Saturday, June 30, 2012

A few cantrips

Cantrips were never officially introduced as a part of my favorite editions of D&D (B/X and BECMI) but I'm quite fond of the idea of mages being able to cast some basic, trivial, but potentially useful spells.  Fortunately, one of the great virtues of those systems is the ease of house-ruling them, and cantrips are a pretty simple addition.

The following cantrips shouldn't be too unbalancing, even if you allow them to be cast at will for no cost.

Range: 10'
Area of Effect: 1 cubic foot
Duration: 1 round

This spell creates rapid flashes and bursts of brightly colored lights within a small space.  It has no other effect whatsoever, but is often used as a petty display of power to the easily impressed.

Range: 50'
Area of Effect: 1 creature
Duration: Special

This spell instantly makes the target feel sleepy, even if previously well-rested and wide awake. The target may make a saving throw vs. spells to remain awake if he considers it important or desirable to do so – for example, a guard on duty.  (A lazy guard who has no compunctions about falling asleep on duty is another story, though.)  Otherwise, it will doze off within 1-10 minutes. A formerly rested and alert subject will sleep for 4d6 minutes; an already tired one will sleep 2d4 hours. Loud noises or physical force will awaken the sleeper, however.
This spell has no effect whatsoever on characters or creatures engaged in combat or other situations where falling asleep would be harmful or fatal, such as climbing a ladder or swimming. Creatures larger than an ogre are also unaffected.  The most common use is as a remedy for insomnia, and the caster may target himself. 

Range: Touch
Area of Effect: See below
Duration: Special

By use of this spell, the caster alters the color of an item or creature, or part of one. The total surface area that can be affected by a single casting is equal to about that of an adult human. Thus, the caster could change the color of a piece of fruit, a man-sized statue, a cat, or his own skin, hair, or eyes. On non-living material, the effect lasts for 2d6 days or until dispelled by a Dispel Magic or Remove Curse spell. On living creatures, including the caster himself, the duration is 1d6 days, also subject to dispelling.  Unwilling creatures get a saving throw vs. spells to avoid the effect.

Range 10'
Area of Effect: A 5' cube
Duration: 1 turn

When this spell is cast, all water within the area of effect begins to evaporate. Within 10 minutes, up to 3 gallons will be vaporized. Evaporate is useful for drying out a character's clothing after a rain or an unexpected swim, preserving herbs and foods, and distilling liquids.  Living creatures are not affected.  The reverse of the cantrip, Condense, will precipitate water vapor out of the air, dampening everything within the area of effect. 

Range: 10'
Area of Effect: Approximately 1 cubic inch
Duration: 1 round

This spell causes a flame, equal in heat, light, and intensity to a candle flame, to appear at the caster's fingertip. It may either be held on the caster's finger for the duration without harm, or flicked up to 10' away. The flame may be used to light candle or lamp wicks or to ignite flammable materials such as straw, tinder, or oil. The flame is not hot enough to cause damage itself, but blazes ignited by it will. The caster must be able to snap the fingers of one hand in order to cast the spell.

Range 50'
Area of Effect: n/a
Duration: 5 rounds

With a Haunt cantrip, the caster produces eerie noises emanating from somewhere within the spell's range. The sounds will be no louder than a soft human speaking voice, and must be relatively simple. Bumps, taps, scratching, groaning, or muttering are possible, but not music or intelligible speech.

Illusory Scent
Range: 20'
Area of Effect: A 10'x10'x10' cube
Duration: 1 turn

This spell causes a scent, chosen by the caster, to fill the air in the affected area. The smell may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, but is otherwise harmless and does not compel any action on the part of creatures smelling it, though it may certainly influence them. Reactions to any particular scent are at the referee's discretion.

Invisible Servant
Range: 20'
Area of Effect: Special
Duration: 1 turn

This cantrip calls into existence a small, invisible force under the control of the caster. The force can be used to manipulate objects weighing less than 1/2 pound, such as a spoon, a feather duster, a candle, a pen, or a string. The objects levitate as if held by an invisible hand, and can be moved at a maximum speed of 10 feet per round. The caster may designate a simple motion, such as sweeping, stirring, or the like, and the object will continue it until the caster changes or ceases it or the spell expires. The caster may also maintain direct control over the object, if desired. When the spell expires, any object under its influence will fall immediately, and suffers the usual effects – a teacup dropped on a stone floor will shatter, etc. Items carried by a person or creature are not affected by this spell.

Range: 20'
Area of Effect: One creature
Duration: Special

This cantrip inflicts a mild itching, tickling, or similar minor irritating sensation on a creature within range. The effect is not great enough to cause distraction in combat or other dangerous situation. At any other time, the normal inclination of an affected creature is to scratch the itch, which may distract its attention or cause it to set aside objects held in hand.  Focusing this cantrip on the nose may cause the creature to sneeze if a Constitution check is failed. This is especially inconvenient to someone working with lightweight materials such as powders or papers, or someone trying to hide or move quietly.

Range: 0
Area of Effect: A 1'-diameter sphere
Duration: 10 rounds

A magelight cantrip creates a soft light in a 1' sphere centered on the caster's hand. Within the radius, the light is sufficient for reading or seeing similar details. If desired, the caster may transfer the light from his hand to another creature or object by touch, where it will remain for the duration of the spell. Unwilling creatures are not affected.

Miniscule Transmutation
Range: Touch
Area of Effect: One item or creature
Duration: Special

With this cantrip, the caster causes one small item or creature, weighing no more than 1/2 pound, to change form. The transformation must be within the same kingdom, i.e. animal to animal, vegetable to vegetable, or mineral to mineral. A sheet of parchment might be changed to a handkerchief, a nettle to a rose, a mouse to a frog, or a ring to a coin, for example. If the change is from non-living material to living, such as turning a leather glove into a bird, the duration is one minute. Otherwise, it lasts one turn.  An item or creature bearing an enchantment of any sort may not be affected.

Minor Illusion
Range: 5'
Area of Effect: A 1'-diameter sphere
Duration: Concentration

This spell creates a simple illusion within the area of effect. For example, the caster could make butterflies appear to stream from his mouth, a rainbow appear in the palm of his hand, or a hat on his head. The effect lasts as long as the caster concentrates on it – he cannot fight, cast other spells, or move more than half speed. Anyone viewing the illusion may attempt a Wisdom check to recognize it as such. 

Range: 0 (Caster only)
Area of Effect: Special
Duration: Instantaneous

Prestidigitation enables the caster to conjure a small item from anywhere on his person to appear in his hand. A coin, a dagger, or a key, for example, may be brought to hand in this way, provided that they are carried by the caster, either in his clothing, a container such as a belt pouch or backpack, or even his own body. A swallowed item may be easily retrieved in this way, so long as it is a discrete unit – for example, a marble could be retrieved, while a shot of liquor or a mouthful of sand could not.

Puff of Smoke
Range: 20'
Area of Effect: A 5' diameter sphere
Duration: 1 round

This spell conjures a burst of thick smoke, about 5' across and of any color the caster desires. For the first second or two of its duration, the smoke is completely opaque, obscuring anything within or behind it. It thins quickly and dissipates entirely at the end of the 1-round duration. A Puff of Smoke is most commonly used for the purpose of misdirection, and for theatrical entrances and exits.

Sense Magic
Range: 0 (Caster only)
Area of Effect: A 10' radius sphere, centered on the caster
Duration: 1 round

This spell enables the caster to sense the presence of magical enchantments within range. Only the presence and general direction of the enchantment is sensed, not the specific kind or exact sources. Enchanted items, active personal and area-effect spells, and magically summoned, created, or sustained creatures can all be sensed by this spell. For example, a mage casting the spell in a chamber where there is a sentry statue guarding a chest which contains a potion of healing, while in the presence of a fighter carrying an enchanted sword and a cleric under the influence of a bless spell will sense magic coming from the direction of each of them. However, he will not sense whether the chest, its contents, the statue standing beside it, or all three are the source of the magic coming from that direction, nor whether the fighter and cleric are radiating magic because they are carrying magic items or are under the effect of spells, or both. Despite its imprecise results, the cantrip is often useful for quick assessments of treasure hoards and the like.

Range: 5'
Area of Effect: Special
Duration: 1 round per level

By means of this spell, the caster may quickly sort small objects weighing no more than 1/2 pound. The criteria for sorting must be able to be discerned by the caster's unaided senses; for example, gold may be sorted from silver because the difference is easily seen, or grains of salt from grains of sugar because they may be distinguished by taste. Sorting gems by value or separating magic items from non-magical ones is not possible, because those properties cannot be determined by the senses alone. About 100 items may be sorted per round, so a pile of 1,000 coins of mixed type would require 10 rounds to separate into piles of gold, silver, and copper. 

