Thursday, May 31, 2012

Putting the brakes on alignment

Alignment has to be one of the most muddled and confusing aspects of D&D.  It's at once vague and open to all manner of interpretation, and yet supposedly such an integral part of D&D role playing that every edition that I've seen makes mention to the DM of ensuring that players "properly" play the alignments of their characters.  Quoth the Basic Rules,
If the DM feels that a player is not keeping to a character's chosen alignment, the DM may suggest a change of alignment or give the character a punishment or penalty.
Other editions suggest similar, or even more strict schemes of enforcement.  The obvious question is how do you fairly enforce something that can't even be unambiguously defined? 

The Classic D&D single axis alignment system of Law, Neutrality, and Chaos tries to amalgamate several distinct concepts under each alignment.  Law is described as a commitment to order, respect for rules, good will toward living creatures, honesty, and a sort of collectivist "community spirit" of elevating the group over the individual.  Chaos is written as a combination of belief in randomness and luck, disregard of rules, malice or malevolent indifference toward others, dishonesty, and individualism.  Neutrality lies at some unspecified midpoint between the two. 

I'll use myself as an example to illustrate the myriad contradictions in these assumptions.  I am, politically, an anarchist (specifically, the anarcho-capitalist philosophy of Murray N. Rothbard.)  Your first impression might well be that my alignment is Chaotic.  Hold on a second, though.  It's true, I reject the authoritarian order of the state, but I believe very strongly in a natural, spontaneous order that arises among individuals in a free society.  I believe in a moral code deriving from man's nature as a rational being.  Am I just another species of Lawful, then, and if so, how do you distinguish me from the authoritarian?  I'm also an individualist - the group is nothing but an abstraction that has no existence, identity, or needs of its own separate from those of the individuals who comprise it, and to elevate it above them is an absurdity.  Chaotic, then?  I abhor violence against non-aggressive individuals, and advocate the freedom of every individual to pursue his own happiness without violent interference of others.  That smacks of good to me - Lawful?  Or am I Neutral, because I have some characteristics from each end of the spectrum?  If so, isn't nearly the entirety of humanity Neutral?

Now let's suppose a two-axis model, with a good-evil component.  Having separated Good and Evil from Law and Chaos, we can assume that the latter refers only to a being's relationship with law and order.  But what kind of order, that imposed artificially by intelligent beings, or the underlying order of nature?  We're left with the same dilemma from above, that of the spontaneous order anarchist vs. the advocate of the authority of a strong government.  Are those really to be considered the same?  Also, does a creature's position on the Law axis describe his beliefs or his behavior?  A character who acts spontaneously may nonetheless believe that there is an underlying order to reality, while one living a life of stultifying routine might think that in the grand scheme there's no purpose or sense to anything.

As to Good and Evil, are we relying on the practical results of a person's ethos, or his or her intentions?  Many people would say that my free market anarchism would result in widespread human suffering, and label it an evil ideology, but I believe it to be the surest path to human flourishing.  My intentions are unquestionably good.  Likewise, I can accept that the authoritarian statist may have nothing but the best of intentions, but it's my conviction that to put his methods into practice is a drag on human liberty, creativity, productivity, happiness, and ultimately opposed to the welfare of life.  Are we both Evil, both Good, or is one of us Good and the other Evil?  (And if the latter, how do you determine which is which?)

The alignment system, I think, is intended to be an aide to role playing, not a course in philosophy and politics, but it nonetheless must be definable, comprehensible, unambiguous, and non-contradictory if it is to be genuinely useful to players and DMs as a guide to playing the roles of characters and monsters.  With all their vagaries and contradictions, I consider the systems as written in both Classic D&D and AD&D to be hopelessly broken.  

A solution?

For my own campaign, I'm going to drop the Law-Chaos axis.  Having no unambiguous definitions with which I feel comfortable, I consider it unworkable.  Instead, I'll replace it with a single axis of Good and Evil.  A creature's position on the axis is determined by its intentions and motivations.

A Good creature has an active concern for the well-being of others (sometimes with the provision that those others mean no harm.)  It is not barred from pursuing its own individual self-interest, but will actively avoid inflicting harm in the process.  Killing is only permissible to prevent evil from being done, though it may often be assumed that irredeemably evil creatures present a constant threat and may be dispatched on principle.  A Good creature will prefer win-win outcomes in its interactions with others, and when that is not possible may purposely take the short end of the stick itself.

A Neutral creature is driven by self-interest, and is indifferent toward the well-being of others, but not actively malevolent.  It will not actively pursue their harm or suffering, but will have little interest in alleviating it either, unless it perceives some clear benefit to itself.  Such a creature prefers to win in its interactions with others, and is indifferent to whether the outcome for the other is win, lose, or draw. 

An Evil creature is driven by a desire to harm others.  It may well act out of a desire for personal wealth or gain, but it enjoys the discomfiture and suffering of others as much as or more than its own gain.  When interacting with others, the most important thing is that they lose, though of course the Evil creature generally prefers for that loss to be accompanied by its own gain.

This system should serve for adjudicating effects that rely on a determination of Good or Evil, such as a Detect Evil spell or an aligned magic sword.  Aside from those considerations, sanctions for playing alignments are strictly according to the reactions of other creatures and characters in-game, i.e. good creatures will feel affinity for other good creatures, be repulsed and horrified by evil acts and refuse to associate with the perpetrators, and see neutrals as incomprehensibly cold or callous. 

Whether a creature in the game prefers to pursue its goals within the existing local framework of law, irrespective of it, or in defiance of it, or whether it believes in an orderly or a random universe is left to the discretion of the person controlling it, and need not be codified in the alignment structure. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

When the call comes late

The career of a hero begins with a Call to Adventure, a catalyst that pushes him from his ordinary life toward extraordinary things.  Several posts back, in a ramble about character background skills, I alluded to the common fantasy RPG custom of adventurers starting young.  In most games I've played, both as DM and player, the expectation is that human characters receive their Call to Adventure in their mid teens to early twenties.  There are several good reasons for this convention, both in role-playing and practical meta-gaming terms.  Youth is often the time of restlessness and of rebellion against norms and expectations.  Young people are typically just peaking in terms of physical development.  Their lack of any appreciable trade skills makes any but the most cursory of skill systems unnecessary.  By the time they reach their 30s and 40s, if not before, those who survive the rigors of an adventuring career are generally expected to settle down, either to take up an honest trade, to live a life of ease on the proceeds of their exploits, or for the most successful and fortunate, to rule.

Yet fiction is not lacking for heroes who buck this pattern mightily.  Sometimes the Call to Adventure passes by and leaves them untouched through their youth, and they remain oblivious to it or even count themselves fortunate that it has spared them.  While their restless peers go out to seek fame and fortune or grisly death in dungeon and wilderness, they live respectable, ordinary lives.  They learn their trades, perhaps get married and have children, abide the law of crown and church, and pay their taxes.  Only when the courses of their lives seem comfortably set does the Call to Adventure come again, and this time despite their best efforts, it finds them. 

Many, if not most of us in the OSR can identify intimately with a more mature character, being of an age with them.  (I'm but a month and a half shy of my 39th birthday, myself.)  There's really no reason in the world why a PC shouldn't be able to begin as a first-level character in his or her 30s or older, and probably more than a few of you reading this have done so.  Nonetheless, I think it's worth pondering the differences between running such a character and a more conventional brash young adventurer.

What might prompt a person to turn his back on the safe and familiar life he's built for himself over the course of a few decades?  Perhaps it's boredom with a routine that's become too familiar, or a long-latent regret for paths not explored in youth - something akin to what we might call a midlife crisis.  A character might be faced with bankruptcy or loss of livelihood, and turn to adventure in desperation.  A loss or personal tragedy might lead to a desire for vengeance or a sense of "nothing left to lose."  This loss could be as great and epic as one's home town being destroyed by monsters or an enemy army, or as mundane as being deserted by a spouse or partner.  A public disgrace for some misdeed, whether or not the character is actually guilty, could lead her to exile herself from polite society and seek redemption in heroism.  Or perhaps, like Bilbo Baggins, the character might be sought out for some skill he has that an adventuring party needs, and discover, however reluctantly, that adventure suits him better than he ever imagined it would.

