Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ingredients of a micro-setting

Last post, I rambled about micro-settings in D&D: Pre-designed and stocked areas without any particular plot attached.

Making a micro-setting is both similar to and different from building either a standard adventure or a large-scale setting.  It requires the former's granularity of detail and the latter's focus on open-ended potential rather than specific events and actions.

Details which are important to the form are:

Maps: As the name implies, a micro-setting should be relatively small.  How small?  There's no objective limit, but I would say small enough that all points of interest can be explicitly marked on the map.  A macro-setting map, such as a hex map of a kingdom or a continent, only shows the most notable feature in each hex, such as a city or a type of terrain.  In reality, a six-mile hex can contain a lot of interesting stuff, far more than a single icon would indicate.  The hex map might show a village beside a river, but there might be a wizard's tower on a tiny island in the river, a monastery on a rocky crag overlooking the village, a ruined castle in the boggy area by the riverbank south of the village, and a cave where the local youths go for mischief which unknown to them contains a secret entrance to an ancient underground stronghold.  The micro-setting map should be of high enough resolution to show all those things and where they lie in relation to one another.

A base of operations: A complete micro-setting should include a place of relative safety, where the characters can rest between adventures, restock and upgrade equipment, store treasure, gather information, and recruit help.  It could be a fortress, an trading post, a village, a fleet of ships at anchor, a clan-steading of dwarves or elves, or even a lair of friendly monsters.  May be mapped and keyed, a la the Keep from B2.

People: Important, influential, and interesting NPCs, such as leaders and authority figures, mercenaries for hire, merchants and traders, professional services, rivals, mentors, and potential employers. Some bare-bones stats are a good idea; a few personality traits and motivations for each one are even better.

Factions: Organizations of people and monsters, whether formal or informal: guilds, families, tribes, houses, clubs, secret societies, religions, etc.  What are their interests and aims, and how do they relate to one another?

Dungeons: Dark and dangerous places to explore for fun and profit.  The setting should include at least one good-sized dungeon or several lesser ones, each fully mapped, stocked, and ready for play.  (Some published micro-settings make exceptions as a teaching tool for new DMs; the Cave of the Unknown in B2 is an example.  You'd still want to fully map and stock it if you intended to use it as part of the overall setting, though.)

Adventure hooks: Basically any fact about the setting that might lead to adventure opportunities.  Often presented in the form of a rumor list.  These may appeal to the party's sense of heroism or helpfulness (i.e. the needs and concerns of the common folk regarding things dark and dangerous) or to their curiosity or self-interest (rumors of treasure, magic, or just weird things.) 

Of course, what you don't write up in detail is nearly as important as what you do.  Anything that isn't directly relevant to running a game in that micro-setting should be left vague or unspecified, no matter how interesting it might seem.  This allows the micro-setting to be easily inserted into someone's game world, or for you to re-use it at some later date in a different game world without having to gut it to avoid conflicts.  It truly is a "module," plug-and-play.

Focus on the Right Here and Right Now.  No extensive history, no intricate connections to the wider world.  We don't know why the Keep is on the Borderlands, except that it's an outpost of Law that stands between civilization and the forces of Chaos.  We don't know how long it's been there or who built it.  We don't know where the castellan came from or how he was appointed to this post.  Leaving all these spaces blank makes a micro-setting flexible and versatile.  According to the needs of the particular campaign and world, the Keep could be new or old.  It could be pushing back the frontiers of civiliation into the wild, or the last bastion of a retreat.  The castellan could be a humble enlisted man who won his position through grit and determination, or the bastard son of a powerful noble shunted aside with this remote posting.

It's a setting, not a story.  When you're populating your micro-setting with people and creatures, think about motives and goals, not actions.  Actions come later, when the campaign is in motion.  Instead of writing up what a monster or a faction will do, figure out what it wants in the long run.  A typical plotted adventure might have the evil cult kidnap the local ruler.  In a micro-setting, the cult might wish to quietly infiltrate and corrupt the local good church, entice new members to join, and ultimately establish itself as the most powerful organization in the setting.  Broad objectives like this allow the DM a lot of freedom to decide just what methods and tactics the cult will use, and adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities.  If and when it makes sense for it to kidnap the ruler, it will do so.  A lot depends on the actions of the players - they are the wild cards in the game, after all, and their decisions can simultaneously close some opportunities for the other forces in the world, and open others.

I think that wraps up this particular topic.  Next up, thoughts on making adventures in a "plotless" setting or micro-setting meaningful (i.e. plotting on the fly during the campaign.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

D&D micro-settings

When I think of "settings" for D&D-type games, I think of two different sorts of products.

One is the sort in which an entire campaign may take place, detailing in broad strokes a fairly large geographic area.  Many settings of this type have been published, and you probably know at least a few of them by name if not more intimately: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Known World (a.k.a. Mystara,) among many, many others.  With this type of setting, you generally get a map, a description of the various regions, the nations and cultures, major NPCs and factions, history and legends, and probably some adventure hooks and a few new character classes or sub-classes.

It's the second kind that I want to talk about today.  Exemplifying this type of setting is B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.  While it (and most other examples of the type) was published as an adventure module, it's really a mini-setting, without an explicit plot or any of the other common trappings of most adventure modules.  Instead, we get a very detailed base of operations in the titular Keep, a small-scale wilderness map and a few outdoor encounter areas, and a sprawling map of the Caves of Chaos.  All areas of Keep and Caves are fully stocked, with stats for all inhabitants.  Each area is described in detail, with furnishings and treasure.  Relationships between the factions of monsters are described, with hints on how they might interact and how the players can manipulate them to their benefit.  A table of rumors provides adventure hooks, which the players may pursue or not.  There is no predetermined goal, no "win" or "lose" conditions, nothing expected of the player characters but to go forth and explore something.

In a way, a micro-setting is like the fabled megadungeon in that it's meant to be visited again and again, changing with time and the characters' actions instead of appearing once and never seen again.  Unlike the megadungeon, the micro-setting isn't meant to sustain an entire campaign on its own, though a phase of a campaign may center around it.

There's a lot to love about these little settings.

Having pre-mapped and stocked micro-settings without plots means I can run whatever I like, or whatever the players want to pursue.  A good mini-setting has the potential for a variety of different kinds of adventures.  The Keep, for instance, has opportunities for scouting, rescue, search-and-destroy, and exploratory missions, service to good and noble causes, and treachery and betrayal.  It's all there, and my group can pursue whatever they like.  I won't have to scrap some elaborate adventure I've written up for the night's session nor improvise something more to their liking completely off the top of my head.  If the players decide they'd rather investigate where those skeletons and zombies are coming from instead of searching for the merchant's wife, I'm prepared and ready to roll with it.

Re-using familiar locations gives a campaign continuity, which makes it more believable and gets players more invested in it, in a way that making new locations from scratch for every adventure doesn't.  Having recurring locations, characters, and factions figure into each new adventure makes the world feel real and organic, not just a series of vignettes unconnected by any common thread but the same protaganists.  Instead of inventing a new mercenary outfit to support the next villain in his plot to overthrow the castle, you can use the goblin tribe the players ran out of the cave complex three sessions ago.  The goblins have a reason to hate the PCs, and the players have an emotional stake in proving that their first victory was no fluke.  Plus, they get to use whatever they've learned about these goblins' strengths and weaknesses, which makes their past encounters meaningful to current events, instead of just war stories to tell around the tavern.

You can build a campaign world from the bottom up by stringing together several micro-settings.  It's a process of discovery from both sides of the screen.  Players discover the world by playing in it, and you discover how each micro-setting relates to others to form the greater world.  All the bits in between micro-settings can be fleshed out as-needed rather than set in stone in advance.  Without the overarching plan that a detailed macro-setting imposes on the campaign, you're free to build your world on the fly for the greatest enjoyment of your group.  What's beyond the dark forest that they players have declared their intention to cross?  Not some generic village that you put on a map because it looked like there should be something there, but another micro-setting bubbling with adventure potential!

You can use a mix of your own micro-settings and published ones.  I don't know about anyone else, but it can be creatively liberating for me to drop a micro-setting ready-made by someone else into my game and figure out how to put it to use.  Because it's sprung from a different mind than my own, it forces me out of unconscious patterns, but because it's a micro-setting full of possibilities and not a story with a predetermined plot, my imagination is set free to fly on new courses rather than simply put in a different straitjacket. 
Using other people's micro-settings in your campaign also reduces prep work for you while still allowing maximum detail.  If the players decide to explore that ruined keep looming on the hill, you've got it all mapped and stocked, and if not, you haven't spent a ton of time writing it up for nothing.  With a mixture of your own creations and published works, you can have a ton of very detailed areas with a fraction of the effort it would take to do it all yourself.

Unfortunately, the supply of micro-settings available seems to be a lot less than that of macro-settings and plotted adventures.  If you know of any other good micro-settings, feel free to post titles and links in the comments.

