Sunday, August 18, 2013

That'll buff right out

I seem to have magic on the brain lately.  I was thinking about writing a post on what I like in spells and what makes a spell awesome vs. merely list-filler.  One thing I've noticed is that the spells I most consistently see as boring and pointless are of the sort commonly known as "buffs." 

Buffs are spells that don't do anything in and of themselves, but grant a character a temporary bonus to an attribute, statistic, or category of die rolls such as attacks or saving throws.  Often they smack of effect-first mechanics, as if the author's first thought was not "What does this spell do in-game?" but "How do I give a bonus to activity X?"  It doesn't enable a character to do anything truly extraordinary; it only makes things he could do anyway a little more likely to succeed.  Think bless, or the AD&D strength spell.  Giant strength is not a buff.  Neither is ESP, regeneration, or levitation, because these all bestow fantastic abilities beyond the capabilities of normal humans.

Why am I so against buff spells?  Because they expend a scarce resource on an effect which is relatively trivial, likely to have no real impact on the game, and profoundly uninteresting.  A +1 bonus is for mundane, non-magical things like situational adjustments, or for permanent magic items, not for something that you actually spend a precious spell slot to cast.  Magic spells shouldn't just give you a slightly better chance to do something that's possible to do anyway; they should allow you to do something awesome.  Doubling your size so you can lift that portcullis with one mighty heave is awesome.  Turning your fist to granite so that you can punch through an oak door is awesome.  Casting a spell that gives you +2 to Strength checks...not so much.

Consider the bless spell.  It grants +1 to morale, and +1 to attack and damage rolls for the spell duration.  The former is only useful if you have NPC mercenaries or henchmen in the party, and even then only if a morale check is required and failed by one point.  The attack bonus only comes into play when someone misses an attack by a single point.  The damage bonus only matters when that extra point reduces the target exactly to 0 hp so it can't attack again next round.  What it all boils down to is that it's possible, even likely, that this second-level spell will have negligible impact on the outcome of a battle.

Is that fun, interesting, or exciting?  I think not.  Does it add anything to the game to have a caster expend a spell slot and then the recipient fails the check and wastes the effect?  Is it fun to buff the fighter's combat accuracy by +1 or +2 and then have most of his attack rolls succeed or fail by a margin larger than the buff?  The only time that buff is going to seem worthwhile is when rolls fail by less than the buff bonus.  If your roll would have succeeded without it, it feels wasted.  If the roll fails in spite of it, it really feels wasted.  Cast a spell and get an automatic success, and it feels like it really matters.

All of this helps me articulate what I think is my single most important Criterion of Spell Awesomeness:  A spell should accomplish something extraordinary, or enable a character to.  That means either something that couldn't be done at all without magic, or automatic success at a task that would be uncertain or hazardous without magic.  It doesn't have to be immensely powerful or flashy, just reliably potent.  Its impact, or lack thereof, shouldn't depend on the vicissitudes of the dice (except in special cases, such as attack spells that allow a saving throw to avoid the effect) but on how the caster or recipient chooses to employ its effects.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What's missing from Moldvay?

In my quest to get back to the basics of good old B/X (aka Moldvay/Cook) D&D, I've been perusing the Moldvay Basic set, and realized that there are a few things missing.  These are not simply things that I would like to add for fun or realism or some other reason of arbitrary preference.  These are things that it is strongly implied SHOULD be found somewhere in the official rules.  Specifically, they are implied by a couple spells in the list of 1st level cleric spells.

Resist Cold:  Without some basic rules for environmental hazards, this spell has only one use, which is to provide some rather trivial defense against cold-based attacks - and the only creature that uses such attacks in the Basic Set is the white dragon.  The Expert Set adds the wall of ice magic-user spell and the frost salamander.  Talk about your niche spells! 