Unlike the young adventurer, the character of advancing years might well have attained journeyman or master status in some craft or profession.  A character with a skill corresponding to one of the categories of hirelings in the rules should be able to function as an expert in that field; i.e. a character coming from a career in sailing could act as the skipper of a vessel, while a blacksmith could craft weapons and a horse trainer can break mounts to the saddle.  The player might just as easily choose a less useful skill for his or her character, though, or might decide that the PC never found a true calling in years of dabbling. 

A character well-established in the community, with a long-practiced vocation, may start with different resources than a fresh-faced youngling.  The blacksmith might make himself a sword or shield for half price; the horse trainer might have access to a pack horse; a merchant might have an extra 1d6x5 starting gold.  The character will probably have a few contacts in the local area, neighbors, clients, colleagues, and the like.  Even a disgraced character is likely to have one or two loyal friends who stand by him or her, even if not publicly.  The number and loyalty of such contacts should be affected by the PC's Charisma - perhaps 1d4 contacts plus an additional 1d4 per point of Ch bonus, with loyalty judged according to the retainer morale score for the character's Charisma score.

Of course, starting late in life has its disadvantages too.  Most obviously, physical abilities begin to deteriorate.  Some editions have a chart of ability penalties that accrue as characters age.  I'm pondering a system to check randomly for loss of points at certain intervals.  I'm thinking about a roll of 3d20 for each physical ability score, with a total lower than or equal to that score resulting in a loss of one point from that ability.  Thus, characters with very high scores are more likely to see their performance slip.  The check would be made every five years between ages 30-50, every two years from 50-70, and every year thereafter. You're just not going to see many people past the age of 50 with an 18 Strength, even if they were that powerful in their youth.  A character might actually stand to gain Wisdom with age, though, with a check on 3d6 against the character's current Wisdom every decade after 30, a result higher than the current score meaning a point gained. 

You might also decide that it's harder for an old dog to learn new tricks, and impose a 5 or 10% penalty to earned XP to simulate this.  If the party is of mixed ages, with older characters adventuring alongside young ones, this can help to offset the advantages of trade skills and extra starting resources, if you allow them.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I just don't care

...about 5e, or DnD Next, or whatever it is they're going to call it.  I know the gaming blogosphere is abuzz with talk and speculation and open derision, and that the open play test was to begin some time soon, or recently.  It's just that I don't see it affecting me in the slightest, and so I can't bring myself to give a damn.

I don't give a damn about WOTC's latest reinvention of the proverbial wheel for the same reason I don't give a damn about American Idol.  I already have the edition that I like.  The latest season of Idol may have been, technically speaking, a fairly solid production, or it may have been a steaming pile of crap.  The finalists might be vocal aces with bright futures in the music business, or caterwauling twits that will flop and be forgotten, but I don't waste my time and words either pulling for their success or berating their flaws and gleefully predicting their failure.  They're not my style, so I ignore them.

I don't think the future of the hobby hinges on the quality and success of 5e, either, and frankly I'm not concerned about it.  If it flops, oh well.  If it succeeds, I won't grudge new players their preferred edition, any more than I'm going to make a concerted effort to get kids who are growing up on pop and hip-hop to scorn it in favor of Rush and Tom Petty.  If old school strikes a chord with them, they'll find their way to it.  If not, the hobby still survives, mutating and evolving into something I find distasteful and barely recognizable, but which is ultimately irrelevant to my life and pursuit of happiness.  I'm content to remain far behind the times marching to my own drummer (who sounds a lot like Neil Peart.)

As far as my music analogy goes, I think 5e may be even less relevant to gaming than American Idol and its ilk are to music.  I can't record new songs in the style of Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult.  For better or worse, unless they decide to go back to the studio and crank out a new album, I'm stuck with their past catalog.  But I can draw maps and write old school adventures to my heart's content.  I have my old rule books still, and they work every bit as well as they always have for inspiration, reference, and fodder for creativity.

It certainly would be awesome if Wizards would release all the old editions of D&D, either in print or PDF or both, so that new gamers could be more aware of their options, and old ones returning to the hobby could find their favorite rule sets, modules, and supplements.  I can still buy the old albums of Deep Purple, Kansas, Boston, Dire Straits, and The Who on CD or digital download, but the Moldvay Basic Set and the Keep on the Borderlands are only available via ebay or if you're willing to turn pirate and do some google searching for the buried treasure (not that I have any problem with digital "piracy," since I find "intellectual property" to be an invalid concept, but I digress.  It would still be nice to have a completely above board, white market source for old school TSR products.)  Nonetheless, we do still have some eminently serviceable retro clone rule sets, and quite a few old schoolers who continue to write and publish adventures and supplements for them, whether for free or for a fee.

At the end of the day, whether DnD Next is a screaming success, or ends up in the scrap heap, I'll still be playing my Classic D&D (with house rules,) and that's the edition my nieces (and hopefully nephews, when they're old enough) will play at my table.  If they get hooked, I'll gladly pass on the old school torch, along with my collection of game books and dice, to them, and they can teach their friends, and perhaps some day their own sons, daughters, nieces, or nephews.  With any luck, I might get to hear them blaring Tom Sawyer and Burnin' For You from their car stereos, too.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Combat sequence and flow

The sequence of events in combat has always been something of a sticky issue for me.  The initiative system is overall a pretty sound way of bringing some necessary order to the inherently chaotic back-and-forth of battle, but in the case of movement, having each side complete an entire sequence before the other significantly distorts the flow of combat.  In a real fight, one combatant doesn't always rush up to another while the other stands still.  More often, they rush at each other and clash somewhere in the middle, unless one or the other is holding his ground defensively.  If one side wishes to escape, and wins initiative, the other guys don't just stand there with dumb looks on their faces while their enemies race for the door.  They move to intercept and block them.  One group may try to outflank the other, which itself tries to avoid being pinned down.  I want a system that allows for those interesting interactions without bogging down the proceedings to the point of frustration.

Up to this point, I generally have played completely free form: Roll initiative, and let actions be decided and resolved on each character or creature's individual turn.  I understand that the "correct" way according to most editions is to have players announce their actions and targets prior to initiative, but that always seemed too constraining, and a lot changes very quickly once people and monsters start moving around and attacking.  Plus, it still doesn't address the issue of movement.

My tentative solution is to combine the movement phase of the combat round with a simplified announcement of intentions phase, both of which occur before initiative is rolled.  My proposed sequence, below:

1.  The referee decides the general actions of the monster or NPC opponents: Whether and in which direction they will move, and what attack forms they will use.  Specific targets need not be decided yet.

2.  Players decide and announce their intentions for movement and attack forms.  Specific targets need not be declared, but specific spells, weapons, or items must be named now.

3.  Movement occurs simultaneously.  Movement rates may be broken into halves, thirds, or fourths and applied in steps, or the referee can simply estimate the points where combatants will come into contact with one another.  When contact occurs between two combatants, either can declare intent to engage the other in melee if a suitable attack form is readied.  If this occurs, both cease movement, and their further actions are resolved according to order of initiative.  If either has movement remaining, he may use it during the melee combat phase to perform a fighting withdrawal or retreat as described in the Basic Rules.  If neither declares intent to attack, they simply move past one another.

 Orders, taunts, warnings, and offers of surrender or quarter may be issued and entertained in this phase as well.

4.  Initiative is rolled.

5.  Missile fire, winning side.  Targets are chosen now, attacks rolled, and damage applied, if applicable.  Note that as long as the target begins the round not being in melee, it is assumed that the missile attack is made during that time, and no penalties apply for firing into a melee.  Discharging magical devices such as wands or rings that require only a word of command or a silent act of will also occurs in this phase.

6.  Melee attacks, winning side.  If intent to engage in melee was announced during the movement phase, then that opponent is the target.  Otherwise, any opponent within 5' (or the reach of the weapon, for pole arms and the like) may be targeted.

7.  Magic and spells, winning side.  Targets or areas of effect are chosen now.  Spells may be aborted if the caster changes his mind, i.e. if movement has mixed allies and enemies in the same area so that a fireball cannot be deployed without harming allies.