Next up, I talk about the ingredients that make a good micro-setting.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Grappling made simple(ish)

Grappling is one of those things that's always a nightmare in RPG combat.  It's almost invariably a fiddly mess that doesn't mesh or scale well with standard combat rules.  To an extent, grappling is a part of normal combat, as a lot of grabbing, pushing, tripping, and so on takes place even in a sword fight.  Sometimes, though, a combatant will expressly attempt to grasp and hold on to an opponent, and some grappling-specific mechanics come in handy.

What I'm going for here is something reasonably simple, without too many conditions and modifiers, which complements rather than contradicts the basic combat rules and minimizes absurd outcomes such as a high-level fighter wrestling a war horse or a giant to the ground.

For the basics of my fantasy heartbreaker combat system, see here and here.

Without further ado, here's what I've come up with for grappling.

The first phase of a grappling attack is resolved with standard combat rolls.  The combatant initiating the grapple must either have at least one hand free or use a natural attack capable of grasping, such as a crocodile's jaws.  A defender may be either unarmed or armed.  (Included in standard G&G combat, if I haven't mentioned it already, is a rule that attacking unarmed against an armed opponent incurs a -2 penalty to AC; thus grappling an opponent with deadly weaponry is more hazardous than grappling an unarmed one.)  A grappling combat roll is always modified by Agility; if the defender chooses to attack normally and try to avoid being grappled, it uses whatever modifier it normally would for its own mode of attack. 

Both combat rolls have their normal effects, inflicting damage if they exceed the opponent's AC.  If the attacker's roll is higher than the defender's (including all modifiers for both) the attacker has achieved a solid grip on the defender.  If the defender's roll is higher, it eludes the attacker's grasp and remains free.  Note that neither necessarily needs to inflict damage; the higher roll wins, even if it's otherwise dismal.  Ties always go to the defender; i.e. no change in status.

Once a grip is established, in subsequent rounds the attacker may simply hold on, or may try to overpower the opponent.  Regardless of which action is chosen, each combatant may continue to attack the other, making normal combat rolls each round and inflicting damage as appropriate. 

Holding on to an opponent means that the combatant is maintaining its grip on the opponent and avoiding the opponent's attacks.  One common tactic is to hold the opponent from behind, or in the case of a larger opponent, to climb on and cling to its back.  While holding, the grappling character's combat rolls against the opponent are made at +2, while the opponent's combat rolls against the grappler suffer -2.  Additionally, attacks by other creatures or characters against either grappler or grappled are made at +2 to the combat roll, as their ability to dodge and parry is limited.

The opponent chooses the direction of movement, if any, possibly at a reduced movement rate if the grappler is heavy enough to encumber it. 

Each round, new combat rolls are made, and if the opponent wins a combat roll against the grappler, it may either throw him off or establish a grapple of its own, which leads to an overpowering contest.

Only small, medium, or natural weapons may be used while in this stage.

At the GM's option, holding onto certain opponents may render some attack forms impossible and others more likely to succeed.  For instance, a grappled medusa may be unable to turn and use her gaze attack on the grappler, but the grappler would be extremely vulnerable to the bites of the writhing snakes on her head.

Overpowering occurs when one combatant tries to restrain, subdue, or move the other.  When two combatants are both grappling each other, it automatically becomes a contest of overpowering.  Overpowering requires a contested roll of 1d6, with each combatant adding its Combat Rating and Might adjustment.  For monsters without a Might score, use the creature's unadjusted Hit Dice.  Characters not using both hands to grapple (holding a weapon or other item in one hand) are penalized by -1. 

The one with the higher total is in control, and may do one of the following:

Automatically inflict 1 point of damage per point of difference in the rolls
Reduce damage done by the opponent by 1 point per point of difference in the rolls
Drag/carry the opponent 5 feet per point of difference. 
Break free, if its combat roll also exceeds that of the opponent. 

Ties result in a stalemate, with no movement possible. 

A new overpowering roll is made each round that the grapple continues, until one or the other combatant escapes or is subdued.  A combatant reduced to 0 hp in a grappling contest is considered subdued and unable to resist further.  A subdued opponent may be automatically slain if desired.

Only small or natural weapons may be used while involved in an overpowering contest.

Example 1

Gort the fighter wishes to grapple and subdue an outlaw without killing him in order to bring the miscreant to justice.  He has a Combat Rating of 4 and a Might adjustment of +2, and an Armor Class of 14.  The outlaw has a CR of 3 and Might +1, and AC 14 also.  Gort is unarmed, and so suffers a -2 penalty to his AC against the outlaw's dagger.

Gort scores a total of 17 on his first try, beating the outlaw's AC by 3 points, doing the maximum unarmed damage of 2 points.  The outlaw, however, gets an 18, tagging Gort for 4 points of damage and preventing him from getting a good grip.

Next round, however, Gort gets a 12.  This isn't enough to deal any damage, but it beats the outlaw's roll of 8, and Gort grabs hold of the cad.  He immediately tries to overpower his foe, aiming to subdue him.  Gort rolls 1d6 and adds 5 for his combat skill and strength, achieving a total of 10!  The outlaw rolls and adds his total bonus of +4, with a -1 penalty because he's not letting go of his dagger; he only scores a 6.  Gort could inflict an automatic 4 points of damage, or he could reduce the damage done by the outlaw by 4 points, or he could drag the bastard up to 20 feet.  Since the outlaw failed to do any damage with his combat roll, the second option is moot.  Gort chooses to wear him down with a punishing choke hold, doing 4 points of damage.

In the third round, the outlaw's combat roll is a resounding 18, but Gort outdoes him with a 21.  Gort does 2 points of damage with his (unarmed) combat roll, but will take 4 points from the outlaw's dagger.  Since Gort has maintained his grasp on his opponent, another overpowering check is made, which he again wins, 9 to 7.  Gort could choose to reduce the damage the outlaw inflicts on him by 2 points, to increase his own damage against his foe by 2 points, or to move him 10 feet.  He chooses to keep the pressure on his choke hold rather than fend off the outlaw's weapon hand, so he takes the full 4 points of damage but inflicts 4 points of his own.

So we leave their struggle, and move on to...

Example 2

Sera the thief gets caught picking the pocket of a burly fighter.  With no easy escape, she decides her best bet is to grab and hold on so he can't skewer her with his sword.  Sera's CR is 1, her Agility bonus is +1, and her AC is 13.  The fighter has an AC of 14, +1 Might, and CR of 3.  Sera has one free hand and her club in the other, so she suffers no penalty to AC.

Her adjusted combat roll is a 10 - not enough to hurt her opponent, but the fighter rolls only a 7, and she seizes him by his sword belt and jumps on his back. 

Next round she rolls a 15 and the fighter gets a 16, but since she has him grappled, she gets +2 to her roll, and his roll is penalized by -2.  Their adjusted totals are 17 and 14.  Sera wins, holding her relatively safe position on the fighter's back.  He does 1 point of damage to her, and she does 3 points to him.  If she hadn't successfully grappled him, she would have taken 3 points and done only 1 to him. 

If the fighter should beat Sera's combat roll next round, he could choose either to throw her off, or to attempt to overpower her.  As the thief hangs on for dear life, we move on to...

Example 3

Dorn the Overly Inquisitive prods a crocodile with a stick and gets the result any person with basic common sense would expect.  The croc attacks and scores a total roll of 13, not good enough to pierce Dorn's plate armor (AC 16) but enough to beat his pitiful flailing roll of 7.

The croc naturally tries to overpower him.  It rolls a 4 on 1d6, plus its Combat Rating of 3, plus its unadjusted Hit Dice (also 3) for a total of 10.  Dorn rolls a 5, plus his CR of 2 and Might adjustment of +1, coming up short with an 8.  The croc chooses to drag him 10', into the water.

The next round the croc wins again with a combat roll of 8 over Dorn's 5, neither scoring any damage, and wins the overpowering roll 11 to 6.  Now the croc goes into its "death roll" and deals 5 points of damage to Dorn, who is in serious trouble...

Optional Rules

Multiple attackers: If more than one combatant tries to grapple the same target, any that is not counterattacked succeeds as long as its combat roll is not a natural 1.  For example, four goblins try to grapple a fighter wielding a mace, with which he can sweep up to three opponents.  The first three goblins succeed only if they beat the fighter's combat rolls against them.  The fourth succeeds unless it rolls a 1; the fighter doesn't have enough actions to oppose it.

When multiple attackers attempt to overpower a grappled opponent, only one 1d6 roll is made for the entire side.  Add the most powerful member's CR and Might or HD adjustments and +1 for each additional member.

Multiple defenders: An attacker with more than one available grasping appendage may attempt to grapple more than one target.  This is treated as a sweep, with combat rolls modified accordingly.  Overpowering rolls are made, dividing the attacker's bonus from CR and Might or HD evenly among the opponents held, rounding down.  For example, a fighter with CR 4 and Might adjustment +2 who grapples two goblins rolls 1d6+3 for each of his overpowering rolls. The goblins roll without penalty.

Holding onto a grappled opponent while attacking or fending off others is likewise considered a sweep and combat rolls should be adjusted accordingly.