Yet there are all sorts of situations, both in the dungeon and later in the wilderness, in which characters might be exposed to the effects of extreme cold.  If this spell didn't exist, it would be safe to say that the game designers were not concerned with any in-game effects of hypothermia, frostbite, and such.  But it does exist, so what's supposed to happen to a character who goes climbing on a glacier in a toga and sandals, or who plunges into a cold underground pool to see what's at the bottom and then spends the next several hours wandering around the chilly cave in sopping wet clothes rather than stopping to light a fire and dry out?  The rule book doesn't offer DMs even the faintest suggestion of what should happen.  If the rules include no consequences for exposing a character to cold (other than the three aforementioned examples, which in most campaigns would be rare at best), then why would anyone choose to memorize that spell?  I personally can't recall a single game, either as a DM or player, in which anyone did.

Purify Food and Water:  If resist cold is an extremely limited niche spell in the rules as written, then this one is just out-and-out useless.  So far as I can tell, there are no rules at all for the effects of thirst, starvation, or consuming contaminated food or water.  Rations usually weren't a big issue in my campaigns, since few if any adventures ever went beyond a week of game time.  Everybody just bought a week's worth of rations, and that was that.  As far as I can recall, the only hint of a rule for food spoilage came in the Mentzer edition, with a note that standard rations spoil after one day in the dungeon.  That's pretty much the extent of the thought given to rations by the authors and editors of classic D&D, but the mere presence of rations and the purify food and water spell in the rulebooks imply that there ought to be consequences for running out.  What happens if you don't eat for a day, or three days, or a week?  What happens if you give in to hunger and eat those moldy rations?  The rules don't say. 

Likewise, what happens if a character goes without water?  Sure, in a lot of situations this could be hand-waved.  Most temperate regions have rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds, and even dungeons have the subterranean equivalents, plus fountains and such, but what if the adventure takes place in a location that lacks these, or in which they're dangerous to drink?  Since the rules were silent on the subject, it was easier just to assume that carrying a water skin meant you had enough water for the duration of the adventure, and never mind that a quart of water is a pretty meager amount even for a single day's adventuring.  Lugging all that gear and treasure around a hazardous area, not to mention the occasional strenuous combat, is thirsty work, after all. 

What should the rules have been?  Since we're talking B/X, they should be fairly simple, without a lot of dice-rolling, if-then loops, repetitious checks to see if effects are avoided or reduced, and fiddling with half a dozen different stats in a quixotic attempt to model the effects with medical precision.  As it happens, there's a pretty good model already in the rules which can be extrapolated for the effects of cold, hunger, and thirst.  That model is the -1 penalty to all actions when characters fail to rest 1 turn in 6 during a dungeon crawl.

**Disclaimer:  I'm a gamer, not a doctor!  If some of these proposed rules clash blatantly with the facts of human physiology and medical science (at least more so than hit points fail to model wounds and fatigue), feel free to let me know and I'll consider revising them.**

Cold:  Harm from cold depends on how severe the cold is, the character's clothing, and whether the character is wet or dry.  Adventurers may generally be assumed to be adequately clothed for cool and even freezing temperatures.  Bitter cold such as occurs in northern winters, high elevations, and ice caves should require special gear such as heavy woolen cloaks or fur parkas.  Inadequate gear results in penalties which increase the longer a character is exposed.  At such time as the accumulated penalties equal or exceed the character's Constitution score, the character dies.

Relatively mild cold weather, i.e. around freezing, results in a -1 penalty to all actions.  As long as the character keeps moving, this does not increase.  When resting or sleeping, the penalty increases by -1 per hour.  A winter's night outdoors in nothing but one's underclothes could be lethal to the frail of health.

Extreme cold causes the -1 penalty per hour as described above when moving.  At rest, this increases to -2 per hour.  A night exposed on a glacier without heat or appropriate clothing will prove fatal to all but the hardiest of people. 

Being soaked to the skin doubles the penalties.

Immersion in cold water can be deadly.  According to wikipedia, water at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) can cause death within an hour, and at freezing temperatures is often fatal in 15 minutes or less.  For cold water substantially above freezing, penalties accrue at the rate of -1 per turn.  In frigid water, the rate is -1 per minute.  After leaving the water, the character may still suffer the effects of cold while soaked, as given above. 

