Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A week without internet

Horror of horrors, no internet for a whole week?  Yep, that's the plan.  Tomorrow morning, my wife and I are off to visit her family in Texas, and since I frankly do not trust the Department of Homeland Insecurity flunkies who staff our airports these days (Official motto: Keeping the skies safe from exploding breasts and testicles!) I've decided to leave my laptop at home and go low-tech for a week. 

That means no new posts for at least the next week, but I'll be taking along notepad and pencil (You want old school?  I'll show you old school!), a healthy supply of graph paper, and a drawing pad.  I'm expecting a fair bit of down time, not least because, as a life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest, I haven't yet been able to fathom how human life can endure Texas summer heat without benefit of air conditioning.  I personally don't intend to attempt the feat, so I'll be spending a lot of time indoors, and a lot of time writing and/or drawing.  Either my work-in-progress novel, my Keep on the Borderlands centered campaign setting, my long-neglected drawing skills, or some combination of the above, should reap the benefits.

There's something about knowing that I literally have nothing else to do which seems to help my brain focus on a particular project.  There's something about using an old-fashioned wood and graphite writin' stick that seems to stimulate parts of my brain that tapping on a keyboard misses.  It's been a long, long time since I've drawn up a dungeon on blank graph paper or keyed the areas in a lined notebook, and it's high time I get back to my game-mastering roots.

The day after we arrive back in the Northwest, the game itself is set to resume after a months-long hiatus.  It's been far, far too long since an orc or bugbear has fallen to the swords and spells of my nieces' characters.  Even the anticipation of being worn out from the ordeal of a day of air travel isn't dampening my excitement at that.  Things are really starting to look up, gaming-wise, at least.

With that thought, I'm out of here for a while.  I'll be back sometime in the near but as yet undetermined future.  In the words of Gandalf the Grey, "Expect me when you see me!" 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fantasy fungi

What's growing in the dark corners of your fantasy world?  Here are sixteen fantastic fungi to fascinate, confuse, and trouble adventurers in dungeon and wilderness.  Some may have uses in magic and alchemy, though for the most part that's left to the DM's discretion.

Goblin's lantern:  A pale mushroom with a thick stalk and bell-shaped cap that emits a bluish phosphorescence in a 5' radius.  It grows mainly in dark, gloomy forests on decaying wood.  They may be picked and will continue to shed light for 1d4 days.  Mildly toxic, goblin's lantern causes painful gastric distress for 1d4 hours if eaten.

Corpsepyre:  Another luminous fungus, this mold glows with an orange or red light.  It grows only on decaying flesh, giving it the appearance of a bed of burning embers.  It has no nutritional value, but is otherwise harmless, though few would care to eat mold scraped off a corpse.

Ratbane:  This nuisance looks like tiny blue-black nubs or domes, about the size of peas, growing very closely together over an area of dungeon floor or wall.  Each fungus secretes a strong adhesive substance which can trap small creatures such as bats and rodents.  Trapped victims die and decompose, feeding the fungus. Larger creatures are slowed to 1/4 of their normal movement if they try to walk across a patch of ratbane.  Only the very foolish would try to eat this fungus; doing so quickly clogs the mouth and throat, resulting in death by asphyxiation.

Miner's muffin:  A puffy, spongy round mushroom, usually yellow to beige in color.  It grows in caves and dungeons of sedimentary rock, usually in patches of 2-16 mushrooms.  Miner's muffin is edible and nutritious, if a bit bland.  Four mushrooms are equivalent to a full day's rations.

Fool's glory:  A large mushroom with a broad, flat cap of royal purple atop a white stalk.  So named for its powerful hallucinogenic properties, which typically produce extreme feelings of euphoria, fearlessness, and invincibility, and possibly delusions of superhuman powers such as flight or immunity to fire.  Sadly, it confers no actual benefits on the imbiber other than a temporary imperviousness to pain.

Bleeding wall fungus:  This gelatinous, translucent, irregularly-shaped fungal mass is a deep crimson in color, and typically grows in the mortared joints of brick or stone walls.  Despite its horrific appearance, bleeding wall fungus is edible and tasty, with a curious spicy flavor.

