Thursday, December 5, 2013

A lack of initiative

With all the pondering I've been doing lately about the abstraction of D&D combat, it's increasingly clear to me that one long-cherished rule just doesn't have any business being a standard part of the system.  That rule is initiative. 

Initiative in B/X is a pretty straightforward affair: roll 1d6 for each side, and the side rolling higher goes first.  It's incredibly simple, and doesn't really slow down the proceedings that much.  I'm guessing that someone found the idea of everybody on an entire side acting before everybody on the other side unrealistic, though, and so we have the optional individual initiative rules, wherein each player rolls separately, and possibly the DM rolls separately for each opponent as well.  Still not "realistic" enough?  Pile on dexterity bonuses, weapon speed factors from AD&D, and various other adjustments to simulate just exactly how quick any given combatant is on the attack. 

The thing is, that entire line of reasoning, from the basic idea of an initiative mechanic through the proliferation of rules and adjustments of all sorts, is based on a premise that is antithetical to the assumptions of abstract combat.  Knowing that one attack roll does not literally mean one swing of a weapon, and knowing also that the damage inflicted by a successful attack roll doesn't necessarily represent the effect of a single thrust or slash, the idea of one side's entire attack routine coming before another's is nonsensical.  It's entirely possible, for instance, for a pair of fighters to "hit" each other and inflict 5 points of damage each through a back-and-forth exchange of 1 and 2 point jabs over the course of a round.  Also, the initiative system often produces absurd or bizarre results, like one entire side standing still while every member of the other side completes its allotted movement unhindered, or an attacker covering 40 yards of distance and making a melee attack against a character who has a bow readied before the bowman can shoot.

So how does combat work without an initiative roll?  Developing and systematizing some ideas from Charles of Spells and Steel (from his comment on this post):

1. DM states what each monster or opponent is doing in broad terms, i.e. closing to engage in melee, firing a missile weapon, tactical movement, casting a spell, taking cover, etc.  If an enemy intends to use a power that wouldn't be readily obvious, such as an innate spell-like ability, the DM need not say so yet - only what's visible to the player characters is described.

2. Players state what their characters are doing, again in broad terms.  Covert and "invisible" actions are stated here, though.

3.  Everything takes place more or less simultaneously, but divided into three basic phases. 
     a. Ranged attacks, spells, and simple tactical actions by characters not yet engaged in melee, even if they will be in melee before the end of the round due to enemy actions.  Simple tactical actions include drinking potions, activating magic items, casting "touch" spells on self or adjacent allies, etc. 
     b. Movement.  Combatants moving toward each other meet and clash somewhere in the middle, rather than one side using its entire movement before the other.
     c. Melee.  Also, any spells or tactical actions performed after movement and/or by combatants who are currently being attacked in melee, whether or not they are making melee attacks themselves.  For example, healing a front line fighter after moving up to him, drinking a potion or casting any spell while engaged in melee.
     d. Actions that require attention and focus, such as lighting a torch, gathering loot, or binding wounds may be accomplished if the character was not attacked in melee at all, nor struck by a spell or missile attack.  If any of those conditions obtain during the round, the action will generally fail. 

Of course this sequence may be modified or ignored whenever circumstances dictate.  For example, the players might decide to attack before the monsters do, and thus describe their actions first.  A thief who has managed to sneak behind an enemy archer might make her melee attack before the archer's shot.

For the most part, every combatant will be able to take its action, even if it takes enough damage in the round to kill or incapacitate it.  There are exceptions to this general principle; i.e., a fighter closing to make a melee attack who is brought to zero hp by missile fire, or a charging creature hit by a character with a spear set to receive the charge might not get to make their own attacks, because the other side clearly does act first in those cases. 

Still, the good old initiative roll isn't quite useless.  It's just used judiciously, for specific purposes.  For example, it can be used to determine whether spells are spoiled by attacks.  If one or more attack rolls hit a  caster during the round in which a spell is cast, make an initiative roll between him and the opponent(s) after the fact to see if the spell went off before the caster was struck.  (Since ranged and personal-effect spells are resolved in a phase before melee attacks, normally only missile fire or another ranged spell can threaten a spell if the caster isn't already in melee that round.)  An initiative roll can also be used as a tiebreaker in cases where two or more characters or creatures are attempting some mutually exclusive goal, such as grabbing an item from a pile of treasure, and their movement rates and distance from the object suggest they both reach it at the same time. 

The upsides to scrapping initiative as routine procedure, as I see them, are: Eliminating an incongruous and superfluous random roll each round, and allowing the freedom to resolve each round's actions in a sequence that makes intuitive and logical sense rather than being bound by said random roll.

The downsides:  If you're accustomed to rolling an initiative die and then going around the table and rolling for each attack as it's declared, it essentially adds an extra phase to the round.  The declaration of intent phase is separated from the rolling for resolution phase.  Also, it eliminates the possibility of a party routing a group of monsters without being attacked in return by winning initiative in the first round.  The monsters are going to get their licks in too, and this may increase the deadliness of combat, especially at low levels.  Then again, one more reason to make combat a last resort isn't necessarily a bad thing.

A potentially interesting side effect is that healing spells and potions administered during a round in which the recipient takes enough damage to reduce it to zero hp or below may actually prevent death or incapacitation.  A character reduced to 1 hp the previous round could pop a healing potion without worry that he'll be killed before he can drink it if his side loses initiative, because everything is simultaneous.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Abstraction and characterization

So, it's December, NaNoWriMo has come to an unsuccessful close, and it's time to get out some of the ideas that were bouncing around my head for the last month.  One of the most persistent was this one, which grew naturally out of my musings on the abstraction of combat.

In the past, I've alternately bemoaned and been intrigued by the profusion of options for character customization and adding more choices and flavor to encounters and combat.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the mechanical complexity, bonus inflation, and other factors made most of them simply not worth the bother.  There's a lot of room within the confines of "vanilla" classes for varying style without mechanical distinctions, and, as it turns out, there's even more room for developing a given character's unique style within the abstract resolution systems for combat and other actions.

That probably warrants a little more explanation.  In the former case, the objective is to provide players with tactical options at the front end, that are applied before the dice are rolled to gain a modifier or attempt to achieve some special outcome.  These may be abilities available to anyone, or restricted by class, or may be dependent on choosing the right "feats" at character creation or level-up.  The point is that you choose them in advance, and they alter the baseline chances to perform some action, or the range of possible outcomes.  You parry to block an attack.  You use Dirty Tricks to gain a +2 to hit.  You take a Counter-curse feat to gain +2 on saves vs. magic.

In the latter case, actions are declared in broad strokes (melee attack, spell, withdraw, etc.), the dice are rolled, and the exact events of the round are narrated in post hoc fashion.  Instead of choosing to parry before the dice are rolled, the opponent rolls its attack, and when it misses, you say that your character parried all its thrusts.  Instead of declaring Dirty Tricks during the round, you roll your attack first, and if it hits you say, "I threw a handful of dirt in his eyes and sucker-punched him."  You don't choose a feat that gives you a bonus vs. spells; when you make your save against that wizard's charm, you say that you recited a counter-curse and that's why you made the save.  Rather than stacking on bonuses before the fact, you let the unmodified roll determine whether an action succeeds or fails, and then describe what your character did to achieve that outcome.

This is lousy for munchkins and min-maxers, but terriffic for imaginative role players.  All fighters, for instance, have the same chances to successfully attack in combat (assuming equal levels and Strength bonuses); the player's choices about what kind of fighter she's playing don't give bonuses above and beyond that, but describe HOW that particular character fights.  The honorable knight who fights with focus and discipline is no better or worse mechanically than the scoundrel who throws dirt and stomps toes.  The scholarly warrior who thinks her way through a fight, using knowledge of leverage and an economy of well-placed blows is exactly the same mechanically as the crude brawler who swings first, swings second, and maybe thinks after the dust settles...maybe.  That very lack of mechanical fiddly bits gives the player great freedom to decide which sort her character is. 

You can even add elements of other classes to the character's schtick, while keeping her a fighter in every sense that matters rules-wise.  That fighter character could be a pious champion of the faith who gains confidence or divine favor by letting the spirit of her deity inhabit her as she fights, or a heathen who unnerves or jinxes her opponents with evil eyes and curses.  In narrative terms, they may be praying or casting minor spells, but in game terms they're fighters because those "abilities" apply only to the game-mechanical actions available to the fighter class, and even then only in a descriptive sense.

Instead of being limited by formal game mechanics and related concerns like niche protection and bonus inflation, the possibilities are limited only by player imagination and DM approval.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

On the back burner

It seems like I'm only just hitting my stride again after my mostly unintentional long hiatus earlier this year, but now I'm looking right down the barrel of a mostly postless November, too.  Why?  Because I'm getting ready to tackle National Novel Writing Month for the first time since 2011.  I've never actually "won."  I've come close a few times before getting derailed in the home stretch.  Now that the worst of my anxiety issues are in remission and I'm feeling fairly centered and stable, it's time to take another crack at it. 