Range: Touch
Area of Effect: One item or container
Duration: 1 turn

This spell causes an object to either become warmer or cooler, according to the wishes of the caster. Temperature may not be raised above the boiling point of water, nor lowered below freezing. The volume affected is a maximum of one gallon per five levels of the caster, rounded up.  The caster must concentrate to maintain the spell - in this case, the pot must be watched for it to boil!  A full turn is needed to achieve freezing or boiling; the time required for lesser changes is at the DM's discretion.  The object or liquid then gains or loses heat at a natural rate until it once again matches the ambient temperature. The spell is quite useful for cooking and brewing teas and infusions where a fire is impossible or impractical. Living creatures may not be directly affected by the spell, though they may be subsequently affected by boiling or freezing liquids. 

Range: 10' per level
Area of Effect: One person or creature
Duration: Instantaneous

Through the use of this spell, the caster may send a whispered message of five words or less to another creature within range. The whisper cannot be heard or intercepted by anyone other than its intended recipient.

Range: 50'
Area of Effect: A 5'x5'x5' cube
Duration: 1 round per level

By means of this spell, the caster calls a soft breeze to blow across the area of his choosing. The breeze is not strong enough to cause damage to structures or creatures, but it will blow out candles, stir up dust, and scatter papers or parchments. The caster may choose the direction of the breeze; if prevailing winds in the area blow in another direction, they are negated within the area of effect, but anything blown out of the spell area may be blow back in once the spell expires. If there is a source of fresh air within 50', the breeze will be fresh; otherwise it will be no fresher than the air in the caster's vicinity. Mages of all levels sometimes use this spell for relief on hot or muggy days, or to whisk away the fumes of alchemical experiments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

20 questions

Thus far, the game with my little group has been more about finding our dungeon-legs in a series of pretty random scenarios rather than a coherent campaign.  Hopefully that's about to change...we haven't played in a few months, and during the hiatus I've been mentally building a nice little sandbox world, where we can play with some consistency and continuity of setting.  As I gear up to launch into this brave new world, I'll take the opportunity to answer a few questions...specifically, the 20 rules questions posed by Brendan.

Ability scores generation method?  3d6 in order.  If you don't like the first results, you can roll once more, but consider carefully.  If you roll again, you're stuck with those results, and you can't go back to the first set.  You don't have much to lose by rolling again if your first character really sucks, but scrapping an average or better set of scores for another try is pretty risky.

How are death and dying handled?  Zero hp is unconscious.  Below that, dead.

What about raising the dead?  No raise dead or resurrection spells.  There are legends of the dead being restored to life, but if any means of doing so truly exists, it's been lost somewhere in the depths of history...

How are replacement PCs handled?  Start from first level.  They'll catch up.  Alternately, promote a henchman to PC status.

Initiative: individual, group, or something else?  Group.

Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?  Critical hit on a 20 (19 or 20 for fighter types), roll twice for damage and take the higher roll.  We'll also be using the simple combat maneuvers from Telecanter's house rules so a critical may have other effects too.  Fumbles on a natural 1, lose your action for the next round and roll for possible weapon breakage.

Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?  Your AC is one point worse if you don't.

Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?  You certainly can.  Other combatants in melee act as cover for your chosen target.  If your attack misses, but would have hit without the penalty for cover, you hit an unintended target.

Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?  I believe I've made my views on encounter balance known.  Cardio: It's not just for Zombieland!

Level-draining monsters: yes or no?  Used sparingly, but yes.  Undead are supposed to be scary.

Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Yes, but alert players will have ample opportunity to avoid them.  A saving throw is a last chance to survive a serious blunder.

How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?  Encumbrance, fairly roughly.  Armor and big items will be tracked; smaller items tallied only if a character is carrying what looks like an excessive amount.  Resources like food, oil, and torches will be tracked fairly closely.

What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?  Reach a place of safety to rest and reflect on your experiences.  If that's in the middle of an adventure, so be it, but a camp in the middle of a wilderness or a barricaded dungeon room does not qualify.  Spells, whether magic-user or cleric, must be learned from a mentor, books and scrolls, or independent research.

What do I get experience for?  Defeating monsters (not necessarily killing them), recovering valuables, attaining personal goals, and particularly awesome and/or entertaining acts of heroism and role playing as decided by group consensus.

How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?  Description and careful observation.  Anyone can find traps by taking the right actions and asking the right questions.  Thieves get their Find Traps skill roll as a saving throw to avoid traps that nobody spots by the first method.

Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?  If the players want retainers, they can certainly attempt to recruit some.  Retainer morale is checked only in special circumstances during adventures, and at the end of the adventure to see if the retainer will continue to accompany the party on further adventures.

How do I identify magic items?  Through use, by trial and error, or by consulting a sage, a library, or other source of historical and legendary knowledge.

Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?  Not as a matter of course, but you never know what you might find on the pawnbroker's shelves.  Some non-magical but helpful concoctions are available from herbalists and apothecaries.

Can I create magic items? When and how?  Spell casters may attempt it at name level, as per the rule book.

What about splitting the party?  Not generally advised, but if you really want to, go for it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What is "bad" roleplaying, anyway?

I've been doing a little thinking about the ways in which player characters earn experience points.  Monsters and treasure are my favorites, because they're more or less objective measures.  "Story awards" rub me the wrong way because they're inherently railroady - finish the story the DM wrote the way the DM wants, or you don't get part of your XP.  And then there are bonuses for "good role playing," which for the most part seem to me to be just as manipulative in their own way. 

I'm honestly not sure what precisely is meant by those cryptic references to good role playing in rule books and supplements.  How do you define it?  Is it really anything other than arbitrary judgments of the DM's personal preferences?  Is there any style of role playing that can be objectively or universally condemned as bad?

Players vary a lot in their attitudes toward role playing.  Some immerse themselves completely, speaking every line in character.  Some prefer to maintain a degree of detachment.  Either way, the player is playing the role of the character.  Where's the practical difference between addressing the imaginary king directly ("What do you wish of me, Your Majesty?") or declaring that your character addresses him? ("I ask the king what he wants me to do.)  Is that sort of thing really worth rewarding or penalizing? 

For some players, role playing is the main attraction, and it just happens to be within the context of a medieval fantasy world.  They'll happily interact with every NPC they meet about things unrelated to the presumed goals of the adventure.  They'll role play every trip to the trader for provisions, and talk in character to the other players.  Others are more goal-oriented, and role playing is a tool in the kit, a means to an end.  They'd rather gloss over haggling with the trader, and when they talk to the other players, it's about how they're going to defeat the ogre and get his loot, not character-establishing small talk.  Who's to say the latter is "bad" role playing?  Actions are part of the role as much as words are, and the balance a character strikes between them is a part of his or her persona as much as it is an expression of player preference.  Is a player who chooses to run a laconic character that lets his or her actions speak for themselves doing it wrong?  I tend to think not.

Some players are all about character-building, in the literary or theatrical sense rather than a game-mechanical sense.  They deliberately choose to play personalities different from their own.  Others are more comfortable playing fictionalized avatars of themselves.  It can certainly be fun to push the limits of one's range, but shouldn't that be up to the individual player to decide?  Does it matter that the introverted player doesn't want to try her hand at a character who lives for the spotlight, or that a gentle player is uneasy with the thought of playing a violent brute?  So what if a player always plays his characters the same way?

Well, what about acting contrary to a character's personality?  That's bad, isn't it?   Maybe, but who's to say what a particular character would say or do in any given situation?  Who knows best what is in keeping with a character's personality, the player or the referee?  How many times in your life have you done something that someone who knows you pretty well didn't expect at all?  People surprise us all the time.  They buck stereotypes.  Some are wise beyond their years, and some never mature no matter how old they get.  Bad-tempered people have days when they unaccountably find their Zen, while easygoing sorts might have a hidden berserk button.  Cowards find unexpected inner wells of courage, while the bravest inexplicably freeze when faced with a secret fear.  Even the stodgiest among us might get a wild hair now and then, and the flighty ditz might prove reliable in a pinch.  Is it fair to penalize players just because the attitudes and actions of their characters don't conform to the referee's expectations? 

Do we want to shackle players to a character concept and discourage growth and change?  Should players be bound by the few words (or several paragraphs) of descriptions and backgrounds they've scrawled on their sheets during character creation, or should their personalities be revealed and defined by the choices they make during play, free to emerge and evolve?  Is the character's persona the prerogative of the player or the referee? 