Ogre's toes:  Very large puffball-like fungi, ruddy brown in color, that grow in rows of 3-8.  All in one row are fruiting bodies of the same fungal mass, which sprout one at a time in linear order so that they tend to be arranged neatly by descending size and resemble the toes of a monstrous foot poking up through the soil.  Ogre's toes are deadly poisonous.  Anyone eating even a small piece must save vs. poison or suffer 1d8 turns of excruciating spasms and muscle paralysis culminating in death from heart failure.

Slickwort:  This thin, blue-green mat is actually a colony of fungi that grows on stone floors.  The colony secretes a greasy, slippery substance that makes footing in that area highly uncertain.  A floor covered with slickwort may be traversed safely at half normal movement rate; faster movement, or stepping onto it unaware requires a d20 check against Dexterity to avoid falling.  Intelligent dungeon-dwelling monsters sometimes cultivate patches of slickwort, either as traps or to enhance the effectiveness of physical traps such as pits and slides.

Glass toadstool:  These very rare medium to large mushrooms grow in places with an abundance of silica, which they incorporate into their structures to give them strength and rigidity.  In their natural state, glass toadstools look much like ordinary mushrooms, though shifting or flickering light causes the surface to sparkle.  They may be of almost any color, depending on other minerals present in their environment.  When stepped on or crushed, a glass toadstool crunches rather than squishes.  If picked, and the organic parts dissolved with acid or allowed to rot away, the exquisite, lacy form of the toadstool's silica "skeleton" remains, and may be worth anywhere from 5-200 gp depending on size, color, and perfection. 

Firemoss:  Actually a lush, feathery, yellow-orange mold, firemoss grows where sulfur is plentiful.  Part of its name is accurate, however: firemoss is quite flammable, a torch or even a spark that comes into contact with it causes it to combust in a quick burst of flame, leaving behind the pungent scent of brimstone.  A character or creature caught in the middle of a patch of firemoss when it burns take 1d4 damage.

Cryomyceum:  This strange, pale blue, semi-magical mold requires large amounts of heat energy to grow.  In cool environments it can lay dormant for years.  When it comes in contact with a heat source, its cells awaken and begin to absorb heat and multiply.  The mold is cold to the touch, like ice, but not extreme enough to cause damage from brief contact.  Spending a night in a cavern full of the stuff may cause harm or even death from hypothermia, however.  Some clans of dwarves are known to use crymyceum mold to chill foodstuffs for long-term storage.  While the mold thrives on warmth, extreme heat such as flame cooks and kills it.

Sorcerer's cap:  A deep blue mushroom with a thin stalk and a tall, conical cap, sorcerer's cap thrives near the edges of stagnant, peaty ponds.  When mature, its blue color is spangled with tiny white spots.  Sorcerer's cap is prized by mages and scholars for its virtues of mind and memory enhancement.  Consuming a mature cap grants a bonus of +1 to Intelligence for 1d6 hours.  It also has the strange side effect of causing rapid growth of head and facial hair, about two inches per hour, giving the eater a wizardly mane and beard.

Witch's spy:  These disturbing but harmless fungi are spherical and white veined with red, except for a large spot of blue, green, or umber, giving them the appearance of eyeballs growing from the wall of a cave or the trunk of a dead tree. 

Grave ghost:  Tall, lumpy, and nearly translucent white mushrooms that often grow in circles similar to fairy rings.  According to folk superstition, they spring up in old burial sites, especially unmarked or unconsecrated graves, and keep the spirits of the unfortunate folk buried there at rest.  They are extremely poisonous, requiring a save to avoid death within seconds.  Evil folk sometimes extract the poison for nefarious purposes, and the mushroom is reputed to have magical properties for spiritual and necromantic purposes as well.

Pyromycofusium:  A small, fiery red mushroom, pyromycofusium grows only on the corpses of red dragons and other creatures with a similarly close affinity for fire.  As the body decomposes, the mushroom takes up the fiery essence of the creature.  Striking or crushing the mushroom causes it to burst into a small and brief but intense conflagration lasting 1d4 rounds.  A creature unfortunate enough to be in contact with the mushroom when that happens takes 1d8 points of damage each round, with a cumulative 5% chance per point of damage of any combustible materials on his person catching fire too.  With great caution, pyromycofusium may be dried and ground to powder, which can be used for fireworks and magical and alchemical purposes.  Dwarven master smiths sometimes use small amounts of the powder for welding and cutting metals.