Mutual grappling: If two combatants both wish to grapple, both are automatically successful.  Combat rolls determine only whether any damage is scored.  A mutual grapple is always a contest of overpowering; proceed to the overpowering roll.

Disarm: If a combatant wins two overpowering rolls in a row and chooses the "reduce damage" option (whether or not the opponent would actually score any damage), the opponent is disarmed if desired (and applicable.)

Tackle: Charging or leaping onto an opponent adds +2 to the initial grappling attempt.  For example, a panther leaping from a tree branch to grapple a target on the ground would get this bonus.

Adapting to standard D&D

Use Dexterity adjustment instead of Agility, and Strength instead of Might.  Use (20-THAC0) instead of Combat Rating.  When Combat Rating is increased or penalized due to grappling positions, increase or reduce any damage caused by rolling twice and taking the higher or lower roll, respectively.

If I've made any mathematical or logic errors, or if you find a serious (or even not-so-serious) rules expoit that could result in an unbalanced advantage or an absurd result, please point them out!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Dark fey: Shadows

I can't let Halloween go by without another entry in the Dark Fey series, can I?

(Disclaimer: This is the non-undead monster from B/X, not the AD&D undead of the same name.  I figured it fits pretty well among the dark fey.)

What's that?  You wish to hear another tale?  Not so keen to head out toward home, are you, even on such a clear crisp evening as this?  As well you might not, what with the moon at its full and the shadows reaching their long arms across the earth...No, hardly a fit night to be abroad.  Another pint, then?

Well then.  Where was I?  Ah, yes.  No, you needn't be afraid of your own shadow.  But when you finally walk home tonight, to your family and your bed, you'd best have a care that the shadow that follows you truly is your own.  There other things that cast shadows, things no longer of this realm.

Did you know that even among the fey, there are crimes too horrible to countenance?   Yes, the wild and perilous fey, to whom the snatching of babies from their cradles and blasphemy against the gods themselves are worth scarce a first thought, never mind a second!  What enormities could so horrify them?  I know not, nor do you, and pray the gods will it we never should learn!

Only the fey themselves know, and it's a dire business indeed when one of their kind should be deemed guilty of such hideous misdeeds.  And what punishment could be meted out against soulless folk, who live on and on without end, to whom neither the gallows nor the headsman's axe holds any menace?  Nothing short of eternal banishment!  Not from a village, or even a kingdom, but from the world of the living itself.  For an instant, on moonless nights, the sorcerers of the fairy court may tear back the veil between the worlds, and through that awful rent are cast the condemned, those irredeemably monstrous beings, and there they sit to brood and hate until time itself should crumble away and all barriers fail.

Yet even there, they are not wholly powerless, and from time to time they may still work their malice upon mortal and fey alike.  For theirs is a prison not of solid walls, but of silken curtains.  When and wherever light shines in our waking world, so it shines in that queer place also, and through the veil it projects the shadows of those fallen wretches.

In full darkness no shadows are cast, and in the noonday sun they are but shrinking things, huddled close about the feet of wall and tree.  In twilight, though, the shadows come into their full.  Then the shades skulk and creep, blending with the shadows of our world, stalking mortal folk.  If you're lucky, they may do no more than that, watching you with ill intent unfulfilled.  Out of the corners of your eyes, you may catch glimpses of shadows that mismatch the things which seem to cast them, or move in unnatural ways, when naught else moves to pull their strings.  And then, my friend, you would be well advised to get you at once to a place with lamps all around to disperse the shadows, or failing that to douse your light and sit huddled miserable in the darkness until the sunrise.

For if they catch you, they will reach out their long shadowy arms and touch you!  A touch from beyond this world, to chill the blood and the marrow of your bones, but more than that, to pull your soul, bit by bit, into that nether place, to sit beside the flesh and bone of that very thing which casts that dreadful shadow.  If you should manage to resist or to escape its clutches ere it takes the last, the lost bits find their way back in time, and you'll be well and whole again, and none the worse for the ordeal.

But beware!  Should the last piece of you fall into its greedy grasp, then it draws you through the barrier, body and soul, and there you shall dwell with it, forever in its thrall, your mind shattered and mad beyond redemption - casting your own terrible shadow through the veil.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Abilities

As this fantasy heartbreaker project continues to evolve, I find myself re-evaluating the traditional ability scores of D&D-like games and their functions.  In the process, I've mashed a few together and pared down the list to just four: Strength and Constitution combine to form Might.  (It always seemed a little weird to me that physical strength and fitness should be wholly independent of durability and endurance.)  Intelligence and Wisdom merge to become Wit.  Dexterity and Charisma remain more or less the same, but I renamed them, because the new names fit the feel of the whole mess better.

Might is a measure of a character's muscle power, fitness, and fortitude.  It modifies combat rolls with impact weapons such as axes, clubs, and pole arms, feats of strength such as opening stuck doors, and the amount of weight a character can carry.  It also adjusts rolls for hit points to a lesser degree.

Wit represents the faculties of the character's mind, including memory, intuition, will power, reason, and understanding. It modifies the number of spells a spell-caster can memorize at once, the maximum number of languages a character may learn, and saving throws vs magic.

Agility is the character's coordination, quickness, and ease of movement. It modifies combat rolls with precise weapons such as daggers, swords, and bows, and the character's Armor Class.

Presence is a character's personal bearing, charm, and magnetism. It affects the reactions of monsters and NPCs, the maximum number of retainers and henchmen a character may employ, and their morale.  For spell-casters, it also negatively modifies a target's saving throws vs. spells.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Interlude: Disarming the combat magic-user

A frequent commenter has asked why I would want to take away spells which cause direct damage.  It's a good question, and one about which others might be curious too, so I thought I'd blog my thoughts on that subject.

So, why do I want to take away the magic-user's potency in deadly combat?

1) I want something that better matches the wizardly archetype in literature and folklore.  Outside of D&D, how many wizards are incinerating foes in battle?  Barring the obvious example of Tim the enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I can't think of many.  Merlin's magic is extremely subtle.  He doesn't blast Arthur's enemies with lightning, but he is nonetheless an important figure in those tales.  Gandalf knows spells for light and opening and sealing doors, and he's been seen to set pine cones aflame and hurl them at goblins and wolves.  Most of his magic is much less flashy.  Even in the wizarding world of the Harry Potter books, where wizards throw around spells with no discernible limits to how many or how often they can cast, stunning, paralyzing, and disarming spells are used a lot more often than spells that cause bodily harm.

The wizards, witches, and sorcerers of literature and lore aren't nearly so direct as a fireball in your face.  They're subtle, guileful, mystical, and uncanny.  They influence and manipulate, enlighten and deceive.  Make them angry, and they might turn you into a toad or give you the evil eye.  They don't blow stuff up.

2) D&D is about a lot more than fighting, and fighting is about more than just inflicting points of damage.  I think the impulse to ensure that every class is effective at dealing damage is misguided.  There is already a class that specializes in dealing damage: the fighter.  Other classes can do it too, but are less capable, just as the fighter is relatively less capable at sneaking, healing, gathering information, and so on.  Every class can contribute to almost every situation, but not every class has to be equally useful in every situation.  If a character wants to contribute to a situation that isn't his specialty, he can do so through creative use of abilities, whether we're talking about the fighter helping out in negotiations by being intimidating or the mage flinging utility spells to give the party an edge on the battlefield.

There's a lot that a spell caster can do.  Besides their usefulness in non-combat situations such as exploration, information gathering, and negotiation, there are many ways for a spell caster to contribute to success in battle without directly dealing damage.  Without an arsenal of magic missiles and lightning bolts, what's a wizard to do?  Quite a lot, actually:  Terrify and confuse the enemy with illusions.  Beguile it with charms.  Rescue the fighter in trouble by casting invisibility on him from a distance.  Protect your allies with defensive and misdirecting magic.  Polymorph the black knight's sword into a bratwurst.  Hex foes with bad luck.  Turn them against each other with a spell of confusion.  With a little imagination and a decent selection of spells, the possibilities are vast -- so much so that to me, spells which simply do points of damage seem a bit lazy.

3) Some spells can potentially deal damage when used cleverly in the right circumstances - for instance, a spell to manipulate fire.  What's the difference between that and just allowing fireball spells?  A fireball does one thing, it does it automatically regardless of almost any other circumstances, and the only real limitation on it is that you don't want to catch you friends in the area of effect.  Other than that consideration, you just say, "I cast fireball!" and boom, 1d6 damage per caster level in a 20' radius, any time, anywhere.

Contrast this with a manipulate fire spell.  Let's say that this spell allows the mage to cause fire to spread by x amount per round in whatever direction the caster desires, provided that there is fuel for it to burn, and also to make it explode, throwing burning embers over all within the radius of the burst.  How much damage and how big the burst is depends on how big the source flame is. 

You can't just break down the door and incinerate the orcs at will, unless they're gathered around a sizeable fire.  However, if they have a torch, or you have an ally with a lit flask of oil ready to throw, you might be able to pull it off.  You might also have to take a few rounds to spread a small fire into a bigger fire to make a bigger burst.  Either way, this spell is going to be a lot more effective in a room full of straw than in a bare stone chamber.