Optionally, for each 5 points in penalties, the character loses 1/4 of his or her maximum hit points.  Bitter cold may cause permanent loss of digits or limbs to frostbite, at the DM's discretion.  Hit points lost through exposure to cold can be regained in the usual manner, either through rest or magic. 

Naturally, the resist cold spell renders its subject completely immune from all these effects.  The spell should also immediately remove all accrued penalties; the penalty counter is "reset" and starts again from zero if the conditions of cold persist after the spell expires.

Warmth removes penalties at the rate of 4 points per hour.

Food and drink:  For the sake of simplicity, a character must consume at least one day's ration of food and one skin of water per day to avoid the effects of starvation and thirst.  There are two degrees of starvation/thirst: insufficient and deprived.  For game purposes, insufficient is 1/2 of the usual daily requirement, and deprived is consuming a negligible amount.  Each week of insufficient feeding results in a penalty of -1 to all actions, but after two weeks, the character's metabolism adapts to the short rations and the penalty does not increase further.  Each week deprived of food inflicts a -2 penalty on all actions, and there is no cap. 

Each day of insufficient or no water inflicts penalties on the same scale, -1 or -2.  In extreme heat, double the penalties.

These penalties are cumulative, so a character who goes a week without food and three days without water suffers a total penalty of -8.  When the total penalty equals or exceeds the character's Constitution score, the character dies.  Penalties are negated at the rate of 4 points per week of proper feeding and 4 points per day of proper hydration.  Increasing consumption from "deprived" to "insufficient" halts further accumulation of penalties, but does not decrease them.

In the case that a character is suffering from both insufficient food and water and exposure to cold, apply only the greater of the penalties, i.e. either the hunger/thirst penalty or the cold penalty but not both.  In all likelihood a character will succumb to cold long before dying of starvation or thirst.

Impure food and water:  No information is given in B/X as to the shelf-life of rations.  The Mentzer edition rules state that standard rations spoil after one night in a dungeon, but are otherwise silent on the durability of either type of rations.  I would revise that to say that standard rations remain viable for one week, half that in the dungeon, and iron rations are good for 12 weeks.

Here we must abandon the simple model of accumulating penalties.  A debilitating illness of the digestive tract makes sense as a consequence for consuming spoiled or contaminated food and drink.  This can range from the unpleasant but fleeting effects of upset stomach and bowels to really nasty stuff like cholera and dysentery.  How sick a given spoiled consumable will make a character is left to the DM.  As a guideline, mildly disgusting stuff like moldy bread or rotten fruit might, or mildly tainted water, causes gastric distress on a failed save vs. poison, resulting in a -1 penalty to hit and damage rolls for a day.  Things that are notorious for causing food poisoning, like spoiled meat and eggs, might give a -2 penalty to all actions and halve movement rates for 1d6 days if the save is failed.  Really nasty stuff, like water contaminated with sewage or a rotting corpse, has effects similar to the venom of a giant centipede, i.e. half normal movement rate and no other actions possible for 10 days.  A new save is attempted at that time; if failed, the victim sickens and dies in another 1d10 days unless a cure disease spell or similar remedy is used.  

If this is all too much for your game, simply declare that spoiled rations and foodstuffs are inedible and will not satisfy hunger, and anyone foolish enough to partake of severely foul food or water must save vs. poison or die in 1d6 days.  Players will probably act as if this were the case anyway most of the time, so the above guidelines may be largely superfluous.

Poisoned food or drink, of course, inflicts the effects given for the poison, whether that be save-or-die or something else.

All of these effects are negated if the food or drink is purified prior to consumption. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How old school D&D gets magic (mostly) right

Wow, it's been a long time.  I haven't run a game, nor written anything game-related since that last post about hit points way back in February.  Gaming has been, if not the farthest thing from my mind, at least a few time zones away.  Suffice it to say that anxiety disorders are a royal bitch.  But now things are settling down, the gaming bug has started to creep back in, and the mental tranquility and focus that have eluded me for so long have mostly returned.  With that, let the fire be lit anew in the hearth and the doors of the Flagon cast wide once again!

