief should be able to search for traps as many times as he likes, each attempt taking a turn of game time, with all the attendant hazards and inconveniences that entails.  He can be confident with his first examination, or he can double-check, triple-check, and quadruple-check his observations until he's confident enough that he's found anything that's there to find.  You can mess with the player's head by having a chest trapped multiple times, with each search potentially finding one trap.

Removing the trap is also tricky business.  Bypassing a trap or its trigger is frequently the most practical option when dealing with area traps.  Of course, it's possible to do so with an item trap, but that naturally means not opening the door or chest in question, and thus it may be much more desirable to disarm the trap.  Again, the low chances of success don't bother me, because this is a delicate matter with potentially dire consequences, not simply a matter of time like picking a lock.  I can think of two options for applying the Remove Traps skill.  It can be attempted once, with failure meaning that the thief just doesn't know how to disable the trap mechanism, but the trap is triggered only on a critical failure, like rolling 95 or higher.  Alternatively, it can be attempted repeatedly but failure by some margin, say 20 points, results in the trap being accidentally triggered.  Either of these options encourages players to think of clever ways to trigger the trap from a safe distance (and hopefully more than a little paranoia as to just what a safe distance is!) at least at low levels when the thief's skills are still a dodgy proposition.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Intelligence and experience

Last night I was wandering, mostly aimless, around the vast dungeon of old school blog posts, and happened to click the "Intelligence" tag at The Tao of D&D.  While reading those posts, I had a flash of inspiration, which is only peripherally related to one strand of thought within the posts, but you should read them anyway if you haven't already, because they're excellent.  Whether it was a good and useful inspiration or not you can judge for yourself...

First, however, I need to elaborate a bit on my ideas about Intelligence and Wisdom and what they represent. 

Wisdom, to me, represents intuition, inspiration, the unconscious or subconscious mind.  It's constantly processing all the inputs from your senses, comparing and testing them against your mental database of experiences, and yielding up insights, epiphanies, premonitions, anticipation of impending events, and such.  It operates as a sort of mental speed dial or hot key system, prompting action in a tiny fraction of the time it would take your conscious mind to analyze a situation and reach a conclusion, even if you were consciously paying attention to it.  While it's fast and always operating even when your conscious mind wanders, it isn't infallible.  If the stock of data and stored knowledge it operates on is flawed, it's garbage in, garbage out, and your intuitive reaction will be either totally counterproductive or not as effective as it could be.

Intelligence is the ability to consciously analyze and integrate information.  It's much slower than Wisdom, but under conscious control.  When you encounter something new and outside your previous experience, it's your Intelligence that breaks it down, evaluates it, and determines how it meshes with your existing store of knowledge.  If necessary, it can re-evaluate your old knowledge in light of new information, and is thus the error checking system for the data that your Wisdom relies upon.  Your subconscious mind will stubbornly cling to the old data, so it takes some effort to successfully over-write it with new knowledge - in other words, conscious repetition and practice. 

All of this, to me, suggests something profound for the gaining of experience in a class and level based game system.  It's your Intelligence that is responsible for analyzing new information and integrating it into your stock of knowledge.  This is true whether that information has to do with blacksmithing, needlepoint, magic, or combat maneuvers.  In other words, should it not be Intelligence, rather than the class's prime requisite ability, that is solely responsible for variations in the rate of class progress and determines experience point bonuses and penalties? 

It isn't as ridiculous as it might seem at first.  A fighter's Strength is useful to his profession immediately, in the here-and-now.  He swings, he gets an adjustment to hit and to damage.  But how in the world does being strong help him learn his trade faster?  All else being equal, including level of experience, a 16 Strength, 9 Intelligence fighter is going to be more effective than a 9 Strength, 16 Intelligence fighter.  The difference comes over time, as the smart fighter learns the tricks of swordplay more rapidly than his less smart counterpart.  He'll never have that valuable bonus to damage, but as time goes by, he'll gain an advantage to his attack rolls and his ability to avoid bodily injury as expressed in hit points over less intelligent fighters who have done a similar amount of adventuring.  That's what being smart does for him. 

