Saturday, August 25, 2012

Of the productivity of peasants and the price of rations

Game geeks, or maybe just game designers, apparently make extremely poor economists.  At least, that's the conclusion any economically literate person would draw from the D&D rules and supplements.  One of the most outrageous discrepancies involves the relationship between the price of a week's worth of standard rations and the rate of pay for mercenaries.

In basic Moldvay/Cook or Mentzer D&D, a week of standard rations costs 5 gold pieces.  This is ordinary food, not preserved or otherwise specially prepared.  In other words, it's the same basic fare that makes up the diets of peasants and commoners, as well as adventurers in the field.  This means that the typical peasant must necessarily be able to produce, on average, at least 5 gp worth of value per week.  Either he produces it himself directly in the form of food, or he produces some other good that can be exchanged for food or the 5 gp to buy food.

This is, of course, far from the reality of medieval Europe, where a single gold coin could keep an entire family fed for months.  It's a far cry even from Gary Gygax's analogy of the campaign milieu to a gold rush boom town.  A single peasant in an economy of 5gp weekly rations must produce roughly 271 gp of value per year just to eke out the most meager existence.  A family of five, assuming children consume half as much as an adult, needs to earn the equivalent of 912.5 gp annually!  And that's a family that would be sleeping in a lean-to in the field they farm, wears rags or worse, and can't afford to pay the taxes and tithes demanded by king and church.

While that's wildly out of scale with the real history of our world, it's not, in and of itself, economically absurd.  It could simply be assumed that gold is vastly more abundant in the game world than it is here in our real one.  To me, this feels way out of whack, and it raises some other questions about the relative supplies of other metals and resources, but as far as pure economics goes, it isn't a problem per se.

Now, though, consider the rates in the Expert Rules for hiring soldiers and mercenaries.  The military service of an untrained peasant costs 1 gp per month.  It costs him 5 gp per week not to starve to death.  That 1 gp per month isn't just the peasant's take-home pay after expenses; that is the total cost to the employer of hiring him.  That is the sum total of his compensation for the month.  Even a heavy horseman, presumably a career soldier and an elite one at that, earns only 20 gp per month, enough for four weeks of rations - which, it hardly needs to be pointed out, leaves him a bit short for the month, and less than nothing left over for the upkeep of arms and mount.

Clearly, either the price of food or the price of mercenaries and hirelings, or both must be radically adjusted.

Let's see if we can work out something a little more balanced.

Let's say that a peasant can, in fact, survive on 1 gp per month.  His family of five goes through 42 gp per year.  That's still a lot more than historical reality, but it doesn't devalue the gold piece nearly as much as that 912.5 gp per annum subsistence.  From that 42 gp must come food, clothing, and shelter, plus tribute demanded by crown and church.  If we assume 10% for the church's tithe and 25% in taxes, that leaves our peasants with 31.5 gp to live on for a year.

According to the Rules Cyclopedia, an outfit of plain clothes costs 5 sp.  We'll assume that a peasant can get by with two changes of clothes fora year, so the family of five spends 3.5 gp on clothing.  Remember that even upkeep performed at home by Mother with needle and thread counts against the family's total output for the year - it isn't "free."  That leaves them with 28 gp.

Let's assume that 8 gp goes toward upkeep of the family hovel and miscellaneous expenses - blankets, needles and thread, nails, candles, and whatnot.  20 gp left now, all of which can be devoted to the annual food budget.

After crunching some numbers, what comes out is a price of approximately 1.1 silver pieces, or 11 coppers, for a week of basic, no-frills fare.  Frankly, this sounds eminently reasonable to me.  A week's worth of iron rations shouldn't cost too much more than that, especially considering that the family must preserve so much of their food anyway, in order to get through the lean winter months.  In fact, if anything a packet of hard-tack and salt pork should probably cost less than bread and roasted fowl, by virtue of the fact that the former is less appealing and the latter more perishable and thus more difficult to keep a supply on hand.  Obviously, relatively well-to-do tradesmen and the like, as well as successful adventurers when they're not in the field, may choose a richer diet for themselves, but it seems reasonable that standard rations should represent a baseline of nutritional subsistence.

The prices of many other everyday items on the adventuring equipment list probably ought to come down as well.  A small sack shouldn't cost a month's wages for a peasant, nor should a dozen large nails (i.e. iron spikes), half a dozen torches, or a ten-foot stick.  But at least now that we know what food ought to cost, it's easier to from a reasonable idea of what those other goods should cost, too.

The equipment price lists in the rule books were obviously designed from a pure game perspective, not from one of medieval economic realism, but with the addition of Stage 2 and Stage 3 exploration (in plain English, wilderness and political/social) that discrepancy quickly becomes painfully apparent.  Of course, since it is just a game, it's perfectly permissible simply to hand-wave the inconsistencies away, but if you like as much internal consistency and verisimilitude in your setting as you can get, adjusting the economy is worth some careful consideration.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Consequences in the sandbox

This post at Once More Unto the Breach got my brain percolating on the idea of consequences of the players' actions and choices, specifically in the context of a sandbox-style campaign.  It's worth a read, so pop over and take a look if you haven't already.  I'll wait right here.

Back?  Good; you're up to speed, so let's dive right in.

Obviously, we're talking not of the immediate consequences of individual actions during an adventure, like swinging a sword or drinking a potion, but of the long term ramifications of major decisions and cumulative player actions.  I think it's entirely possible, and sometimes even fun, to play a consequence-free (or nearly so) sandbox campaign.  In fact, that's pretty much what my early days DMing were like.  The only consequences to the party's exploits in the Caves of Chaos were that the areas they cleaned out either remained empty or something else moved into them.  My players weren't inclined to stir up trouble in the Keep, so that was a non-issue.