Pixie's goblets:  These slender, graceful pale lavender mushrooms have concave tops.  Folklore has it that drinking the morning's dew from one will grant the drinker the ability to see invisible fairies and elementals.  Its spores are known to be potent soporifics, but are difficult to gather in sufficient quantities. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Loot and XP

On the dragonsfoot forums recently, it was asked whether experience points should be awarded for the "real" value of non-monetary treasure like gems, jewelry, and works of art, or if it should be based on the price the characters get for it when they sell it. 

In a very basic game, in which many things outside of the actual adventure are hand-waved away, you could just assume that the book price is the selling price is the XP award, and leave it at that.  Personally, I like the world outside the dungeon to have a little more depth, and that includes decisions about whether to accept a quick turnaround on looted items for less than book price, or to hold out for more.  That in turn means that the selling price of any given item is likely to be less than the theoretical "book" price, and there arises the dilemma mentioned above.

To me, this is an incredibly easy question to answer.  Adventurers earn XP for their success at adventuring, not for their success, or lack thereof, at being merchants.  Whether they make a killing on their loot, or get taken for mere coppers on the gold piece, or keep their baubles as trophies, or give them away to beggars or comely barmaids, they did their part as adventurers. They shouldn't have to prove themselves all over again by ferreting out potential buyers and making sales pitches.  That's the job of a merchant.

I would go so far (or at least, my inner economist would) as to say that the rules as written in this case have it exactly ass-backward.  The book value should, first and foremost, be an XP value.  Then that XP value can serve as a guideline for determining a sale price.

Warning: Economics ahead

What we have here is a very nice fantasy world example of the economic principle known as division of labor.  Merchants don't go rooting around in dungeons and lairs to salvage merchandise, because they are poorly suited for the task.  Not only might they be unsuited physically and temperamentally for it, but adventuring requires a substantial investment in equipment and training, and obviously time and money invested in equipment and training for adventuring can't also be invested in equipment and training for commerce.  A good merchant spends a great deal of time and money building his reputation, learning how to recognize the quality of goods, and cultivating connections so he'll know where goods are in greatest demand and who might be interested in unusual items.  A good adventurer spends a great deal of time and money learning how to fight and/or cast spells, assess danger, and survive in hostile environments.  There's just not a lot of overlap between the two skill sets, and extremely few people have the time, inclination, and talent to learn and excel at both.

Another difference between merchants and adventurers, that makes it profitable for both to do business with each other, is their respective time preference (if I may resort to the parlance of the Austrian school.)  Adventurers want coin they can spend, and they usually want it right now.  Merchants are willing to hold onto the goods a while in order to seek out the best possible return.  Because of time preference, present money is always worth more than future money.  When given a choice between $10 now and $10 next week, who wouldn't choose to have the money now?  In order to persuade you to take money next week, I'd have to offer you more money.  How much would it take to get you to pass on the immediate $10 and wait a week?  That depends on your time preference.  The higher it is, the more I'd have to offer to get you to wait.

How does this apply to Joe the fighter?  Let's say Joe found an exquisite bracelet, and somehow has found out that similar bracelets have sold for about 500 gp.  If Joe needs cash now - say, he's gotten himself cursed and badly wants to donate to the temple and have it lifted as soon as possible - he might not want to mess around for a week looking for a buyer to pay him 500 gp.  He might be perfectly happy to sell it to a pawnbroker for 250 gp on the spot, because 250 gp now is a lot more valuable to him than 500 gp later.  The pawnbroker, having a much lower time preference, is willing to let it sit on his shelf until a buyer makes him a better offer.

This isn't to say that the pawnbroker has no time preference at all, though.  If he knows of a likely buyer for the bracelet right off the top of his head, and could resell it tomorrow, he'll be willing to pay more for it than he would if he thought it might take him a month to sell it.  Let's say Joe wants to bargain Peter Pawnbroker all the way up to 450 gp.  In the first case, Peter makes a tidy 50 gp profit in one day, but in the second case that would equal a 50 gp profit in one month, and Peter isn't willing to tie up that much money for that long if he's only making 50 gp out of it.