I know this bucks one of the oldest traditions of D&D, dating all the way back to the original.  Back then, XP bonuses were the primary function of ability scores.  The game was much stingier with ability score-based bonuses to combat rolls, saving throws, and such.  In the editions that followed, "old school" though they may be in relation to modern editions, ability bonuses were expanded, and applied to more situations.  Strength has a noticeable impact on melee combat.  Dexterity affects missile combat, and Armor Class, one of the most important stats in the game.  Constitution is an important determinant of hit points, which in turn determine survivability.  Charisma, properly applied, is a lot more influential in the game than is commonly understood.  That leaves Wisdom, by the book affecting one sub-category of saving throws, and Intelligence, good for literacy and languages, largely out in the cold. 

In my post on playing the fool, I suggested that Wisdom should apply to most, if not all, saving throws.  I posited a few possibilities for making the language bonuses from Intelligence more meaningful, but most of my other ideas for using the ability were in role playing, not game mechanics, which still left a disparity.  Now, I'm hopeful, the gap has been filled at last, with every ability score being applicable to every character class in a quantifiable way.  I'm going to be putting the current campaign on hold for a while soon in order to try some of my house rules and tweaks, and this one will certainly be getting a test drive.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Death and resurrection

Despite my being a staunch atheist, this seems like an appropriate day to ramble about my thoughts on death and resurrection in D&D. 

There are some gamers for whom life is cheap - easy come, easy go.  TPK?  Just the way things go sometimes.  Grab the dice, and let's make some more!

There are others who recoil in shock at the idea that a character could be removed from the campaign forever by death.  All the time and effort they spend creating and developing a character, whether that means stats and legendary magic items or personality and status in the campaign, just can't be allowed to go down the drain!

There are elements of both styles that belong in D&D as I conceive of it.  Adventuring can't be a cake walk of beating up on pushover enemies and seizing legendary hoards of treasure.  Reward must be balanced with risk.  Overcoming deadly dangers is a big part of the game's fun.  But so is character and story development, and both the incentives and the opportunities for those are diminished if the cast of characters turns over with every adventure.  I see magical resurrection, especially easily available forms such as the Raise Dead spell, as essentially an attempt to bridge the gap between exciting risk and story-protecting plot armor, to preserve the threat of death while allowing greater continuity.  Unfortunately, I think it fails.

Nerfing death itself has some serious implications for role playing and player agency.  Why would you ever run from an enemy, or surrender to one, if the worst that's likely to happen is that you'll lose some gold (and maybe a point of Constitution, depending on your edition) when your buddies drag you back to the local Jiffy-Raise Temple for repairs?  What's heroic about a heroic sacrifice if all that's really being sacrificed is money?  The fate of each individual character in a battle is nearly irrelevant; so long as the group prevails, they'll all be back to do it again.  Death has no more significance than fouling out of a basketball game.  You sit out the remainder of the game (or the scene, or the battle, or whatever,) and come back with a clean slate for the next one.  You get to go on playing the character in whom you have so much invested, but that was never in doubt.  His survival is ordained, and the significance of everything he does is blunted by that fact.  

Sure, players will try to keep their characters alive, but not as hard as they would knowing that death is forever. There's literally nothing to be gained by chickening out but the reputation of a coward.  The critically important distinction between living coward and dead hero is obliterated.  The incentive to find non-combat resolutions to a major encounter, or even a climactic scene, is severely diminished.  It's not a question of life or death, but of greater glory and a decisive conclusion or lesser glory and loose ends, and that's a no-brainer for most players.

