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.