However, if Joe isn't particularly concerned about having coin in his pocket right away, he could still take advantage of Peter's reputation, knowledge, and connections, and get a better price for the bracelet than he could if he tried to sell it himself.  He could offer the bracelet to Peter on consignment, and Peter would pay him a prearranged portion of the proceeds when it sells, say 85%.  Peter doesn't have to invest any of his own money up front, and Joe gets the benefit of having his bracelet on display to all Peter's regular customers.  Peter still has an incentive to use his skills and knowledge to get the best price he can for it, because the better he does on Joe's behalf, the bigger his commission, but he can afford to wait if he must, because Joe is paying the bulk of the "cost" of time.  It's Joe who's going without the services of several hundred gold coins until the item sells; Peter is only deprived of a relative few.

The upshot of all this is that, unless he's just outrageously lucky, realistically Joe is going to be better off using Peter's services as a middleman than being greedy and trying to go it alone.  This holds true whether his time preference is high or low.  In fact, the amount Joe gains, if any, from stubbornly insisting on the "full" price of his jewelry may well be less than what he could earn if he headed right back to the dungeon instead of wasting his time wheeling and dealing.  The only time it does not hold true is when the DM decides to be unrealistic and let Joe do things that he shouldn't be able to do very well without a merchant's training and connections.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's the way you play.  Just don't kid yourself that it's realistic.)

(End of economics)

How can all this work in play?  Let's start with the assumption that a merchant knows pretty well what he could get for any given item.  It's going to be hard to pull the wool over his eyes without some deliberate and clever deception.  Even though it's not kosher with economic theory, a piece's XP value is a decent rough estimate.

Roll 2d4 and multiply by 10; this is the percentage of a piece's XP value that a merchant won't go over.  This doubles as an estimate of local demand and the merchant's savviness of the local market.  A low roll means he expects great difficulty or a long wait to sell the item, or perhaps taking it to a larger settlement.  A decent roll means he has fair confidence that somebody will want it in a reasonable amount of time, and a very high roll means that he has a prospective buyer or two specifically in mind.

Modifiers: +1 for large town, +2 for city, -1 for village, -2 for hamlet or outpost, +1 if located on major trade route, -1 if unusually isolated.

In order to keep things fairly consistent, if the PCs go looking for another opinion, roll 1d4-2 (min. zero), and add or subtract (50% chance for each) the result to the initial roll.

This doesn't mean that a merchant will start the bidding at this amount, only that it's the highest he or she is willing to pay.  The opening bid might be 50% of the maximum, or even less, depending on the temperament and honesty of the merchant.  It's up to the players to bargain for a higher price if they think their goods warrant it. 

For simplicity, you might wish to process batches of very similar items with a single roll; if the party has, e.g., five gold rings to sell, it's not likely there's going to be wildly varying demand for them.  If they want to sell a large and varied trove all in one go, just assume a roll of 5 and apply the appropriate modifiers - it would likely average out about the same if you actually went to the trouble of rolling each item individually anyway. 

Terms for consignment are left to the PCs and merchant to hash out, but should generally be considerably more favorable to the PCs than selling to the merchant outright.  A merchant will probably demand a larger share for big or bulky items that take up more space in his wagon or shop or are otherwise just a pain to have to deal with.

Personally, I would refrain from giving PCs any more than vague clues about the value of an item when they discover it.  This should help avoid any resentment for "cheating" them out of the "real" value of the items when they sell them if your players are so unfortunately inclined, and makes for more interesting decisions about what to carry out of the dungeon.  It also encourages them to form relationships with merchants and experts, and learn whom to trust, which can make for some interesting role playing opportunities.  (These don't have to be long and involved; even a quick exchange can add to the game.  Recurring bit characters are fun, and if you ever decide to have a merchant robbed, kidnapped, or killed as an adventure hook, you've got a better chance of getting genuine reactions from the player characters.)