The only type of role playing that I'd call truly bad is the sort that's disruptive to the harmony of the game group (not necessarily the same as the fictional party!) and destructive of their fun and enjoyment.  Strife between characters, under certain circumstances, can be entertaining and intriguing for the players.  Strife between players themselves is neither.  Players with chips on their shoulders, who come to the table with the intent to bully and annoy their fellow players, or to feed their egos by upstaging and belittling, are the only really bad role players, and denying them a few hundred XPs is only going to add fuel to the fire.  What's worse than a self-absorbed jerk?  A self-righteously aggrieved jerk.  Don't waste your time with carrot-and-stick incentives.  Give him the bum's rush, and be done with it.

Conversely, I think in the grand scheme of things, good role playing is that which increases everyone's enjoyment of the game.  If any XPs are to be awarded for role playing, it should be with the input of the entire group, not the decree of one person.  The best play acting in the world is of no value if it doesn't enhance the experience for anyone else.  A player whose character loses a hand to a nasty trap might conceive of some neuroses the PC develops as a result, or might think of no greater concern than how he's going to climb a rope with only one hand.  The former may be more imaginative, but neither way is inherently better or worse.  Neither can be definitively said to be "out of character," because nobody but the player knows what the character would do.  If, at the end of the session, the other players remember that player's performance and say, "That was awesome!"...that's when it might be appropriate to hand out some bonuses for good role playing. 

For my own game, I'd let players nominate their favorite moments (no nominating yourself!), and then vote on each.  (The ref gets a vote too - my enjoyment of the game is equally important!)  Any that carries a majority gets some points, with unanimous agreement earning an additional bonus.  Players striving to entertain the whole group make for a far better experience than players striving to put on a hammy Daytime Emmy performance for the approval of a drama-major DM.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

One more crack at non-Vancian magic

You're probably getting sick of these thinking-out-loud posts in quest of a good, elegant, non-Vancian magic system.  Actually, so am I, but I have one more idea that came from digesting a few comments and a few posts in other blogs linked in said comments.  Last one, I promise.  Fingers crossed that this one's a keeper.   
What I've come up with is an attempt at a more or less seamless hybrid spell point/hit point casting system.  Spell casters will have a pool of magical power that they can tap without ill effects, and this increases with experience.  When they've used that up, they can continue casting by fueling their spells with their hit points. 

This requires a new stat, similar to hit points.  For lack of a better term, I'll call it magic points, or mp.  For each level of experience up to 9th, a magic-user gains 1d4 mp, plus his Intelligence bonus.  Every level after 9th, 2 more mp are gained, and Int bonus no longer applies.  Clerics and druids get 1d4 mp per level beginning at 2nd, adjusted by Wisdom, until 9th level, and 1 mp per level thereafter.  Elves gain 1d3 points per level, adjusted by Intelligence, and a final 2 points at 10th level. 

Spells cost mp equal to double the spell level.  A first level spell costs 2 mp, a second level spell costs 4, and so on. 

A magic-user may continue to cast spells after his mp are depleted by using his hit points, but this is an arduous and hazardous procedure.  Channeling one's own life force to form a spell requires a successful saving throw vs. spells with a penalty equal to the level of the spell attempted.  If successful, the hit point cost is paid and the spell is cast.  If unsuccessful, the spell fails, but the attempt still costs half the normal hp drain.  In either case, a save vs. death ray must be made or the caster is dazed and cannot attack or attempt another spell for the next round.

Occasionally, a spell may be cast with insufficient mp - for example, casting a level 2 spell (cost 4 mp) with only 2 mp remaining.  In that case, the balance is taken from hit points.  If more than half the cost is paid in hit points, the saving throw vs. spells must be made to successfully cast.  If half or more of the cost is paid with mp, only the saving throw vs. death ray to avoid being dazed by the effort is required.  

Magic points can be restored through rest.  For each eight hours of rest, a magic-user regains 1 mp per level of experience.  Magic may also be restored by certain uncommon alchemical preparations (see below.)

Using this method, low level casters, especially highly intelligent ones, have a little more power.  Going beyond the limits of magic points by dipping into hit points after mp are exhausted is pretty difficult at low levels, though, so power inflation isn't too great.

High level casters have less total mojo than they do in the standard rules.  They can't go flinging 8th and 9th level spells all day.  A 36th level wizard with Intelligence of 16 will have an average of about 95 mp.  That's enough for five 9th level spells, and not much else.  He could conceivably cast 47 1st level spells, in the rather unlikely event that he chose to do so.  Casting from the "reserve account" of hit points is easier than for lower level mages, somewhat offsetting his reduced capacity relative to his standard Vancian counterpart. 

Some additional rules for balance:

Damage-dealing spells that normally scale by level, such as magic missile and fire ball, don't automatically scale up.  Instead, they cost an extra 1 mp per additional die of damage, at the caster's option.  A magic-user wishing to throw a 20-die fire ball must pay 21 mp, 6 for the base 3rd level spell and its five dice of damage, and 15 for the additional damage dice.  He could opt to spend only the base 6 points for the default 5d6 damage, or some number in between.  Maximum damage is still limited by level in the usual way; a 10th level mage can't do more than 10d6, no matter how many mp he spends.

Healing spells can be cast normally from the mp pool.  Casting from hit points, however, causes a transfer of hit points from the caster to the recipient, on a one-to-one basis.  If a cleric casts cure light wounds from her hit points to heal a front-line fighter, and heals 5 points of damage, she loses 5 hit points herself.  This is instead of, not in addition to, the usual casting cost. 

Some additional optional rules for fun:

I see what you did there:  Magic-users (but not clerics) may try to cast a spell they see another magic-user casting.  To do so requires the mage to witness another magic-user casting the spell within the last turn.  A saving throw vs. spells, with a penalty of twice the spell level, is rolled.  Making the save indicates a successfully improvised casting.  An Intelligence check, with a penalty equal to the spell level, allows the caster to scribe the spell into his spell book, provided that he does so within one day.  Otherwise, it's a one-off feat.  (This wonderful idea shamelessly lifted from Untimately and bolted onto this system, where I must say it looks quite handsome indeed.)

Counterspell:  A spell caster who notices another caster of the same type beginning an incantation may attempt to nullify it with a counterspell.  This costs the same number of mp or hp as the spell being countered.  Each caster rolls 1d20 and adds his level and Intelligence bonus.  High roll prevails; either the spell takes effect as normal or is completely nullified except perhaps for a token visual "fizzle." 

Bonus:  Magic items!

Thaumaturgic spirits:  This potent magical liquor must be kept in a tightly stoppered glass container, for it will evaporate within 1 turn if left uncovered.  It replenishes an arcane caster's reserves of magical power.  Upon drinking a dose, a magic-user feels a euphoric rush, gaining mp but losing Wisdom.  There are three grades of spirits: lesser, greater, and select.  Lesser imparts 1d6+1 mp at the cost of 1 point of Wisdom.  Greater gives 2d6+2 mp and drains 1d3 points of Wisdom.  Select liquor grants 4d6+4 mp, but drains 1d6 points of Wisdom.  It is possible for the user to exceed his normal maximum mp.  If not used within one hour, the excess points are lost.  Lost points of Wisdom return at this time also. 

Non-spell casters are affected similarly, but since they know no spells, the pool of magical power dissipates after an hour.  This is usually even more intoxicating to them than to people accustomed to having magic at their disposal, and may cause delusions or hallucinations.

Thinking cap:  This magical hat may take nearly any form, but the standard pointed wizard's hat is typical.  When worn, it grants exceptional clarity of thought, boosting the wearer's Intelligence by 4 points, to a maximum of 18.  An arcane spell caster will gain any bonus mp that accrue from the increased score.  The hat will function in this way once per day, and the effect lasts for 1d6 turns. 

And with that, I think this topic is pretty well resolved in my mind.  That's the last one for a long, long time, I swear.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hit points as spell points

Wandering from blog to blog a few days ago, I stumbled upon a free download of a fantasy RPG called Errant.  Reading through it, the feel I got was very similar to that of D&D, with some notable differences.  One of the interesting mechanics was using hit points as spell points, with casting cost of 1 hp per spell level.

This models quite well the fictional portrayal of spell casting as a physically exhausting endeavor.  There are some aspects of it that I really like, and some that I'm not so sure about with regards to porting it over to a more traditional D&D framework.

The positives

It maintains the resource management aspect of spell casting, without the rigidity of a table of spells per level per day.