When last I wrote of things gamey, I had just taken the first few steps down a slightly different road for this blog, seeing the old B/X rules with new (and perhaps old) eyes and appreciating their simple elegance rather than trying to completely overhaul them to conform to some pie-in-the-sky concept of how fantasy settings, stories, and natural laws "should" manifest in a game.  Bottom line, it's a game, not a novel, and I'm all about appreciating it as such.  Perhaps surprisingly, that hasn't changed over my hiatus.

In fact, I find that I even have a new appreciation for the much-maligned quasi-Vancian magic system of early D&D.  Not every aspect of it, mind you, but we'll get to that a bit later...

I think it's fairly self-evident that in a game, magic must be limited and restrained somehow.  It's all well and good in a novel or a movie to have a magic-wielder manifest powers as the plot demands, but a game requires clearly comprehensible limitations.  Unlimited use of automatically successful abilities makes for overpowered characters and boring games.  The tension and excitement of the game comes from uncertainty, which is accomplished in several different ways.  The most obvious one is randomness, a recourse to the dice to decide the success or failure of an action.  Another source of uncertainty is the asymmetry of knowledge between DM and players.  The players don't know what's behind the next door or inside that locked chest until they interact with it in-game, and the DM can never be completely sure what the players will do. Asymmetry of knowledge also generates uncertainty in the management of finite resources.  The utility of using a resource now must always be weighed against possible future need.  A flask of oil might be just the thing against that owlbear, but will you live to regret it when your lantern gutters out three dungeon levels below the surface?  Different methods of introducing uncertainty to an adventure encourage different strategies of coping with the uncertainty, which ultimately is one of the most important factors distinguishing one character class from another.

I find that I really don't care for a "roll for success" mechanic for spells.  It does limit their utility, but it makes magic feel too much like any other skill.  A fighter rolls to hit with his sword; the mage rolls to cast magic missile.  The thief rolls to pick the lock; the mage rolls to cast knock.  The classes, to me, feel very homogenous this way.  The different approaches to adventuring represented by a class system become pure fluff.

Making magic a limited resource allows it to function very differently from mundane skills.  Spells often allow automatic success, but you only have a limited number of them per day, so you must be judicious in deciding when to use them and when to rely on less certain but unlimited means.  Using magic to solve problems becomes more than a question of flavor; it's instead a choice between the uncertainty of the dice and the uncertainty of finite resources against an unknown future. 

Limited Resource systems of magic usually take the forms of spell point systems and spell slot systems, including traditional "Vancian" D&D magic.  I've actually tried a spell point system, and while it wasn't terrible, I found it less than satisfactory.  Various formulas exist to determine a character's pool of spell points, with one of the most common being simply to take the total spell levels usable by a spell caster under the rules-as-written and convert it to spell points; e.g. a fifth-level magic-user who normally gets 2 first, 2 second, and 1 third-level spell would instead have a pool of 9 spell points.  The advantage I perceived in this type of system is that spell points are completely fungible.  Any given point may be used to power a first-level spell or a ninth-level spell, as long as you've got enough of them.  Magic-users aren't bound by a spell table; they can cast whatever spell of whatever level they like, as long as they've got the points for it.  The problem I have with this approach in hindsight is that it's just too fiddly for my taste.  There's that much more math to track, and worse, it takes the focus off the spells and puts it squarely on the math.  It's not that it's difficult math, or even that the numbers are difficult to remember, but in my experience the more adding and subtracting of abstract numbers you have to do at the game table, the more it diverts attention from the adventure itself.  (Yes, sometimes the goals of game simplicity and immersion in the story do align.) 

Another difficulty with a spell point system is low-level spells that scale with caster level.  A 9th-level magic user who gets five magic missiles per casting could dish out 5d6+6 points of damage per round 31 times in a day in a 1-spell-point-per-spell level system.  There's almost no reason at all for him to even bother with fireball or lightning bolt, the wizard's traditional big guns.  Two rounds of magic missiles, for 2 spell points, deals 10d6+10 damage, eclipsing a fireball's 9d6 for 3 spell points.  For that matter, a very high-level wizard could also "cash in" his allocation of eight and ninth-level spells to add multiple 20-die fireballs to his daily limit.