However, I also think that the sandbox is the only campaign format in which the consequences of player choice can be fully applied and experienced.  There's no overarching plot to protect.  There are no locations or NPCs that can't be altered or eliminated.  There are no connections and relationships that absolutely have to be cultivated in any particular way.

Compare the railroad or plot-driven campaign.  Players' choices must be steered toward those that produce certain predetermined consequences, or else outcomes must be fudged or contrived in some way to build some tenuous causal link, post hoc, from the players' choices.  Consequences are present, after a fashion, but in a very limited sense, and the chain of causality is effectively reversed.  Instead of choices leading to consequences, consequences retroactively prescribe choices.

Only the sandbox, then, can operate at the extremes of the consequence continuum: completely consequence-free or with full and logical consequences applying.

Player agency is present at the consequence-free end, but only ephemerally, with regard to immediate in-game actions.  Player characters may try to pick the lock of the jewelry shop, or swing a sword at a guard, and either succeed or fail to open the lock, and succeed or fail to kill the guard.  Once the scene ends, though, there's no eternal enmity from the jeweler or the guard captain or the wife of the dead guard or the community, nor any sanctions against the PCs from the local ruler.  Just like a TV sitcom, the status quo returns every time the credits roll at the end of an episode.

The fullest flowering of player agency comes only at the full consequences end of the scale, because of course agency is all about player choices being meaningful, and at that point on the scale they are meaningful not only in the moment, but in the long run as well.  Agency isn't just about letting the players do whatever they want; it's also about what they do having the power to affect their imaginary environment.

If the players respond to a trader's complaint about the threat of monsters on the trade route, and take it upon themselves to clear them out, they should be able to rely on the trader's good will afterward.  They should notice an increase in merchant traffic, and improved prices or variety of goods for sale, maybe even an overall increase in the prosperity of the town or region.

If they expose a plot by the baron of Thunderfell to undermine his rival, then that should color the reactions of the baron and his loyalists, and of the rival and his men, far into the future.

If they turn outlaw and attack the king's soldiers, then there's going to be a bounty on their heads, and they won't be welcome in civilized places where the king's law is well regarded for a long, long time to come, perhaps the rest of their lives - unless they do something to change it.

If the PCs act as men and women of their word, NPCs learn to believe and trust them.  If their actions are capricious and unpredictable, NPCs learn to be wary and distrustful of them.

If they accept quests to aid the common folk, they'll earn a reputation as folk heroes.  If their only loyalty is to gold, they'll be seen as self-serving mercenaries.

If they foolishly release the vampire lord from the mirror of life trapping, then there's probably going to be an outbreak of vampiric murder and mayhem across the land.

A more difficult, but potentially highly interesting application of consequences is to extend them to player inaction as well.  If you provide lots of adventure hooks, and let the players choose among them, what happens to the ones they don't choose?

If they decide to go hunting dragons instead of searching for the merchant guildmaster's missing daughter, what happens to her?  Does she die, is she never seen again, or does some other band of adventurers take up the thread?  Do they succeed, fail, or fail spectacularly?  If the party does choose to rescue her, and leaves the dragons alone for the time being, does the threat of the dragons grow, making them more dangerous if and when the party does get around to dealing with them?

There are a few different general ways in which things could change without the players' intervention, and each can serve to motivate them in different ways.

The situation can escalate, as in the case of the dragons.  Like weeding a garden, sometimes things put off for too long become orders of magnitude worse in the meantime.

It can end in tragedy or disaster, as it might with the merchant's daughter.  The party can't be everywhere at once, but something like this reminds them that how they rank their priorities is important.

The situation can improve.  Perhaps the local burgomasters collect funds to bribe the dragons to move on to other hunting grounds.  Maybe the merchant's daughter makes a daring escape from her captors and turns up in town a week later, battered and ragged but alive.  This serves to remind the players that, while their characters are powerful adventurers, the rest of the world doesn't just sit around passively waiting for them to ride to the rescue.  It's still good to leave the players with the feeling that things might have turned out even better if they'd been involved, though.  The townsfolk wouldn't have had to hand over their wealth to the dragons, or the girl's fellow hostages might not have been sold into slavery  by the kidnappers.

It can result in another party of adventurers beating them to the punch and getting the gold and the glory.  Rivalry can be very motivating.

The important thing is not to leave adventure hooks hanging too long.  They'll resolve themselves one way or another, with or without the intervention of the player characters.  Sometimes they mutate and morph into other hooks.  Sometimes one door closing opens up new ones.  I think it's a good idea to keep a list of open adventure hooks, and between game sessions, evaluate the status of each one, deciding if or how the situation has changed, and then seed news and rumors into the next session accordingly.

In the sandbox, the PCs should be a force in shaping the course of the campaign world, for good, ill, or indifferent.  Their decisions and actions should be a deciding factor in whether an NPC ends up as ally or adversary, rather than simply scripting characters to fill those roles.  An NPC who develops organically into a loyal friend or a bitter enemy over the course of a campaign is a lot more engaging to player emotions and imaginations than one simply created for the role.  A sandbox of full agency and consequences allows players and referee alike to experience success, disappointment, surprise, uncertainty, triumph, regret...and they're the real deal, not scripted and preordained.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The lightly armored adventurer

The fighter in plate armor is probably one of the most enduring tropes in D&D, and fantasy in general.  The rules of the game are sometimes derided for a perceived bias toward heavily armored fighters, and all manner of "fixes" have been tacked on to rectify things.  Sub-classes with special perks for going unarmored or lightly armored and arbitrary AC bonuses to make swashbucklers and barbarians the equal of their ironclad brethren are a common addition to the rules.  There are probably, quite literally, dozens of iterations of those classes and others like them, both official and homebrew, floating around out there.  Other times, gamers resort to cheesy Monty Haul assortments of magic items in their attempts at fighter parity - rings, bracers, and robes of protection, +5 leather armor, and so on.