Again, regardless of the price they get for their bags full of shinies, the PCs should receive full XP value.  Not only is this great for realism and verisimilitude and all that, it's a great way to keep the XPs coming while curtailing somewhat the amount of cash flowing into the PCs' coffers.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Combat moves and tactics

As I continue to try to make combat a little less predictable, and give players (and monsters!) some meaningful choices other than just whether to swing again or run away, I've cobbled together a short list of moves and tactics.  My aim here is options that are intuitively grasped and easy to apply in play.  All of these maneuvers and tactics may be announced after initiative is rolled, but before any attacks are made for the round.  The bonuses and penalties are most meaningful either in low level play, or when used with a system like this one.

Cautious fighting:  A combatant accepts a -2 penalty to attack rolls, in exchange for a bonus of 1 to AC against all attacks against it that round.  This tactic is especially useful when outnumbered.

Press the attack:  The inverse of cautious fighting, gaining a +1 to attack at the expense of 2 points of AC.  A party that outnumbers a hard-to-hit opponent might find this advantageous.

Any monster of animal intelligence or greater might choose one of the above tactics.

Beleaguer:  Attempting to overwhelm an opponent's defenses with the press of numbers.  A beleaguering group makes only one attack, as if it were a 1 HD monster, but with a bonus of +1 to hit for each member.  If a hit is scored, damage is done equal to a full round of attacks from the strongest member plus one point per member of the beleaguering group.  Thus, a group of four goblins with short swords beleaguering a fighter would do 1d6+4 damage, while a group of four ghouls (3 attacks, damage 1d3 each) would do 3d3+4.  A maximum of six creatures may beleaguer an opponent of equal size; four may beleaguer an opponent of half their size, and eight against an opponent of double their size or greater.  If the beleaguering force misses its attack with a natural 1, it has inadvertently struck one of its own members determined at random, and does damage as above.  Note that a group of creatures surrounding an opponent are not automatically beleaguering; they may choose to attack as individuals.

Animals that attack in packs, such as wolves or rats, and weak monsters that like to make up for their individual weakness with numbers, like goblins and kobolds, are likely to attempt a beleaguering attack.

Parry:  An attempt to block a single attack, chosen by the defender.  This uses one of the defender's attacks; if it has more than one attack per round, it may choose to perform multiple parries or a combination of parries and attacks.  The defender rolls a saving throw vs. death ray; success indicates that the attack is blocked.  A weapon used to parry can block an attack up to one die size larger than its own base damage (i.e. before bonuses for Strength, magic, and specialization.)  Thus, a dagger may parry a short sword but not a long sword; a short sword may parry a long sword but not a great sword, etc.  Metal bracers or gauntlets may be treated as a 1d3 weapon, thus able to parry 1d4 attacks such as daggers and clubs.  A target shield is treated as a 1d4 weapon for this purpose (i.e. it may be used to parry attacks up to 1d6), a medium shield is treated as a 1d6 weapon and a large shield as a 1d8.  Shields parry attacks within their rating at +2 to the saving throw, and may attempt to parry attacks up to twice their rating (against max damage of 12, 16, or 20 points, respectively) with an unadjusted save, though success destroys the shield.

Parrying must be declared before the opponent's attack is rolled.  Device-fired missiles (arrows, bolts, or sling stones) may only be parried with a shield.

Parrying is always an option for intelligent, weapon-using creatures.  Monsters with natural attacks may sometimes choose to parry.  A bear might bat aside a thrust from a fighter's spear, or a dragon could attempt to turn a sword blow with a sweep of its talons.

Each successful parry against a beleaguering attack neutralizes one member of the attacking group for purposes of attack and damage bonuses.

Optional:  On a saving throw roll of a natural 20, the opponent is disarmed.  On a natural 1, the parrying character drops his weapon.

Dodge:  Dodging is an attempt to exploit a relative advantage of quickness and maneuverability to completely evade the attacks of a larger, more cumbersome foe.  The defender must have room to dodge (DM's discretion), and may take no other action, offensive or defensive.  A saving throw vs. death ray is attempted, and success indicates that the defender has nimbly evaded all attacks from that opponent for that round.  On an unsuccessful save, the attacker must still roll to hit against the defender's normal AC.  Dodge may only be attempted against opponents at least twice as large as the defender (in terms of mass/weight, not height.)  A pixie could dodge the attack of a halfling, a halfling could dodge the attack of a human, and a human could dodge the attacks of an owlbear, for example. 