8.  Missile fire, losing side.  The losing side does not have the luxury of firing before combatants engage in melee; rules for firing into melee apply in full at this point.  Note that any combatants previously attacked in melee by members of the winning side may not use missile fire devices other than loaded crossbows, though thrown weapon attacks are still possible.  An archer facing such a situation may counterattack with an unarmed strike or may draw a small weapon only and attack in the melee phase. 

9.  Melee attacks, losing side.

10.  Magic and spells, losing side.  Note that a spell caster struck in combat by a missile or melee attack previously in the round is disrupted and cannot complete the spell.  Spells may also be aborted by the caster.

11.  Morale checks, if needed.

I don't think this is overly complex, and while it needs playtesting, I can't foresee any insurmountable difficulties in using it.  If it works as I envision, it will have the effect of integrating movement into the flow of combat and provide opportunities for interesting tactical decisions.  Combatants will be able to influence and disrupt the movements of their opponents rather than idly watch them go where they will during their initiative.

It's entirely possible that this isn't exactly an original or novel way to do things, though I haven't personally encountered it before.  If anyone reading this has used a similar system, I'd certainly like to know how it went.  What points of similarity did it share with my proposal above, and what differences?  Did it flow smoothly and was it easy to remember and apply the sequence?  Did it require any tweaks, adjustments, or exceptions to make it work?

A simple example of how I hope it will work:  A party of four adventurers - two fighters, a magic-user, and a thief - encounters a band of six orcs at a distance of 60 feet.  Hostilities commence.  The DM determines that all three orcs will rush forth to engage the party while the other three hang back and ready their bows.  The two fighters draw their blades and advance toward the orcs as well.  The thief stays put and nocks an arrow to her bow.  The magic-user also holds his ground and starts casting a sleep spell.

The orcs are lightly armored and move at 40' per round, while the fighters are encumbered and move at 30' per round.  For simplicity's sake, the DM assumes that the two groups meet in the middle, 30' from their respective original positions.  One fighter immediately declares her intent to engage one of the orcs, halting its advance.  The other makes no declaration, hoping to slip through the lines to attack the orc archers in the next round, but this is made moot when the DM decides one of the remaining orcs will attack him.  The third orc, meeting no further resistance, decides to keep advancing toward the magic-user and thief, finishing the round a mere 20' from them.

Initiative is now rolled, and the orcs win.  The orc archers loose their arrows.  One targets the first fighter; since the fighter began the round not engaged in melee, no special difficulties apply, but with a low roll the shot still misses.  The other two fire at the magic-user and thief; the first misses.  The second hits for 4 points of damage, not quite enough to bring the thief down.

The orcs in melee go next, scoring damage against the second fighter but failing to bring him down.  There are no orcs casting spells, so the PCs are up next.

The thief sees the orc bearing down upon her and the magic-user, and shoots at it, scoring a glancing hit for 2 points.  Next, the two fighters attack, the first slaying her orc and the second wounding his.  Finally the magic-user's sleep spell is completed; he chooses to target the three orc archers, all of which slump peacefully to the ground.

The remaining orcs pass their morale check, so the action moves to round 2.  The second fighter and his orc are in melee, so the only movement options open to them are fighting withdrawal or retreat.  The orc starts to withdraw, and the fighter pursues.  The first fighter, seeing the peril of her squishy comrades and no longer mired in melee herself, hoofs it after the orc that's advancing on them, but won't reach it before it closes on them.  The magic-user and thief begin backing away, but the wall 10' behind them blocks them.  The orc keeps advancing toward them, and will easily reach them this round.  The thief nocks another arrow, while the magic-user draws his dagger.

The orcs win initiative again.  The first swings at the second fighter and misses.  The other slashes at the thief and also misses.

The thief, having been attacked in melee, may not use her bow as she had planned.  Instead, she whips the dagger from the sheath at her belt and makes a desperate stab, hitting for a point of damage.  The magic-user gallantly tries to help, but misses.  The second fighter hits his orc for max damage, decapitating it.

The lone remaining orc makes a morale check, and fails.  During the movement phase of the next round, it holds up its hands and bawls for mercy.  The party accepts, and the fight is over.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Creative cursing

I've never been too impressed with how curses on weapons are handled in D&D.  A penalty to hit and damage instead of a bonus...yawn.  There's no flavor or mystery to it, just basic subtraction.  When I think of a curse, I think of a terrible price paid for some meaningful benefit, or a penance for the sins of a past wielder, not a penalty for just picking up a sword.

The standard sword -1 format need not be abandoned completely, but these curses are intended for weapons that have useful abilities, perhaps even powerful ones.  In some cases, a character may bear the curse willingly to keep the weapon, particularly in a campaign in which magic weapons in general are scarce. 

Justice: Whenever the weapon is used to kill a creature of good alignment, or one not guilty of any wrong, the wielder must save vs. Death Ray or be struck dead on the spot.  Appropriate for a weapon once carried by a fallen paladin or knight.

Sorrow:  Before the wielder rolls to hit on any attack that could kill the target (i.e. the target has fewer hp remaining than the weapon's maximum damage) he must save vs. Paralysis or be struck numb with remorse for his intended actions and unable to act for 1d4 rounds.  Perhaps the weapon once belonged a warrior who regretted the lives he had taken during his career.

Taint of blasphemy:  The weapon's bearer is subject to turning by clerics of Lawful or good disposition, and if he steps into a temple or other hallowed ground of a good faith, he must make a saving throw vs. Spells each round he remains there or suffer 1d3 points of damage.  Pious people will sense something amiss as well, and may shun the character.  This weapon may have been owned by a cleric who betrayed his faith in some heinous way.

 Enemies' ire:  When combat is joined, the most powerful adversary will make every effort to attack the wielder.  In the case of encounters with a single enemy, it will always choose to target the weapon user if at all possible.  The weapon was likely the property of someone who boasted once too often of his combat prowess.

Death's shadow:  People are deeply uneasy in the presence of the weapon bearer for reasons they can't identify, and they will greatly desire to leave his presence as soon as possible.  NPCs and monsters react with a -3 penalty.  By contrast, undead creatures are drawn to the bearer as if he were a kindred soul, and beckon him to take his proper place among them.  Very likely the weapon belonged to someone who cheated death or fate.

Rage:  When combat begins, the wielder becomes enraged.  When combat would normally end, whether by defeating all enemies, surrender, or flight, the wielder of the weapon must make a saving throw vs. Spells each round or continue to attack the closest target, friend, foe, or neutral.  Perhaps the weapon belong to a wrathful or ill-tempered person who slew a friend in anger.

Burglar's bane:  Whenever the weapon's bearer tries to sneak or move stealthily, he must save vs. Paralysis or the weapon betrays him by slipping from its sheath to clatter to the floor, or if held, causing a sudden tic of the hand to make the character drop it or strike some noise-producing surface.  Rumor has it this weapon belonged to a thief who stole from his companions for many years before being caught, cursed, and banished from the group forever.

Mariner's curse:  If the weapon bearer should fall into any body of water, the weapon drags him like a stone to the bottom, and he is unable to let go of it.  Likely the bane of many an unlucky sailor.

Monstrous deformity:  The bearer of the weapon begins to develop features of some type of monster - scaly skin, yellow eyes, warts, thickened and elongated nails, clumps of wiry body hair, etc., and perhaps some of its tastes and habits as well - an appetite for raw meat, aversion to sunlight, or some such.  This might occur with a weapon that grants powers or abilities reminiscent of a particular monster type (e.g. a sword that allows the user to sense the presence of gold may make him resemble a dragon; one that drains energy levels might give him the deathly pallor of a wight) or one meant to combat a specific type or class of monsters.  A character with a cursed sword +1, +2 vs. goblins might start to resemble a goblin in appearance and habits.  ("He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster." -- Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nightmares:  The bearer of the weapon is plagued with terrible nightmares, and each night must make a saving throw vs. Spells or awaken unrefreshed, healing no damage naturally and unable to memorize spells.  If that throw is failed, a save vs. Death Ray must be made, with each failure resulting in a loss of one point of Wisdom.  A successful night's sleep will restore 1d4 lost points.  If the character's Wisdom drops below 3, he has lost his grip on reality and become insane.  The insanity is permanent, unless treated with a Cureall spell or similar powerful healing magic.