At once, you have a spell that is more versatile -- it could conceivably be used for non-combat purposes -- and requires certain circumstances and time to be optimally useful in combat.  In a way, it's like the thief's backstab ability - only situationally useful, but still quite worthwhile in those situations.  It encourages the player of a magic-user not merely to throw the biggest damage spell at the enemy, but to think creatively within the parameters of immediate circumstances and resource management.  It doesn't just give you what you want; you have to figure out how to get the result you want from it.  Not simply, "Boom!  Fireball!" but, "How can I most effectively weaponize my manipulate fire spell?"

I'm not trying to tell anyone that they're having fun wrong if they love their magic missiles and fireballs.  Games with magic-users as heavy artillery can be a lot of fun, but I think a game in which magic is less about shredding bodies and more about guile and subtlety would be a lot of fun too, and in no way would a magic-user in such a game be useless or helpless simply because he can't nuke opponents for 1d6 damage per level.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: 1st Order Spells of Mind

One of the parts of my fantasy heartbreaker that I'm most excited about is the selection of spells for magic-user and cleric characters.  As stated before, I'm creating lists for four different types of spells: Mind, Matter, Divine, and Nature.  One of my design goals is to make these spells interesting and useful while abolishing, or at least vastly reducing, the role of magic as combat damage dealer.

These spells should be easily transplantable into B/X or another old school D&D or retroclone game, either as replacements for the by-the-book spell lists or as supplemental material.

Naturally, some spells are nearly identical to long-familiar ones.  Most have been tweaked at least a little, and some are heavily altered or entirely new.  Without further ado, here are the list and descriptions for the Spells of Mind of the first order.

  1. Charm Person
  2. Decipher*
  3. Endure
  4. Figment
  5. Glamour
  6. Minor Transposition
  7. Sleep*
  8. Thought Projection
  9. Unseen Servant
  10. Vocal Projection
Charm Person

Range: 60'       Duration: Special

This spell causes the target to view the caster as its best friend if a saving throw vs. spells is failed. A charmed creature will seek to protect the caster from harm and will obey most commands if they are given in a language it can understand. It will resist commands to do things which are against its nature. For instance, a very peaceful person or creature won't be eager to harm others even if its “friend” tells it to, and may argue with the caster, though it would fight to protect the caster from imminent harm. A creature will also generally resist harming any of its real friends and allies. Just because the caster is its new best friend doesn't mean it immediately forgets its previous loyalties. Forcing a charmed creature to act against its nature or conscience grants it another saving throw to escape the effect.

Remember also that charmed creatures don't change their personalities. A charmed ogre is still an uncouth brute and a charmed evil priest is still cruel and devoted to his evil god. They also will not necessarily like the caster's other companions, though they will grudgingly coexist and cooperate with them if the caster so orders.


Range: Caster only      Duration: 2 turns

This spell enables the caster to read unfamiliar languages, codes, and ciphers.  Each turn, the caster may read about 10 pages or skim as many as 30.

The reversed spell, Encrypt, makes a single written work appear to be unintelligible gibberish for a duration of 1 day.


Range: Caster only      Duration: 6 turns

With this spell, the caster becomes resistant to pain and discomfort. Damage from all attacks is reduced by 1 point. Ongoing effects, such as being exposed to open flames, are reduced by 1 point per round. The caster is still aware of sensations which would otherwise be painful, but is not distracted by them. While under the effect, the caster's spells may not be disrupted by attacks.


Range: 60'      Duration: Concentration

This spell creates an illusion affecting one of the five primary senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. The illusion must fit within a 20' x 20' x 20' cube entirely within the spell's range. The spell cannot cause illusory harm or damage.


Range: Touch      Duration: 6 turns

The caster may change his or her own appearance or that of a creature touched, including all equipment carried. The new appearance must be of the same general shape, but up to 50% larger or smaller. The appearance of a specific individual may not be taken. Thus, a human could appear to be a dwarf or an orc, a horse may appear to be a bear or a deer, an unarmored mage could look like a warrior in plate or vice versa. Note that actual size and shape do not change, only the perceptions of observers, and that the target's voice, scent, and other non-visual details are not altered. An unwilling target is not affected.

Minor Transposition

Range: 60'      Duration: Instantaneous

With this spell, an item in the caster's possession instantly trades places with a chosen item within range. The items to be affected must be approximately the same weight, up to a maximum of 10 pounds. If the item to be swapped is held or worn by another person or creature, a saving throw vs. spells is allowed to resist the effect.


Range: 120'     Duration: 2 turns

When this spell is cast, 2d8 Hit Dice of creatures with 4 HD or less in a 20' square area are put to sleep. Only base Hit Dice are counted; pluses or minuses are not. The spell affects creatures with the lowest Hit Dice first. Sleeping creatures may only be awakened by physical force, such as a slap or kick; loud noises or cold water will not wake them. A sleeping creature may be automatically slain by a blow from any weapon.

If the spell is cast on creatures in combat or otherwise highly alert, a saving throw vs. spells may be made to resist. Otherwise, no save is allowed.

The reversed spell, Awaken, causes any and all sleeping creatures within the 20' square area of effect to wake in 1 round from natural or magical sleep.

Thought Projection

Range: 120'      Duration: 1 turn

With this spell, the caster may project thoughts directly into the mind of another creature within range. The creature will hear the thoughts in the caster's voice, even if it has never heard him or her speak before, but always in a language the creature understands. This communication is one-way only; the creature may not send responses. The spell does not compel the creature to act in any way; it simply conveys messages.

The recipient of the message must be a living creature able to understand verbal communication. Constructs, the undead, and most plants and animals are unaffected.

Unseen Servant

Range: 30'       Duration: 6 turns

This spell creates a weak telekinetic force within the spell's range which may be used to manipulate small objects weighing no more than 10 pounds. The caster may consciously direct the force, or may set it to perform a simple repetitive action such as stirring or sweeping. Very rapid actions such as fighting with a weapon, and those requiring delicate touch such as writing with a quill or picking a lock with thieves' tools, are beyond the capability of the spell, even if the caster possesses the expertise to perform them with his or her own hands.

Vocal Projection

Range: 120'      Duration: 2 turns

By means of this spell, the caster may cause his or her voice to emanate from any point within range. Any sound which the caster could normally make with his or her mouth and vocal cords may be projected, including speech, singing, whistles, humming, growling, grunting, whispers, shouts, etc. 

Notes on Illusions

Some spells of Mind create illusions which affect one or more senses. Most illusions have a visual component, but some may be entirely of sound, smell, or touch (including sensations of heat or cold.)

Illusions may not be disbelieved simply because a player says so or expresses skepticism. Instead, the character must interact with the illusion as if he or she disbelieves it, and bear the consequences if he or she is mistaken. For instance, a character who disbelieves the illusion of an angry dragon might walk up and touch it. One who disbelieves an illusion of a bottomless pit may step into it. Clever players may ask questions of the GM about an illusion to discover evidence of its unreality. Often an illusion will lack one or more of the basic senses, such as sound, smell, or touch. A suspicious player might ask, for example, if there is any smell accompanying an illusionary monster. It is always up to the player to decide how to act on that information, however.

Some illusions simulate creatures, traps, or other things which would cause injury or death. If an illusionary monster is created, it has an Armor Class of 10, and makes combat rolls as if it had a Combat Rating equal to the caster's level and inflicts illusionary damage with the same limit as a real creature of the same type. A character “attacked” by such an illusion may make a save vs. spells to realize that it is not real. If the save is failed, the character will believe that he or she has been hurt or killed, but the effects disappear in 1d4 turns.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Alternative to 3d6 in order

Here's an idea that popped into my head today.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with traditional 3d6 in order ability scores, but if you want to give players a little more say in how a character turns out and don't mind a little extra time in character creation, this method might work.

Roll 2d6 in order for each ability and record the scores in pencil or on scratch paper.

Then, roll 1d6, one at a time.  The player gets to choose to which score to add each result.  The choice must be made in order, before the next die is rolled.  One die is added to each score in this way, so that each totals 3d6. 

Do you shore up a low score to avoid a terrible penalty, or go for a bonus on one of your better ones?  If you roll a 5 on your third die, do you add it to the 12 you got the first time around for a 17, or stick it somewhere else and hope for a 6 to come up later? 

While there's a lot of chance involved, it's less likely that a character will have an extremely low score, unless the player actively chooses not to bolster them with good rolls from the second phase of dice-rolling.  If you have an ability that you really hate to have a low score, you have some power to mitigate it - you may end up only average in it, but at least you're not dismal. 

Of course, neglecting those low scores gives a little better chance of getting a very high score. 

It's pretty easy to get a very average character this way.  There's still a fair bit of luck involved, but deviations, either high or low, are to some extent the result of player choice rather than pure random chance.  That might be a good thing.  Sometimes it's more satisfying to know that your character's strengths and weaknesses are at least partly the result of your own choices. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: A few basics of magic

Magic in G&G will be divided into four lists: Mind, Matter, Divine, and Nature.