None of this is to say that the gap between risk and continuity can't be bridged.  The problem with meat-grinder games is often one of suppressed player agency.  The party's options for completing the adventure and the means allowed them to do so are artificially limited, or the goal is chosen by default because there just aren't any subtler options than "kill monsters and gain treasure."  When the only interesting and meaningful choices in the game are the ones made in the thick of combat, then it's going to be a very combat-oriented game, and that means a gauntlet of combat encounters and traps grinding down the party's hp and resources until something gives.

In a game that uses dice to resolve actions, there's always going to be an element of randomness to death.  The key is to allow the players to make the choices that determine whether the dice are rolled in the first place, to allow them discretion in how much risk they take.  Give them information that indicates what lies ahead, even if only subtly, so that they can make informed choices.  Don't force them into combat, either overtly or implicitly by making it a condition of successfully completing the adventure.  Don't let the players' expectations force them into it either.  They've probably been conditioned to expect that the adventure must end with the villain's defeat in battle, but that's an unfortunate cliche.  Death should always be a risk of combat, but combat should be a means of resolving conflict or advancing the story, not the means. 

By giving players enough information to assess potential risks and rewards, and the freedom to choose which ones to take and the means to try to overcome them, you transfer the bulk of responsibility for character survival from the DM and the dice to the players themselves.  Death still threatens, but it comes as a result of choices, not out of the blue.  It becomes simply one possible danger of an adventuring career, not an eventual certainty that requires some means of reversal written into the rules.  It regains all its impact and pathos, all the attendant heroism or tragedy or shock or horror, as it would in a good novel or in real life.  That's how I think it should be done, anyway.

Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On unarmed combat

For all its many strengths, there are a few areas in which D&D fails in epic fashion.  Either there's a glaring hole in the rules where something that desperately needs to be addressed is not, or there's some bizarre kludge dropped into the hole which is either inconsistent with the rest of the game, absurdly complex to the point of being virtually unplayable, or both.  Among those epic fails are the game's attempts to model unarmed combat.

I've only briefly glanced at the 1st and 2nd edition AD&D unarmed combat rules, so I can't comment much on them but to say that even at a glance they seemed convoluted and bizarre.  What I've read in the OSR blogosphere from people much more familiar with them only reinforces that initial impression.  Classic D&D has kept it simpler, at least relative to AD&D, but it's still pretty weird.

Frank Mentzer's Companion Set contains the first attempt, so far as I'm aware, at an official unarmed combat system for Classic.  It includes such mechanics as rolling against Constitution to check for stuns, and saving throws to avoid being knocked out.  Of course, in real brawls and fist fights, people are sometimes stunned and knocked out.  Tacked on to an already existing system in which people beat on each other with clubs and hammers with no chance for stuns and knockouts, though, it looks pretty absurd.  You can knock out a guy with 50 hp, or leave him reeling and unable to defend himself for a few rounds, by striking him with a fist, but whack him over the head with a mace and he takes 1d6 damage and keeps fighting?  That's just silly.

There's really no reason that unarmed strikes need a different system at all.  A knockout is aptly modeled by reducing an opponent to 0 hp with unarmed strikes.  Just as the 50 hp fighter doesn't get run through every time he's successfully attacked with a sword, he doesn't take it square on the chin every time someone lands a haymaker on him, either.  All the damage leading up to the final blow, whether lethal or non-lethal, is about wearing him down, rattling his confidence, using up his luck, or whatever the fashionable explanation of hit points is these days.  It's the final blow that finally strikes true and lays him out.

How much damage an unarmed strike should do is open to debate, and varies from source to source.  Some prescribe a base damage of 0 or 1 point, modified by Strength bonuses.  Others say 1d2 points, or 1d2 for a punch and 1d3 for a kick, plus Strength bonuses.  Still others start at some base amount, like 1 point, and increase it by one die size per Strength bonus - 1d2 for a +1, 1d3 for a +2, and 1d4 for a +3, for example.

Personally, I like the punch 1d2+St/kick 1d3+St formula. I'd probably apply a -2 penalty to hit with a kick, unless the target is much lower to the ground or the attacker is standing on a higher level relative to the target, e.g. a brawler standing on top of a table kicking someone standing beside it.