Pestilence:  The weapon attracts insects and vermin, which begin to infest the bearer's clothing and rations.  He will eventually be infected with any number of disfiguring and debilitating diseases, but the weapon's curse prevents any of them from killing or disabling him - any debilities are token only, imposing no more than a -1 penalty to any action.  NPCs are likely to act with revulsion and may refuse to deal with the character at all, and his diseases are communicable to others.  A Cure Disease spell functions normally, but the sicknesses will return soon so long as the weapon remains in the character's possession. 

Changeling:  This weapon was made by fey enchanters, and never meant for mortal hands.  When wielded by a mortal, the fey magic sometimes overwhelms him.  On any natural roll of 1 or 20, an unexpected magical effect occurs.  (A chart of such effects will need to be adopted or developed.)  In all likelihood, the weapon was stolen from the faerie court by a mortal too clever for his own good; the faeries may be actively seeking it, which may add to the current bearer's troubles.

Spell magnet:  The weapon draws magical energy to itself.  Any spell cast at a target within five feet of the bearer arcs over to the weapon instead, and is conducted along it and into him.  A normal saving throw applies to resist or reduce the effect.  If the spell is cast directly at the bearer, the curse draws in so much of the magical energy that a -2 penalty applies to the saving throw.

Eternal peril:  The weapon calls silently to monsters.  While it is carried, the chances of random encounters double.

Power siphon:  The weapon's bonus to hit and damage functions, but by drawing life energy from the wielder.  On each successful hit, the wielder loses hit points equal to the weapon's bonus.  A character attacking an enemy with a +2 sword does get a +2 bonus to hit, and if he hits does +2 damage, but takes 2 hit points of damage himself.  No damage is incurred on a missed attack.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Secret door triggers

So we're big into player agency when it comes to finding traps and secret doors.  None of that roll-a-die-to-see-if-you-find-it nonsense for us!  But what do you do when you've done the moose head, the candle sconce, and the bookshelf gimmicks to death?  Here are a few secret door triggers that aren't quite as cliche.

Show me the weigh:  A balance scale is affixed to the wall near the location of the door.  If a certain amount of weight is placed in each basket, the door is activated.  If desired, a note with a cryptic hint, such as "Which weighs more, a pint of ale or a dagger?" may be left nearby.

Under pressure:  There's a pressure plate in the floor, either near the secret door or on the opposite side of the room from it.  The weight of a character or equivalent triggers the door.  More fun if the plate is far from the door and nothing heavy is close to hand to keep the door open for the last character.  A variant might have two or more pressure plates, requiring all to be depressed simultaneously in order to open the door.  As an added bonus, players might take this for a trap rather than a secret door mechanism, and give it a wide berth!

Taking a load off:  As the pressure plate, above, but the door's default position is open; it is held closed by the weight of an object on the plate.  When the object is removed, the door opens.  Of course, it might be opening to release a guardian creature to prevent the theft of the object...

The toll door:  Examining the wall reveals a tiny slot, about as wide and as thick as a coin.  If a coin is inserted, the door opens.  A carefully designed mechanism might be able to distinguish coin types by weight, and only accept gold or platinum.

Beer me:  A relief of a face with open mouth is carved on or near the door.  Pouring a pint of some sort of liquid down the mouth fills a reservoir, triggering a weight-sensitive mechanism that opens the door and empties the reservoir.  If the door is allowed to swing closed, the face must be "filled" again.

Opens with keys:  A piano or organ sits against the wall with the secret door.  Playing a certain series of notes activates it.  A piece of sheet music nearby may hold the proper sequence.

Down the drain:  Diverting water down a particular drain drives a water wheel that opens the door.  Ideal for baths, sewers, or anywhere else with either plumbing or flowing channels of water.

Don't stair:  The secret passage is hidden behind a staircase, which is either lifted or cranked up.

A question of alignment:  A doorway is clearly visible, but appears to be a blind portal, blocked by a wall behind.  The entire wall containing the doorway is made to slide, but this will only be noticed by examining the corners of the room, in which case the seams will be seen.  When the wall is slid in the proper direction, the doorway in it will align with the opening in the wall behind it.

The king's treasure:  A variation on the pressure plate theme.  The catch to the secret door to a treasure room is concealed behind a standard sliding panel.  However, it will not function unless the throne is occupied. 

The bullseye:  The room on the other side can be seen through an arrow slit, but no door is evident.  On the wall in the other chamber is a target.  Hitting the bullseye with an arrow or quarrel (a roll against AC 2) triggers the secret door between the two rooms.

With a twist:  In a room with columns or pillars, one has a neat hole bored all the way through.  This is meant for a stout steel bar to be thrust through, forming a lever to rotate the pillar and activate the secret door.  The bar may or may not be present in the room.

Blow it up:  A strange round hole in the wall is the only visible sign.  A length of small diameter metal pipe may be found nearby, which fits exactly into the hole.  Doing so and blowing into the pipe inflates a leather bladder mounted in the space within the wall, which presses upon the latch mechanism of the door, opening it.

Sham slime:  The door is actually a sheet of oiled cloth treated to look like green slime, grey ooze, or yellow mold.  It's easy to see, but not obvious that it conceals a portal, and...Who wants to be the first to touch it?  May be highly flammable, for a nasty surprise if someone tries to preemptively burn the monster.

Fire in the hole:  Near a fireplace or forge is a hole which looks to be a perfect match for the poker or other metal implement.  Merely inserting it cold is ineffective; the poker must be heated to red hot first.  When this is done, the hot poker heats a strip of heat-sensitive metal, causing it to expand and release the catch of the door.

The Slim Jim:  The stout catch of the secret door is on the other side.  It can be lifted free by sliding a long flat object, like a sword blade, through the seam.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Unbalancing the party

A few posts ago, I expended a page of text pondering some of the costs of encounter and adventure "balance," which in my mind at least added up to a compelling case not to bother with it at all.  Now, another venerable D&D trope that I think can (and probably should) be left by the wayside:  the Balanced Adventuring Party.

The standard Balanced Adventuring Party consists of a fighter, a magic-user, a thief, and a cleric.  If there are more than four characters, the extras are usually extra fighter or cleric types, and all are within a level or two of each other.  I'm really not sure exactly how or when this idea got started.  The monsters section of the Moldvay/Cook edition has entries for entire parties of a single class (Veterans, mediums, bandits, and acolytes, respectively.)  The rules for generating NPC adventuring parties involve rolling dice to determine the number of members and the class and level of each.  The name of the game, it seems, is randomness, not balance.  There's no mention of balancing the party at all.  If anything, it's openly thumbing its nose at balance.

To be fair, I also don't know of any rule set that officially enshrines the Balanced Adventuring Party as something to be striven for, but quite a few adventure modules explicitly suggest and encourage it in very strong terms.  I'm definitely not knocking the general idea that a diverse assortment of talents can be a good thing, but it seems to me that there are a couple of artificial impositions on the game that push the notion of party balance from a potentially advantageous option to a sacred principle of adventuring.

The first of those things is the Balanced Adventure, especially those at the railroady end of the agency spectrum.  The party is expected to overcome a specific series of scenes and encounters en route to a predetermined goal.  Because there's little opportunity to circumvent or avoid encounters, or to go off in search of more appealing challenges, each encounter and the adventure as a whole must be balanced to provide challenges that are neither insurmountable nor boringly easy - a task that's considerably simpler if one assumes a certain ratio of competencies in the party.  Different sorts of obstacles are included in the adventure to give each class something to do and a chance to shine - tough monsters for the fighters, locks and traps for the thief, barriers that can only be solved with magic for the magic-user, undead for the cleric, etc.  Many, if not most, commercial adventure modules that I've read and/or run seem to be written with the Balanced Adventuring Party in mind, and deviating from that formula too far is likely to make things a lot harder on the party, the scenes tailored for absent classes becoming either impossible or much more taxing to the party's limited resources than expected, throwing the balance for the adventure's climax against them.