The bookkeeping is minimal.  In fact, it eliminates a whole category of bookkeeping in the game.  You already have to keep track of hit points anyway, so it adds virtually nothing to overall complexity.

It would technically give low level magic-users the potential for casting more spells than the traditional Vancian tables allow, but at the same time it provides a very strong incentive to stay well below that limit most of the time. 

It provides the potential for epic sacrifices and desperate ploys, as a mage burns his last hit points on a spell to save the day.

It strengthens the incentive for magic-users to stay out of the front lines of combat.

It provides for interesting tactical choices for a worn-down party:  Do the healers refresh the fighters, or recharge the mages?

You can adjust the lethality of overreaching one's capacity according to your own preference.  Dropping to zero hp from spell casting might result in death, unconsciousness, or a saving throw with success indicating unconsciousness and failure death.

The not-so-positives

It obviously won't work for clerics, or for any class that can cast healing spells.  Even barring a caster from casting such spells on himself isn't an effective control.  Put two healers in a party, and you've got a perpetual casting machine.

Casters with high Constitution scores are strongly favored.  In fact, Constitution becomes more important to a magic-user than Intelligence.  Errant keeps Intelligence relevant by requiring an ability check to successfully cast the spell in the first place, but I think that overcompensates and ends up overemphasizing a high Intelligence score.  Perhaps using Intelligence as a chance to learn a spell, and/or a cap on number of spells known, would strike a better balance.  A high-Con character would have an early advantage, but the high-Int character becomes far more versatile in the long run.  Of course, it's possible to have a magic-user who's both, but 3d6 in order makes that unlikely.

Classic D&D elves are a problem, because they have more hp than a magic-user, and thus a greater pool of spell points.  This might be mitigated by charging an extra point per spell level, or even doubling the cost, for elves (and other multi-class magic-users, in an AD&D-style game.)

Hit points vs. Vancian slots

Here's a side-by-side comparison showing the number of spell levels available to Vancian magic-users of selected levels vs. the average number of hit points.  (Mentzer rule set)

Level          Vancian spell levels total          Average hit points (rounded up)
1                  1                                            3
2                  2                                            5
3                  4                                            8
4                  6                                           10
5                  9                                           13
7                 17                                          18
8                 23                                          20
9                 31                                          23
14               67                                          28
21             141                                          35
36             405                                          50

Hmmm...that's great for low-level magic-users, but it quickly becomes a substantial handicap at higher levels.  It turns out that magic-users gain spell slots a lot faster than they gain hit points, and above name level, it's one paltry hit point (i.e. one measly spell level in an hp-as-sp system) per level.  A 36th level magic-user in the original rules can cast nine spells of each level per day; with the hit point system, he's running on fumes after casting only one of each level.  Granted, he's gaining something in versatility, being able to choose whatever spell fits his needs a the moment, but at what a price!

Maybe it's not as bad as it seems.  In the spell slot system, a caster has to memorize spells in advance, and either correctly anticipate which ones he'll need, or choose a broad selection, with a lot of them likely going unused on any given adventuring day.  In the hp system, if he needs five Knock spells, he has access to them, and doesn't have to anticipate the need for them or load up his brain with a lot of superfluous stuff.  In other words, most of the time, just because a magic-user can memorize a lot more spell levels than a hp-fueled magic-user can cast, it doesn't follow that the Vancian wizard is necessarily going to cast a lot more of them.   Combined with the fact that healing magic actually restores the hp wizard's reservoir of spell power, it might actually be pretty close to a wash.

If all else fails, perhaps (if I may steal a mechanic from another source) magic-users should be allowed a saving throw vs. spells to avoid the hp drain, with a penalty equal to the level of the spell being cast.  Low level casters would still lose hp on most casts, while high level ones would feel the drain less often. 

Even if I decide that extra roll is needed to keep things close to the original balance of power, it still might be worth it not to have to do all the accounting for spell slots and memorization.  Painstaking selection of an extensive list of spells every morning of game time (and for every NPC magic-user,) or roll a single die once and subtract hp or not each time a spell is cast...that sounds like a fair trade.

Despite my misgivings about the possibly excessive gimping of high level magic-users, and my fondness for my recently posited spell component-based system, I think this just might be the way to go for my group, which includes my young nieces whom I very much doubt have the patience for a lot of bookkeeping.  Now I just need to find a similarly elegant mechanic for cleric spells, to avoid the healing conundrum (and in the process, maybe even provide a really substantive difference from arcane spell casting other than just different spell lists.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Alternative spell casting system

One of the elements of D&D that's never felt quite right to me is so-called Vancian magic.  The idea of impressing a spell formula onto one's brain, and then forgetting it utterly as soon as it is cast, goes strongly against my conception of what magic and wizards are and how they work.  The model most ingrained in my mind, from fairy tales, folk lore, and fantasy fiction, is that a spell caster simply knows a spell, and may cast it whenever he chooses.  It might cost him something in the way of personal energy or magical reagents, but the idea of forgetting what he knows each time he casts feels rather...disassociated.  I'm no sage of Gygaxian lore.  I don't know what his thought processes were when designing the system, but it feels very much like an effect-first mechanic, designed specifically to limit the number and power of spells a magic-user can cast, fluffed with the trappings of Vance's system.  I'm not knocking Jack Vance, whose works I've never read; I'm sure his rationale for magic is a fine fit for his particular milieu, but it's a specialized vision, unique to that setting, not an embodiment of classic fantasy standards.

The most frequently mentioned alternative, at least that I'm aware, is a spell point or mana system, with a pool of power representing the caster's personal reserve of magical energy.  He doesn't forget the spells as he casts them; he simply expends energy.  It's still a bit artificial, in that a daily cycle is superimposed - no matter how much or how little power a caster expends, it takes the equivalent of a night's rest to replenish it.

I have in mind something a little different.


Spells are cast using both sonic/verbal and material components.  Verbal spells are the foundation of spell casting.  A caster can cast purely verbal spells at will and without limit.  Just like a song or a poem, he knows them, and won't forget them under ordinary circumstances.  However, purely verbal spells are sharply limited in their power, with only minor or trivial effect.  To focus, refine, and amplify their effects, spell casters employ mixtures of rare herbs, minerals, and essences.  The more powerful the effect desired, the more rare and exotic the materials needed.  The formulae for the material portions of spells are more complicated than the verbal components, like recipes which are best prepared ahead of time by carefully following the instructions from a spell book.  Wizards often wear voluminous cloaks and robes, in the myriad hidden pockets of which they keep the vials, pouches, and ampules of prepared spell components.

The mechanics:

Each spell in the rules is based upon an appropriate verbal-only spell, i.e. a cantrip, which by itself produces some trivial effect.  More than one spell might share the same base cantrip; for example, burning hands, fire ball, and delayed blast fire ball might all be based on a cantrip that conjures a spark just hot enough to light a lamp or ignite dry tinder.  Cantrips may be cast at will, requiring nothing but the caster's voice.  Any spell of 1st level or higher requires a small quantity of prepared materials, which are consumed or destroyed in the process of casting the spell.  Material components are expensive, and the cost increases with spell level.

1st - 50 gp          2nd - 100 gp          3rd - 200 gp          4th - 400 gp          5th - 800 gp

6th - 1,500 gp     7th - 3,000 gp      8th - 5,000 gp       9th - 10,000 gp

These costs are only tentative, and might need to be adjusted.  Certainly they can be adjusted upwards or downwards for particularly high or low-wealth campaigns.  Weight of spell components should probably scale with spell level also, perhaps 2-3 coins of weight per spell level.  Time taken to prepare each dose of a spell formula could be as little as one turn per spell level, or as much as a day per spell level, depending on the flavor and needs of the campaign. 

Material components have no effect unless used properly and accompanied by the appropriate base cantrip, thus limiting their use to those trained in the ways of the arcane.  Exactly how material components are used to cast any particular spell is up to the player and DM - they could be swallowed in a particular order, tossed into the air simultaneously with the speaking of a crucial syllable in the cantrip, crushed, burned, used to draw runes, or whatever else might be imagined.

You might create a detailed list of the specific components needed for each spell, perhaps naming 1-3 items for each spell and assuming that any additional ingredients are common and easily obtained.  If that's too much effort and bookkeeping for your taste, you can hand-wave specific ingredients and simply assume that whatever materials are needed are acquired by paying the cost of preparation.  The important point is that a magic-user must prepare materials for specific spells ahead of time.  If an enchantress wants to be able to cast sleep, shield, and/or magic missile on an adventure, she'll need to prepare at least one dose of each specific formula.  Once a dose is prepared, it is good only for that particular spell.  Preparing a spell formula in a properly equipped laboratory is automatically successful.  Preparation in the field is less certain.  An Intelligence check is required, possibly with penalties for particularly adverse conditions or inadequate equipment.  This should be made in secret, with only the DM knowing in advance whether the spell will function when cast. 