Stuns are a little more problematic.  They could be hand-waved as just an expected part of the 10 second (or 6 second, or one minute, or whatever your edition uses) combat round, like feints and parries and jockeying for position.  Alternatively, on any critical hit with a weapon that the DM rules capable of stunning, the target must making a saving throw (vs. paralysis seems an appropriate old school save) or be stunned for 1 round per 2 points of damage inflicted by the attack.  It seems reasonable to limit stuns to creatures twice the mass of the attacker or less.

Wrestling or grappling attacks, which attempt to grasp and restrain an opponent rather than causing damage, are another problem.  You could handle it in the same way as unarmed strikes, wearing the opponent down and capturing it when its hp reach 0, but that produces some odd and counterintuitive results.  For one, what happens to the opponent's hp when the attacker releases it?  It seems weird to have it remain at 0 hp, but equally weird to suddenly regain all of its hit points.  It also runs counter to common sense that simply grabbing hold of someone should require completely wearing down his resistance.

Mentzer's wrestling rules from the Companion Set are serviceable, but add a new game mechanic (Wrestling Rating, which is used for nothing else, and sometimes breaks down in strange ways, especially when calculating it for monsters) and a lot of complexity to combat.  Below is my tentative attempt at integrating grappling into the usual combat mechanics.

A character attempting to grapple an opponent makes a normal attack roll vs. the opponent's AC sans armor.  Dexterity and magic still apply, but physical body armor does not.  Success indicates that the opponent has been grabbed.  If desired, the attacker may attempt to grab a specific body part (e.g. the opponent's sword arm) by accepting a -4 penalty to the attack.  An opponent using a conventional attack, either armed or unarmed, automatically wins initiative and may strike first against the would-be grappler.  If the attack hits, the grappling attempt is fended off for that round, and the grappling character may not take another action.  Note that if the opponent is attacking a different target entirely, and ignores the grappler, actions are resolved according to normal initiative procedures, and the opponent does not automatically win initiative over the grappler.

A grabbed opponent may be limited in its movement (opposed Strength check to see who determines the direction of movement, but the winner is still encumbered as if carrying the other.)  It may attack with a small or medium weapon or natural attacks, unless the specific limb holding the weapon was the target of the initial grab.  Attacks against the grabbing character are +2 to hit, since the character cannot evade them effectively while maintaining his hold.  Alternately, the opponent may try to escape the hold by making a grappling attack of his own; if it succeeds he may choose between throwing off the grappler or establishing a grip of his own (both combatants are now holding onto each other.)

A second successful grappling attack results in the opponent's attack being neutralized completely, and the grappling character may inflict 1d6+Strength bonus of subdual damage for each round that he maintains this hold.  This is the equivalent of placing the opponent in a hammer lock, full nelson, choke hold, or similar.  A successful armed or unarmed strike by the opponent once again fends off the grappler's attack, although the initial grab is not broken unless the grappler chooses to break it; only the improved grip and subdual hold are prevented.  Note that two characters both grappling and trying for such a hold against each other cannot both succeed; in this case the attacker who hits the best AC gains the upper hand.  The held opponent may attack with his off hand, either unarmed or with a small weapon, at -4 to hit.  Anyone else may attack either combatant at +4 to hit, as neither can dodge while the hold is maintained.

In the case of multiple attackers trying to grapple a single opponent, each attacker rolls separately.  Unless the opponent has multiple attacks, only one grappling attack may be fended off by a successful hit.  Each attacker beyond the first that successfully grapples adds +2 to the Strength score of the strongest of the group for purposes of determining movement, and adds to the encumbrance of the load on the grappled opponent.  Conversely, the opponent's encumbrance is divided amongst the grapplers.  Up to four attackers can grapple an opponent of equal size, eight can grapple an opponent of twice their size, and twelve can grapple one of three times their size.  When a subdual hold is established, each additional grappler can completely neutralize one attack of the held creature.