Magic of mind includes all spells that enhance, manipulate, or control the mind, including illusions, charm, telepathy, telekinesis, and sleep spells.

Magic of matter includes spells that create, destroy, or alter living and non-living matter, including polymorph, transmutation, size changing, and elemental magic.

Divine magic encompasses effects considered holy or unholy, such as detecting and protecting from evil or good, blessings and curses, and spells that directly affect life and death, such as healing spells.

Nature magic includes spells that affect plants, animals, and weather, plus healing magic.

Obviously there is some overlap between lists.

Mage characters normally have access to Mind and Matter, though they may opt to give up one of those lists in exchange for learning Divine or Nature spells.  Clerics have access to either Divine or Nature magic, but not both.

Spell lists use the terminology "order" or "order of magnitude" rather than "level" for spells of differing power, to avoid confusion with other uses of the word "level."  Lists run from cantrips and orisons (Zero Order, usuable at will) to 6th Order.

You won't find many direct damage spells in these lists, though some will have that potential.  You won't find, say, the old standby fireball spell.  Instead, there are some spells to manipulate fire, and maybe one that will allow the caster to make an existing fire explode outward, extinguishing itself in the process.  Damage and area of effect will depend on the size of the fire rather than the caster's level.  Getting the target creatures near the fire, or the fire near them, is left to the player's ingenuity.

Casting Spells

Spell-casting is similar to the B/X standard, but a character can memorize one spell per day per level of experience, modified by Intelligence (mage) or Wisdom (cleric) adjustments.  In the case of penalties, a minimum of one spell may always be memorized.  This spell allotment may be divided among the orders of spells usable however desired.  For instance, a fifth-level mage with an Intelligence adjustment of +1 may memorize any six spells, dividing them between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order as the player wishes.  The spell table determines the number of spells of each order which the character may cast per day, but any memorized spell may be cast as often as desired within those limits.

Learning Spells

Whenever a caster gains access to spells of a new order of magnitude, the first such spell is free.  Additional spells may be learned through research.

Learning additional spells is done between adventures, and requires time and money.  The base cost is 1,000 sp and five days of time per order of magnitude of the spell.  For spells of Mind and Matter the cost is spent on books, reagents, and laboratory time.  For Divine spells, the cost is spent on prayer and activities beneficial to the deity or church, such as donations of money, texts, holy items, and so on.  For Nature spells, the cost may be expended on books, rare materials, and time spent observing and communing with the natural world.

Spell research succeeds on a 1d20 roll of 10 or greater.  Add the character's Intelligence (Mind or Matter spells) or Wisdom (Divine or Nature) to the roll, and subtract 2 for each order of magnitude of the new spell.  A natural roll of 1 always fails, and a natural 20 always succeeds.  An adjusted roll of 0 or less means that the character cannot attempt to research that spell again without assistance (see below); otherwise, each unsuccessful effort adds a cumulative +1 adjustment to each further attempt to learn the spell.

Learning a spell is easier if it is similar to one the character already knows.  "Similar" is left to the discretion of the player and GM.  Use the highest order of similar spell known:  Subtract 500 sp and 2 days from the cost for each order of magnitude of the known spell, to a minimum of 500 sp and 1 day.  Add +1 to the research roll for each order of magnitude of the known spell.

Having a scroll or spell book containing the desired spell increases chances of success by +2, regardless of the order of magnitude.

Assistants improve the chances of success.  An assistant must be able to cast spells from the same list, but need not be able to cast spells of the order being researched.  A full-time assistant who is not capable of casting the order of spell being researched adds +1.  Consulting once per day with someone capable of casting at least that order of magic also adds +1, while studying full-time with such a caster adds +3.  Apprentices and masters will generally perform this function for no additional charge.  Otherwise, the other caster must be paid 100 sp per level per day for full-time service and 10 sp per level per day for consultation.

So, if a mage with Intelligence 15 wants to research a 3rd order spell, and knows a 2nd order spell that the GM agrees is similar, the cost is:

3,000 sp and 15 days for a 3rd order spell, -1,000 sp and 4 days for knowing the 2nd order spell already = 2,000 sp and 11 days.

The 1d20 roll is modified by -6 for the desired 3rd order spell, +2 for the known 2nd order spell, +1 for Int bonus = -3.  The research will thus succeed on a roll of 13 or better.  On a roll of 3 or less, the caster won't be able to research the spell again without the aid of another caster.

If the caster had captured a spell book with the desired spell, and was working with an apprentice, she would gain an additional +3 to the roll.

Of course, in a sense time is money, and to an extent the two are interchangeable in spell research.  One may be reduced by a factor of 2, 3, or 4 by increasing the other a corresponding amount.  (Always apply these adjustments after adjustments for knowing similar spells.)  A character researching a spell with a base cost of 1,000 sp and 5 days may take 20 days and pay only 250 sp, or may speed the process up, paying 4,000 sp and finishing in 1 1/4 days, for instance.

The aim of these rules is to encourage a degree of specialization without a load of rules for specialist mages.  Of course, a character may choose a scattershot approach to learning new spells, but the reduced cost and improved odds of success for learning spells similar to what one already knows provide an incentive to pursue the path of least resistance.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Thievery and secondary skills

Skills not directly related to combat or formal spell-casting fall into this broad category.  All of these skills are used by rolling under the target number on percentile dice.  I know percentile skills have kind of a mixed reputation in OSR circles - there are quite a few house rules to convert them to d20 or d6 - but I find that it's a useful mechanic for a couple reasons: 1) Rolling doubles may amplify the success or failure of an attempt; and 2) The tens digit may be used to signify degree of success, with a higher number indicating better results.  Both of these special cases reward a higher skill beyond simply a greater chance of success.

Unlike in B/X and other versions of D&D, all skills use the same table.  By default, all skills advance according to the "Good" progression.  (See table at the bottom of this post.)  However, a thief may choose to reduce a skill to Basic in order to become Elite in another. 

Each skill has an associated ability score which may modify the chance of success, if desired.  Each point of bonus or penalty equals a 5% adjustment, so +1 = +5%, +2 = +10%, and +3 = +15%, with negative modifiers exactly the opposite.  Ability modifiers are optional; if the GM prefers that the percentages be used as-is, ignore them.

The skill list below is divided into two parts, Thiefly Skills and Other Skills.  The first is the default array of skills for the thief class.  The second is a supplemental list, which may be used to modify the basic thief to a more general "Expert" class.  Characters of all classes are allowed a secondary skill to bolt onto their core class abilities, and may choose one from either list.  Thus, you can quickly make, say, a fighter character into a ranger (Tracking), a holy warrior (Divine Piety), a combat medic (Herbalism), a stealthy scout (Stealth), or a herald (Lore.) 

All secondary skills are at Good level, unless modified by a class or race feature.  (For example, all halflings have Stealth at Basic level.  A halfling taking Stealth as a secondary skill adds that to his default Basic, and gets it at Elite level.)  Optionally, if the GM allows it, a character may take two secondary skills at Basic instead of one at Good.

Note that secondary skills are skills that will see much use in an adventuring career, and are effectively part of a character's profession.  They do not include, for example, background skills of a profession practiced before the character became an adventurer which are only rarely applicable to adventuring, nor skills which have negligible mechanical effects on play like music or etiquette, nor skills primarily of use between adventures such as blacksmithing or animal training. 

I've deliberately kept the list fairly short and focused, for a couple reasons.  Firstly, because character creation shouldn't be an agonizing process, and the GM shouldn't have to remember what dozens of different skills do.  Secondly, because I want them to be useful, in conjunction with the basic classes, for building archetypal characters, something which becomes difficult when you must have multiple skills to affect the archetype you want.  If, for example, there's a separate skill for survival in each type of wilderness terrain, in addition to tracking for wilderness and underground, then your ranger character arguably isn't complete without all of them, and that would torpedo the simplicity of character creation.

It would certainly be possible to use the skill table and general principles (doubles or tens digit degree of success) for tasks in which all adventurers are assumed to be proficient and improve with experience.  For instance, if all adventurers know how to survive in the wilderness in your game, it's trivial to look up a character's level on the table and roll the dice against the listed percentage to see if she finds food, with the tens digit representing the number of character-days of food obtained, or doubles on a failure resulting in poisonous or tainted things mistakenly identified as safe and edible.

It's also easy to allow any character a marginal chance to succeed at any skill.  Just use the 1st level Basic line for any skill the character doesn't actually possess, i.e. a base 10% chance of success.  (This purposely doesn't allow for success with doubles!)

Thiefly Skills
The standard thief has the following skills by default.

Tinker (Int) is a knack for things mechanical, and encompasses the old skills of opening locks and removing traps.  Normally each Tinker attempt takes one turn (10 minutes.)  Rolling doubles on a success reduces the time to a single round (10 seconds.)  Doubles on a failure jams the lock or sets off the trap. 