What am I writing?  Nothing terribly ground-breaking, which means it's probably nothing that would interest most of my blog readers, given the seemingly overwhelming preference among OSR bloggers for something that's not just the same old formula in terms of world-building, adventure design, etc.  Myself, I rather like the tried-and-true fantasy tropes.  They're comfortable and familiar in a way I find inviting, and there's still plenty of room within them to tell a good story.  Not that I have anything against the radically new and original, but I don't feel any need to reinvent the wheel at this point.  Maybe after I get something "out there" in published form (e-book at least,) I'll get the itch to go off the rails into less charted territory, but not just yet.  So yes, it's a high fantasy epic, with a wizard and magic swords and goblins and dwarves and elves and ancient evils and all that, but not just a retelling of LoTR.  (Well, at least I HOPE I'm not inadvertently doing that.  I guess we'll see.)

The upshot of all this is that, for the next month, the Flagon is going to be simmering quietly on the back burner so I can devote all the time and imagination I can spare to some intensive novel-writing.  Twelve hours to midnight...Here goes nothing!

Monday, October 28, 2013

More on abstract combat and the ten-second round

To recap the gist of the previous post, combat rounds are aggregate abstractions of all the action in an interval of time (in B/X, 10 seconds.)  Choices in combat are not discrete maneuvers but broad tactical decisions applied to the entire round.  The attack roll represents not a single attempt at attacking, but the likelihood of a combatant seeing and capitalizing on at least one opportunity to strike or rattle the target.  A miss doesn't necessarily mean an earnest swing that fails to connect; it could also mean that no good opportunity was presented at all.  Damage isn't necessarily done only by the attacker's weapon; the weapon merely determines the range of the attacker's damage potential.

Now that that's out of the way, I want to explore some special cases, and a few instances in the B/X rules that seem to ignore the principles behind the abstract aggregation of the ten-second round.

First, there's initiative.  The most intuitive interpretation is that initiative literally determines who strikes first.  Since we don't even know for sure until we roll attacks that an opportunity to attack has even occurred, we can't even say that initiative represents the first opportunity.  I like to think of it more as an abstract measure of the ebb and flow of combat, a momentary edge which could permit a combatant to take his opponent out of the fight IF he can spot and capitalize on an opportunity.  It's worth noting, though, that the game would actually function just fine without initiative at all - all combat takes place simultaneously.  This might slightly increase the lethality of the game, because double kills would become more common, but the possibility of initiative-less combat intrigues me nonetheless.

Missile combat is troublesome because unlike melee combat, it uses up resources; specifically, ammunition. Even so, the number of arrows or bolts or sling stones expended doesn't necessarily correlate 1:1 with attack rolls. You can hand-wave it and say that the number of missiles expended averages out to one per round (sometimes you get off a couple shots, and sometimes you don't get a clear look at all.)  You could also use an abstract method of tracking ammo

Next, there's the issue of multiple attacks.  B/X as written doesn't support multiple attacks for characters (at least not without magic like the haste spell) but BECMI and other old school editions do.  It's not too difficult to grasp that a more skilled fighter will, on average, see and be able to take advantage of more opportunities to strike in a given time than a less skilled one.  But, since we can't definitively say how many opportunities a character exploits with a successful attack roll, it's a little difficult to fathom what a second or third attack roll by the same character in the same round might mean.  That they can potentially exploit twice or three times an indeterminate number of opportunities? 

It seems to me that this might be more aptly modeled, and more consistent with the combat round as I understand it, by increasing damage potential rather than number of attack rolls.  As characters increase in level, their chance to exploit at least one opportunity in a round increases with their improving attack rolls.  Since the damage range given for a weapon doesn't necessarily represent the damage caused by one stroke of that weapon, it seems reasonable that damage per round could be increased for highly skilled characters without absurdly implying that they're necessarily doing a lot more with a single blow.  You could increase the damage die size a step or two, for example 1d6 to 1d8 or 1d0, or grant extra dice of the same type as the weapon's base damage, say, from 1d6 to 2d6.  The latter pretty neatly captures the spirit of multiple attacks, without messing with the base damage die for each weapon.

But wait a second...What if multiple attacks don't necessarily mean multiple swings (since we know that happens anyway) but the ability to threaten additional opponents in the same round?  Say, a fighter with one attack per round, surrounded by orcs, could only attack and potentially do damage to one of them in a round, but a fighter who gets two or three attacks per round could attack two or three of them, and divide the damage rolled among them?  This could still be handled with a single attack roll.  If the targets have different ACs, the same roll is compared to all; some may take damage and some not. (Whether the damage should be divided by the total number of targets, or only between those that are actually "hit" is a question for which I don't have an answer yet.)

And now we come to the weirdness of monsters.  Unlike characters, the multiple attacks of monsters are normally listed with specific attack forms for each, implying that, for instance, a grizzly bear makes one swipe with each paw and one attempt to bite in a combat round.  That's a pretty neat and orderly attack routine for a wild beast.  It would make more sense to aggregate the possible damage and use a single attack roll.  A B/X grizzly does 1d4/1d4/1d8, so in the single attack format, 2d8 would be about right.  (Rather than the bonus "hug" damage being activated on two claw hits, it could occur on a critical of 19 or 20 of the single attack roll.)  It's not unrealistic to suppose that a bear could maul three closely-grouped opponents at once, so multiple attacks could be directed against two or three characters, and the damage rolled divided among them.  (Naturally, only one, probably chosen at random, could be subjected to the "hug.")  Now we need not concern ourselves about whether the bear went after Bob the fighter with a claw or a bite attack.  We just know that the grizzly tore into Bob for 8 points of damage, and whether it was its slashing paws or snapping jaws or some combination that got him can be narrated any way the DM and player feel appropriate.

Some creatures, with huge damage potential and equally huge bodies, like dragons, may be able to attack even more than three targets at once.  A big amorphous blob like a black pudding might be able to threaten everyone within striking distance of it at once.

This does make for a more all-or-nothing experience in combat; a creature either does its full damage or none.  This would be an advantage for well-armored characters and a disadvantage for lightly or unarmored ones.  A monster which gets three attacks under the rules-as-written would do at least some damage 48.8% of the time against a target that it needs a 17 to hit; with a single attack roll it has a 20% chance to do its full damage. The same monster, against a target that it needs a 6 to hit, will hit all three attacks 42% of the time; with the single roll it will do its full damage 75% of the time.  I don't have a problem with this, but your mileage may vary.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Abstract combat and the ten-second round

For a long time, I think I've harbored a fundamental misunderstanding about how D&D combat works, or at least was mostly designed to work.  It's taken me a while to put together all these pieces into a coherent theory, but (I hope) I finally have a good enough handle on it to explain it now.

It's never explicitly stated in B/X that an attack roll doesn't represent one discrete swing of the sword.  In fact, there are a lot of factors that mistakenly imply that one attack roll does in fact represent a single attempt to do harm.  There's the terminology of "hit" and "miss."  There are monsters with multiple attacks, explicitly labeled "claw, claw, bite," implying that the creature attempts to strike exactly once with each of them during a round.  Even the initiative roll implies individual blows, with one combatant taking a swing at the other, and then the other counterattacking.

Of course, ten seconds is quite a long time in the frantic scuffle of combat.  Go ahead, count it out - one-thousands or Mississippis or whatever method you favor.  While you do this, imagine a sword fight in real time.  I'll wait right here...

Did you imagine one person swinging a sword, and then the other swinging in return?  Of course not!  You probably imagined a complex dance involving many thrusts, slashes, and parries, circling and jockeying for position, ducking and weaving, tripping, shoving, stumbling, off-hand punches, and dirty tricks.  In D&D combat, all of this is neatly subsumed in a minimal number of die rolls:  a d20 attack roll vs. a static Armor Class number to determine if each combatant was able to effectively wear down his opponent, and if that succeeds, a damage roll to determine by how much.  A successful attack doesn't even necessarily mean that the attacker "hits" or threatens the opponent once and only once with his primary weapon.  A fighter with sword and shield who scores a successful attack may do damage by thrusting with his sword, but also by bashing with his shield, kicking his opponent in the knee, tripping his opponent to the ground, ramming him against a wall, or some combination of these and other possible moves. 