A character or creature who is a part of such a "dog pile" may be pulled away by a new combatant making a successful grappling attack against it. 

A subdual hold, and the resulting damage, may not be inflicted on an opponent greater than twice the mass of the attacker.  In the case of multiple attackers, if a number of them whose combined mass is greater than half that of their opponent succeed in a second grappling attack in the same round, they may establish such a hold.

Whenever the Strength score or mass of a creature are not known, the DM may assign them according to his own judgment.  Large or huge creatures, like horses, giants, and dragons, should certainly have Strength scores far outstripping the human range; that and their great masses (an average horse weighs around 1,000 pounds) should serve to curtail the most absurd abuses of the grappling rules.  

And there you have it.  Hopefully it's less complicated and easier to apply than its length would indicate.  It may very well have some holes or be prone to breaking under certain circumstances, so please feel free to weigh in if you spot a problem.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Monsters in my mind

In those long ago days when I was new to D&D, and every creature and magic item was still mysterious and wonderful, one of my favorite monsters was the owl bear.  This was due almost entirely to the Keep on the Borderlands module, particularly the illustration at the very beginning of two fighters and a halfling battling the beast. 
The D&D Basic rulebook clearly describes the monster as "a huge bear-like creature with the head of a giant owl."  The thing in the picture is owlish and bearish only in very vague terms, having a bulky, furry body and a beak.  The beak isn't the beak of an owl, and the creature sports a long tail, which I've never seen on any bear. Clearly, the artist had a far less than literal interpretation of the creature description, and that picture is what pops to mind any time I see an owl bear mentioned in a book or module.  In fact, the mental image of an actual bear's body with an actual owl's head atop it is downright comical to me, not fearsome as the monster above is.

I think on some level, I just assumed that "owl bear" was not to be taken literally, much like a catfish is not literally a fish with a cat's head, but a fish that has a few features reminiscent of felines, or a dragonfly is a flying insect reminiscent of a dragon, not literally a hybrid of dragon and housefly.

Gnolls are another of those monsters whose description I never took literally, but in their case, the illustrators did.  "Gnolls are beings of low intelligence that appear to be human-like hyenas."  I imagined them looking like hyenas in the same way that a person described as having a horse face looks like a horse or a mousy person resembles a small rodent:  Having some features that evoke the impression of the animal without actually being identical.  Fortunately, the Basic rulebook offered no illustrations of gnolls.  It wasn't until much later, when I saw the entry in the 2nd Edition AD&D Monstrous Manual, that I was introduced to the idea of the gnoll as a mean furry, which is significantly less intimidating than what I had in mind.  Apparently the idea of a gnoll being a magically-bred gnome/troll hybrid had been dropped by that point, being totally irreconcilable with such a silly illustration.

Orcs must have gone through a similar evolution.  Somehow they went from the rulebook description of "ugly human-like creatures who look like a combination of animal and man" to a race of green-skinned mutant pig-men.  My mental image of them had always been basically very ugly humans with feral features and animal traits that were non-specific but decidedly more canine than porcine in aspect.  In that I was almost certainly influenced by Gygax's reference to "dog-men" in the rumors table of B2.  I imagined them with skin tones of yellow and burnt orange, or fish-belly pale beneath coarse, wiry hair, but never green.

I'd venture to say that most of my ideas of what monsters look like came from the old school rule books and modules.  Say what you want about the simplicity of those drawings, but I've never yet seen a troglodyte or a kobold that really fired my imagination like the ones in the Moldvay Basic Rules set did.  Not only did they give me a clear idea of what those monsters looked like, they served as a stylistic prompt to conjure the mental images of the many monsters that were represented only by text without pictures.  You'd think that having color illustrations of each and every monster would be a good thing, but in my experience the opposite was true.  The 2nd Edition AD&D books, in which that had become standard practice, left me cold by comparison.  They never quite measured up to the monsters in my mind.