It's easy to restrict more powerful spells to more powerful magic-users by applying the original spell progression charts.  The level that a Vancian caster would gain access to a particular spell level is the same level at which one in this system would attain the skill necessary to formulate the material components and successfully blend them with the invocation of the cantrips.  Thus, a magic-user still can't cast 3rd level spells until 5th level of experience.  The number of spells usable per day, however, has no application here. 

If stockpiling of spells is likely to become a problem during down time between adventures, you could rule that the components, once prepared as specific spells, have a limited shelf life - a week, a month, or whatever is necessary to keep things under control.  In all likelihood, if you aren't handing out ungodly heaps of treasure in the campaign, I think the problem will largely self-regulate.

Further implications

A magic-user is no longer limited to a hard-and-fast number of spells per day, but by the same token, can no longer just regain full power with a night's rest.  Resource management becomes a long-term concern rather than day to day. 

The number of spells a magic-user can carry on an adventure depends on his wealth, prep time, and encumbrance more than on his level.

Magic-users will need to spend a good deal of their loot on spell components, which will tend to reinforce their reputation as studious and anti-social personalities.  This isn't a hard and fast rule, obviously, but it will tend to push magic-user characters in that direction.

There's a strong disincentive to cast spells for frivolous reasons, with the obvious exception of bare cantrips.

A magic-user now has something to spend his or her starting money on besides buying all the miscellaneous equipment.  If desired, the character's mentor may provide a one-time boon of one or two spells' worth of material components.

There's a strong incentive to collect rare chemicals and reagents on adventures.  If you don't assign specific materials to each spell, they can just be totaled by value.

Even if you don't make each and every spell require specific reagents as a general rule, it's possible to drastically restrict the use of certain spells by assigning some exceptionally rare component to them and making those components unavailable for purchase.  If a magic-user really wants to cast that spell, he's going to have to quest for the legendary pyromycofusium mushroom that only grows on red dragon corpses.

There may be more implications that I've missed.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Separate evasion from armor?

I saw this post at Untimately, in which Brendan lays out the basics of a system which separates the chance to evade an attack from the protection afforded by armor.  It reminded me of an idea I'd been working on a while back to accomplish a similar result, but with a few extra twists.  I eventually gave it up, because it seemed to be growing a bit too complex and because it just didn't feel like D&D to me. 

The reason I started pursuing this sort of system in the first place was because the D&D combat system does a poor job of modeling a few things that I would rather like to see in my game.  It makes no distinction between completely avoiding an attack, and being struck without being threatened with actual harm, which is important because there's a fundamental difference between attacks that seek to cause injury or death by inflicting bodily harm, and attacks such as tripping, grappling, touch-activated spells, and the like that only need to make contact rather than penetrate armor.  Secondly, it looks a little absurd when characters are fighting some huge creature like a dragon or giant, where popular fiction and common sense both tell us that nimble dodging is going to count for a lot more than a sheath of metal, but the one defense stat paradigm obstinately maintains otherwise. 

I'm providing the rudimentary bits of my system here, not as a serious suggestion but as some ideas for anyone who feels so inclined to kick around.

Instead of an Armor Class, every creature would have an Evasion Class, which would be based on its size and modified by Dexterity and magical factors.  I had first conceived of it as a descending scale like AC, though there might well be merit in using an ascending scale instead.  Shields would also apply to EC.

Every armor type would have a particular die by which it would reduce the damage inflicted on a successful hit.  Leather was a d4, chain a d6, plate 2d4.

Armor would have a coverage rating, according to which pieces were worn and thus how much of the body was covered.  A cuirass or breastplate would be good for 4 points of coverage, with an open helm adding 1 or a full helmet adding 2, with 1 additional point each for upper arms/shoulders, forearms/hands, thighs, and shins/feet. 

On a normal hit, the armor's damage reduction would be rolled, reducing the damaged caused by that amount.  On a roll that exceeded the to-hit number by the Coverage Rating or more, the attack would strike an unarmored location or a weak point in the armor, and damage would be as rolled with no reduction. 

Thus, the more complete your armor, the less likely you'd be to be struck in a poorly protected location, but the more thorough your armor, the heavier it is.  The weight of armor worn would impose a cap on effective Dexterity, so a character with a high Dex would be faced with the choice of having a good EC with his bonus, or forgoing the bonus and gaining the protection of armor instead. 

All attacks would use Dexterity adjustments to hit, and Strength adjustments to damage.  Large weapons would have a -2 penalty to hit, reflecting their slowness and the difficulty of aiming a precise strike at a gap in the opponent's armor.  Weapons made for precise strikes, like rapiers, would get a +1 bonus to hit, but no Strength bonus to damage.  Weapons designed to defeat a particular type of armor, like flanged maces against plate, would get a +2 bonus to hit against those armor types. (I like Brendan's idea of dropping a die size of the armor's damage reduction better, though.)  A character wearing heavy armor, with his Dexterity capped, would likely find it advantageous to wield a big, high damage weapon rather than a low damage precision striking one. 

I never did get all of the particulars sorted out, and I doubt I'll develop this system any more.  It seems much more complicated than it's worth to actually implement it, and my level-scaled combat mechanic already makes one's combat skill a more important part of defense with far less fiddliness, but if anything in this mess looks workable to you or sparks a new idea, I'd be interested to see where it leads.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Too rich?

One category of DMing advice that's always struck me as particularly obnoxious is that of how to remove surplus wealth from the player characters' possession.  We're advised to levy taxes, send thieves after them, impose hefty training fees to level up, and an assortment of other schemes with the express purpose of keeping a tight rein on the PCs' wealth. 

Maybe this is partly an acknowledgment of the absurdity of characters accumulating personal hoards that make a king's ransom look like pocket change.  It might be intended to keep the PCs poor and hungry, so they have motivation to keep adventuring.  To me, it indicates that there's something fundamentally out of whack in the game.  If you even have to ask the question, "How can I take it away from them?" something's not right, and frankly, you're asking the wrong question.  Let's try a couple more productive lines of inquiry.

Am I handing out too much loot?

Two reasons come to mind why the referee feels compelled to be overly generous with treasure, one game mechanical and the other dramatic. 

The game mechanical reason is that characters need XP to advance in level, and XP is largely a function of treasure recovered.  This is where the game is broken, and rather than fix it, the designers offer us awkward Rule Zero kludges.  A ratio of 1 XP to 1 gp works fine if all you want is to keep score in an abstract, video game sort of way, but in a more serious game it kills any sense of balance and verisimilitude.  If you stick to this ratio, and the by-the-book advancement charts, each character is going to have to accumulate thousands of gp per level.  The easiest solution here is simply to alter the ratio - reward more XPs per gp of treasure value, maybe 5 or 10 XP per gp, and reduce the size of the troves by the same factor. 

 The dramatic reason for treasure inflation is that players expect fabulous treasures, commensurate with the monsters and other obstacles they have to overcome to get them.  When you take on an ogre and manage to finish him off before he clubs you into paste, you want something awesome for your trouble.  Books and movies only reinforce the trope of vast piles of gold coins, sprinkled liberally with sparkling jewels.  The answer to this is simply to ignore the trope, turn on the imagination, stop trying to impress the players with quantity, and aim for quality instead.  A few interesting items can be as rewarding or more so than a pile of gold, without all the inflation.  Sure, it's a little more work on the front end, but it saves you the hassle of trying to sop up surplus loot later.

What is there for PCs to spend their money on?

So we come to the second problem, an appalling lack of cool or necessary stuff for PCs to buy with their money.  Part of the problem is that, in the rules as written, most characters can afford the best non-magical equipment in the game before they earn their first coin from an adventure.  A reassessment of the standard starting funds and the costs of adventuring gear are clearly in order, but that's beyond the scope of the present post.  (The Jovial Priest takes a very worthy stab at it here.)

Other than consumables like oil and rations, mounts, and perhaps a one-time upgrade from chain mail to plate for the warrior and cleric-type characters who rolled poorly on their starting gold, there's just not a lot that low and mid level adventurers need to buy after character creation.  Eventually, they may want ships or even strongholds, but that's still way off in the uncertain future.  For the next several levels they're just accumulating loot by the ton.  Virtually every "patch" for this problem that I've seen is either agency-destroying, embarrassingly transparent, or both, but many of them can be salvaged.  The key is that you entice them to spend money on perceived benefits, not just impose costs on them.