The upshot of all this is that not only is B/X combat abstract, it abstracts by aggregating actions within a unit of time.  It does not attempt to narrate a blow-by-blow of combat through game mechanics; it resolves the general outcome of ten seconds of battle and leaves any narration to be done on a post hoc basis.  The dice tell you how much attrition of stamina each combatant inflicted on the other, but the precise "how" can only be explained after game mechanical resolution.  Choices consist of broad tactical options rather than discrete maneuvers - to fight, retreat, or flee rather than whether to attack with primary or secondary weapon, parry, feint, or trip the opponent.

In contrast, many rules, both official and house, have been put forth with the goal of increasing the range of choice and the excitement of combat.  A large number of these add options to perform specific actions and maneuvers and resolve them game mechanically within the combat round.  For example, BECMI D&D (the heir to B/X) introduced a weapon mastery system that allowed characters wielding certain weapons at a high enough level of master to deflect attacks by making a saving throw vs. death ray.  This certainly can be exciting, rolling to escape all damage from an attack in the moment as it occurs, but it also violates the basic assumptions of the abstract ten-second round by correlating each attack roll with a single discrete attempt to do harm. 

This sort of granularity can be a slippery slope indeed.  Are we to assume that unless a character has and uses the deflect ability no parrying takes place during a combat round?  Or are we arbitrarily singling out one parry of many in the round for mechanical resolution, and if so what is the justification for hand-waving the rest?  To move to a system of individual maneuvers rather than an abstract aggregate requires a lot of arbitrary decisions or assumptions as to where each action begins and ends and which ones are significant enough to warrant their own mechanical resolutions.  Since these determinations are necessarily arbitrary, it opens up the possibility for all kinds arguments unresolvable by mere reason, and the ugly head of DM fiat must be reared.  A combat round is, of course, also a purely arbitrary interval of time, but the potential for argument is limited to how long it should be.  I imagine there are plenty of players prepared to go to the mat over their characters' signature combat moves, but very few who would bother to protest vociferously that the combat round is the wrong number of seconds.

It actually is possible to increase the range of player choice and agency in combat without short-circuiting the abstraction of the ten-second round or increasing the granularity of combat.  Tactical options can apply to the entire round, and are best done with flat modifiers rather than additional dice-rolling.  For example, an option to fight cautiously might grant a bonus to AC and a penalty to the attack roll.  This simulates the character taking a conservative approach, passing up questionable opportunities for offense in order to concentrate on defense and deny offensive opportunities to the opponent.  Reversing the modifiers simulates an aggressive approach, in which the character presses any perceived advantage at the cost of possibly leaving himself open or falling for a feint.  Even though the choice only modifies two die rolls (character's attack roll and opponent's attack roll) - in fact, because it only modifies the standard die rolls of a combat round rather than adding more - it applies to everything that character and his opponent do in that round.  The round is still resolved abstractly and in aggregate form; the players aren't calling specific maneuvers, but they do have a little more say-so in the outcome.

Telecanter's simple combat maneuvers can fit neatly into this framework as well, by interpreting the player's declaration of intent not as a specific maneuver but as a desired goal of a round of combat.  It doesn't violate abstraction, because the player is not choosing simply to do a single maneuver, but integrating a goal into the cut and thrust of the combat round.  Even if the character doesn't accomplish that intent, normal damage my still be inflicted by all .  The round is not assumed to be taken up by a single action.  If Bob the fighter wants to disarm his opponent, he isn't making a roll specifically to disarm; he is declaring that he wishes to make that one of the possible outcomes of the round's combat.  He's stating that if the opportunity arises he would prefer to disarm the opponent than to inflict damage.  Whether or not that opportunity does arise in a form which Bob can capitalize on is determined by the attack roll; if it doesn't, Bob hasn't necessarily done nothing else in the round.  He has ranked his priorities, and taken whatever his opponent and his own level of skill allows him to take in that round.

I have some more thoughts on the implications of the abstract ten-second round on multiple attacks, damage, initiative, and monsters with more than one attack form, but those are probably best saved for the next post.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Flexibility for the thief class?

A commenter on my last post on diversified mechanics mentioned some unease with the percentile thief skills being rather out of place amongst the mechanics of D&D.  To be sure, I find them a bit odd too, and speculated that the authors of the game used d% in order to have enough granularity so that some improvement could be had at each level.  Otherwise, the thief gets nothing more at most level-ups than another 1d4 hit points.  The commenter (name withheld, since I don't know if he has a blog of his own or wants his G+ account posted publicly here) mentioned his B/X flavored "heartbreaker" which uses a 2d6 mechanic, with points at each level that the player can assign as permanent bonuses to particular skills. 

That got me to thinking about the rigidity of the B/X thieving skills as written, and whether or not it would be a good or desirable thing to make thieves more customizable, and if it would still be B/X if I did.

AD&D 2E has a thief skill system that appealed to me greatly when I first saw it at some point back in the 90s.  For those unfamiliar, each skill has a base value, and at each level, including 1st, a thief character receives an allotment of points to be divided amongst the skills however the player desires.  If I remember correctly, there were some minor caveats about how many points could be assigned to any one skill per level, something like 35, I think, which does little to slow the maxing-out of a skill, should the player want to specialize to that degree.  As with previous editions, thief skills are d%, roll under. 

It does give the thief class tremendous flexibility.  If you want to be primarily a pickpocket, or a cat burglar, or a tomb robber, you can just dump your points into the relevant skills, and never raise the ones you don't care about at all.  It also has a few big drawbacks.  Besides the relative ease of mastering any given skill, all those percentile points are a pain to keep track of.  I'm pretty smart, and by no means mathematically inept, but I stuck to allocating points in blocks of five to keep the bookkeeping manageable.  (If that's the norm, it makes little sense to choose d% over a d20 mechanic, since the probabilities on a d20 are in increments of 5%  But I digress.)  There's no way at all to tell at a glance if somebody has fudged on points, or made an honest but significant error in calculation, or just forgot to add the points from the last level-up.  It's enough of a headache for a player.  For a DM, it makes creating thief NPCs an ordeal.  Instead of just rolling for hit points, and maybe ability scores, and referring to a table for thief skills as needed during play, you have to go through all the rigamarole of totalling up how many points a thief of the desired level would have, and distribute them without going over or leaving any unassigned.

The 2d6 system mentioned above is a vast improvement, not least because it reduces the figures to a level that's easier to grok on an intuitive level.  Dealing in increments of one point is a lot easier than assigning 15 points per level, and I assume the points handed out per level can be counted on one hand.  Also, those bonus points aren't added to a base number.  They're added to a 2d6 roll.  (Did I mention I like bell curves?)

A while back, when I was tinkering with my own heartbreaker, I hammered out a fairly simple system, using the familiar d%.  Basically, all skills use the same advancement table, but there are three different rates of advancement: Good, Average, and Poor.  All skills are Average by default, but a character could take Good progression in one or more by reducing a corresponding number of others to Poor.  I also had consolidated a few closely related skills, for example Move Silently and Hide In Shadows into Stealth, but that isn't strictly relevant.  I scaled the tables to stretch over 36 levels, with increments of 5% to start, and diminishing at higher levels.  By level 36, a Poor skill maxed out at 80%, an Average one at 100%, and a Good one at 120%.  (Higher than 100% offsets situational penalties for particularly difficult tasks.) 

Obviously, this doesn't allow for different chances for each individual skill, but when you look at any given line in the B/X thief skill chart, the difference between the best and worst skill is never greater than 10% anyway, if you don't count Climb Walls.  A flat Good, Average, or Poor percentage applied to any skill isn't too far out of line, and with a little tweaking, even Climb Walls can be shoehorned into the formula without too greatly diluting its usefulness.

If you want a generic thief, you can just use average for everything.  If you want something a little more specific, all you need to do is decide which skills he's good at, and which he's neglected.

Whether something like this is even useful or consistent with the B/X game is an open question in my mind.  I'm not at all averse to keeping the default one-size-fits-all thief skills table, and have thief characters distinguish themselves by the skills they choose to use and how they use them rather than their percentile chances of success.

For anyone who cares to see it, though, here's what I came up with for my Good-Average-Poor system:

Good Skill
Average Skill
Poor Skill

Monday, October 14, 2013

Diversified mechanics

It's been quite a while since I've read anything strongly touting unified mechanics in RPGs.  That could be because most of my reading is in OSR circles, where most people seem content with, or at least tolerant of, the idea of a game of heterogenous mechanics.  Even so, I still see occasional mentions of it in passing, and there have been musings on the incongruity of the percentile thief skills, attempts to render character abilities on d20, etc.  Sometimes there's a good reason for rejiggering something to use a different die or combination of dice, but in my opinion, simply unifying mechanics is not one of them.

For my part, I like and prefer the diversified mechanics of old school D&D.  Firstly, not all mechanics work the same.  Sometimes you want the anything-can-happen linear randomness of a d20 or d100.  Other times, the neat bell curve of a 2d6 roll, with results weighted toward the middle, models things more aptly.  For very simple and routine tasks like opening stuck doors, surprise, and initiative, a simple 1d6 roll makes sense.  Some mechanics, such as the spell-caster's spell slots or a simple comparison of an ability score to a target number (like a boulder that requires 20 points of strength to move), use no dice rolls at all.