In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.   I think that's a mistake, based upon a mistaken perception.  With apologies to Errol Flynn and Conan aficionados, from a purely combat-oriented perspective, the fighter in plate is, and ought to be, superior.  In a straight-up, toe-to-toe melee combat, the lightly armored swashbuckler and the barbarian in his furry speedo are not the equal of the armored knight.   All the energy used by the lightly armored fighter in his flurry of parrying and nimble evasion may indeed look cool, but that's energy and attention that the armored knight need not expend just to keep from being skewered.  His passive defense, in the form of armor, allows him to focus more of his active attention on hitting and dealing damage. Between combatants of similar skill and experience, the armored knight is always the odds-on favorite.  That's as it should be.

Well then, what's the point of playing a swashbuckler or a barbarian? fans of those archetypes might ask.  They have a historical and a literary tradition behind them, and they're interesting from a role-playing perspective, but the rules give them the shaft!

In point of fact, though, it isn't the rules that give them the shaft.  It's the focus of a particular game or campaign.  In a game that heavily emphasizes combat, the traditional melee tank owns the field.  Again, that's as it should be - if combat is your emphasis.  There are plenty of situations, though, when heavy armor is either not useful, or a hindrance, and playing up those scenarios a little makes the lightly armored fighter or cleric a viable character.

Polite Society

One of the primary factors in the rise of swashbuckler and duelist-type fighters was not the effectiveness of fighting unarmored, but social reasons.  Besides being uncomfortable and noisy, it might be a serious faux pas to go stalking around town in plate or mail.  The overall effect would be not unlike that of making a trip to the shopping mall with a shotgun over your shoulder - it looks like you're looking to start trouble.  It frightens the peasantry and arouses the suspicion (at least) of the guard and the local ruler.  Going unarmored or discreetly armored and wearing a dagger, short sword, or rapier or carrying a quarterstaff is a better choice for the adventurer who wants to be dashing and prepared rather than seen as a violent brute or a paranoid cad.  For adventures in urban settings, or the king's palace, a character wearing plate is going to be at a decided disadvantage.


Armor is great when you get into a fight, but for crawling about the dark depths of a dungeon or the wide wilderness, it can be quite a drag.

Time:  Reduced movement rates are the most obvious handicap of heavily armored characters.  Consider a lightly encumbered party with a movement rate of 120' per turn, vs. one with one or more characters in plate moving at 60' per turn.  That's twice as long to explore 120' of dungeon corridor, and twice as many rolls for wandering monsters.

Fleeing or pursuing:  If you want to run down a fleeing opponent, it helps if you're not carrying thirty pounds of metal wrapped around your body.  And when you're fleeing from a combat that's too tough, well...the magic-user doesn't have to outrun the owl bear.  He just has to outrun the fighter in plate.

Stealth and surprise:  It's hard to sneak up on someone if you're clanking and jingling with every step.  The standard chances for surprise - 2 in 6 - assume a typical party with typical equipment.  If everyone goes in light armor, that could be bumped up to 3 in 6.  Perhaps the chances of wandering monsters might be reduced as well.

Climbing, swimming, etc.:  It should be nigh impossible to swim in metal armor, and it's not very good for scrambling over heaps of rubble, up or down cliffs and embankments, and into or out of pits and sinkholes either.  Bogs and swamps are hazardous places, but even more so in armor.  Full plate or mail in the desert or jungle is practically begging for heat stroke.  That isn't to say that things can't be done in armor, but they may be more hazardous, make more noise, take longer, etc.  Some places may be inaccessible, or nearly so, to heavily encumbered characters.  (This obviously works best in a sandbox-style game, where there are no "plot essential" events or locations, only places that the PCs will have to come back to properly equipped if they wish to explore them.)

Carrying loot:  It almost goes without saying that if you're lugging armor, it subtracts from your ability to lug gold and gems.

Skirmish combat:  As I've already remarked, in a toe-to-toe fight, an armored fighter has a clear advantage, but there are tactical reasons to favor mobility over the protection of armor.  Missile combatants, for instance, might find it more advantageous to use their unencumbered movement rate to stay out of melee altogether, and trust to cover for protection.  A superior movement rate may be an advantage in cornering or surrounding a group of enemies.  A fighter with a 40' per round movement rate can reach a beleaguered comrade 40' away in half the time it takes one with a 20' per round move to get there.


Once again, this is not to force any character not to wear plate mail, but merely to point out that there is, or at least should be, a downside as well as an upside to it.  Does this diminish the special class advantages of the fighter and cleric?  I say no.  The thief and the magic-user are forced to use the light or no armor strategy.  The fighter and the cleric can choose freely between heavy armor and light armor as the adventure demands. They can equip for stealth, exploration, and society, but the mage and thief can't deck themselves out for a melee-intensive grind.  The ability to wear armor or not to is part of the fighter's versatility.

Tricking out swashbucklers and barbarians with AC bonuses and special abilities doesn't make them even with a traditional fighter; in a balanced campaign in which exploration and social adventures are on an even footing with combat, it gives them the unfair advantage.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Combat maneuver: Hold at bay

One of the nifty things about a spear, at least in real life, is that you can use it defensively, to hold an opponent at bay, keeping it at a distance greater than the reach of its attack.  I've been mulling ways that this could be modeled in basic D&D combat, and I think I've come up with something that might work.

In order to hold an attacker at bay, the defender must be wielding a pointed weapon with a longer reach than the attacker's weapon (or natural attack form.)  A spear or pike is the obvious choice, but a long or two-handed sword might also work, at the referee's discretion.  Hold at bay must be declared at the beginning of the round, when intentions are announced.  Instead of making a normal attack, the defender holds the weapon outstretched with the point trained on the (potential) attacker(s), ready to thrust it sharply if the potential attack becomes an actual attack.