A spell slot system is sort of a spell point system in broad strokes, but with a separate pool of points for each spell level.  At a glance this seems more complex and fiddly, but since we're counting spells instead of spell points, it's actually a degree less abstract than a pure spell point system.  The focus is on the spells themselves, not some nebulous mathematical pool of power. I suppose, if you're one to ponder the underpinnings of your magic system, that this implies some sort of quantum property of magic - magical energy comes in discrete quanta rather than a smooth continuum - but you can also easily hand-wave such esoteric notions and accept it as simply a gaming convenience.  The point is that you and your players are dealing first and foremost with spells, not subtraction problems.

Where I part company with traditional D&D magic is the "fire-and-forget" rule that seems to be the one uniquely Vancian quality of the system, but this really is not an integral part of a spell slot system per se; it's merely an additional rule superimposed upon it, and a spell slot system functions just fine without it.  In my opinion it's overkill; it turns a necessary limitation on magic into a straitjacket.  It forces the player either to anticipate the uncertain future in great detail, or to select only those spells likely to be useful in almost any adventure.  The result in my experience has been almost always the latter, with potentially useful but narrowly focused utility spells eschewed in favor of stuff that will make the biggest impact in combat.  Why bother to memorize read languages or hold portal when the likely outcome is tying up a spell slot that would have been better used for another sleep spell?

Some DMs do away with memorization entirely, and allow magic-using characters to choose freely from among the spells they know when casting, while limiting them to the total number of spells per level given in the rule book - a pure spell slot system with Vancian elements removed.  I've played that way, and it works well.  The major drawback comes into play when a character has a large repertoire of spells, and things bog down as the player is constantly poring over the list for the perfect one for each occasion as it happens.

Maybe you do want a certain element of preparation, but more akin to cramming for a test or drilling a particular set of plays for a sporting event rather than loading your mind like a revolver.  I'm given to understand that the ACKS game allows a character to memorize a number of spells per level equal to the usual allotment, but once they're memorized, the caster can choose freely from among them.  A level 2 magic-user could memorize two first-level spells, and if she needs one of them twice and the other not at all, she can cast accordingly.  She doesn't forget either, until she wishes to memorize a different selection. 

If you like, you could add the character's Intelligence or Wisdom modifier to the number of spells of each level that can be memorized (minimum of one per level to which the character has access, in the case of low scores with penalties), without inflating the number that can be cast per day.  This would make the character's prime requisite relevant, allowing brilliant mages and wise clerics to be a bit more versatile than their less-talented colleagues without making them absolutely more powerful. 

You could also allow a lower-level spell to be cast with a higher-level slot, if all of the proper slots have been spent.  A magic-user who's spent all his first-level spell slots and wants to cast ventriloquism can do so by expending a second-level or greater slot - but it still counts as ONE spell; it can't be broken up into two first-level spells.  Optionally, perhaps using a higher-level slot than necessary might grant extra power to the spell.  This might be a good way to handle level-scaling spells, especially if you find that they unbalance your game under the rules-as-written.  A caster wishing to boost damage from, say, a fireball, could use a fourth or fifth-level slot to cast it, with the damage being 2d6 per level of the spell slot rather than 1d6 per caster level.  Magic missile would render one missile per level of the slot used.  You want the biggest bang, you better be prepared to pay for it.

With another tweak you can model the effects of an exhausted mage attempting a last-ditch blast or a novice exceeding his understanding, by allowing higher-level spells to be crammed into lower-level slots.  Need to disintegrate something but don't have a sixth-level spell slot?  Cross your fingers and use a level four!  It should be fairly simple to devise a mechanic that represents the dangers of such an action, with the hazard increasing the greater the disparity is between spell and spell slot, though I haven't done so here.  (In the case of the novice who can't memorize the higher-level spell he wishes to cast, he could read it directly from a spell book.)

Strip away the Vancian trappings, and the spell slot system is really pretty versatile.