Stealth (Dex) mashes together the abilities of moving silently and hiding in shadows.  A stealth roll is made only when some person or creature has a chance of noticing the character.  Doubles on a failure indicates that the character has inadvertently done something to draw attention, such as knocking something over.  Stealth is not possible when wearing medium or heavy armor. 

Climb (Str) allows a character to ascend sheer surfaces, as long as the surface is rough enough to provide hand- and foot-holds.  A climbing roll is made at the beginning of a climb.  The tens digit of the roll gives the number of rounds the character may climb before making another roll (on a success) or the number of rounds the character is stalled and looking for a way forward (on a failure.)  Normal climbing movement is at 1/4 the character's normal movement rate per round.  Doubles on a success allows double climbing movement until the next check.  Doubles on a failure result in a fall after covering half the distance.  Climbing is not possible while wearing medium or heavy armor.

Alertness (Wis) is similar to Hear Noise.  It isn't the ability to hear, per se, but rather the ability to interpret what is heard, making sense of the obscure mumblings behind a door or recognizing the significance of an anomalous sound from amid background noise.  Alertness is not possible when wearing medium or heavy armor unless the helmet is not worn (-1 penalty to AC.)  Time required: 1 round.

Sleight-of-hand (Cha) allows the picking of pockets, but also juggling, simple faux-magic tricks, and any other gambit that requires quick fingers and misdirection.  Each attempt takes one round (10 seconds.)  When used to take items from an unaware NPC, the roll is penalized by 5% for each level of the victim above 5th.  Each success procures one item.  Rolling doubles on a success nets an additional item, while doubles on failure means the attempt has been noticed.  Time required: 1 round.  (Why Charisma as a modifier?  Because picking pockets is often about misdirection rather than pure stealth - engaging your mark in distracting conversation while you surreptitiously loot him, staging a convincing "accident" as an excuse for invading his personal space and possessions, or simply looking nonchalant in a crowd while your hands are busy in the lady's shopping basket.  Substitute Dex if you prefer.)

Cipher (Int) is the ability to puzzle out codes and unfamiliar languages.  Rather than gaining a flat 80% at 4th level as in B/X, it is gained at level 1 and improves like any other skill.  The tens digit of a successful roll indicates the number of questions about the document that the player may ask and have answered by the GM. (If the tens digit is 0, the GM chooses one piece of information to give the player.)  Time required: 1 turn.

Other Skills
The following skills are not automatically gained by thief characters, but rather may be taken by characters of any class as secondary talents. 

Lore (Int) is knowledge of the campaign world and its history.  When a lore check is made, the tens digit of a success indicates the number of questions that the player may ask and have answered by the GM about a particular topic.  (If the tens digit is 0, the GM chooses one piece of information to give the player.)  Time required: 1 round.

Tracking (Wis) is the ability to follow the trail of some individual or group, or to cover the tracks of oneself and/or one's party.  On a successful tracking check, the tens digit of the roll indicates the number of questions the player may ask and have answered by the GM.  For example, what kind of creatures, how many, how quickly were they moving, which direciton, were they encumbered, etc.  (If the tens digit is 0, the GM chooses a piece of information to give the player.) Time required: 1 turn.

Herbalism (Wis) skill may be used to make healing salves, infusions, poultices, and such, to treat wounds, disease, or poison.  A concoction must be made for a specific purpose; it does not work for all afflictions at once.  The tens digit of a successful roll indicates how many points of damage are healed or a bonus to saving throws to overcome poisoning or disease.  Time required: 1 turn.

Arcane dabbling (Int) allows a character to use magic items normally usable only by mages, including wands and spell scrolls, on a successful roll.  Doubles on a failure result in a mishap, possibly spectacular.  The character also gains limited spell-casting ability, and may attempt to cast a number of spell levels per day equal to half his or her level or Intelligence bonus +1, whichever is less.  Thus, a character with 16 Intelligence could use one level 1 spell at 2nd level of experience; at 6th level she could attempt up to three level 1 spells, or a level 1 and a level 2, or one level 3 spell.  A roll must be made, with the same chance of mishap on doubles as for item use.  Failed spells still count against the day's total.  Time required: 1 round.

Divine piety (Wis) allows the character to use items normally reserved to clerics on a successful roll.  Doubles on a failure means that the gods are angered and the character suffers a curse.  The character may also attempt to pray for divine favor (i.e. cast divine spells) a number of spell levels per day equal to half his or her level or Wisdom bonus +1, whichever is less.  A roll must be made, with the chance of angering the gods as above.  Unanswered prayers still count against the day's total.  A character who abandons his or her faith loses all associated abilities.  Taking up a new faith may restore the benefits of piety, at the GM's discretion. Time required: 1 round.

                               Skill Advancement by Level
Level Basic Good Elite
1 10 20 30
2 15 28 40
3 20 36 48
4 25 44 56
5 30 50 64
6 35 56 72
7 39 62 78
8 43 68 84
9 47 72 90
10 51 76 94
11 54 80 98
12 57 84 102
13 60 86 106
14 63 88 110
15 66 90 113
16 69 92 116
17 72 94 119
18 74 96 121
19 76 98 123
20 78 100 125

Friday, September 4, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Combat sequence

Initiative: I can take it or leave it.  I'm not sure it really adds much to the game, other than another die roll.  How would I run things if I left it out?  That's exactly the kind of thing to include in a fantasy heartbreaker, right?

One of the things I don't like about traditional initiative is that it often produces weird results when each side (or even each individual) is able to complete its actions for the round before the other even starts.  It also often disrupts what should be the logical sequence of things.  It seems ridiculous to me if, for instance, a swordsman can make a full round's worth of movement to attack an archer before the archer gets a shot off, just because the swordsman won an initiative roll.  Moldvay, though, explicitly allows missile fire to occur out of normal initiative sequence in the example of combat in the Basic Rules.  In other words, go in order of the die roll unless logic dictates otherwise.  But with that in mind, why not dispense with the die roll and simply have action occurring simultaneously unless logic dictates otherwise?

Here's what I've come up with as the basic sequence of actions in G&G.  Each combatant is allowed movement plus one other action per round.  The other action can be melee or missile combat, using an item, drinking a potion, picking something up, or anything else a player can think of to do.  In each phase, all characters and creatures who are taking an appropriate action will be able to act, regardless of which side they're on, and regardless of whether the events of that phase result in their being killed or incapacitated.  Combatants slain or incapacitated in one phase may not act in subsequent phases, however.  For example, two archers both get their shots off in the ranged combat phase, even if they kill each other, but if a swordsman moving to engage a foe is killed by arrows during the ranged attack phase, he is dead before the close combat phase, and thus may not complete his declared action. 

  1. Morale is checked, and attempts to surrender or parley are initiated.
  2. Declarations of intent. GM describes what the opponents are doing.  Players state their characters' intended movement and actions in general terms.  If an action is not declared, the character or creature acts at the end of the round, after the close combat phase.
  3. Ranged attacks. Any combatant using a ready missile device or a thrown weapon acts in this phase. Ranged spells and those cast on self or nearby allies take effect now. Magic items which are activated by a word or thought may also be used in this phase.
  4. Movement. Combatants who are not engaged in melee combat move now, up to their full encounter movement. Those who are engaged in melee are more limited. (5' per round, which may be dictated by an opponent's combat roll; see the previous post.) Combatants moving toward one another will meet somewhere in the middle.  Where enemy combatants meet, one or both may choose to engage the other in melee, which halts further movement.  If neither does, they simply move past each other.  Miscellaneous actions, such as opening a door, picking up an object within reach, or drinking a potion, are also resolved during this phase.
  5. Close combat. All actions involving melee combat or disengaging from it occur now. Spells that require close proximity to the target are also resolved in this phase.
  6. Held or changed actions.  A combatant who has not yet taken an action, and has not been killed or incapacitated, may abort a planned action and take some other action at the end of the round.  Using this rule, a character could, for example, hold a ranged attack action, move during the normal movement phase, and shoot at the end of the round from the new position.  If  movement itself is held, the combatant may move only up to half its normal rate at the end of the round, the other half being "wasted" during the moments of inaction.  If multiple combatants hold actions, they are resolved in the same order as the original combat sequence, i.e. ranged, movement, melee.  No further holding his possible.

    Example of Combat (refer to my previous post for the basic rules of combat)
A party of five characters consisting of Culhern and Saedrith, fighers; Telos, a cleric; Sorrel, a halfling burglar, and Kierdran, a mage, meets a band of a dozen orcs.  After attempting to negotiate from across a wide chamber, the encounter turns hostile.  Combat begins, with the groups 60' apart.

Round 1

Phase 1: Since combat has just begun, and the orcs outnumber the party, no morale checks need to be made yet, and negotiations have already broken down. 

Phase 2: The GM states that ten orcs draw their axes and charge, while two hang back and prepare to throw spears.  Culhern and Saedrith's players state that their characters draw weapons and rush to meet the advancing orcs.  Telos's player decides that his character will follow them, while Sorrel loads a bullet in her sling and Kierdran begins a sleep spell.