If the opponent he is holding at bay chooses not to attack and does not turn its back, the defender does not get to attack either - the round ends in a stalemate.  If the opponent does choose to attack the defender, the defender strikes first, regardless of initiative, and gains a +2 bonus to hit.  If a hit is scored, the strike causes normal damage, and the opponent must make a saving throw vs. death ray with a penalty equal to the damage rolled, or be held off and unable to complete its own attack that round.  On a successful save, the attacker has broken through the defense, and may attack in return.  Unless the defender is able to once again put some distance between himself and the attacker, he may no longer attempt to hold it at bay.

Optional:  If the saving throw fails on a natural 1, the attacker has impaled itself upon the defender's weapon, for double damage, and if the weapon has a barbed or flanged head it remains embedded until pulled free, causing another die of damage.  On a natural 20, the attacker breaks through the defense and breaks the weapon as well.

Multiple attackers:  A defender can defend in front of himself only, and may make a defensive strike against only whichever attacker chooses to move against him first.  All attacks against him after the first are resolved normally.  An attack against the defender from behind is at an additional +2 to hit, and instantly disrupts his attempts to hold other opponents at bay.  Thus, surrounding or flanking the defender effectively nullifies a hold at bay maneuver.  Nonetheless, using hold at bay against multiple opponents is a valid tactic when defending in a location that does not allow opponents to surround, such as a dungeon corridor or with one's back against a wall or corner of a room.  While it's certain that attackers after the first one of the round will break through the defense, none wants to be that first one, and thus all might choose to hang back out of their individual desires for self-preservation.

Multiple defenders:  More than one defender may add a spear to a hold at bay type defense, if all are in a position to strike the front of the opponent as it attacks.  For example, three fighters with spears might form a line to defend against a boar.  In this case, each defender gets to make a defensive strike, with the usual +2 bonus, and damage from all that hit is added together to determine the penalty to the attacker's saving throw.

Multiple attackers and defenders:  A group of defenders in a tight formation may hold off an encircling group of attackers.  When a member of the surrounding group decides to attack, any and all defenders facing in that direction may take their defensive strikes against it.  Note that even if an attacker breaks through this defense, it does not automatically nullify the entire defense, but only that of the defender it attacks, and any who choose to attack it in normal melee in the next round.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Monster vulnerabilities

Last post, I expressed my dissatisfaction with the D&D convention that any enchanted weapon is effective against pretty much any monster with immunity to damage from normal weapons.  The problem is that the challenge of defeating monsters with immunities is completely neutralized simply by acquiring a magic sword, and monsters with immunities become just another foe to be hacked down.  It de-emphasizes player agency in overcoming the challenge.  Or perhaps more accurately, it de-emphasizes current player agency, applying directly to the situation at hand, and instead lets players forever rest on the laurels of past agency in acquiring said magic sword.  My solution to the problem as I perceive it is to remove the status of magical weapons as a catch-all that can harm any creature, and thus make creature-specific weaknesses more important.  With that decision made, it's worth exploring possibilities for interesting vulnerabilities.

A few weaknesses are specified in the rules, such as that of lycanthropes and a few undead creatures to silver weapons.  AD&D, I believe, adds some creatures that can be harmed by cold-forged iron weapons.  To prevent the party from easily preparing for a couple of obvious eventualities, we need more than that, though.  There are lots of possibilities for weapons that might be required to damage particular creatures.
  • Stone, either generally, or a particular class (sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic) or a particular kind (limestone, quartz, marble, flint, obsidian...)
  • Precious or semi-precious gemstones, from jasper to diamond.
  • Wood, either generally, or a particular type (pine, oak, holly, yew, willow, cedar, etc.)  Perhaps the wood must come from a particular part of the tree (heartwood, bark, limb less than a year old) or grown in a particular location, such as a graveyard or the site of a fire.
  • Bone, either generally, or a particular bone (femur, jawbone) or from a particular creature (human, elf, dragon...)
  • A particular metal (copper, tin, lead, gold) or alloy (pewter, bronze, brass, electrum.)

Not every vulnerability needs to be of the "what can we hit it with to kill it?" form.  Weaknesses that have other effects are often more interesting and force players to think farther outside the box.

Aversion or revulsion:  The creature cannot or will not touch some material or object, or take some action.  The classic examples of lycanthropes' fear of wolfsbane, and the vampire's inability to cross running water or enter a home without being invited are examples of this sort of weakness.  Depending on its exact nature, an aversion or revulsion may be used to exclude a creature from an area, confine it, or repel it.  Aversion or revulsion can be physiological (wolfsbane's effect on lycanthropes or running water on vampires) or psychological/symbolic (the vampire's prohibition against entering uninvited.)

Compulsion:  The creature is drawn to or obsessed with something to the point of being unable to resist.  For example, folklore has it that vampires and/or witches may be kept at bay by throwing a handful of grain, or by covering windows with screens, and the creature is compelled to stop and count the kernels of grain or the holes in the screen.  (This was once used to hilarious effect in an episode of The X-Files.)

Debilitating:  The object of weakness drains the creature's abilities or incapacitates it in some way.  This could include all manner of effects, such as calming or putting to sleep, disabling or weakening an offensive power, blinding, deafening, slowing, disorienting, mesmerizing, physically weakening, preventing the use of escape powers such as teleportation or ethereal movement, canceling defensive powers such as invisibility, and negating immunities.

Possible triggers for these weaknesses are many.  In practical application, factors may be combined, such as using herbs and music, or inscribing a circle of salt accompanied by a chant, or a ritual performed under a certain aspect of the stars.  These components might be effective only in combination, they might be effective separately but reinforce each other, or one part might be effective while the other is superfluous.