Secondly, it makes different tasks feel, well, different.  A unified mechanic, which by definition resolves every action with the same type of die roll, doesn't accomplish that.  I know, it's all about imagining what the roll represents, but in a game in which the roll itself is the most immediate connection between the player and the character's action, it necessarily influences the players' perceptions of what's happening.  Picking up a different die or dice feels like taking a different tool out of the toolbox.

Some might argue that a unified mechanic simplifies play, but some of the editions that attempt unification of mechanics are wildly complex, while B/X is noted for its relative simplicity and ease of play.

In a video game, where all the number-crunching happens out of the player's sight, the particular mechanics don't matter at all so long as they produce a result that satisfies the player's expectations.  In a tabletop RPG, though, not only does it not bother me that physical combat, the thief's skills, the cleric's turning ability, and the magic-user's spell casting don't use the same dice as each other, I prefer it that way.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The low end

Contrary to popular opinion, I don't consider a character with one or more low ability scores - even very low ones in the 3-5 range - to be necessarily unplayable or hopeless.  As I noted in my previous post, most characters generated with the 3d6 in order method - the ONLY method described in the B/X rules - are going to have at least one low score.  The ability score tables don't include modifiers for scores under 9 simply to fill space on the page.  They're meant to be used by player characters.  The game was designed to support play with characters who have weaknesses, and it's really a shame that so many players and DMs are so averse to the low end of the ability score spectrum as to effectively house-rule it out of existence.

Even though I accept this on an intellectual level, when the dice hit the table during character creation, I tend to go soft, and allow my players to re-roll characters with several "bad" scores.  This post is at least as much for myself as for my readers, to fortify my resolve that subpar PCs don't necessarily make the game any less enjoyable, and that I'm not ruining the game for my young players by insisting that they play the hand they're dealt, so to speak, rather than keep rolling until they get a character with more robust stats.

A -1 penalty isn't really all that consequential in most cases.  Yes, the guy with 7 Strength is a lot less effective in melee than the guy with a 17, but he's only slightly less capable than the one with a 12.  Modifiers of -2 and -3 are more serious handicaps, but only 4.6% of scores rolled on 3d6 warrant such penalties.  Less than half a percent end up with -3.  Even these scores, though, are not inherently unplayable.  It's only our expectations that make them seem so.  Clever players find ways to minimize the effects of low scores, either by avoiding actions where they would be a liability, or making themselves useful in non-stat-related ways.

Here's a look at the average dice rolls of the usual assortment of D&D dice with modifiers of 0, -1, -2, and -3, keeping in mind that no roll is adjusted below 1.

                                                                       0         -1        -2        -3      
                                                             d4     2.5     1.75     1.25     1.0
                                                             d6     3.5     2.67     2.0       1.5
                                                             d8     4.5     3.625   2.875   2.25
                                                             d10   5.5     4.6       3.8       3.1
                                                             d20  10.5    9.55     8.65     7.8
Chance to roll a 14 or better on d20:              35%   30%     25%     20%
(Typical saving throw)

With these figures in mind, let's look a little more closely at how being below average in different abilities affects a character in play.

Strength affects both attack and damage rolls in melee combat.  A character with a low Strength is probably well advised to avoid melee if possible, but isn't necessarily hopeless at it.  It just takes him a little longer to dispatch any given opponent.  At a -1 penalty, a character wielding a 1d8 weapon is about as effective as one of average strength with a 1d6 weapon, and only 5% less likely to hit.  At -2 and -3, the penalty to damage becomes a fairly significant hindrance.  Even so, a character with a decent AC and hit points might well make himself useful in melee by taking some of the pressure off the primary fighters.  He provides another target for monster attacks so the heavy hitters aren't absorbing all the attacks, and a few points of damage here and there really can make a difference. 

Of course, the best advice is often to avoid combat whenever possible, and this especially applies to parties with more than one physically weak character.

Intelligence affects literacy and languages known.  More so than most other abilities, the deficiencies of one character are readily offset by having one or two smarter members in the group.  Obviously a character with a low Intelligence isn't going to be reading the villain's journal or the inscriptions on tombs, but as long as there's somebody in the party who can read, even a total halfwit isn't much of a hindrance to a successful adventure.  Knowing a good range of languages is certainly a benefit to a party, but a couple PCs of above-average intellect or an elf or dwarf can easily cover the shortcomings of a less-than-bright comrade.

Wisdom affects saving throws vs. magical effects.  Saving throws come up a lot less often than attack and damage rolls, but the effects of a failed save are generally a lot more consequential than a missed attack or low damage roll.  Even if you expand the scope of Wisdom to affect all saves rather than just magic-based ones, though, the unwise character is only a little more likely to end up charmed, petrified, or poisoned than his companions of average prudence.  The best defense is smart play, to avoid having to roll a saving throw in the first place.  (I heartily subscribe to the philosophy that a saving throw represents a last chance for a character whose player has failed to heed signs of danger and done something which by all rights should kill the character.)

Dexterity affects Armor Class and attack rolls with missile weapons.  A PC with a low Dexterity isn't going to be the best archer, but it still may be worthwhile to carry a bow, sling, or a bandolier of daggers.  Firing at a charging beast with a reduced chance to hit is still more likely to be of help than standing there watching others fire at it.  Armor Class is a bigger deal, but the penalties still represent only a 5, 10, or 15 percentage point increase in the odds of being hit - significant, but hardly crippling.  A character with decent hit points still has good survivability even with a low Dexterity, and need not shrink from a fight for that reason only.

Constitution affects hit points per Hit Die, and so directly influences the survivability of every character.  Still, a fighter with a -1 penalty has about the same hp her die as a cleric, hardly a pushover.  A cleric with a -1 is as tough as a typical thief, and with better armor.  For magic-users and thieves, a low Constitution is a great hazard, especially at the -2 and -3 levels, when a d4 yields a maximum of 1 or 2 hp per level.  Low-Con fighter-types can still be effective in brief skirmishes.  Magic-users, thieves, and clerics with very low Constitution have an even stronger incentive than usual to avoid the perils of melee combat, and to tread carefully around places that may be trapped.  Such frailness demands greater caution in adventuring, but need not keep a character from the adventurer's life.  They must simply cultivate the virtues of caution, avoidance, stealth, and diplomacy to a greater degree.

Charisma affects reaction rolls and retainer morale.  Like Intelligence, having a low-Charisma character or two in the party is generally little hindrance.  Most commonly only one or two characters are the primary negotiators in encounters, so the high scores can be brought to bear while the low ones hang back to watch and whisper advice as needed.  Likewise, the high-Charisma PCs will probably hire the retainers for the whole party, though even the low-Charisma ones might be able to find a henchman or two and ensure their loyalty with greater shares of the loot.  Despite the undeniable benefits of having one or two charismatic PCs in the party, there is a reason why Charisma is the quintessential "dump stat" in games that allow rearranging of scores.

The bottom line is that low ability scores are really only crippling to the degree that players lack skill and imagination.  Skillful play can significantly reduce the amount of dice-rolling in a game, and thus limit the occasions when negative modifiers are a factor at all.  Judiciousness in picking fights and taking risks is an unmitigated virtue in D&D whether you're playing with 16s or 6s.  Even a "hopeless" character with several low scores and no high ones is a potentially successful adventurer, if the player gives it a shot.  Come to think of it, a whole group of them might actually be a fun change of pace from the typical badass adventuring party.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ability scores in B/X

Ability scores in D&D have always been a focus of some fascination for me.  The first thing you do when you create a character in B/X is roll ability scores, and so ability scores are the first window into who this new character is and what kind of adventurer he or she might be.  True, they aren't the most important or essential parts of a character in game terms - in fact, D&D as a system runs perfectly well without any ability scores at all - but they inform the concept of each character, as well as granting a few perks and disadvantages that distinguish different characters in play.

B/X uses the old tried-and-true method of rolling 3d6 six times, and applying the results, in order, to Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma.  I came to understand that they were arranged that way, at least in part, to set Constitution and Charisma, the two scores which were not prime requisites for any class and could be neither raised nor lowered in the optional adjustment phase, apart from the others.

Once scores are rolled and a class chosen, players are allowed to boost the character's prime requisite ability by lowering other scores, at a ratio of one point gained for every two dropped, with the caveat that no score may be lowered below 9.  Only a PR could be raised in this way, and the rules as to which other scores could be lowered by which class were probably the fussiest thing about B/X character creation.  We tended to ignore those bits and allow characters to lower any of the first four abilities to raise a prime requisite score.  Co and Ch were still off limits.