Cost of living:  This makes a lot of sense, but generally it automatically rises with a character's level.  Why?  Ostensibly because higher level characters want to live large and luxuriously.  But what if the player conceives of his character as a quiet recluse with simple tastes, or a miser, or a forward-thinking type hoping to be the first of his peers to afford a ship?  Instead of just imposing escalating costs of living, make up a chart of various standards of living and their monthly costs, and allow any character to choose any standard of living he or she can afford.  Then adjust the character's reputation accordingly.  Being a grubby hermit who sleeps in a tent in the woods and forages for roots and berries is cheap, but it won't get you far in polite society.  Many players will be willing to bear the cost of a better life for their characters, especially if it opens certain doors for them socially.

Carousing:  An interesting concept, proposing that characters don't gain XP for treasure gained, but only for treasure spent, thus encouraging them to blow their cash on wine, women, and song.  The problem is that it robs players of agency, punishing those who want their characters to be of a more temperate demeanor.  It's fine if it's a choice, with some sort of benefit to a character's reputation, but I don't like it as a condition for advancement.

Class training:  When I see level-up training mentioned, it's almost invariably for the express purpose of putting the hurt on characters' finances.  Otherwise, there's really no mechanical significance to it at all, and it might as well just be hand-waved away.  Gaining levels is a vital part of a character's development, not an optional perk, and requiring payment for it seems like an incredibly transparent ploy.

Weapon/skill training:  This actually makes sense, if you use a weapon mastery and/or skill system.  Characters pay for benefits that are not essential to their classes, and thus truly voluntary.

Taxes and tithes:  Points for realism here.  It's hard to imagine a ruler who would let filthy rich adventurers off without contributing to the royal coffers, but again, automatically deducting the amount from the PC's account is a violation of agency.  If a character wants to evade taxes, let him try.  He may get caught if he's sloppy, and even if he's not it may come back to bite him later, when the king wonders how he has the funds to build his own castle but never paid more than a copper in taxes the last five years.  At least he had a choice in the matter.  If he wants to stiff the church, so be it, though the choice may earn him a chilly reception when he needs a curse lifted.

Theft:  As a wealth-reduction measure, it's one of the most arbitrarily ham-handed imaginable.  As a fact of life modeled within the game, it could make for some interesting choices.  I'd recommend never simply declaring loss by theft through DM fiat.  Rather, after assessing the PC's reputation and the precautions he takes with his stash of money, I'd suggest a percentage chance per month of an attempted robbery, and a chance of success.  This gives the player an opportunity to plan and invest in additional measures to protect his wealth, if he so chooses, and if he does end up a victim of theft, it's through his own choice plus the caprice of the dice, not DM malice.

Specialists:  It's certainly legitimate for PCs to pay for services, but I can't help but think that some of the prices are contrived purely for the purpose of separating them from their wealth.  500 gp a month for an animal trainer?  Really?  A 1-gp per month farmer is probably capable of training a dog or breaking a beast of burden to the yoke.  Training a war horse or a falcon probably is a more specialized job, but 500 times more?  It strains credibility a bit.  If you pare down the amount of treasure you hand out, I'd say it's safe to slash most of the specialist fees by a factor of ten.

I don't feel like I've actually solved all the facets of the problem just yet, but I've taken a shot at identifying them, at least.  I might see if I can come up with a more comprehensive plan to adjust the D&D economy to non-absurd proportions - revised starting gold rules, equipment and service lists, etc.  Perhaps that should be my first Game Supplement Download project.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What D&D can learn from Storage Wars

Lately, I've discovered a new little semi-obsession, a show on A&E called Storage Wars.  If you haven't seen it, it follows a selected group of buyers as they participate in auctions of abandoned storage lockers, and try to turn a profit from the contents.  There's a lot that I like about the show - the varied personalities and motivations of the cast and their (sometimes not so friendly) competition to get the best lockers are pretty entertaining.  But this is a D&D blog, so what's the connection? 

Imagine how boring such a show would be if they were just bidding on boxes of unknown quantities of currency.  They'd bid, and the winner would open the box to see how many dollars are in it.  That'd have me reaching for the remote.  A great part of the show's appeal is the thrill of the unknown, the discovery of all the strange, wonderful, and valuable things that people have abandoned in those storage units, mingled with all their mundane and worthless stuff.  The most exciting segments of the show have nothing to do with the cast trying to outbid each other, but when they're digging through their purchases and spot something unexpected.  Then it's off to a specialist to find out what it's worth, and in some of the stranger cases, what the hell it actually is.  Although it's rarely explicitly explored on the show, I think another huge part of the appeal is wondering how some of that stuff ended up there and who it once belonged to.  Why, exactly, is there a WWII era tank periscope packed among someone's worthless cast-offs?  What happened to cause someone to abandon a box of insanely valuable superhero action figures?  Who might have once rented that unit with the authentic "Revenge of the Jedi" jacket which only a few people close to the production of the movie received prior to the title change?

Here's where it comes back around to D&D.  What's more interesting, finding chest after chest full of gold and silver coins, or finding something new and different and mysterious?  The first is mostly an exercise in accounting, the other an adventure of discovery.  The first makes things easy for the PCs - everybody knows that silver coins are valuable, and gold ones are more valuable.  The second makes them hone their powers of discernment and make interesting choices.  Do we take the keg of spices or the big spool of silk thread or that ugly abstract painting?  It's not always an obvious choice.  (One SW buyer made something like 14 grand on a locker stuffed full of ordinary, non-collectible books, which utterly failed to excite or intrigue anyone else.)

Non-monetary treasures tell stories, just like the weird stuff in those storage units.  Who have those orcs been raiding to acquire dozens of bottles of herbal tinctures?  How did that ship's figurehead come to be on the fifth level of a dungeon in a landlocked kingdom?  What about that smith's hammer with the mark of a legendary dwarf craftsman stamped in the side of its head that the ogre is using to crack walnuts?  How did that forest goblin shaman come to wear the feathered headdress of a chieftain of the plains?  What was that leather funnel with the engraved brass rim used for, anyway?  What culture decorates its silver tea sets with stylized aardvarks?

Non-monetary treasure can lead to more adventures, just as it does for the SW buyers when they go in search of appraisers and buyers for their obscure items.  No, the villagers don't need that box of silk hat bands, but hats are still fashionable in the next barony.  Why don't you try there?  No, I have no idea what a copper-bound magnifying lens with the monogram of that famous alchemist is worth, but the guildmaster of mages in the city might know more.  Why, that looks like ancient Sylotian script on that sundial.  Only the monks in the Monastery of Thunder Mountain still study that old tongue.

(I wouldn't make them get appraisals for every ordinary trade good they find, of course.  Only the really fun stuff, and only if the players decide to investigate further instead of taking whatever price they can get immediately.)

I could fill some more space providing a list of non-monetary treasures to spark the imagination, but such a list would be but a pale, pale shadow of the document that -C over at Hack and Slash has apparently done yeoman's work putting together and making available for download.  This thing covers just about every category of non-monetary valuables you'd ever want to place or find in a fantasy treasure trove.  It's free, no bidding necessary.  Should you get it?  YUUUUP!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The economics of dungeon-delving

Everybody knows that adventurers who return from their expeditions bring back treasures beyond the wildest imaginings of the average peasant.  I don't know that anyone's ever bothered to hash out the economic consequences of this, though.  So here's my crack at it.

First, we need to know how wealthy the average peasant is.  The dominion income figures in the Companion Set and Rules Cyclopedia are so badly broken, it's almost hilarious.  Instead, I'm going to use the assumption from the designer's manual of the Champions of Mystara boxed set: that the productive output of the average peasant is about equivalent to the value of his military service, i.e. 1 gp per month.  In fact, for our purposes, let's be extra generous and say that a peasant working in his field of competency (which clearly isn't military service) generates 1.5 gp of value per month, and that it's only loyalty to his liege or fear of his wrath that impels him to serve in the army for less.

In a society like those of typical D&D campaign worlds, every able-bodied member of the family worked.  Obviously, the very old and the very young will pull the average down, but let's assume enough skilled tradesmen in the mix, who pull the average per capita back up to our supposed 1.5 gp per month. 