Symbols and talismans:  Typically an item with a connection to the creature type or a particular individual.  It may be a specific item (the sword that ended the normal life of a now-undead creature, a medallion owned by its mate, etc.) or a class of items (holy symbol, olive branch, mirror.)  It may trigger any of the effects above.

Plants:  Herbs, especially strongly aromatic ones, are often credited with potency against evil spirits and monsters.  Their power is often released by burning, in the form of incense, smudge pots, and the like.  Burning sage is said to cleanse an area of evil.  Flowers, leaves, or other parts of particular plants may act as talismans against particular creatures.

Animal or human parts:  Horns, hide, hair, blood, organs, and body parts of animals, people, or monsters might have power over some supernatural creatures.

Minerals:  Salts, metals, ashes, soils, sands, oils, powders, and crystals may be efficacious against some monsters.  Lines of salt are commonly used as barriers to prevent the passing of supernatural creatures.

Sounds and music:  Particular tones or tunes can affect monsters in many different ways.  A Gregorian chant might well keep blasphemous undead at bay.  In the original Legend of Zelda game, the sound of the flute stripped one boss of its immunity and rendered it vulnerable to attack.  The Golem in the first Dragon Warrior game was put to sleep by the music of the fairy flute.

Rituals:  Various rituals may have power to bind, repel, banish, or weaken monsters.  Drawing runes or pentagrams in the dirt is a ritual, as is reading from holy scriptures, sacrificing a black ram, or blessing all the homes in a village.  Rituals often require one or more other factors, such as materials or a particular celestial aspect.

Celestial bodies:  Night and day, phases of the moon, tides, or alignments of stars and planets  may affect supernatural monsters.  Powers may wax and wane or even vanish altogether at certain critical conjunctions.  Sometimes celestial alignments are simply propitious times for the performing of rituals or for the harvesting of herbs or other materials for greatest efficacy.

Vulnerabilities should be assigned carefully and deliberately, not randomly.  Where myth and folklore are silent, reason and common sense should guide.  Some examples of my own, below:

  •  A dwarven revenant has a compulsion to count coins and can only be harmed by weapons of stone.
  •  A vampire elf will not touch wood, and can be slain only with weapons made of the heartwood of a mallorn tree.
  • An undead creature whose curse is penance for murdering a faithful lover recoils at the sight of a red rose; weapons can harm it if tipped with rose thorns.
  • A glass golem is weakened by the sound of a particular very high note, becoming riddled with cracks and susceptible to ordinary weapons.
  • Wraiths and spectres are rendered semi-physical by the smoke of a burning mixture of sage and other herbs, and susceptible to full damage from silver weapons while in this state.  They seldom remain in the area, though, unless confined by a line of salt.
  • A creature that skulks in the holds of ships and preys on sailors cannot abide fresh water, and cannot set foot on soil or stone.  Being splashed with alcohol negates its immunity to normal weapons, so it purposely throws kegs and bottles overboard; disappearance of rum and wine aboard a ship is often the first sign of the monster's presence.
  • Gargoyles can be harmed only by cold-forged iron.  Pouring salt on their wings renders them unable to fly for one full turn.
  • Elementals become vulnerable to normal weapons if they lose contact with their element.  
  • The wights of a certain burial ground will not attack a person visibly brandishing a holly bough, the token of the order of knights who opposed their wicked clan in life.  
  • Shadows cannot cross running water, just like a vampire, and are vulnerable to weapons of black obsidian.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Making "unhittable" monsters meaningful

Every gamer knows that fantasy RPGs are full of mythical and magical creatures that are impervious to harm from ordinary weapons.  Lycanthropes, the greater ranks of the undead, golems and elementals, and various and sundry extra-planar and incorporeal beasts all are immune to mundane arms.

Besides representing the abilities attributed to these creatures in myth and folklore, weapon-immune monsters fill the role, in game, of opponents that PCs can't just cut down through main force of arms.  To beat them requires clever strategy, careful planning, and research or trial and error to discover their weaknesses.  Failing that, survival requires fleetness of foot and a good sense of when to use it.  At least, that's how I imagine it should be.

More typically, though, creatures' immunities barely matter.  By the time most characters will be facing wererats and wights, they've already got at least a magical weapon apiece; silver is pretty well irrelevant, never mind stuff like wolfsbane that only drives certain monsters off rather than killing them.  The rules try to keep up by declaring some higher level monsters immune to increasingly powerful weapons; you need a +2 or a +3...and once again, at the levels PCs are likely to encounter those monsters, they're already packing at least that magnitude of magical swords and maces.

One obvious problem that I can see, if one wishes to preserve the status of monsters with immunities as especially challenging opponents, is that magic weapons are pretty much universally effective.  A sword +1 is good against everything from wererats to shadows to gargoyles to vampires.  Find one of those, and you can simply resume meeting every challenge with toe-to-toe combat.

The obvious solution is to sharply limit the number of magic weapons in the campaign.  It's obvious, but not necessarily optimal.  Magic weapons are still the "silver bullet" against everything, so to speak.  And, let's face it, magic weapons are expected.  A treasure hoard just isn't the same without the possibility of finding an enchanted sword or bow.

A better solution, in my mind, is to say that magic weapons are not universally effective.  Basically, magic weapons can harm the same creatures that normal ones can.  They just give you a bonus to hit and damage against them.  If you want to fight werewolves, you really do need a silver weapon.  A sword +1 just won't cut it - literally.  Weapons made of the material of the creature's weakness do full damage.  Magical weapons do no damage, unless they're also enchanted specifically against that creature type.  For instance, a sword +1 would not harm a werewolf, but a sword +1, +2 vs. lycanthropes would inflict full damage.  There might also be swords that are just +1 vs. lycanthropes, and nothing else.