The other artificial imposition is niche protection, the idea that the usefulness of a class depends on its being able to do things that the other classes can't.  One of the most oft-cited arguments for niche protection is that of the magic-user class allegedly stepping on the toes of the thief class with its Knock and Invisibility spells.  (By the same token, of course, fighters must be arbitrarily barred from forcing or smashing locks if the thief's supposed bailiwick is to be preserved.)  If the thief's lock-picking niche is to be protected, then it follows that a thief is an absolute necessity to any party that expects to find locked spaces that it wishes to access.

I've already dealt with encounter and adventure balance here.  As for niche protection, I think it's an unnecessary convention based on the misconception that class defines what characters can do, instead of representing a style and set of methods for approaching challenges.  A thief's skill is but one way to defeat a lock - often the most effective and advantageous way, but not the only one.  Magic is a very convenient method of defeating many obstacles, but oftentimes a little old-fashioned wit or muscle power properly applied will serve as well.

Once we dispense with those two contrived bogeymen, there's no reason why a party that lacks one or more of the archetypal classes can't be a viable adventuring team.

A party of all fighters can solve problems with brute force and skill at arms.  When the fighters face a challenge to which their strengths aren't ideally suited, they can improvise a solution or they can shrug and go off in search of something that suits them better.  They are neither constrained by their class as to what obstacles they can try to overcome, nor bound to tackle challenges they feel ill-equipped to face.  A party of magic-users might lean heavily on deceit, negotiating, and running away from monsters instead of physical combat, but they aren't barred from mixing it up whenever they like their odds.  A party without a cleric has other means of healing themselves and dispatching undead monsters, and a group with no thief can still negotiate a warren of traps and locked doors if they choose.

The bottom line for me is that, like adventures and individual characters, adventuring parties are far more interesting and varied when freed from rigid formulas, when you let unexpected things occur.  Players shouldn't feel obligated to play a particular class just because the group "needs" one or already has "enough" of another.  Whether you end up with a Balanced Adventuring Party, or with six fighters, or with four magic-users, a thief, and a halfling, what's the problem?  In fact, given the option, I'd rather run a game for one of the latter two parties. 

I'm seriously trying to come up with some way to have my players roll up their next set of characters separately, without any knowledge of what the others have chosen to play, to see if that makes a difference in the composition of the party.

Friday, May 18, 2012

An old trick

I was thumbing through my old copy of B2, and discovered a couple sheets of paper folded between the pages, which turned out to be the slightly faded map and dungeon key I had made for the Cave of the Unknown. 

Included was this dastardly trick, in location #5.
A wooden chest sits by the east wall.  It is trapped with a capsule of gas (actually harmless fog.)  Inside are 3 copper coins and a note that reads, "Was it really worth it?"
I must have been about 14 when I wrote that.  Good times.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back into the wilderness

This post at Hill Cantons got me thinking about wilderness exploration again, and provided a few seeds around which some thoughts have crystallized.  How do you really bring a wilderness trek to life, and make the wilderness itself the adventure?

The answer to part two of this question, I think, is that you don't.  In real life, experiencing the natural splendor of a wilderness area is often an adventure in itself.  That's why people go hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and what-have-you.  The trouble is that simply describing these things isn't exciting.  No matter how great your skill with words and images, narrating the most breathtaking vista of the most awe-inspiring landscape from the most majestic mountain peak you can imagine is not, in and of itself, going to capture the interest of your audience for very long.  Narrating day after day of a journey through the forest isn't even going to come close.

Just trekking through the wild to a narrative is not enough.  Even natural hazards, in and of themselves, become boring after a while.  Oh, another cliff?  Roll to see if we can scale it.  Another raging river?  OK, we follow it until there's a bridge or a place to ford.  Facing these dangers simply because they're there is at least as tedious as facing a pointless series of random monster encounters. 

The key to bringing the wilderness to life is to make the players intensely curious about what's in it besides nature in all its beautiful and dangerous glory.  There must be a goal besides merely experiencing the wilderness.  Tell them that somewhere in the mountains is the lost entrance to the legendary halls of the goblin tyrant Ognhash, or that the wooded valley is rumored to have been the location of a fabled Elven stronghold that fell to the goblins three millennia ago, or that the swamp is the home of a tribe of lizard men with a dragon-like fondness for gold and jewels.  Once they're out there poking around, let them spot other potential points of interests from high vantages or find tantalizing clues pointing toward new mysteries to pose new choices and keep them moving ever onward.

When they have reason to believe there's something of interest hidden out there, players have a reason to care about the setting.  With their imaginations already piqued, they'll be receptive to those tracts of purple prose as you describe the scene before them.  They'll be willing to become invested in the mood you want to convey, because they expect to be spending some time exploring instead of just blowing through on their way elsewhere.  Instead of just sighing in resignation at the cliffs, raging rivers, or quagmires that block their way, they'll wonder what might be waiting to be discovered beyond them.  If lost ruins and treasures were easy to get to, they wouldn't have stayed lost very long, after all.  Players expect the greatest rewards to lie behind the greatest dangers and most vexing puzzles, and thus that any given danger or puzzle might be guarding a great reward, so use that hoary trope for all it's worth. They shouldn't all have rewards behind them, of course, but the possibility should be ever in the players' minds.

Making the wilderness trek time-sensitive is another way to make the players care about it.  Those hazards actually mean something when the party has taken a shortcut to try to beat the evil warlord to the village in the mountains.  The gaping ravine with a churning river at its bottom, which would make them shrug any other time now elicits groans and gnashing of teeth as it represents a costly delay that must be defeated as quickly as possible.  Your lush descriptions of scenery work as a counterpoint to the anxiety of the situation and remind the players that precious time is passing without just saying, "Time is passing."

As a somewhat tangential observation, I don't think that the standard RPG hex map with one symbol per hex is particularly conducive to a wilderness adventure of captivating detail.  I like contour lines instead of brown humps and triangles, to really show the lay of the land rather than give an abstract impression of hills and mountains.  I want, not a tree icon in each forested hex, but the amoebic green mass that shows distinctly the shape of the wood and all the clear areas within it.  I want swamps with solid ground, treacherous mires, and water clearly distinguished.  I want points of interest like streams, ponds, rocky outcrops, cliffs, ravines, rock slides, waterfalls, and game trails marked individually on the map.  Of course, all of this is best done with a map of much higher resolution than the typical 6, 8, or 24 mile hexes of traditional RPG maps.  There's just too much in a hex of that size to capture the detail and diversity on the map.  You can always drop in features at random as the party traverses them, but that smacks too much of illusionism for my taste.  It's not even subtle illusionism; it's pretty clear to the players that the reason they came upon that chasm or waterfall is because the DM or the dice just said so and it has little or nothing to do with their choice to travel in a particular direction.

I prefer a map of 1/2 to 2 miles per hex.  This might seem pretty small, but I think it's entirely appropriate. Large scale maps are fine for travel between settlements, when the party should be using a road or at least a well-known route and has little interest in exploring the territory between point A and point B.  When they're exploring a tract of wilderness, though, they should be really exploring, and on a time scale smaller than a full day at a time.  It's hard to care much about the wilderness when you're glossing over 12 miles or more of it at a time with one or two events per day. 

Paradoxically, if you want to make the wilderness itself interesting to players, you have to make it the backdrop for something even more intriguing.  It just doesn't stand up well on its own.  Just as the straight man becomes an integral part of the act when paired with the slapstick, though, so the wilderness of an RPG setting becomes a force when paired with the lure of something more exotic than itself.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Unique characters part 2: Background

Despite being no longer a fan of formal skill systems, I'm still in favor of individualizing characters in ways unrelated to their class and vital statistics, ways that capture a bit of who they are rather than merely defining what they can do.  This is a very basic framework only, because that's all I really need to get the effect I want.  It's assumed that the chosen adventuring class is a character's primary focus, and that any other skills and interests are only peripheral dabbling.

Background is what the character did before he or she decided to run off in pursuit of adventure, fame, and fortune.  In non-modern settings, almost everybody works from childhood on, and a player character is no different.  Pre-teen and teenage years would have been spent learning the basics of some trade.  Often this would be a family occupation, but a character might also have been apprenticed to another tradesman and learned a different craft.