Scores of 9-12 are considered average, and warrant no bonuses or penalties in play.  13-15 earns a +1 bonus, 16-17 a +2, and 18, the highest possible score, a +3.  Conversely, a 6-8 takes a -1 penalty, 4-5 a -2, and 3, the lowest, a -3.

The interesting thing about this method of generating ability scores is that it inclined strongly toward producing PCs with at least one above-average score, that is, one that gains a bonus of +1 or more.  Any given score is about 26% likely to be a 13 or higher, and thus result in a bonus, and only about 16.5% of all characters will roll no above-average score at all.  With the rules for boosting a prime requisite, that percentage drops even further.

On the flip side, most characters will also have at least one ability that's below average, with each roll being 26% likely to produce an 8 or lower, and only a 16.5% chance to escape with no low scores at all. 

The chance of any one ability score being in the average range (9-12) is about 48%.  The odds of ALL SIX ability scores being average, however, is less than 2%.  This means that the vast majority of characters are going to have both strengths and weaknesses that actually have an impact on play, but the + or - 2s and 3s are reserved for the truly exceptional - the top or bottom 4.6%.  That's exactly how I like it.

Contrast this with AD&D 1E, in which bonuses often weren't gained until a score of 15 or 16, and penalties until a score of 5 or 6 going the other way.  About 86% of ability scores on 3d6 will be in the "dead zone" of 7-15, and a full 40% of characters rolled will have no adjustments from their abilities.  Using one of those average-boosting methods like 4d6-drop-lowest gives things a push toward the upper end of the spectrum, but almost guarantees a lack of low scores, which can be just as interesting to play as high scores. 

If you like ability scores which are meaningful through the entire spectrum of possible scores, instead of just at the extremes, the B/X rules deliver quite nicely.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Rules are for player characters

Yes, the title of this post is a bit hyperbolic.  I don't mean to imply that the rules governing actions such as fighting and movement should be ignored for everything and everyone except the PCs.  I refer more to the rules governing character creation and advancement.  Apparently for a while, ideas of character classes and monsters and such have been percolating in my head, and this post represents a few of the crystals precipitated from that supersaturated solution.

Character classes have certain abilities, which are standardized by class and carefully (or not so carefully) scaled by level of experience.  This establishes predictable boundaries and expectations for players when choosing their characters' paths in a campaign, and a schedule for the further development of their abilities.  As such it is a useful tool, but not one that I believe was meant to be applied universally to PC and NPC (and sometimes even monsters!) alike.  Classes are no doubt useful templates for building NPCs in the campaign world, but if we bind ourselves to the notion that every fictitious person existing in the campaign world must be governed by those same rules, it leads to absurdities like a village locksmith having to be a high-level thief so he can have a good Open Locks skill, or any apothecary who isn't a charlatan necessarily being a name-level wizard because he can brew a few potions.  Taken to extremes, it leads us to such lunacy as giving every person of every profession a class and level to define his abilities: a 4th level peasant or a 15th level blacksmith or an 8th level merchant. 

There's no need for a rigid system of rules governing the abilities of NPCs, though.  NPCs may, and should, have whatever abilities the referee thinks they should have according to their profession and background on an ad hoc basis.  Abilities normally considered the province of a character class can be assigned to non-classed NPCs at whatever level of skill seems appropriate.  There's no reason in the world why a 0-level man who's been practicing the trade of locksmith for twenty years shouldn't be able to open locks with a 95% chance of success, while never gaining any more hit points or combat proficiency nor any ability to move silently, climb walls, or any other thief abilities.  Maybe you decide that the high priest of the most prevalent religion in your world has never adventured a day in his life, but attained his position by being the most unwaveringly pious, devout, and humble exemplar of the faith, and you're perfectly justified in giving him the ability to invoke miracles (i.e. high-level cleric spells) and to turn undead as a 20th-level cleric while having the hit points and combat ability of an ordinary man.  A woodsman might have the tracking skill of a ranger, without ever learning any great skill as a warrior.  An apothecary need not be a magic-user to brew efficacious elixirs and philtres, despite the skill being reserved to that class in the rule book. 

Sometimes you might want to give NPCs, classed or un-classed, an ability unavailable to standard PCs of any class.  A common farm-wife or the general of the king's army might have prophetic dreams.  This doesn't imply a need for a Prophet or Oracle character class with a carefully-crafted list of powers and notes detailing at which levels they're gained.  A minstrel might develop a supernatural knack for charming rodents and children with his music, but again, there need not be a Pied Piper class.  A sailor or a retired adventurer with a bad knee could be renowned for his ability to predict the weather.  A slow-witted village child might spontaneously cast fire spells without knowing how or why, and despite having neither training nor aptitude for the magic-user class.  A particular thief might gain the ability to become ethereal at will. A fighter might secretly have an inborn ability to communicate with animals.

In the former case, player characters may develop those skills by being a member of the relevant class and accumulating levels of experience.  Those NPCs may have a high degree of ability in one skill, because they are truly specialists, and adventurers are by necessity generalists to a great degree.  The NPC locksmith doesn't divide his efforts between a handful of thief skills, plus fighting, mapping, and survival; his job is to understand and make locks, period.  If a character wants to be a locksmith, he's not going to be an adventurer, and so is unsuitable as player character in a game of exploration and adventure.

In the latter case, powers and skills might be gained in any number of ways, from divine favor, family curses, flukes of fate or nature, or freak accidents that for one reason or another cannot be reliably repeated.  In any case, the recipients are exceptional, and didn't choose their gifts, and neither can a player character (excepting perhaps with DM permission at character creation.) 

Sometimes, especially in the case of adversaries and enemies, it's appropriate to build otherwise "human" NPCs as if they were monsters, giving them Hit Dice instead of levels, and abilities beyond normal human ken.  A coven of hags, cultists of a Cthulhu-esque Outer Being, or a unique knight who serves as guardian of a magical locale might all defy the categorization of standard character classes. 

Naturally, you don't want to go overboard.  The most potent or uncanny abilities should be reserved for the most exceptional characters, but this ought to be independent of game mechanics like class and level.  It's an art and not a science; a formula that's part common sense, part game master's artistic license; a nebulous alchemy that would completely lose its magic if subjected to strict codification in class-and-level rules.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ten thief archetypes

Continuing the theme of the last post, here are ten archetypes for the thief class.  All are attainable using standard thief class rules and abilities; the differences are in attitude, equipment, and the class skills they use most.

  1. The burglar:  Get in, get the goods, get out, and don't let anyone see you.  The burglar makes his living breaking and entering, and prefers to avoid confrontation at almost any cost.  Stealth, climbing, and lock-picking are eminently useful.  A burglar prefers small, easily concealed weapons that won't inadvertently knock things over, and may well go unarmored.
  2. The tomb robber:  You can make a living by robbing the living, but you can make a killing robbing the dead.  You just have to avoid all the deadly traps.  A lantern and a ten-foot pole are the tomb robber's best friends...and maybe a few vials of holy water, just in case the dead take offense.  Reading languages comes in handy, too.
  3. The spy:  Secrets are a valuable commodity, sometimes even more so than gold and jewels, and the spy's trade is to find them.  A knack for getting into secure places is important, but so are the ability to read languages and decode ciphers, a glib tongue, and the talent of blending in anywhere.
  4. The tinker:  He isn't particularly larcenous by nature; he just has a steady hand and a ready grasp of mechanical things, both of which can be very useful in an adventuring career.  He probably carries a tool kit full of odd things that a professional thief wouldn't even recognize, but which he uses to great effect in defeating locks and disabling deadly contraptions. 
  5. The showman:  Show business is all about misdirection, and the same nimble fingers that are adept at picking pockets are also good for playing instruments, juggling, and sleight-of-hand.  A flashy outfit and a line of patter to keep the rubes' attention away from the real action complete the gimmick.
  6. The romantic:  Whatever else he may or may not steal, this thief is a thief of hearts, a collector of amorous experiences.  Climbing, sneaking, and opening locks are all useful for getting into the boudoirs of paramours - or in helping other star-crossed lovers to do so.  The dungeon is not exactly his natural habitat, but nothing impresses the ladies (or gentlemen, as the case may be) quite like a tale of daring adventure and the trophies to back it up. 
  7. The heroic outlaw:  A thief by necessity rather than inclination, and more courageous than most.  He didn't turn against the law; the law turned against him, and he does what he must to survive and see that justice is ultimately served.  In the meantime, trickery and subterfuge are the order of the day, and all the thiefly skills may see use in the cause. 
  8. The thug:  This thief has a real penchant for violence, but without the fighter's skills to back it up.  Instead he puts his abilities of stealth and backstabbing to good use.  A cudgel or short blade is the weapon of choice for waylaying hapless victims, and a stout coat of leather armor is an insurance policy in case the mark manages to fight back.
  9. The scout:  Another (potentially) honorable thief type, the scout is adept at using the skills of stealth in the wilderness, of detecting traps and ambushes in advance, and sometimes of stealthily sabotaging enemy plans.  A ranged weapon such as a bow or crossbow is a must, and a suit of leather armor may just save his skin if he's spotted or runs into unexpected trouble. 
  10. The acrobat: As nimble as they come, acrobats seldom wear armor or carry weapons heavier than a dagger, unless it's a quarterstaff that can be used for balancing and vaulting.  Nobody climbs a wall, walks across a chasm on a rope, or silently crosses a floor strewn with dry leaves quite as gracefully.     