Magical constructs such as golems might be harmed by "generic" magic weapons, since both share a similar process of creation.  Like affects like.

Optionally, magic weapons might do their bonus damage only against weapon-immune creatures.  A sword +1 would do 1 point, a sword +2 would do 2 points, and so on.

Several creature types have other weaknesses besides particular classes of weapons.  Lycanthropes, for instance, are repelled by wolfsbane.  Garlic wards off vampires, and they can't endure sunlight or cross running water.  Holy water works on all undead.  Weaknesses for other creatures might be devised as well.  Perhaps shadows are repelled by bright light, and gargoyles vulnerable to weapons of cold-forged iron.

With this rule in place, even a high-level party might not have more than one or two members capable of directly harming any given weapon-resistant creature type in combat.  That means that even high level parties are likely to have to discover and exploit other weaknesses.

With the exception of specially-enchanted magic weapons, most of the materials useful against weapon-immune creatures are probably going to be perishable or limited use, so characters won't be able to make a one-time buy and be prepared forever after.  Herbs like wolfsbane and garlic lose their potency over time.  Holy water is obviously one shot per vial.  Even silver is probably much less durable than steel as a metal for weapons - perhaps silver weapons are more susceptible to breakage, or the silver might wear away through use or corrosion.  I'm not a metallurgist or medieval weapons expert, but I suspect that anything larger than a dagger or an arrow might not even be feasible at all.  If anyone has expertise in that area, by all means feel free to comment and set me straight.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Starting off poor and other new rules in play

Last night, we finally got back to the game table.  Since we were a couple regular players short, I decided we'd roll up some new characters and hit the trail for the Keep on the Borderlands to try out a few new rules and whatnot.

A few of those new rules were:

Critical hits and misses:  On a 20, roll twice for damage and take the higher roll.  On a 1, roll a save vs. paralysis or suffer some mishap, typically a dropped weapon.

Exploding damage dice to make combat a little more interesting.

Bonus hp at 1st level, equal to half the maximum of the class's hit die.  Thus, a fighter starts with 1d8+4, a cleric with 1d6+3, and a thief with 1d4+2.  This was to counter-balance the exploding dice to some extent.

I was prepared to use the modified spell point/hit point magic system, but nobody created a magic-user or elf.  Now, I'm kind of torn between that and the option of preparing spells for 50 sp x spell level.  I suppose there's no real reason why I couldn't allow players to choose which one they'd prefer their characters to use, should we have any spell casters at some point.

Starting money 2d6x5 sp.  (We're on a silver standard, so all prices in the equipment lists are assumed to be quoted in silver rather than gold.)  This proved to be quite the game-changer, as nobody could afford armor better than leather, and nobody started off with a sword or any kind of bow.  Spears and slings were the weapons of choice for the fighter and the halfling, with the cleric choosing a mace and sling, and the thief opting for dagger and sling.  The party couldn't afford all the miscellaneous equipment they wanted, either, which means they'll be on the lookout for more.

Of interest, and greatly pleasing to me, is the fact that each of the characters bucked stereotypes as far as choices of class and attributes were concerned.  The fighter had a 14 Strength and 13 Dexterity, but got an 8 Constitution.  The cleric's highest score is actually his Strength of 16; though his Wisdom of 13 is not too shabby, it was an interesting choice.  Likewise for the thief (Intelligence 17, Dexterity 13.)  The halfling ended up with Dexterity of 9 but a Strength of 14.

After picking up a few rumors from the patrons of the Keep's tavern, and talking the guard corporal into letting them ascend to the battlements for a look at the lay of the land, the intrepid adventurers set off along the road, hoping to find some sign that would lead them to the Caves of Chaos.  The thief, played by my niece, dearly wanted to go exploring in the fens, but was outvoted by the rest of the party.  Thanks to a random encounter, they picked up a halfling henchman, who would prove to be a stout hand with a spear later on.

Eventually they reached the Caves, and opted to explore the one nearest the entrance of the ravine, which happened to be the goblin lair.  They blundered into one of the two goblin guard posts, and were dismayed to discover that "Bree-yark!" is most definitely not goblin for "We surrender!"  Outnumbered and but lightly armored, things looked a bit grim for the party, but the goblins proceeded to roll more natural 1's than I've seen in many a gaming session, and the fumbled weaponry gave the party the opportunity they needed to prevail.  The exploding dice rule only came into play once, and that on the side of the monsters, as the henchman halfling took a 7-point shot from a goblin spear which reduced him to a single hp.  My sister's halfling was nickel-and-dimed down to 1 hp as well, so after quickly looting the bodies the party decided to beat a hasty retreat.

A commotion from back the way they had come encouraged them to hurry, lest their escape be cut off.  They reached the four-way intersection in time to make a break for the cave mouth, and hurried forth into the light of day, where the goblins where loath to follow.  One goblin screeched a taunt at them, and advised them not to come back - a taunt that the cleric was not inclined to let slide, and on a serendipitous high roll he took out the offending goblin with a well-placed sling stone to the noggin before hightailing it back toward the Keep.

One more random encounter on the way back proved to be with a group of traders on their way into the Borderlands to try their luck at a mountain pass leading to another realm, and the party gladly parted with their handful of freshly gained silver and copper pieces for a few herbal poultices that heal 1d4 points of damage.  (They shrewdly demanded that they be allowed to try one on the injured PC halfling first, with the understanding that they'd pay if it worked.  It did, and they bought all they could afford.)  On returning to the Keep, they recruited a couple of mercenary fighters, and then rented some rooms at the Traveler's Inn to rest up for the next foray.