A player should either choose or roll randomly to determine in what trade the character was brought up before being derailed into adventure.  In most games, adventurers start young, and it's unlikely they've progressed beyond an apprentice level of competency.  They're not going to master those crafts until and unless they settle down and leave the adventuring life behind.  Their character classes are their careers now.

Nonetheless, they have picked up the fundamentals, and sometimes those can be of use in specific situations during an adventure.  Rather than a detailed system to adjudicate specific abilities and results, the use of background skills in the game is best played out as a conversation between the player and DM.  If a player thinks the character's background has some special relevance to the situation at hand, she suggests it to the DM, who makes a ruling.

"Deck hands do a lot of climbing in the ship's rigging.  Crossing a rope bridge is somewhat similar, right?"

"I'm a farmer's daughter.  Shouldn't I know something about how to calm a spooked animal?"

"I was apprenticed to a pawnbroker.  Can I estimate what that painting would fetch on the market?"

The results should be fairly limited in scope: an automatic success on a minor action directly related to the background, a +1 bonus to a more important action or when the background is only indirectly relevant, a bit of information gained.  The character should be able to assess the quality of items that pertain to his old trade with a fair degree of confidence, and to perform basic tasks.  The rudimentary skills of a PC are not equivalent to the specialists listed for hire in the Expert Rules and elsewhere, and PCs should not be able to serve (competently, at least) as their own specialists, though they could easily act as assistants to a specialist if time and circumstances permit. 

The real point isn't to give the players extra abilities, but to get them thinking in terms of what a character of a certain background would do and give them a point of identity to role play from if they so desire. 

Below, a list of possible character backgrounds, choose or roll d30:
(1d3-1 for tens, 1d10 for ones if you don't have a d30)

1 Animal handler (Driver, ostler, groom, kennel keeper, beekeeper, etc.)

2 Apothecary/herbalist
3 Aristocrat

4 Artisan (Painter, sculptor, potter, glassblower, or other artistic profession)
5 Beggar
6 Church, lay member

7 Craftsman (Carpenter, blacksmith, candle maker, wheelwright, cooper, tailor, tanner, cobbler, weaver, dyer, etc.)
8 Dock worker

9 Entertainer (Musician, singer, dancer, actor, juggler, fortuneteller)

10 Farmer
11 Fisher
12 Food preparation (Butcher, baker, brewer, chef, cheese maker, etc.)
13 Guard

14 Healer

15 Herder
16 Hospitality (Innkeeper, bartender, cook)

17 Hunter
18 Law and justice (Constable, judge, lawyer)

19 Merchant, shopkeeper/peddler
20 Merchant, traveling
21 Miller

22 Miner
23 Porter
24 Sailor
25 Scholar
26 Scribe or cartographer

27 Servant
28 Stonemason

29 Soldier
30 Woodcutter

Obviously this list isn't exhaustive, and doesn't even attempt to represent the actual proportions of those occupations in a medieval or Renaissance society.  It's simply intended to churn out some interesting results for player character backgrounds.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why I scrapped skills

Since I started posting about how to make characters unique, I thought I should address one of the most common systems added to the game for that purpose.  I'm aware that this topic has been covered pretty thoroughly and that I'm probably not offering much of anything in the way of fresh insights, but I felt like stating my reasoning in my own words, so here it is.  

My introduction to skills came via the Gazetteer series of supplements to the Known World/Mystara setting introduced in the Expert Rules set, specifically GAZ6, The Dwarves of Rockhome, which happened to be the first one I acquired.  Briefly, every character got four skill slots plus his Intelligence bonus, with additional slots gained at higher levels.  Each skill was based on an ability score, and checked by rolling d20 against that score.  The list of skills, accumulated over the entire run of the Gazetteer and Creature Crucible series, included things such as crafts (blacksmith, cobbler, armorer, weaver, etc.,) knowledge of whatever field you choose, acrobatics, dancing, singing, musical instruments, labor and professional skills (mining, engineering, sailing, cooking, etc.,) gambling, art, law and justice, alertness, weather sense, direction sense, healing, bargaining, persuasion, riding, tracking...the list goes on and on.  Some skills, such as quick draw, fighting instinct, and blind fighting even granted combat bonuses.

The system appealed to me immediately for its promise in making characters more than just generic members of a class.  At a glance, skills seem to do just that, defining a character's training and interests not directly related to the functions of his class, and since my players at the time were fairly experienced and game-savvy, they didn't have much trouble adding skill selection to the character creation process.  Until pretty recently, in fact, I thought of a skill system as an essential part of my game.  A few things have led me to rethink that view.  My new group, with only one veteran player, found the skills confusing, and fretted about choosing the ones most useful in an adventuring career.  Skills did not serve to add depth to their characters, but to gain bonuses and define what they could and could not do.  And of course, I had begun to read the ruminations of some old school game bloggers that clearly articulated a lot of my vague misgivings about the skill system and added even more that had never occurred to me.  In particular, -C of Hack and Slash has done a fantastic job of deconstructing skill systems and individual skills.

Using my own recently articulated framework for analyzing complexity, realism, and choices, here are my conclusions on skills.

Skills certainly do offer up a lot of additional options, but the placement of those choices and their actual interest are dubious.  Skill systems heavily front-load choices into the character creation phase.  Most of the choice comes in the form of whether to take the skill in the first place, very little in whether and when to use it in play. 

I divide skills into two admittedly nebulous categories:  Those that are directly and commonly useful in adventuring, and those that are mainly for role playing color and flavor.  The first sort are prone to either limiting the scope of choice in play, or else contributing to bonus inflation.  To be worthwhile at all, having a skill must provide an advantage over not having it.  That necessarily means that either characters who lack the skill are penalized or barred from attempting actions relating to it, or else characters with the skill get a boost over and above the baseline of ability assumed in the game.  It's debatable whether the "useful" skills actually expand the range of choice during an adventure at all.  At best they affect the odds of success of a particular action, but they generally don't open up completely new possibilities.  You can attempt to persuade someone without having the persuasion skill; you can bargain without bargaining skill; lack of mining skill doesn't prevent you from examining a cave wall or trying to tunnel through the wall with a pick; you can run and jump without athletics skill.

The choices implied by the "color and flavor" skills, the cooking and crafting and singing and all that, are generally ones that players wouldn't try without them, but also aren't all that interesting to most players. 99 times out of 100, a painting or leather-working skill roll has no significant consequences in the game. 

Skills add only a little complexity to actual play, but a lot to character creation.  The relatively uninteresting range of choices they add to game play doesn't even come close to offsetting this unless your players really know their way around the D&D game.  Even then, it's iffy.  It may be moderately interesting to make your character a singer or a blacksmith, but it has precious little application in play beyond a role playing hook, and that can be accomplished without codifying it into game mechanics.

Having failed the interesting choices vs. added complexity test, assessing realism is more or less a moot point, but the skills system does produce some wildly counter-realistic results.  For one, it allows a character with a high requisite ability score to be an instant virtuoso, while one with an average score can never be more than mediocre.  Worse, a character with a high score in a particular ability can load up on skills based on that ability, and be a virtuoso in multiple fields.  A character with a 17 Intelligence can begin play as a master blacksmith, tracker, shipwright, and alchemist, trades that each should require years, if not decades of diligent practice to attain mastery.  It's terribly unrealistic for someone who deserts the family farm at the age of 16 for a life of adventure to be a better farmer than his father who's been toiling in the fields for a quarter century simply because he has a higher Intelligence score. 

In my opinion, the skill system fails at what ought to be its primary purposes.  It doesn't add much in the way of new options in actual play - in fact, it subtracts from them.  As a means of distinguishing and individualizing characters, it's a Rube Goldberg device, and it even fails the lowest priority, the realism test.  Its cons far outweigh its pros in my estimation, which is why it's no longer a part of my game.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Unique characters, part 1: Ability scores

I've already expressed my distaste for the typical slate of character customization options that make trivial tweaks and pile on bonuses.  Of course, I'm not against unique and memorable characters - far from it.  So, what do I think is the "right" way to make characters different and distinct from one another?  Let's start with the very first step of character creation, the rolling of ability scores.  (Here's where I sing the praises of 3d6 in order.)