A successful dodge places the defender up to half its combat movement rate away from the attacker in a random direction.  On a natural 20 on the saving throw die, the defender may choose the direction.  On a natural 1, the choice belongs to the attacker.

Dodging is a common tactic of small, non-aggressive creatures, which will usually flee at the first opportunity, and of groups of smaller creatures harrying a larger one.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's in your monster?

(I had initially set out to write about the explosion in complexity of monster stat blocks compared to old school games, but that line of thinking led to something a bit more far-reaching.  You never know what you're going to find when you start dissecting monsters.)

Monster stats sure have changed a lot over the history of the world's most popular RPG.  Early editions took a pretty bare-bones approach toward a monster's mathematical DNA - mostly just some basic combat stats.  When D&D "upgraded" to 3rd edition, though, I remember being completely flummoxed by the stat blocks I saw in my new issue of Dungeon Adventures.  Suddenly monsters had a full complement of ability scores and skills, among other strange notations!  (I let my subscription lapse shortly thereafter.)  I'm completely unfamiliar with 4e monsters, but considering the ubiquity of the "skill challenge" mechanic, I'd be surprised if they weren't fully statted-up like characters too.  Word is that monsters in the playtest version of 5e have ability scores as well.

I don't know what the initial impetus behind this seismic shift was.  Perhaps somebody started wondering why monsters and characters seemed to operate on different mechanics, and sought to "unify" things.  Perhaps it's merely the by-products of a misunderstanding of the importance of ability scores and the drive toward greater "realism" of the skills system.

In reality, in old editions monsters and characters actually did, for the most part, run on the same rules. Despite the obsessing of players and DMs over ability scores, they were never actually a core mechanic of the game, only a peripheral one.  They provide some points of reference for imagining and role playing the character as a unique individual, and a few minor statistical deviations from the baseline in certain actions that were governed primarily by the real core mechanics.  The real cogs and pulleys of the game engine were the things that were shared in common by PCs and monsters alike:  a number representing how hard they are to hit (Armor Class), matrices determining their ability to hit (a function of levels for PCs, Hit Dice for monsters), a number representing how much punishment they can take before dying (hit points, derived from class and level for PCs, Hit Dice for monsters), a number or range of damage they cause with successful attacks, chances for avoiding or mitigating the effects of special attacks (saving throws, again a function of level/HD), and a movement rate.  Some of these things could be modified by ability scores, but none were dependent upon them. The game, in fact, would play perfectly well without ability scores - essentially, as if everyone had modifiers of 0. 

Thus, there was no point in generating ability scores at all, save for those entities most important to the game, the player characters.  Take a look at the "monster" versions of humans and demi-humans (e.g. Bandit, Noble, Trader, etc.) in the rule books - nothing but standard monster stats.  Or thumb through the Keep on the Borderlands module, and see how many of the denizens of the Keep had been given ability scores.  (In a few cases, a single exceptional score is noted.  Other than that...nada.)

In  many or perhaps most cases, ability scores don't even apply very neatly to monsters.  How do you rate a horse's Strength score on a scale meant for humans?  Do you give it the strength several times that of a man, as a real life horse would have?  If so, what do you do about the massive bonuses to hit and damage that would come with such a score?  How about a pixie?  Or a grey ooze - does it even have a Strength score, and if so, how exactly does the creature employ it?  Does it have Wisdom or Charisma?  Does it have Dexterity?  How do you handle a giant's Constitution?  It's clearly orders of magnitude sturdier than any human by virtue of sheer size, but does that give it greater endurance and resistance to disease too?

No, rather than rate every ability of every monster on the same scale as player characters, their abilities are subsumed in their standard stats.   The Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution of grizzly bears and kobolds are reflected in their damage ranges, Armor Class, and number of Hit Dice.  There's rarely any need to individualize them further, but when there is, it can be achieved simply by granting a bonus or penalty to any or all of these stats, rather than mucking about with the intermediary step of generating ability scores.