The time flew by.  Despite the fact that they didn't get far before we had to call it a night, there was only one combat, they came away with very little treasure, and they had to flee to save their skins, my brother declared this the most fun session of our gaming revival so far, and I think the sentiment was shared by the rest of the group as well.

I would like to have had an easier dungeon prepared, especially considering the poverty of equipment I had imposed upon the PCs, but all in all it went marvelously.  I'm looking forward to continuing this campaign, and expanding the environs of the Keep as I once did so long ago.  Hopefully next time I can give a few other house rules a go, such as my modified combat sequence and wound system.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Adventures in society and politics, part 2

I had originally planned this post to be about integrating low level characters into Stage 3 exploration, acting as movers and shakers in campaign society and politics, but in the course of developing my thoughts, it's turned into something that I think is more broadly applicable to Stage 3 in general.

One of the concerns that's been raised about the Third Stage of exploration (i.e. the social and political landscape of the campaign world) is that it's too difficult for 1st level characters, that they need a bump in power or even to start above 1st level to succeed.  I think that's nonsense.  Ruling a barony certainly isn't the province of rookies and amateurs, but then, neither is slaying dragons.  There are tiers of power in the political and social realm suitable for inexperienced characters, and in fact traditional character levels are of little relevance to a campaign of pure politics.  Of course, combining traditional dungeon and wilderness adventuring with the conquest of the political arena allows far greater potential for heroic adventure.  This is still D&D after all, not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  For that reason, it's likely that a character's advancement in political power will run parallel to advancement in an adventuring class.

There is, in fact, a pretty sound reason why D&D characters start in the dungeon and aspire to politics.  The fame and notoriety gained in personal adventures can translate directly to influence.  A fighter who does nothing but roam the countryside performing heroic deeds until 9th level generally won't have much trouble impressing someone enough to give him a land grant and a title, or persuading the hero-worshiping populace of a town to elect him mayor.  The reverse is seldom or never true - being a highly influential person doesn't in itself qualify one to slay dragons.  It's possible to jump from the upper echelons of dungeoneering to the middle or upper echelons of politics with no prior experience, but making the analogous jump from the upper echelons of politics to the 10th level of the dungeon is strong evidence of a death wish.  This is, obviously, a post hoc analysis of a game that in all likelihood was not designed with that fact in mind, but I think it's valid nonetheless.  That said, none of this in any way precludes letting 1st level characters in a campaign of mixed Stages of Exploration jump right into politics, or indeed running a purely Stage 3 campaign in which the characters gain fantastic power in the political realm while never advancing beyond the beginning levels of an adventuring class.  (I realize I'm almost making a case for separate tracking of character class XP and social/political influence, rather than awarding class XP for ruling a dominion, as the Companion Rules prescribe.  I might have to explore this idea further...)

Before I get too far into this post, I want to make sure my terminology is clear.  By political power I mean power to direct other people to do things, usually in the context of some sort of hierarchy or organization.  This does include the compulsory sort of power wielded by governments, but there are purely voluntary forms as well, such as that of the head of a great merchant house, or Robin Hood leading his Merry Men.  Wielding political power is akin to moving chessmen on the board.

In contrast, the typical adventurer gets things done with personal power - he fights his own battles, as it were.  Wielding personal power, the character is his own piece on the board.  Most of the time, the only political power PCs are likely to have from the beginning is the employer/henchman relationship, and that barely counts since the PC is usually right there in the thick of things alongside the henchman rather than sending him off on his own to carry out orders.

There are two sides to the coin of politically-oriented adventures:  Gaining political power, and exercising it.  In the case of adventurers, gaining political power is often accomplished, or at least facilitated, by the use of personal power.  Characters perform services and quests and daring acts of heroism in order to gain influence, whether that be with the established seats of power in order to earn rank, or with the people at large as folk heroes.  In many, if not most campaigns, that's the extent of it.  Titles of nobility and other positions of prestige and honor are sought as intangible rewards, of no use in and of themselves in game terms.  If the gaining of political power is to be used only as an end-game or as "campaign dressing" rather than actually affecting the course of play, then this is really nothing more than a Stage 1-2 game with the trappings, but not the substance, of Stage 3.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

In order to truly be Stage 3, at least as I understand it, characters must actually be able to wield their political power.  They have to be able to lead their troops into battle, to negotiate treaties and agreements, to influence the flow of commerce, to direct the actions of their subjects, followers, and underlings.  In wielding that power, they must be able to exert an observable and measurable influence on the campaign world.  As I noted in my previous post, I think this requires, at the very least, systems for objectively quantifying power and influence, for resolving mass combat, and for finance and economics of governments and organizations.

Player characters might start out with no political power at all, and have to spend some time earning reputations and currying favor.  On the other hand, there's plenty of precedent for low level characters wielding some political power, at least in the case of NPCs.  Many a 1st or 2nd level character has been featured in modules and supplements as a mayor or council member of a village, a sergeant of the guard, or a thieves' guild officer.  If the players are inclined toward political adventuring, it's no stretch at all to imagine that their characters might start out in such positions, especially if their starting age is over the stereotypical teens to early twenties.

Characters might begin as little fish in a big pond, holding or quickly seeking positions in the service of established powers like the crown, the nobility, or a major guild or church.  They could also start with more direct influence, but less opportunity for advancement, with positions of authority in villages and backwater towns.  Another possibility is to found their own guilds, secret societies, cults, insurrectionist movements, or what-have-you, the lowest possible starting point on the ladder of political power, but also the one with the greatest autonomy.  As a footnote, PCs don't have to wield official power themselves; they can be quite powerful simply by having the ear of those who do.