Why not 4d6-drop-lowest or some other method of generating superior scores?  Because you scrunch the range of likely scores toward the top of the curve, which naturally produces a less diverse spectrum of abilities.

Why in order?  Because when players can arrange scores to taste or even swap one pair, it tends to make characters of the same class look very much alike.  Suppose a player rolls scores as follows:


She wants to play a fighter.  If she can swap two scores, you know with almost absolute certainty that the 16 is going in Strength and the 11 to Wisdom, because that's what a fighter is "supposed" to look like.  If she has free rein to arrange the scores any way she likes, the 8 probably won't stay in Dexterity; it will likely end up in Charisma; the 13 will probably be assigned to Dexterity or Constitution.  The odds are that any fighter character created with these options is going to have its highest score in Strength, and any other higher-than-average scores will probably wind up in the other physical abilities.  Fighters will start to look very much alike in their stats, and it may even create a perception that any fighter that doesn't conform to the pattern is inadequate or inferior. 

If the scores must be played in the order in which they were rolled, our hypothetical player is faced with a healthy dilemma.  Does she play a wise but physically average fighter, or opt for a cleric?  There's no reason she couldn't choose to play a magic-user, thief, elf, or dwarf either. 

This is especially true if we can somehow dispel the attachment to the concept of Prime Requisites for character classes.  Sure, Strength is of benefit to fighters, but it benefits anyone who engages in melee combat, and a fighter can benefit from other abilities.  In truth, every ability score can be of use to every class if a player plays the character in ways that capitalize on its strengths, whatever they may be.  A character with a class-atypical distribution of ability scores can still be effective, just perhaps in a different fashion than the high-score-in-prime-requisite model.  With the notable exception of the magic-user, who really needs at least to be able to read to study spells, there's really no compelling reason why any class needs to be so strongly associated with a single ability.  (And even in the case of the magic-user, one might struggle along with a semi-literate 6-8 Intelligence.  There's even literary precedent for dull-witted wizards - think Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter novels.)

3d6 in order is a more organic way of growing, rather than building, a character.  People are born with an array of strengths and weaknesses and choose their courses in life in light of their physical and mental makeup.  Sometimes their passions and their talents don't align, and they must choose between following their hearts and pursuing their aptitudes.  They don't get to maximize their builds; they must learn to work with what they have and make what they have work.  

The choice facing our hypothetical player and her character already provides a huge opportunity to establish a personality.  Does she follow her dream, determined to beat the odds and become a renowned swordswoman, or does she resign herself to the life of a priestess?  If she does choose the path of the warrior, she's unlikely to be a statistical clone of any other fighter in the party.

Ability score bonuses can certainly be advantageous in play, but slavish adherence to a class/ability template is limiting.  In truth, a bonus or penalty, even in a prime requisite ability, is rarely going to make the difference between a character that's fun to play and one that isn't, nor between success and failure in a chosen class. 

The diversity that naturally results from 3d6 in order character creation, and the choices that in turn stem from it regarding class and characterization are, to me at least, far more interesting than cookie-cutter characters who are always exceptional in their field, to the point of making the exceptional tedious.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Re-thinking the caller

I don't know about you, but even though I learned D&D via the old Moldvay Basic rules, I never, ever used the Caller Rule.  According to Moldvay:
One player should be chosen to tell the DM about the plans and actions of the party.  This player is the caller.  The players may tell the DM what their characters are doing, but the game runs more smoothly when the caller relays the information.  The caller should be sure to check with each member of the party before announcing any actions (such as "We'll turn right" or "The thief will check for traps").  The caller is usually a character with a high Charisma score, and shoul be near the front of the party, where the character would be able to see what the DM describes.
Back in the day, this struck me as raising a superfluous barrier between DM and players, and then positing a mechanism to work around it, adding a needless intermediate step to the proceedings, something like the old sitcom trope of having two people who are ostensibly on non-speaking terms relay their words to each other through a third, despite the fact that they're standing within arm's reach of each other.  

Now, bighara over at Echoes from the Geekcave had been posting some thoughts on several aspects of the old Moldvay set, and one of them brought the long-forgotten Caller Rule back to my mind, and suddenly something just clicked.  This rule could potentially solve a long-standing problem in my games. 

Specifically, I've always been terrible at time management.  The concept of marking off turns on a time sheet isn't difficult to grasp; it's when to mark off a turn that posed the quandary.  When my players say, "I listen at the door," and "I want to search for traps," and "I want to climb up and look at that ledge," each expects a resolution right now, and by the time I finish one, someone else has thought of something he or she wants to do, sometimes something that really should have taken place before the last action.  It's never quite clear which activities are happening simultaneously, and which in sequence, and thus also unclear when one turn should end and the next begin.  A related issue was if and when I should hold a player to something blurted out on the spur of the moment or let it slide as merely "thinking out loud."

Using a caller in the game would really help clear up that muddled mess.  The players have a chance to hash out their characters' actions in a non-binding conversation amongst themselves.  Then the caller relays their actions to me in a nice, neat, concise, and legally binding package.  I know exactly what each character is doing and when, and that they are, in fact, actually doing so.  I can choose the order in which to resolve their actions that makes the most sense to me.  When it's all done, I check off a turn, and ask the players, "What now?" and the cycle repeats.

Having the caller isn't so much an artificial barrier between players and DM as a valve to regulate the flow of information.  I'll still be interacting one-on-one with each player to resolve the actions they take as declared by the caller.  They can still ask questions of me during their inter-party conversation phase, so long as it's about things they can see or know from their current position, i.e. without taking action other than looking around. 

I think a re-reading of the entire rule book (which I haven't read in total in nigh on twenty years) might be a profitable exercise, now that I have the perspective to recognize the genius in some of those overlooked rules.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lost in the wilderness

One of the things I had the toughest time with back in the day was wilderness exploration, a.k.a. the classic Hex Crawl.  Oh, the procedures were straightforward enough: Calculate movement rates through the appropriate terrain, roll for getting lost, roll for encounters, and move the party's position on the map, stopping to play out numbered encounters in any hex they might pass through.  The problem, of course, is that this isn't an inherently interesting process, and it becomes mind-numbingly boring after a few repetitions.

My first experience with hex crawls was module X1, The Isle of Dread, that came packaged with the Frank Mentzer-edited Expert Set.  The excitement of having new rules for large-scale wilderness exploration (as opposed to the hour or turn-based treks in the Borderlands of B2 fame,) and a plethora of new monsters (Dinosaurs!!) both in the rule book and the appendix of the module pretty effectively offset the tedium of my repetitious methods and the fact that despite its overall coolness, the non-random encounter density of the Isle of Dread was entirely too low.

Eventually, though, the novelty of wilderness adventuring and new monsters became old hat.  Most of the time, if the party was headed to a particular destination, I'd just move them along the map toward it without bothering to ask, "Which way do you go?" and roll for encounters en route, while they talked amongst themselves or doodled on their character sheets.  Sometimes I'd just roll once for encounters and gloss over the rest of the journey entirely.  If there was actual exploration to be done, they would choose a direction pretty much at random, and I'd roll the checks each day, report on their progress in bland generalities ("You're still in the woods."  "You enter the mountains.") and ask them which direction they wanted to go the next day.  Rarely having been given a reason to change their heading, they'd invariably keep going until they found something either interesting or impassable.  If they passed within a hex or two of a fixed encounter location, I'd fudge their direction a little, or else they'd pass it by and never know it.

This probably makes it sound as if I sucked as a DM, and I won't try to wriggle away from that charge.  For whatever reason, I just didn't get how it was really meant to be done.  Once again, it's a combination of age, hindsight, and the insights of the Old School Renaissance to the rescue.  I can see now that one of my biggest failings back then was that I didn't give my players enough information.  It's really no wonder they just messed around until I rolled up something for them to fight.  They were waiting for something, anything, to inform their decisions.  I've seen posts on other sites postulating a system for determining the chances of parties finding something in a given hex, but I don't think that's the answer I've been looking for.  Rather, I want an analog solution, an interaction between me and my players, observing and questioning, not merely a die roll.  Just like with traps in a dungeon, things should be described, clues should be given openly, and the choice of whether and how to pursue them left to the players.