Phase 3: The two orcs throwing spears, Sorrel with her sling, and Kierdran's spell all act at once.  One orc throws its spear at Culhern, and its combat roll of 18 against his AC of 15 scores 3 points of damage.  The other comes up short on its roll against Sorrel, and its spear hits the wall behind her.  Sorrel fires at one of the oncoming orcs.  Her combat roll totals 21 after all adjustments, which deals maximum damage of 4 points against the orc's AC of 13.  The orc had only 3 hp, so it goes down, and will not be able to complete its action for the round.  Meanwhile, Kierdran finishes her sleep spell and sends four of the advancing orcs off to dreamland.

Phase 4: Orcs and humans move at about the same rate, so the moving combatants meet roughly halfway between their starting points.  There are five orcs left of the ten who began the charge, against three heroes. 

Phase 5: Culhern, Saedrith, and Telos all choose to engage in melee with the orcs, with the two fighters using the sweep option to engage two orcs apiece.  Telos fails his combat roll and does no damage.  Saedrith makes two combat rolls, each at -2, and gets results of 7 and 15.  The first orc is unharmed, but the second takes 2 points of damage.  Her orcs both wish to withdraw so they can go slay the unarmored mage and burglar.  They make their combat rolls and get a 5 and a 16.  Neither is enough to pierce Saedrith's sturdy plate and mail armor, but the second orc menaces her with its axe and manages to back away, disengaging from the melee.  Culhern rolls 12 and 19; the latter roll is enough to deal a mortal wound, but since actions happen simultaneously, the orc gets to make its roll against him.  It succeeds, and with its dying breath slashes at him for 5 points of damage!  Its cohort fails, though it lives to fight another round.

Since no actions were changed or held, no actions occur in Phase 6.

Round 2

Phase 1: At the start of the second round, the GM checks the orcs' morale, and determines that they will fight on. 

Phase 2: The orc who withdrew from melee with Saedrith charges at the mage and burglar, while Culhern, badly hurt, decides to defend, and also uses his greatsword like a spear to interpose between himself and the remaining orcs.  Saedrith takes on two orcs again, while Telos begins casting a spell to revitalize Culhern.  Sorrel readies her sling again, while Kierdran draws a dagger and prepares to throw it at the approaching orc.  The two orc spear-throwers draw axes and advance on the fighters and cleric.

Phase 3: Sorrel uses her combat roll to attack one of the fresh orcs threatening the fighters, and rolls a 14, dealing a paltry 1 point of damage.  Kierdran hurls her dagger and also scores 1 point of damage.  Since Telos is within easy reach of Culhern, the GM rules that he may touch his ally and the revitalize spell takes effect during this phase, restoring 5 hp to Culhern.

Phase 4: The former spear-throwers rush into the fracas in the middle of the chamber.  Everyone else is either engaged in melee already or chose not to move.

Phase 5: Culhern, restored, decides to drop his defensive stance and go on offense against the orc in melee with him.  Since this is a changed action, he'll have to wait until the end of the round to do it.  The enraged and slightly injured orc moving against Kierdran reaches her and attacks, rolling a 14 vs. her AC of 10, dealing 4 points of damage and seriously hurting her.  Saedrith manages to hold her own against two orcs, neither taking nor dealing any damage.  Two orcs attack Telos, wounding him for 3 points, and the last fails to hurt Culhern.

Phase 6: Culhern now takes his changed action, and rolls an adjusted total of 23!  Against AC 13, that's 10 points of damage, neatly liberating an orc's head from its body. 

So we leave our brave heroes, on the brink of victory or defeat as Round 3 looms...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Combat

Combat may be a "failure state" in fantasy RPGs, but it's also a central element of a rule set, and as it's one of the things most fundamentally altered from standard D&D-style combat in my fantasy heartbreaker, it seems fitting to examine it first.

Stats relevant to combat in G&G are:
  • Armor Class, which is ascending from a base of 10
  • Hit points, which are pretty much what they've always been.
  • Combat Rating (aka Attack Bonus or some such) which is determined by character class and level or monster Hit Dice. 
  • Damage: How much harm a weapon or natural attack routine can inflict.  May be expressed simply as a maximum (e.g. "4") or as a dice range (e.g. "1d4," if you use an optional critical hit rule.)

The core combat mechanic is a d20 roll, which has been referred to as the "to hit roll" or "attack roll" in most games, but which I'm calling a "combat roll" to call attention to the fact that it does not necessarily represent a single attempt to hit an opponent.  Likewise, I prefer to think of successful or unsuccessful combat rolls rather than "hits and misses."

In the most basic form of combat, a combatant makes a d20 combat roll against its opponent's armor class to determine if it successfully inflicts damage.  Combat Rating and adjustments from ability scores and magic, if applicable, are added to the roll.  If the total exceeds the opponent's AC, damage caused is equal to the difference between the adjusted combat roll and AC.  So, if a fighter engages a creature with AC14 and scores a total of 17 on her combat roll, she does 3 points of damage to the opponent.

The Damage stat is a cap on the maximum damage possible, so if our hypothetical fighter is using a Damage 4 weapon and beats her opponent's AC by 6 on the combat roll, she still does 4 points of damage.

This means that
  • There's no longer any dissonance between attack and damage rolls.  Who hasn't felt the thrill of a great attack roll and then chumped out with a 1 on the damage die?  No more. 
  • Weapons with higher damage ratings reward higher combat skill.  You can still use a Damage 8 weapon even if you're inept in battle, but it's less effective when you don't have a mathematical possibility of exceeding your target's AC by at least 8 points.
  • You can have low-damage weapons that are easier to wield, or that are effective at punching through armor, receive a bonus to combat rolls, and high-damage weapons that receive no bonuses but are more deadly in the hands of a combat expert. 
  • You avoid the double-dip of Strength bonuses (and the double whammy of penalties) on attack and damage rolls, while still making Strength very relevant to melee effectiveness. 
A combat roll may also be applied as a contested roll.  Sometimes a character wants to do something that relies on combat skill, but which doesn't require actually penetrating an opponent's armor to score damage.  In that case, the action may succeed if the combat roll beats the opponent's roll, regardless of whether either one is good enough to score damage.  (This is the basis of the G&G grappling system, which will get its own post later on.)  A few more examples of using a combat roll in this way may be found in the combat options below.

Combat options in this system include:
  • Defend: Combat Rating is applied to AC instead of combat rolls for that round.  Combat rolls may still be attempted, but without the bonus.  Good for when you're overwhelmed and waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue, or you want to toy with weaker opponents.  (Advanced option: Combat Rating may be split between offense and defense.)
  • Sweep:  Attack more than one opponent in a round.  Maximum number which can be fought is equal to half the weapon's Damage - you can threaten more opponents at a time with a battle axe than with a dagger.  All targets must be within reach, i.e. no movement is allowed to reach others.  Make a separate combat roll against each opponent, but all rolls are at -2 per opponent over one, i.e. -2 for two opponents, -4 for three, -6 for four, and so on.  Obviously a tactic best used against weak opponents, or by a very skilled combatant.
  • Beleaguer: Opposite of sweep, several combatants concentrate their efforts against one opponent.  Each receives +1 to its combat roll for every member of the attacking group above one.  Makes being outnumbered very dangerous.
  • Interpose: Hold your position and fend off attackers with a weapon with long reach, like a spear.  If your combat roll exceeds the opponent's, it can't get to you, and thus can't damage you, even if its roll would normally succeed.  
  • Disengage: If your combat roll is higher than your opponent's, whether or not either one scores damage, you may disengage from melee and back away 5'.
  • Retreat: Turn tail and run!  An opponent that chooses to attack you in melee gets +2 to its combat roll and ignores your shield.  If you survive and you're faster, or the opponent chooses not to follow, you're no longer in melee.  Avoid the attack from behind if you disengage first.
  • Force movement: Whichever combatant scores the highest combat roll, regardless of damage, may force the opponent to move 5' in a direction of the winner's choosing. 
Any of these may be used by any character class and by monsters, though of course some will be better at them than others.  No feats or any of that funny stuff necessary.  They're also, I think, pretty intuitive, so the GM and players should be able to learn and apply them with minimal difficulty.  Many combinations are possible; for example, one could use sweep and interpose to keep multiple opponents at bay, or defend and disengage to withdraw cautiously, or beleaguer and interpose to keep a single opponent behind a bristling wall of weapons, or sweep and disengage to back out of a melee in which you're outnumbered.

Some of these tactics could be adapted to house-rule a more traditional D&D-like combat system, but I think they're particularly elegant with the G&G model.

Critical success and failure (optional): When a combatant rolls a natural 20, it strikes a particularly vulnerable point on the opponent.  Roll its damage die and add the result to the normal damage caused.  Optionally, the critical damage die explodes - roll again each time the maximum possible result is rolled, and add the result to the previous damage.  If desired, a player may choose an alternate critical success result before the combat roll is made, such as disarming, snatching an item, pulling the opponent's helmet over its eyes, etc.  If the roll is a critical success, the desired effect occurs, but no extra damage is done.