Early skill systems were similarly peripheral to the essential rules of the game.  Originally they were bolted on to mainly to graft on background stuff that had nothing to do with interacting with monsters and NPCs, and often little to do with adventuring at all.  Formally granting a character the ability to rig a sail or weave baskets doesn't even touch upon the core mechanics of the game or any of the situations that they govern.  There's almost never any reason why you'd need to know whether an orc or dragon can do either, and if some situation arose in which it is important - say, encountering a ship crewed by orcish pirates - you just assume they have the ability to do what they're clearly doing.

Somehow, though, the game evolved to begin incorporating ability scores directly into core game mechanics, rather than simply modifying them with a bonus or penalty.  In case there's any confusion, resolving a situation by rolling a die and adding an ability score modifier is an example of the latter.  Even without the ability score, the roll can be taken straight.  A check of "1d20, roll under ability" is a simple example of the former - it cannot work at all in the absence of the requisite ability score.  (Granted, the d20 ability check does appear in old school rule books, but it's generally suggested as a sort non-specific or catch-all mechanic in the DM's tool box, to be used at the DM's discretion for adjudicating occasional actions covered by no formal rule.  As a tool for ad hoc rulings and resolutions, it seems no more objectionable than any other.  Only with the intent to formally codify it as an official mechanic for resolving specified actions does it really turn malignant.)

 Maybe this was an outgrowth of the inflated importance so often mistakenly assigned to ability scores, or maybe it was a conscious effort to actually make them as important as they were perceived to be.  Whatever, chicken and egg.  Once you have ability scores exerting a direct rather than indirect effect, you either have a mechanical double standard - a thing is done one way for PCs and another for monsters, which of course is fraught with opportunities for imbalance and abuse - or you have to assign ability scores to the monsters so they can use the same mechanics. If a certain action in combat is resolved with a check against Strength, then monsters need Strength scores, and even more problematically, they need Strength scores that are directly comparable to human Strength scores.  Simply rolling 3d6 won't do - see the aforementioned examples of the horse and the pixie.

Similarly with skills.  As long as they pertain to things like singing, basket weaving, and historical knowledge, they don't intrude upon the jurisdiction of the foundational rules for combat, negotiations, and other interactions, so they generate no disequilibrium if monsters don't have them.  When they do start branching into those areas (sometimes morphing into "feats;" same concept, different label) they become a point of asymmetry between PC and monster, and the pressure to balance things out mounts.  If a PC can have a Dodge skill for additional chance to evade attacks, what justification can there be for monsters not to have access to a similar ability?  When skills and feats function on an opposed mechanic of some sort, it's pretty much mandatory that monsters have skills, else what exactly is the PC's skill opposing?  When skills and feats are based on ability scores, it's then required that monsters have ability scores as well.

Where these changes lead in the end is not a to few new bells and baubles tacked onto a simple system, but to a fundamental transformation of a simple system into a much more complex one. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


I think one of the most appealing things to me about fantasy role-playing games is the level of autonomy they allow to players and their characters, at least when done right.  The game takes place in a world where all things are possible and the yoke of tyranny is not inescapable.  You can take great risks without some medieval analog of OSHA breathing down your neck about the weight of your armor or the sharpness of your sword, or requiring permit forms in triplicate to cast a magic missile.  You can hide the spoils of your adventures from the royal tax man.  You can chug potions without a prescription.  You can aspire to overthrow despotic kings and depose corrupt merchant guildmasters.  You can trade on the black market in commodities banned by the crown or the church.  You can defy authority, and when authority sends its goons to force you into line, you have the power to resist - and win!  If you just get sick of it all, you can declare your independence, run off into the wild and found your own realm, and live by your own rules.

In a word, you can experience, vicariously through your character, something that's nearly extinct in our modern world - true freedom.

Happy Independence Day to my readers here in the U.S., and if it means more to you, as it does to me, than just a day off from work and an excuse to drink beer and set off a few government-approved pyrotechnic devices, it would bring a smile to my face to know that you're out there breaking a few unjust laws in honor of the occasion and thumbing your nose at Big Brother.