What would they know about the area without expending much proactive effort, through tavern talk, local folklore, notices posted at the inn, and so on?  What else could they find out by digging deeper, asking sages or old timers or eyewitnesses, rooting around in the town archives or library?  Trekking aimlessly into the mountains just because the DM says they're there is pretty dull, at least for a game experience.  Trekking into the mountains because you've heard that the Crypt of the Mad Dwarf Lord is rumored to be out there somewhere, in a hidden ravine with blue-veined stone, accessible only by rappelling down a steep cliff, makes for an interesting excursion, in which the players know what they hope to find and have some idea of where and how to find it. 

What can they see while they're out there in the field?  If you have enough points of interest marked on the map, they should be able to learn of the existence of some of them even from a few hexes away.  From the top of a hill or the high branches of a tree, explorers should be able to see for miles under decent conditions.  Rivers, lakes, a towering spire of rock, a ruined castle on a distant hill, the stone cairns on a gloomy moor, a hamlet with wisps of smoke rising from its hearths, or a twisted and ominous tract of forest could be visible to a party that pauses to survey its surroundings.  Even if they're not adventure sites, distinctive landmarks add interest and depth to the setting and provide points of reference. Hey, there's that three-pointed rock!  I know where we are now!

What clues are there to be found that might point to the presence of a keyed encounter site without having to pass through its exact hex?  If there's an orc lair, there should certainly be well-worn paths that the orcs use for raiding and foraging, perhaps ranging many miles from the lair itself.  If there's a ruined castle, there might be ancient remnants of a paved highway or aqueduct, anomalous weathered statues sticking out of stands of bracken, or the foundations of farm houses overgrown with brush.  The trees in an owlbear's territory might bear obvious claw marks.  Fairy rings of mushrooms might give away the proximity of a stronghold of pixies.  Clues can point to a specific direction or course of action, or they can just intrigue the party enough to make them declare that they want to stay in this area and search it more intensively. 

How does a random encounter fit into the setting and its current events? If you roll goblins, what are they doing there?  Are they on their way to, or just come from a keyed encounter location?  Do the friendly elves or dryads have any information that might be of use or interest, and is it specific or vague?  Can you add hooks to random encounters?  If you roll giant carnivorous flies, they might be feasting on the carcass of a horse with saddle and harness.  Whose was it, and what happened to him?  Could it have anything to do with a nearby keyed encounter site?  Might it lead to something other than what the players are currently pursuing, thus posing a choice to be made? 

What terrain clues might inform a party's choice of direction?  Does the land slope, and if so, in which direction?  Are there brooks and streams that would logically flow toward a major river or lake?  Game trails or hunting paths?  Do the winds tend to come from a particular direction? 

I haven't yet run a real wilderness adventure in my new campaign, but I'm no longer dreading the choice between fun-sapping tedium and glossing over it.  I'm actually looking forward to a fun an interesting adventure.  Thanks again, OSR.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

An unbalanced world

Recent editions of D&D, so I've read, have virtually made a fetish of balance.  The word does have a certain warm fuzziness if you don't think too deeply about the implications.  When I do, though, it's hard to imagine a greater travesty to inflict upon the game.

If you never face anything but "level appropriate" challenges, what's the point of leveling up at all?  You're just on a level treadmill.  Every time you become more powerful, your opponents match you exactly.  The term "skill tax" was coined to describe a situation in which you have to improve a given skill just to stay even with an increasing challenge level.  Well, isn't fetishizing the balanced encounter really just a level tax?

If you never have to run from a hill giant when you're second level, can you fully experience the sense of accomplishment when you defeat him at fifth level? 

Is there not a certain feeling of triumph in biting off more than you can chew, retreating, and then returning later with bigger teeth to claim the victory that eluded you before? 

Isn't it more suspenseful if that temple of evil has been there the whole time, leaving you to judge for yourself whether you're ready for it?  Simply having it pop up when the DM deems you ready doesn't cultivate that same delicious sense of possibility mingled with dread.

If all the kobolds disappear just because your character gains a level, don't you miss out on the opportunity to revel in your newly acquired badassery?  A one-sided victory every now and then can be fun.

On the other hand, if you're only allowed to face a "level appropriate" number of kobolds, you never get to experience that "Uh oh!" moment when you realize that in large numbers, they can be pretty damn scary.

How do you even attain balance without nullifying the wonderful wild card of zany and unexpected strategies that can turn a pitched battle into a rout or snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat?  Why would any DM want to deprive his or her players of that thrill?

If every encounter is balanced to be winnable by combat, where's the incentive to sneak, negotiate, and connive your way to your goals?

How do you separate the heroes from the cowards if there are no daunting odds against which to measure them?

How do you distinguish the cautious and prudent from the reckless and foolhardy if all risks come pre-managed?

Screw balance!  The best campaigns are the ones that include a wide range of dangers and rewards that the party can face or avoid according to their own judgment.  Let the players decide when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run.  That's a good 75% of the fun.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Complexity, realism, and choice

A lot has been written in OSR circles about the siren's song of realism in role playing games.  Pursuit of realism has led to some wildly complicated game systems, pages and pages of tables and subtables, systems and sub-systems bolted on willy-nilly, until you need an accounting degree just to keep track of a simple scene or combat.  I think realism does have its place, and it is a good and useful thing when it remains in that place.  Maintaining its proper place in relation to other factors of game design is key.

First off, it seems to me that people often conflate realism with level of detail, what I might call granularity or resolution.  Resolving a combat with a single die roll is no less "realistic" than resolving it through a complex system involving many die rolls to represent actions within the combat, any more than a picture of Earth from space is less realistic than a 100-page coffee table book filled with pictures of people and places on Earth.  They're simply different perspectives with different levels of resolution.

Secondly, I think that often the pursuit of supposed realism is actually driven by a misidentified desire not for realism, but for more choices in game play.  A DM adopting a "realistic" system with hit location charts and rules to handicap characters according to their specific wounds may actually be intrigued by the role playing and tactical possibilities of playing wounded characters, but with his or her conscious focus on realism rather than on the true goal of providing interesting choices in play, the result may be a needless and frustrating quagmire of complexity.  It may even be destructive and limiting to player choice, rather than expansive.

With those thoughts in mind, here's my take on the proper relationship between complexity, realism, and choice:

The goal of rules in a role playing game is to provide a framework in which players can make choices.  The more interesting the choices it imposes or facilitates, the more valuable is a rule or sub-system to the game.  Of course, what's interesting is a subjective matter, so the preferences of the players will tend to determine which activities warrant detailed "hi-res" systems and which can be glossed over with a single "low-res" die roll or ruling.

Greater complexity allows for more choices.  However, complexity exerts resistance to the flow of the game, much like friction between moving parts of a complex machine.  Too much complexity can offset the value of interesting choices provided by a rule or sub-system.

The purpose of adding complexity to a game should always be to increase the range of interesting choices, not to increase "realism."  (The two are not mutually exclusive, but the focus must always be on the former.)  Thinking of interesting choices as benefits and complexity as cost, the economic law of diminishing marginal returns clearly applies.  At some point, the enjoyment gained from the choices provided by a new rule is going to be outweighed by the disutility of having to remember and apply it. This applies both to any given rule or sub-system individually and to their cumulative effect on the game as a whole. 

Realism applies in a negative sense, not as a driving force behind system design but as a post hoc litmus test.  Rules and systems should strive not to slavishly model reality, but simply to avoid clashing with it so blatantly as to harm players' immersion and willing suspension of disbelief and foil their reasonable expectations of how their actions should be able to affect elements of the game world.  Magic and other fantastical elements need only be internally consistent, but anything that mirrors the real world, such as armed combat, must not violate players' basic understanding of real world physical laws.  Sometimes this is simply a matter of properly "fluffing" the rule; e.g. making clear that character hit points are the ability to avoid taking real bodily harm, not the capacity to absorb direct sword strikes. 

In general, then, the most valuable and useful rules are those that effectively provide for the most interesting choices with a minimum of complexity and without flagrantly violating players' conception of reality.