A critical failure causes something unfortunate to happen to the combatant who rolled it.  Exact results are up to the GM and player.  The target of a critical failure may be allowed to narrate a result.  Game mechanical effects are at the GM's discretion; losing the next round of actions is typical, but others are possible.

Just about any action in combat should be able to be modeled by one of these applications of the combat roll - either vs. opponent's AC, vs. opponent's roll, or special result on a critical success.

Most of the foundations of this system are not of my own devising.  The concept of an attack bonus rather than an attack matrix or THAC0 is used in quite a few games.  Likewise, the idea of attack roll directly determining damage is something I read about elsewhere, though I can't recall where.  My contribution is mainly to bring these elements together, and tie those mechanics into the various combat options above.

That's it for the basics.  Next up, the iniative-less combat sequence.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dark fey: Trolls

Hmm...yes, that's all the ingredients, and you even managed to tell the drake-tongue root from the bog fern this time.  Well done.  We might make an alchemist of you yet.

What's that now?  Trolls?  Yes, they have their uses, too, but that's best left to more accomplished practitioners than you, my young apprentice.  You're most likely to find them in places of decay - ancient forests where the leaf-litter is knee-deep, midden-heaps in abandoned villages, and of course in bogs and swamps where the stagnant water belches up the rot-gases of aeons of dead things fermenting beneath the surface.  Decay is a troll's element, and some scholars (though I use the term loosely!) even assert that trolls are made all of animate fungus.  Nonsense, of course, but one can see whence the misconception arises, if not why it persists.  They certainly are as resilient as mushrooms, though; their flesh knits right before your eyes, even if you've just hacked off their heads and all their limbs, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

Fascinating creatures, trolls, so long as you don't get too close.  They are really a rather diverse lot - some are great squat toad-like lumps, others are long and sinewy, hides all encrusted with algae and moss, manes of stringy green hair hanging lank from their huge flattened heads.  All of them have in common a striking elasticity of substance, with monstrous jaws that can gape thrice as wide as you'd think to look at them, all full of cruel pointed teeth, and great bellies that stretch to hold the most mountainous meal.

All of them are ravenous eaters, but there is no greater glutton than an old troll-hag.  She can down a wolfhound at a single gulp, and the mightiest plough-horse in a single sitting.  Of course she prefers carrion, but no troll has the self-will to restrain itself from a fresh kill.  If meat is scarce, she sates her hunger as best she can on vegetation - great gobs of slimy weeds, tangled roots, even rotten logs.  If you see a gnawed tree-stump, beware!  A ravenously hungry troll is likely nearby.

Some troll-hags have a measure of sorcerous powers, with a terrible fondness for hexes and curses.  Many a farmer whose stead lies too near a troll-bog has seen his livestock inexplicably sicken and die, so that local troll-hags might gorge themselves on rotting carcasses.  Wise folk either move their herds and flocks elsewhere or keep the monsters appeased with periodic offerings.

Next to gluttony, a troll's greatest weakness is its pride.  Even a hungry troll will stop to listen to flattery - the more exaggerated and embellished, the better.  Not that there's much point to flattering a troll: Once you've talked yourself too hoarse to go on, she'll gobble you right down all the same, and you'll be too out of breath even to make a good show of running away.  The only time it's even remotely safe to approach a troll is when its belly is distended with several hundred pounds of meat and it can no more than waddle after you, and...

Oh no.  Oh no, no, no!  Cedwin, my boy, didn't I send you out with a mule?  Where is my mule?

Offensive foul

Well, the internet is up in arms once again, or at least the RPG-playing and blogging sectors of it are.  This time it's over a certain controversial product and online RPG store Drive Thru RPG's reaction to the outraged demands of a (probably small) segment of its target customer base.

Are you offended by stuff?  Good, I say, with complete sincerity.  That means you have sensibilities, and you have standards.  There's a lot of rude, nasty, ugly stuff out there, and if you're not offended by some of it, I have to think you're either lying or you have something seriously out-of-whack inside your brain.  I certainly found the product in question to be offensive, too.  Based on the little I saw of it, I wouldn't buy it.  You couldn't even pay me enough to take a copy, unless I could immediately toss the misbegotten thing in the trash and keep the cash.

You want to speak out and let others know that you find something offensive and why?  Bravo!  A robust conversation is always a good thing.  Tell us what affronts your sense of justice or trips your squick alarm, or just makes you uncomfortable.  Blog it, write reviews, whatever.  There are people out there who might appreciate your perspective, or even change their minds because of it.  Sometimes offensive material shakes up moribund patterns of thought, disrupts complacency, and raises important issues.  Other times, it's just vile and vulgar.  Talking about it helps us figure out which, and plot new intellectual and artistic courses. 

You want to silence those who offend you so there's no chance that anyone else will be offended by it ever again?  Nope, you just lost me.  I don't have much respect for people who want to stamp out offensive material, even if they are technically within their rights to organize boycotts and such. 

To be clear, DTRPG has the absolute right to decide what it will and won't sell through its website, and what types of expression it will and won't provide a forum.  As a business, it has a vested interest in defusing a situation which might lead to its losing some of its revenues.  Sometimes, picking and choosing what products have a place on your shelves, digital or actual, is entirely appropriate, for a variety of reasons.

I think DTRPG caved all too readily on this one, though, and that's a shame, because it's a slippery slope from there.  It only emboldens the folks who believe it's their right to silence whatever they don't like, and I hardly need to point out that almost everything under the sun offends someone.  I suspect that there would be pretty broad agreement that the product in question this time was at least seriously pushing the envelope, if not way over the line of bad taste, but what about the next time?  What won't be pulled if a vocal minority of strident voices are raised in threats to boycott DTRPG - and by what standard will that decision be made?

DTRPG has apparently prided itself on providing a venue for the sale of just about anything RPG-related, so long as it's not outright illegal.  It would have been perfectly respectable too, of course, if it had a policy of screening content and refusing to host some, based either on objective criteria or the subjective sensibilities of its proprietors.  Most businesses regularly discriminate based on all sorts of considerations, including cost, quality, and brand identity.  Toys R Us doesn't sell sex toys. Time magazine doesn't publish hardcore porn.  You probably won't find Hot Pockets and Cheez Whiz at Whole Foods.  DTRPG could behave similarly if it wanted to.  But DTRPG based its brand identity to a great extent on being an open market for RPG creators, and it should have been prepared to hold the line against a very predictable backlash when it eventually occurred.

Where DTRPG went wrong, in my opinion, is not in the act of exercising executive control over what it sells, per se, but in giving in to threats.  It made a decision it had every right to make, but for the wrong reasons.  "Take this smut down (from the adult section of the site, no less!), or I'm NEVER buying anything from your store again!" cried the outraged, and DTRPG meekly and apologetically complied.

Small wonder, I suppose, that people on the opposite side of the fence are responding with threats of their own.  One well-known game designer has gone on the record threatening that if DTRPG pulls any of his works, or those of any of his friends, he'll take his ball and go home, regardless of the monetary losses he or anyone else might suffer as a result.  Yes, refuse to sell your PG-13 stuff through any venue that won't also take your XXX.  That'll show 'em.  Of course it's within his rights to do so, but it seems more than a bit petulant to me.

Despite vociferous cries of "Censorship!" this isn't it.  Censorship applies to state suppression of speech, not someone declining to furnish you a forum in which to speak.  Nonetheless, using badgering and bullying tactics to get a business or individual to bar certain viewpoints strikes me as dirty and cheap.  So does using similar tactics to compel it to rescind that decision - however much you or I or anyone else thinks that decision was a mistake. 

Others are loudly complaining about what the vagaries of the whole situation mean for creators hopeful of selling their products on DTRPG.  Will it have a chilling effect, particulary on edgy content?  That, at least, is a conversation that seems to be worth having, but ultimately not a very compelling argument.  I'd like to know when any creator has ever been absolutely assured of shelf space to sell his work.  In the past, that's been far more of an issue than it is today.  Writers had little choice but to submit their work to numerous publishers, enduring seemingly endless rejection letters, and maybe, if they were lucky, finding one who saw potential in their work and was willing to take a chance on it.  So far as I know, that didn't do much to stifle the dreams of aspiring novelists, playwrights, and journalists.  Writers write, and artists make art, whether or not they have a guarantee that anyone's going to see it. 

But with the rise of the internet, those concerns are rapidly becoming irrelevant.  Barriers to entry into the business of selling images and written content are at an all-time low.  Any fool with a little know-how can open up a digital storefront at minimal cost, and if DTRPG starts restricting certain kinds of content, no doubt one or more alternative venues will pop up.  In fact, a spate of competing online RPG and book stores might be the best thing that could come out of this whole ruckus. 

In the final analysis, this is one of those stories without a hero.  There's not even really a right or wrong side to it; everybody raises some good points, but nobody comes out smelling like roses - not the righteously offended mob calling for removal of the product, not the people on the other side crying censorship and making counter-threats, and not DTRPG, caught between them and timidly trying to straddle the fence with a "solution" that's more likely to escalate the hostilities than facilitate a detente.