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ten fighter archetypes

The fighter class is good at fighting, but there are a lot of different ways to approach that job.  All of these archetypes may exist comfortably within the rules of whatever iteration of classic D&D or its clones one might favor, from OD&D to Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition and all points in between, without need for fiddly subclasses.  It's all in how you equip and play them.
  1. The foot soldier:  The standard no-nonsense fighting man, unburdened with silly notions of chivalry or showmanship, practical in choice of weapons and armor.  May or may not have an actual military background.
  2. The archer:  Capable with a blade, but prefers to take down foes from a distance.  Light armor allows the mobility to maintain that distance.  A bow, preferably long, is a must, with dagger and short sword or axe as side arms. 
  3. The swashbuckler:  Dashing, daring, and flamboyant in attire as well as fighting style, the swashbuckler favors light armor and graceful blades.  Bulky or crude weapons like axes and maces are right out.  If there's anything in the swashbuckler's off-hand, it's likely either a buckler shield or a main gauche.
  4. The barbarian:  A warrior from a culture considered backward or uncivilized.  Superstitious, uneducated, and uncouth by "civilized" standards.  Usually prefers hard-hitting weapons over finesse, hide or leather armor with a hide buckler, and clothing of furs and leather.
  5. The brawler:  All the gusto of the swashbuckler with none of the finesse.  Rude, crude, and always spoiling for a fight, be it with fists, chairs, maces, or swords.  Quite likely he extends this gusto to all other things that he considers to be worth doing at all: food, drink, women (or men, as the case may be), singing, boasting...  He isn't picky about his equipment, but prefers things with impact, like battle axes and clubs, and disdains "sissy" weapons like rapiers and whips.
  6. The hunter:  Learned his fighting chops against bears and boars rather than enemy soldiers or fencing partners.  At home in the wild, the hunter likes leather armor and spears, bows, and hand axes as weapons.
  7. The gallant:  It's all about honor and chivalry for this fighter, whether he's a knight, a squire, or a peasant with big dreams.  The sword is his talisman as well as his weapon of choice, and he'll acquire plate mail, a lance, and a trusty steed as soon as possible.
  8. The coward:  Curiously keen to avoid combat and has a thousand face-saving (or so he thinks) excuses to get out of dangerous duties.  He really does know how to fight, though: Back him into a corner and he's as dangerous as any fighter, or maybe more so if he fights dirty when he's scared.
  9. The sailor:  Formerly a member of a pirate crew or a guard on a merchant ship.  Uncomfortable in anything heavier than a brigandine jack, with a likely fondness for cutlasses, daggers, and clubs.
  10. The black knight:  He's not necessarily evil, but definitely no ray of sunshine either.  Intimidation is his stock in trade; he tends to be taciturn, grim, and glowering.  His armor is dark and menacing, his weapons wickedly curved, barbed, and flanged.  He isn't particularly quick to start a fight, but once battle is joined he is a ruthless combatant.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Taxonomy of the cleric

The cleric is sort of an odd duck in D&D.  The fighter, the thief, and the magic-user classes can all be described in terms of their favored method of problem-solving in the game.  The fighter uses force, the thief wit and stealth, and the magic-user magic.  One could say that the cleric solves problems with "faith" or "divine inspiration" or some such thing, but that's just obfuscating the fact that his methods are a mixture of fighting and spell-casting and power over undead monsters, and thus isn't really a niche unto itself. 

The defining quality of the cleric is a cultural role, not one of methods.  Specifically, the cleric seems to be a quasi-historical model of the Christian crusader, and things sometimes get a little awkward when trying to use the class to represent very dissimilar faiths.  AD&D 2E tries to resolve this problem by dividing the spell list into various "spheres" and allowing specialty priests, who may have different armor and weapon restrictions, other powers in place of turning undead, and can access various of the spheres of spells.  That's one way to do it, but it's pretty fiddly for classic D&D.  Classic D&D did give this a shot in the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, with a long list of the various immortals and the weapon and armor restrictions and special perks of their clerics, though they all used the same spell lists. 

I don't really want a hundred different sub-classes of clerics in my game, but a little bit of distinction would be nice.  So here's how I'm going to break it down, based on broad categories of religious beliefs rather than deity-by-deity.

Human-centric:  These faiths may be monotheistic or have a pantheon of gods; their salient characteristic is that the god(s) treat humans (and/or other races) as their children, to be shepherded and guided toward fulfilling their part in some grand and inscrutable divine plan.  The god or gods may be, or purported to be, the creators of humanity or of all existence.  Humans are afforded a place in the cosmic order above mere nature, as stewards of the earth.  The D&D cleric as written represents this type.

An intolerant One True Way religion is likely to be of this type, though tolerant versions are certainly possible as well.  A human-centric faith is probably going to be either good or evil; it's hard for me to conceive of a neutral example.  An evil religion of this type treats humans as the slaves and pawns of the god(s), livestock rather than children, with the priesthood acting as taskmasters administering the god's will, attaining special status among the god's thralls by submitting themselves willingly to its service.  The good and evil religions may be counterparts, with the evil god or gods having fallen from grace.  They may send their followers to infiltrate and undermine the followers of good, or tempt good clerics into sinful behavior, and thus may the Great and Holy Church become corrupted.  A priest may still preach the word of good with a false tongue, while continuing to receive spells from his true master - perhaps knowingly, or perhaps completely unwitting and believing that he still serves the cause of good!

Nature-centric:  Religions of this type may worship a pantheon of gods representing the natural world, or a single god or goddess representing nature as a whole.  Man is generally held to be a part of nature, not apart from it nor above it.  Clerics of these faiths may see themselves as representing man's interests in the natural world, performing rituals to protect their communities from the vicissitudes of nature, ward off plagues, ensure bountiful harvests, etc, or they may represent nature itself and seek to prevent any side or force from upsetting its balance. 

Traditional D&D druids fit this role, as do shamans of many primitive societies.  Nature-based faiths are particularly prone to be neutral, but good and evil-aligned ones are possible.  A good one upholds man's rightful place within nature, and seeks to help him live in harmony with it.  An evil one might see man as a scourge to be subjugated or eradicated.

Nature clerics use the druid spell lists.  They are limited to leather armor and leather or wooden shields.  Weapons should be predominantly of natural materials such as wood, bone, or stone - spears, clubs, bows, and staves are the most obvious examples.  Metal may be strictly prohibited, or simply eschewed in favor of natural materials whenever feasible.  Turning undead really isn't the province of nature priests, but turning of normal animals would be appropriate, with "turn" results handled normally and "destroy" results taming the creatures instead.  (See here for a simple turning mechanic that uses Hit Dice rather than a chart of specific creatures, and so is easily adaptable to any creature type.)

Indifferent gods:  Typically a pantheon-based religion.  The gods and goddesses are generally ambivalent toward humanity, having their own melodramatic affairs to occupy their attention, but often find mortals useful or intriguing enough to pay some attention to them.  They may seek worship for reasons of vanity, but their favor is fickle. 

The ancient Greek and Roman mythologies are examples of this type of religion.  They tend to hew close to neutrality overall, but due to the capricious nature of the deities they may often skew toward good or evil. 

In general, clerics of such a religion are unlimited in terms of arms and armor.  They use the standard spell lists, but each day when they memorize spells (or their spell slots or points are restored) a reaction must be rolled to see if they have the gods' favor.  On a neutral or better result the cleric gets his spells as normal.  On a hostile result the gods grant spells at only half the cleric's level.  Once a cleric falls into disfavor, he or she must perform a sacrifice or some other ritual to appease the god(s) offended.  Optionally, the ritual may be performed pre-emptively, granting a bonus to the reaction roll, to ensure the favor of the gods before undertaking an adventure.  Turning undead seems appropriate to clerics of this sort; spirits escaped from the Underworld must be driven back whence they belong.  If the gods have immortal rivals to their power, then perhaps clerics can turn the minions of the rivals instead (though they may well include the undead.)