Further reading:  The illustrious swashbuckler Black Vulmea over at Really Bad Eggs has done a ton of research, thinking, and writing on campaign politics in his end game series.  While it's geared more toward the cape-and-sword genre, there are a lot of great thoughts and ideas that can be adapted to a D&D campaign.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Adventures in society and politics

So, I return from vacation and start to catch up on the other blogs I follow, and I find, among other things, a thought-provoking series at B/X Blackrazor on the three stages of exploration.  The first is the classic dungeon crawl.  The second is the expansion into the wilderness.  The third is exploration of the campaign's social and political landscape, and becoming a mover and shaker therein.

One of the main thrusts of JB's essays is that D&D as written is poorly designed for the later stages, especially Stage 3, because Stages 2 and 3 grew organically within a game that was originally designed to support Stage 1.

That got me thinking about what sort of rules you'd need to fully integrate Stage 3 into the system, and what existing rules might be maladapted to it.  The tentative conclusion that I've come to is that the existing rules, with the right interpretations, work pretty well for low level adventures in politics, but quickly prove wanting as characters gain in power and influence.  I don't know that the thoughts below really address any of JB's concerns about the game; they're strictly my own very preliminary thoughts on the subject.

What's Missing?

First, there needs to be a way to represent a character's political power and influence and apply it to actions in the game.  A character's level of experience is a good place to start.  Level is a fairly decent proxy for fame and wealth in the game world.  Another element that might be helpful is some measure of the character's favor or disfavor among various groups on a positive-to-negative continuum.  This would probably have to be tracked separately for different groups; i.e. the peasantry, the merchants' guild, the crown, the church, and so on.  The scale might start at a default of 0, and gain or lose points according to whether the PC's actions benefit or oppose a particular organization.  Perhaps a modifier might be applied to reaction rolls when dealing with faction members, equal to the character's Favor Rating with that faction, but limited in absolute value to half the character's level.  For example, a 4th level character would be limited to a maximum of +2 or -2.  The closest thing basic D&D has to anything of this nature is the dominion confidence system of Mentzer's Companion Set, but of course that's really applicable only to dominion rulership, and is simultaneously more complicated and less versatile than one might like.

Secondly, a robust but easy to implement system for resolving mass combat, including sieges and naval warfare.  This is less of an issue at low levels, but when the PCs become rulers in their own right, if not before, they're going to need it.  Unfortunately, the War Machine rules from the Companion Set are confusing and unwieldy at best, and I haven't yet seen an alternative that's much better.  A consistent and objective rule for awarding XP for mass combat actions is needed also.

Third, a system for economics for dominions and organizations that isn't broken.  This would ideally include not only the rules needed to manage a dominion as ruler, but also entities such as thieves' guilds, secret societies, merchant houses, churches, and any other organization that requires manpower and generates both income and expenses.  Mentzer's dominion rules from the Companion Set are geared entirely toward dominion rule, and moreover are difficult to disentangle, and his understanding of economics is iffy at best. I might see if I can put my interest in economics to good use and take a crack at a more coherent system at some point.  There also needs to be a rule for awarding XP for running a barony or a guild.

What works?

Probably the most useful mechanic from the standard rules, and the core mechanic of social interaction in D&D,  is the good old 2d6 reaction roll.  Obviously, some of the results appropriate for dungeon and wilderness adventuring are entirely inappropriate for civilized areas (or even those with only an outward veneer of civilization.)  Farmers and townsfolk, and even guards and soldiers, are unlikely to spontaneously attack an adventurer or party of adventurers simply because of a bad reaction roll.  More likely, hostility will be expressed with jeers and insults, surly behavior, or fear and disgust, and a general tendency to be as unhelpful as they can get away with.  If there's a substantial disparity in power (either physical/magical or political) weaker NPCs might need to pass a morale check before showing defiance.  Failure means being intimidated into compliance, though still only as helpful as absolutely necessary.  Another difference between these "social" reactions and the reactions in a typical dungeon or wilderness crawl is that the NPCs encountered in the course of social and political adventures are likely to take on recurring roles in the campaign, so you'll probably want to take note of their initial reactions.  It would make little sense for the master of the merchant's guild to meet the PCs with open loathing at their first meeting, and enthusiastic friendship at the second for no reason other than a fresh reaction roll.  Note also that a strong initial reaction to the PCs by a Very Important Person, whether positive or negative, might also spill over into their dealings with other members of his organization.

While the XP paradigms of D&D as written - XP awarded for defeating enemies in combat and recovering loot - don't obviously lend themselves to exploration of the political realm, it's not hard to reinterpret them for the purpose.  Characters trying to shake up the social order of their world may not be delving into ruins in search of treasure, but everybody knows that money is vitally important to achieving political aims.  I know some DMs award XP only for treasure recovered, and not for rewards paid to the characters, but for a game including a strong political element, XP for reward money makes sense.  If you want to encourage PC involvement in political intrigues, it's a good idea to award XP for it, and reward money is a sensible metric for the value of their actions.  I'd even venture to say it makes sense to award the XP even if the PCs decline the reward money itself, because they've still gained in reputation and influence. 

XP for defeating enemies also makes sense, if we take a broader interpretation of "defeat" than simply besting them in combat.  Perhaps each faction and each VIP in the setting has an XP value, similar to that of monsters, but based upon its political power and importance, which can be earned by defeating them in the arena of ideology and influence rather than in physical combat.

The idea of XP awards for personal character goals also fits nicely into the idea of adventurers participating in game-world politics.  If a character declares his intention to blackmail the captain of the guard, or get himself appointed to some minor post, then achieving that goal ought to be worth some XP.

Forming alliances, gaining titles, executing masterful plans that increase the prestige and influence of a favored organization are other actions that might be worthy of XP awards.

That's all for now.  Next up:  Some thoughts on adventures in society and politics specifically geared toward low level characters.