A town of 1,000 inhabitants will thus produce a total of about 1,500 gp worth of goods and services per month.  The quantity of coin in circulation in this town may be considerably less than 1,500 gp.  Many transactions will be bartered, and of those conducted in coin, the same coins may very well pass through several different hands in the span of a month, and so contribute to the incomes of several different people.  If the farmer sells 1 gp worth of wheat to the baker, who sells 1 gp worth of bread to the cobbler, who sells a pair of boots to the farmer for 1 gp, they could each be said to earn 1 gp of income, but only one gold coin has circulated between them.  In any case, it's highly unlikely that the coin in circulation in the town totals more than 1,500 gp.

Now, consider a party of five adventurers just starting out at first level.  Assume that the average XP requirement among them is 2,000 XP.  If they are to gain a level after five adventures, they'll need to earn about 2,000 XP total per outing.  If 25% of that is from defeating monsters, that still means they're dragging back 1,500 gp in valuables from each adventure.  That's equivalent to the entire productive output of the town!

 Dumping that much fresh coin into the local economy will wreak all sorts of havoc.  Peasants can't eat gold and silver, nor clothe themselves in it, nor thatch their hovels.  Adventurers bringing sacks of gold and silver into town doesn't magically call more wheat, ale, wool, and wood into existence.  It does skew the distribution of the existing supply.  Every ingot of iron that's used to make weapons and armor for the conquering heroes is an ingot that's not being used to make nails, cooking pots, or scythes.  Every gallon of ale they guzzle in post-expedition carousing is a gallon that isn't available to slake the thirst of a local farmer.

It doesn't end there, though.  The blacksmith and the innkeeper, flush with the windfall of serving the party, will indulge a little more heavily in consumable goods themselves.  They'll buy new clothes from the tailor, and lade their dinner tables more heavily.  The clothes and food they buy subtract from the supply available to the rest of the town.  The tailor and the grocer behave in similar fashion with their new-found pockets full of coin.  As the money disperses into the pockets of townsfolk, and the stock of goods diminishes, the prices are bid upward.  And so it goes, with each round of transactions benefiting a little less than the one before, as the supply of coin works its way through the economy and the supply of goods is drained.  The people at the bottom end up paying inflated prices for a diminished quantity of vital goods. 

If the adventurers stick around for a while, the local economy will adapt to cater to them, once again at the expense of the locals at the bottom of the food chain.  Resources are diverted away from producing the things the peasants want, and toward making the arms, liquor, and luxury goods demanded by the adventurers.  When the party eventually does pull up stakes and move on in search of new challenges, they leave economic recession in their wake.  The blacksmith is left with the new tools he bought to meet their demand for arms and armor, now sitting idle, and has to let his extra assistants go.  The tailor is left with an inventory of fine cloth, the innkeeper with a cellar full of expensive wines, and the farmer with extra fields of hops and barley for which the market has just dried up.  The capital structure of such a relatively primitive economy isn't complex, so the time for resources to be reallocated isn't as long as it could be, but it still hurts.  Emergency stores may well be depleted from the brief period of living like kings, promising hard times ahead if the current crops fail, and woe betide the community if in the delirium of the boom they've eaten their seed corn and left themselves with little to sow for the next crop.

The upshot of all this is that, unless the party keeps most of their loot to themselves until they hit the big city, they're not likely to be very popular, unless in the course of their exploits they're doing the locals a good turn by neutralizing some clear and present danger.  The blacksmith and the innkeeper might like them initially, but if they stick around long enough, they're going to wear out their welcome even with those folk who benefit most from their largesse.  It's the blacksmith and the innkeeper, after all, who are going to bear the brunt of the townsfolk's anger when they have only paltry inventories at inflated prices for their old customers.  If the adventurers are outbidding the local nobility for goods, and leaving His Lordship the baron with scant fare for his table, the situation might be even more touchy.

In the greater scheme of things, we might assume that the overall supply of money in the game world as a whole will be more or less constant, as the amount lost on sunken ships and added to the hoards of monsters balances the amount recovered by adventurers.  That doesn't mean those local bubbles of boom-and-bust won't cause pain and hard feelings, though.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The view from behind the screen

I had initially thought to write a post on why I play D&D, but unlike a lot of other OSR bloggers, I don't really have any interest in running a non-D&D RPG.  Inevitably when I start to think in depth about some subject, my mind jumps from one inference or observation to the next, until it's gone somewhere else entirely.  Often that somewhere else is more interesting than the destination I first had in mind.  This is one of those times.

In brief, I don't want to run any other system because D&D is the one I've chosen to be fluent in.  I don't want to clutter up my gaming consciousness with a bunch of other radically different mechanics, or tempt my gamer ADD with new systems that may well address issues I've had with the D&D rules while simultaneously showing new and equally annoying chinks in their own game-mechanical armor.   I've learned the ins and outs of D&D; it's my chosen medium, my area of gaming expertise.  This is not to say that I'd never want to play any other system, only that I don't want to run them.  And that brings me to my tangential topic...

Running the show gives one a vastly different perspective on the art than watching the show.  I'm pretty sure it's the same no matter the specific field. 

I'm writing a novel.  Whether or not I'm actually any good at it remains to be seen, but I can say at least that I've tried to learn everything I can about the craft, and it's given me a new perspective and a keener eye.  Now, I don't read books the same way I did in my younger days.  I'm not sure I could if I tried any more.  I used to breeze through a novel of a few hundred pages in a couple days.  Now it may take me a couple weeks, as I slow down to notice what works and what doesn't, how the author foreshadows future plot developments or differentiates characters from one another, or how dialog and description are balanced.  I notice terrible flaws, too, things that I wouldn't have batted an eye at before, that now sometimes break my immersion so thoroughly that I can't finish the book and set it aside after a chapter or two.  (Thank goodness for free samples of kindle e-books!)  In short, I read like a writer.  I've looked behind the curtain at the Great and Powerful Oz, and the mystique is gone.

I had the same experience when I started using mod files in my Elder Scrolls: Morrowind game.  Some otherwise interesting mods had game-breaking flaws, so I set about learning how to use the construction set to fix them.  Once the behind-the-scenes stuff was laid bare, once I understood something of the nuts and bolts behind the facade, the game lost something to me.  I couldn't interact with the people who populate the game world without seeing stat screens and dialog trees.  I couldn't look at a door and think of it as opening into a room; it only loaded a new cell which was connected to the door through code, not spatially.  The first time I played through the game, unmodded, I was so terrified of my character catching the dreaded corprus disease that I ran like hell from the infected monsters.  It just wasn't the same when I found out via the construction set that it isn't even in the game's coding for you to be able to contract the disease before the proper scripted event.  The game is still fun, but it's just a game, with most of the wonder and immersion washed out.

I imagine it's a similar experience for theater people watching a play or a movie, a chef eating out at a restaurant, magician watching someone else's act, or just about any other "in the know" person you could name trying to enjoy his or her field of knowledge as an outsider.

If I ever get the chance to sit on the players' side of a DM's screen again, I hope the person on the other side house rules it enough so I feel like I don't know all the mins and maxes of it.  Throw me some curve balls, so I can forget I know how the system works, and just live in the game world for a while.  I would love to play in a non-D&D game some day too, but when I do, I don't want to have to learn any more of the system than what I need to play my character, assess risks, and manage resources in-game.  Sometimes enjoying an experience is just better when you're ignorant of how it's all done.  I do enjoy DMing, but once you cross that cardboard barrier, you can't ever go back again, at least not completely.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On running away

Why do we like combat in role playing games?  Why are the rules for combat generally the most extensive and complex part of the game?  Because combat - at least properly executed - is exciting.  It has high stakes for success and failure.  It's unpredictable and surprising, which is why even in role play-intensive games, we reach for the dice when it comes to a contest of fists, blades, and claws.

But you know what else is exciting?  A good chase scene.  It's so universally considered exciting that it's become almost a cliche in movies and TV and even literature.  Foot chases, car chases, horseback chases, motorcycle chases, airplane chases, boat chases, golf cart chases...  It's been done straight, it's been parodied, it's an action staple.  We even have an expression based on it:  Cut to the chase!  In other words, get to the good part, and the chase is the good part.

So why aren't the evasion and pursuit rules in role playing games more robust?

He knows how it's done.

 In Classic editions, evasion in the dungeon is handled almost entirely according to movement rates: the faster side wins.  Evasion in the wilderness is determined on percentile dice, based on the number of creatures in each party and modified by their relative movement rates and any other factor the DM deems important, such as terrain.  If the attempt fails, there's a 50% chance that the fleeing party is caught, and presumably forced into combat.  Otherwise, it may attempt to evade again, and continue the process until it either successfully evades or is caught.  It's a pretty low-res system, with very little room for interesting tactical decisions, and I think that's unfortunate.