If desired, some individual gods and goddesses within the pantheon may cultivate closer relationships with their mortal followers and function as humanistic or nature deities instead.

Philosophical, non-theistic*:  No gods are worshiped; rather, clerics of this sort of religion seek balance, enlightenment, and oneness with the universe from within themselves.  What exactly that means and how it is pursued may vary from one sect to another, but meditation, introspection, austerity, and strict self-discipline are common methods in lieu of praying to the gods.

Buddhism is the most prominent real-world example that comes to mind.  These religions tend toward harmony and benevolence toward self and others, which would qualify as good by most standards.  However, it's possible that one might exist which teaches that enlightenment comes through transcending of restrictive moral standards that bind "lesser" men, or through experiencing and inflicting suffering, or some other less than savory means.

These clerics do not wear armor or use shields, but are unrestricted in their choice of weapons.  (Most will likely choose something in harmony with their philosophy; quarterstaves are a popular choice among those whose outlook is peaceful and benevolent, for example.)  A new and novel spell list is probably in order, though I haven't prepared one yet, but spells allowing feats of mind over matter would be favored.  Turn undead seems inappropriate, but perhaps the ability to "turn" illusions and mind-affecting magic fits better.  Treat the illusion as a creature with HD equal to its caster; if caster level is unknown, use the lowest level at which the spell can be cast.  Turning allows the illusion to be disbelieved or the spell to be resisted; destroying allows the cleric to assert control over an illusion or turn the spell back on its caster.

*AD&D fills this niche with the monk class, and the Rules Cyclopedia adds the mystic class to basic D&D.  I prefer to keep things more within the purview of the cleric class rather than adding a new class of martial artists.  Your mileage may vary, though.

A few more stray thoughts:

Within each of these broad archetypes will be found sects espousing differing beliefs, and if desired they can be distinguished from one another through non-mechanical details, such as specific codes of dress and conduct.  Weapon restrictions can be freely changed up to achieve the right feel for a particular sect.  The standard cleric is limited to blunt weapons, but allowing one order to use spears and javelins instead of maces and hammers doesn't change the balance of power among the classes at all - those clerics are still limited to 1d6-damage weapons.  Clerics belonging to orders known for specific talents, such as healers or oracles, may distinguish themselves through the spells they choose rather than by having special spell lists, in much the same way a fighter can be a swashbuckler or a barbarian by his choice of arms and combat tactics rather than special rules. 

One other possibility that occurs to me as a source of clerical power is some sort of eldritch abomination or Outer Being, as are abundant in the Lovecraft mythos, for instance.  Priests of such cults probably ought to be treated more as monsters than player-character classes.  Their powers need not be constrained by the usual concerns of class balance, and should be alien and disturbing to players.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Lessons of Dungeon Robber

By now, I imagine just about everyone who considers him- or herself an active participant in the OSR online, whether as a blogger or a reader, has played, or is at least aware of, the Dungeon Robber game over at Blog of Holding.  In a nutshell, it's a simple text-based game of dungeon exploration, using a random dungeon generator.  If you want to know more, go play it, or read the relevant posts on Blog of Holding.  (Word of warning:  It's very addictive, so don't start unless you've got a block of free time, or at least time where you can toggle back and forth between being productive and exploring a dungeon level or two.) 

The purpose of my post, however, is not to plug the game, but to talk about a few things that playing the game has brought to the forefront of my attention. 

Getting lost adds a lot of tension to an adventure.  Dungeon robbers have a chance of getting lost every time they try to backtrack to the stairs up to the level above, when they run from monsters, and when they run afoul of certain traps and tricks.  It's hard for a party to get lost in a tabletop game if they're doing even a halfway decent job of mapping, but traps that divert them to unexplored areas, like shifting walls, elevator rooms, and tilting floors, can accomplish that job.  So can fleeing from monsters - just don't describe too much to the players as their characters are running away.  Suddenly finding the next hoard of treasure becomes a secondary goal to finding a route back to light and safety.

"Unlocking" services in town is fun and provides a sense of accomplishment.  Each time you retire a dungeon robber at a different rank (ranging from yeoman farmer to king) a new building is unlocked, and new services are available to your next character.  A tabletop RPG campaign doesn't have to start with every item on the equipment lists available for purchase, either.  Start in a village that has few services and only basic equipment for sale.  The party rescues a merchant from the orc caves, and the old general store reopens.  They settle a trade dispute with a nearby clan of dwarven miners, and with the increased supply of iron the local blacksmith can make mail and plate instead of hoarding every scrap of metal for nails and horseshoes. They donate treasure to the hamlet's tiny shrine for the building of a real temple, and the church sends a whole order of clerics to staff it.  They find an old book of herb lore and give it to the village apothecary, allowing him to make long-forgotten remedies for wounds and poison. 

As in the temple example above, characters might have to invest their loot in some improvements, and this is a wonderful way to make their wealth meaningful in the game world.  The choice to invest in a temple, a new trade route, a new forge for the smith, or a stage for the inn could determine whether the village gets spiritual guidance, luxury goods, improved metals, or increased visits from bards and minstrels, and whether the PCs get access to holy water and healing, a market for salvaged jewels, plate armor, or a wealth of rumors to pursue.

Jaquaying the dungeon is cool.  Only a few of the staircases actually take you up or down just one level.  Some bypass a level or two.  Some are dead ends.  Some take you up a level only to drop you down a chute to a level below where you started.  And then there are the deep chasms and rivers.  Despite the fact that the dungeon in the game is completely random and each room and corridor ceases to exist as soon as you leave it, I can't help but imagine how all these things could mesh together into some coherent whole.  It makes the dungeon three-dimensional in my mind.

Agency matters a lot.  As much fun as the game is, it's extremely frustrating sometimes because you have so little control over your fate.  Whether you live or die is mostly determined by the (simulated) dice, and most of your choices are either completely meaningless or guided by nothing more than whim.  It doesn't really matter which direction you choose to go at an intersection, because what's next is decided randomly.  There's no way to seek more information before acting.  You can't listen at the doors or look for signs of recent activity or check for telltale signs of traps.  You can, to a certain extent, calculate the risks - you know that a glint around the next corner means increased chance of risk or reward, and that unguarded treasure is likely to be trapped, but the decision is still mostly hunch-based, not a fully informed choice. 

This isn't a knock against Dungeon Robber, as such.  It is what it is, and it's a lot of fun within those constraints.  It's more a recognition of one of the greatest advantages of a tabletop RPG, with a real live game master, over the limitations of a computer-driven game. 

You don't need a lot of complicated game mechanics to make a game enjoyable.  Dungeon Robber uses a pretty bare-bones system, mostly simulated d6 rolls, with d20 and a few other dice for combat.  The things that would make it even more enjoyable are not "more realistic" or even more detailed mechanics, but greater detail of setting that enhances immersion and player agency.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Using reaction rolls

I used to have a lot of difficulties with reaction rolls, to the point that for the most part I simply decided what encountered creatures would do without rolling at all.  There's nothing wrong with that per se, but sometimes it's fun to follow where the dice lead rather than tell the whole story yourself.  There's also the fact that forgoing reaction rolls short-changes characters with high Charisma and contributes to its reputation as a dump stat. 

In fact, the B/X reaction roll system doesn't produce absurd results so much as it lacks guidance on how to interpret the results.  I have just one minor house rule that clarifies things a bit, and from there it's all about interpretation.

The house rule:  Whenever a reaction roll returns a result of "attack," immediately roll a morale check.  If the check is failed, the creatures encountered do not physically assault the party, though they are still hostile and wish to do the characters harm.  This prevents, say, a pack of cowardly kobolds from being as overtly belligerent as a mighty red dragon.  The kobolds, with a morale score of 6, will openly attack less than 42% of the time the reaction dice alone say they will.  The red dragon, with a morale of 10, is almost 92% likely to attack once the reaction dice return an "attack" result. (Probabilities from

Of course this morale check may be adjusted if the odds heavily favor (or appear to heavily favor) one side or the other.  A +1 or -1 adjustment should be sufficient in all but the most extreme cases.

Interpretation:  So, what happens when the reaction dice say "Attack!" but the morale check says the monsters hold back?  The answer is that they will still do their best to cause grief, or at least inconvenience, to the PCs, even though they don't like their chances in open battle.  Some possible non-combat "attacks" include:
  • Give the party faulty information with the intent of leading them into danger.  For instance, the kobolds might plead for their lives with information about a valuable treasure, while actually giving the party directions to the lair of an owlbear.
  • Flee, but lead the party into danger, such as a trapped corridor, where the monsters know how to avoid the hazard.
  • Retreat to gather reinforcements.  Just because the monsters don't feel confident enough to attack at the initial encounter doesn't mean they won't with a few dozen buddies at their side.
  • Bribe the party with worthless, cursed, or dangerous items.
  • Steal from the party, either by stealth or openly grabbing whatever they can and hightailing it.
  • Destroy important resources, such as rations and light sources.
  • Set traps or ambushes in the party's path.
  • Bluff to scare the party away.
  • Challenge the party to a contest of skill or chance, such as a dice or riddle game, for high but non-lethal stakes.