A lot of making pursuit exciting falls to the game master, in the form of providing interesting terrain.  In a forest, there are trees, fallen logs, underbrush, slopes up and down, streams and ponds, etc.  In mountains, you've got cliffs, boulders, rocky fields, slopes of loose scree, ravines...  Swamps and bogs have quicksand, stands of rushes, mud, shallows, narrow paths of solid ground.  Desert hazards include shifting sand, rocky terrain, gullies and dry washes.  A dungeon may have branching corridors, slopes, doors, stairs, nooks and crannies to hide in, furniture, statuary, rock formations, traps that can't be found by characters sprinting away from danger, and so on.  A town is rife with obstacles - crowds, vendors' carts and stands, fences and railings, buildings, wide streets and narrow alleys...You get the idea.  Give the players some features and obstacles to work with, and they'll find creative ways to use them to their advantage.  Intelligent monsters should do the same, of course, and ones familiar with the local terrain will exploit the disparity of knowledge for all it's worth.  

Rules-wise, we have part of what we need.  There are rules for running and fatigue from running.  It might be nice to have a modified, more specific set of rules for running, to account for minor but crucial differences in speed, endurance, and such between characters.  Maybe add a character's adjustments to Strength and Dexterity, multiplied by 5, to running speed.  A Strength check might be allowed to add a desperate burst of speed at a critical moment.  Instead of a flat half turn of running movement, a character can sprint for a number of rounds equal to three times his Constitution score, or jog for his Constitution score in turns. Beyond that point, a Constitution check can be made on d20 to keep up the pace for another round or turn, respectively.  A failed check leaves the character winded and staggering along at normal encounter speed.

Many of the mechanics you might need for pursuit situations can be improvised with ability checks and such.  Dexterity could be used for obstacles that would make for unsure footing, or for scrambling over barriers.  Strength works for leaping over ditches or hurdles.  Some types of terrain, like uphill slopes and clinging underbrush, might reduce a creature's movement rate by 1/3 and count double or triple against its Constitution limit for fatigue.  Hidden hazards like quicksand or sudden drops might require saving throws to escape or avoid.

Rules for fighting while running would be useful, too.  Most missile devices should be next to impossible to fire on the run, but thrown weapon and melee attacks are possible with a penalty.  Being hit might require a saving throw vs. paralysis to avoid being knocked off stride and losing half your movement for the round.  A serviceable set of rules for grappling would also be a good thing for attempting to grab and drag down a fleeing opponent.  With any kind of attack, a critical hit should definitely knock the target down, while a critical miss leaves the attacker eating turf.  Getting back up takes a round.  Large four-legged creatures like horses might only suffer a knockdown or delay result on a hit from a massive weapon.

Successful evasion may depend on how determined the pursuer is.  One that has a compelling reason might pursue relentlessly.  For others, morale or reaction checks can be used to decide whether it continues the chase or gives it up.  A pursued creature or party might escape if it can get beyond the pursuer's line of sight for a few seconds and find concealment.  If all else fails, the chase may ultimately be decided by the endurance of each party.  In the case of undead, magical constructs, and other creatures that never suffer fatigue, the fleeing characters may be in for a long and grueling chase indeed.

Once you've made the decision to make combat deadly and uncertain enough that players may want to escape or avoid it, running away becomes an option they'll probably exercise a lot more often.  Played right, it might be just as exciting as the combat would have been, or maybe even more so.  Let's just cut to the chase, shall we?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Level-scaled combat and analysis

My last two posts focused on the combat system in D&D as written, and how the faults of the system, insignificant at low levels, will eventually cause combat to break down into boring slogs or equally boring routs.  Now, I want to take a closer and harder look at an alternative system I tossed out almost as a throwaway, but which is quickly growing on me.

I proposed recently that attack rolls could be determined by comparing the levels of the combatants, and applying the difference between them.  For example, a 6th level fighter against a 2nd level fighter would attack using the THAC0 or attack matrix of a 4th level fighter.  The lower level combatant attacks as 1st level, regardless of how many levels inferior he actually is to his opponent.  I suggested some adjustments for other classes, to reflect their lesser combat ability relative to fighters.

After a little more thought, it seems to me that it would function a lot more smoothly, and with fewer fiddly calculations at the margin, if it was based on an Attack Bonus framework rather than THAC0 or a class-and-level based attack table.  (A little more granularity would also be nice; i.e. spread out those +2 jumps into more frequent +1s.)  The Dark Dungeons retro-clone has calculated Attack Bonuses for each class and for monsters in a way that lines up pretty well with the attack tables from Classic D&D, with the aforementioned granularity, so I'll use those numbers.

Each Armor Class has a target number for a hit - for example, to hit AC9 a 10 must be rolled, and this remains constant regardless of class or level.  These numbers will be equivalent to the line of the attack table for 1st level characters, i.e. a THAC0 of 19.

When creatures or characters attack each other, compare their Attack Bonuses, and subtract the lesser one from the greater.  The one with the greater initial AB gets this difference as a positive modifier to his attack roll.  The lesser rolls unmodified.  In effect, the Attack Bonus of the lesser goes toward neutralizing much of the advantage of the greater.  If two AC9 characters are fighting, and one of them has an Attack Bonus one point higher than the other, one will need a 9 to hit, and the other a 10.

The upshot of all this is that a character fighting an evenly matched opponent is going to need about the same number to hit, whether he's 1st, 11th, or 21st level.  If he's fighting a much less skilled opponent, he's still going to be superior.  The greater the difference, the easier it is for him to hit.

Under this system, characters don't need to constantly upgrade their armor to try to keep pace with escalating attack rolls.  The thief's leather armor never becomes obsolete.  He's still lightly protected, as he was at the beginning.  Wearing light armor to maintain a rapid movement rate is no longer such a lopsided tradeoff.  A lightly armored swashbuckler is no more disadvantaged by her choice at 25th level than she was at 1st.  She doesn't need absurd magic items like bracers of defense AC 0 to make her style viable.  The game master doesn't have to slip into Monty Hall mode when handing out magic armor and protective gear.

With the AC arms race blunted, outrageous negative ACs will be far less common, allowing low level opponents to be more of a threat to high level PCs.

As I mentioned in the first post in this mini-series, high level combats are going to take longer when combatants aren't hitting and doing damage each round practically at will.  Using this system, it makes a lot of sense to compensate by increasing the damage potential of high level characters.  Weapon mastery, as detailed in the Master Set or the Rules Cyclopedia, fits into this system far better than it does in the original, in my opinion.  Escalating damage and increased frequency of hits together seem like massive overkill.  Alternatively, simply bumping up the damage potential of all weapons a class can use at certain levels will work just fine too.  The first upgrade might be to one die larger than the base damage, then to two dice one size lower than base damage, then to two base damage dice, then two dice one size larger than base.  1d4 becomes 1d6 becomes 2d3 becomes 2d4 becomes 2d6.   1d6 becomes 1d8 becomes 2d4 becomes 2d6 becomes 2d8, and so on.  Fighters and dwarves get upgrades at levels 6, 12, 18, and 24.  Clerics, thieves, elves, and halflings upgrade at 8, 16 and 24.  Magic-users upgrade at 12 and 24.

This system is also a natural fit with multiple attacks.  As written, there's no cost to multiple attacks, and no reason to choose a single attack if you have the option for multiples.  Consider the possibility that attacking multiple times means that you have to divide your Attack Bonus by the number of attacks, though.  Now, the choice to take extra swings will mean that you either sacrifice part of your advantage, or give a greater advantage to your opponent.  A fighter with an AB of 8 attacking a dragon with an AB of 10 once per round gives the dragon a +2 bonus to hit him.  If he attacks twice per round, the dragon's advantage becomes +6.  He certainly can rush the beast in a whirlwind of steel, but at the cost of being less able to defend himself.  If the fighter's Attack Bonus is 16 to the dragon's 10, his bonus to each attack would be +3 instead of +6.  In that case, he sacrifices accuracy to attack in a flurry.

It could also be used to make surprise attacks and missile attacks, which are hard to defend against, more deadly relative to ordinary melee attacks.  The attacker in those cases might get to use his full Attack Bonus unopposed, or opposed by only half the target's AB.  You'd definitely want to use rules to make firing into melee hazardous, or missile weapons would have an unqualified advantage over melee attacks.

Is this still D&D, or has it become something else?  Is it old school compatible?  I don't know, but I'd like to give it a try.