Another scenario that always troubled me, and for which some suggestions would have greatly clarified things, was the evil or Chaotic monster rolling a "friendly" reaction to good or Lawful PCs, or the good or Lawful monster rolling an "attack" reaction against good or Lawful PCs.  I don't know if anyone else had difficulty with this, but it was quite incongruous in my mind that orcs or kobolds should want to be best buds with a gang of heroes. 

The obvious answer to me now, in the case of opposite alignment "friendlies" is that this is more often than not merely an alliance of convenience, not a genuine friendship.  The monsters will act friendly, because it suits their purposes at the moment.  They may offer aid and information.  The difference between this and the "non-attack attack" above is that the creatures are making the offer sincerely - they're really giving the PCs something they believe the PCs will actually value.  The kobolds, for instance, might helpfully point out that the orcs in the cave across the ravine are much wealthier than they are, and that the chieftain's chamber is down a corridor to the left from the entrance.  Friendliness might also indicate simply a desire not to risk their necks in a fight - the kobolds might offer food or directions in order to buy some good will and save their own necks.  In either case, kobolds being Chaotic, the PCs can't necessarily count on such friendship the next time they meet...

When the dice say that good creatures attack good PCs, it's a case of paranoia, over-zealousness, or mistaken identity.  You can't always tell who's evil or intends harm just by looking, after all, and in the dangerous realm of the dungeon, even good creatures may take a shoot first, ask questions later attitude.  Of course, being good, they'll likely be open to parley should the PCs proclaim their innocence or lack of malice toward them. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Monsters: Beyond the stat block

This post at Semper Initiativus Unum about giant rats got me thinking about monsters - specifically, about how much more there is to them than what's written up in their game stats.  One of the central points of the article was how absurd it is to have giant rats living in a heap of trash in the middle of a large chamber and emerging to fight a pitched battle with a party of adventurers.  Rather, Wayne R. astutely observes, giant rats should nest in hidden nooks and crannies accessible to humans only with difficulty, and they should act more as scavengers and thieves than vicious assailants.

I think there's a strong impetus toward using monsters primarily as combat opponents, simply because they're statted up primarily for combat purposes.  The stats tell us that a giant rat CAN attack as a 1/2 HD monster and do 1-3 points of damage per hit, plus possible disease.  In and of itself, however, that doesn't really tell us any more about what a giant rat WILL do in an encounter than knowing that a magic-user can attack with his dagger for 1-4 points of damage tells us what he will do. Just as the magic-user has all sorts of options open to him other than rushing into battle with his dagger (which most of the time would end badly for him,) the giant rat has options other than rushing into battle (which most of the time would end badly for it.)  A creature's stats are not the sum total of its abilities, only those which pertain to direct physical combat. 
Think about all the abilities and actions available to a particular monster, not just those listed in its stats.  Then think of what it's likely to do, not just what it can do.  If the monster has a real world analog or counterpart, draw on that for clues to its abilities and behavior?

  • What are its physical capabilities?  Can it do things that are too mundane to merit mentioning in its stats or description but which might be of use in certain situations?
  • How intelligent is it and what does it know, or know how to do?  What are its skills?
  • What is its general disposition?  Is it aggressive, timid, curious, playful, territorial...?
  • Does it have any behavioral quirks or idiosyncrasies? 
  • Does it have any particularly strong fears?
  • Does it have a "berserk button" that will enrage it and provoke an attack?
  • Is there something that pacifies it easily?
  • What does it currently want or need?  Does it have long-term plans, and if so, what are they and how is it pursuing them?
  • How long has it been where the characters encounter it?  Why has it chosen to be there?  How does that place serve its current needs?  Has it altered the place to be more suitable?

Instead of rehashing the giant rat, I'm going to apply this to giant beetles.  I'll take the giant fire beetle specifically:

Real world beetles can crawl up walls, fly, and squeeze into tight spaces.  Perhaps giant fire beetles are too heavy to really soar, but I think they should be able to hover for a round or two and make flying hops within the limits of their movement rate, sort of like a chicken.  They can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, and sense movement and vibrations with their antennae.  They have some pretty powerful mandibles that are probably good for other things besides biting for 2d4 damage, such as gnawing and burrowing.  They have bioluminescent glands; the function is not specified, so I'll just invent something plausible: they're used to identify other members of the species and to attract mates.  They're pretty much non-intelligent, acting only on instinct.  The rule book doesn't say what they eat, but it doesn't seem like a predator, so it's likely a scavenger.  Its morale is 7, a little unsteady, so it's not terribly aggressive.  The book states that it's nocturnal, so it's a pretty safe bet that it doesn't like really bright light and will probably flee from it.

Beetles aren't much for long-term planning.  A fire beetle probably has no more pressing needs than feeding and reproducing.  It's likely to be encountered in places that serve those needs, and it will probably excavate a lair for itself if possible.

When encountered, the fire beetle is probably not going to attack the PCs, either for territorial reasons or for food.  It is likely to be attracted to lights carried by the party, though.  It might see them as potential mates and try to court them, as potential rivals and attack them, or just as fellow fire beetles and blunder around them like moths around a flame, depending on the reaction roll.  In any case, there's a possibility that they might knock light sources out of characters' hands.  As scavengers, they might also come around while the PCs are resting and use those powerful mandibles to tear open packs in search of food. 

How about another example?  Let's take the lowly kobold.

Kobolds can do pretty much anything a typical humanoid can do.  They can walk, crawl, run, jump, climb, probably swim, grasp objects, use tools...  They're small, which means they can go places that humans can't.  They have infravision to 90'.  Being underground-dwellers, they probably know a thing or two about tunneling and mining, and they probably aren't claustrophobic.  Tight passages don't faze them.

The book says that kobolds prefer to attack by ambush, and their morale is 6.  They're rather cowardly, but also malicious and mean - not above vicious murder if they can get away with it, but probably a lot more inclined to thievery and malevolent mischief that doesn't put them toe-to-toe with big dangerous adventurers and their big dangerous swords.  They're intelligent (according to the Mentzer-edition Master Set, an average of 9) and probably quite cunning.

Kobolds are probably concerned mostly with staying alive, which they manage by avoiding direct confrontations with more powerful creatures (that's almost all of them) and by opportunistically pilfering food and supplies.  They also have a mean sense of humor, and enjoy rapping on walls and making strange noises to lure parties into traps or other hazards, and especially delight in getting adventuring parties hopelessly lost in the dungeon.  (Kobolds themselves never become lost in underground settings.)

Kobolds prefer small spaces, which are inaccessible to larger adversaries, but they also like to be adjacent to bigger spaces where they can bedevil bigger folk.  If they've lived in the area long enough, it's likely to be honeycombed with kobold tunnels and crawl-ways in the "dead spaces" of walls, floors, and ceilings, which provide quick and stealthy avenues of access and retreat to and from many areas of the dungeon.  Their preferred tactic is to pop out, grab whatever they can, and disappear.  Inflicting physical harm is not their primary objective, though it's certainly a nice perk if it can be managed without too much risk. They will seldom openly engage a foe, but are not above a sudden attack on a sleeping, weakened, or otherwise unprepared party.

Play around with individual creatures' wants and motives to keep players on their toes.  A particular hill giant could be lonely and want companionship more than a fight.  He'll talk the party's ears off if they let him, and if they aren't careful, he might take a fancy to one of them.  ("I will love him and squeeze him and call him George!")  An owlbear might have developed a taste for horseflesh, and ignore the PCs while it mauls their mounts.  A mountain lion might shadow the party for days out of curiosity, but make them very nervous about taking off their armor and sleeping.  A troll might be more interested in showing PCs how strong he is, and letting them flee in terror back to the village to tell everyone how mighty he is, than in killing and eating them.  A medusa might fancy herself an artist, and promise to let the adventurers go un-petrified if they can bring her a more beautiful or interesting subject to turn to stone.

Most monsters aren't just hostile kill-bots bent on destroying anything that crosses their paths.  Players are encouraged to achieve their goals of exploration and gathering treasure by creative means, minimizing risk and entering into combat only as a last resort, and monsters often should be played the same way.  A monster doesn't necessarily want a fight; it wants food, or treasure, or find a mate, or get these pesky intruders out of its lair.  If its abilities, intelligence, and temperament allow it to do whatever it wants to do without risking its life, it's a good bet that it will choose that way.  Playing at least some of the monsters this way makes the ones that really are aggressive and belligerent by nature stand out more.