Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dwarves and magic

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
                    --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Dwarves in most old school versions of D&D are described as being highly resistant to magic and having no aptitude for it themselves.  OD&D dwarves are always fighting men.  B/X and BECMI have dwarf race-classes that don't allow for magic-use.  First edition AD&D says, "Because of their very nature, dwarves are non-magical and do not ever use magic spells" and then contradicts that statement with a note that dwarf clerics exist as an NPC class only and may attain level 8.

Literature and folklore, of course, have not always portrayed dwarves as non-magical beings.  Even Tolkien, whose dwarves are arguably the archetype for D&D dwarves, seems to imply otherwise, as illustrated in the quote above.

Second edition AD&D made cleric an option for dwarf player-characters, and the Dwarves of Rockhome Gazetteer added a BECMI dwarf-cleric class.  The BECMI dwarf-cleric was essentially the same as its human counterpart, but with dwarf saving throws, axes and hammers instead of blunt weapons, and minus the ability to turn undead.  The Gazetteer also provides rules for dwarves to craft magical weapons and armor, as befits their reputation of master smiths.  I think some later editions of D&D have even opened the magic-user/wizard class to the dwarf race, but once again, that's no more than saying you're basically the same as a human magic-user, but you're short and live underground.

I'd like something that feels a little different from human and elf spell-casting, something that makes playing a dwarven spell-user a special experience.

But what should dwarven magic look like?  What should it do?  How do dwarves invoke magical power?

My first thought is that their magic should be limited to the things traditionally associated with dwarves -- elemental earth (stone, metal, gems) and elemental fire (the forge.)  They shouldn't be able to, say, charm people or turn invisible or polymorph themselves into animals, but they absolutely should be able to shape stone or make it transparent, heat or cool metal, mend or break metal or stone objects, and so on.

I'd probably make dwarves only able to affect earth or fire materials directly.  For instance, a dwarf spellcaster could cast resist fire on a suit of plate or mail armor, and it would protect the wearer, but he couldn't cast it directly on an ally, nor on a suit of leather armor or wizard's robes.

How does a dwarf go about casting spells?  Tolkien's line gives me some ideas.  Rhythmic, sonorous chants are one possibility, or perhaps one element, of dwarven spellcasting.  Hammers falling like ringing bells is the other.  Perhaps a dwarf needs a hammer with which to strike the item he wishes to enchant.  This wouldn't just be a symbolic or ceremonial striking, but striking in a precise way and a precise number of blows to create whatever magical resonance is desired.  This might make many spells take longer than a round to cast, and pretty much eliminates the possibility of ranged effects, and I'm comfortable with that.

All of this probably entails creating a new spell list, possibly utilizing existing spells from various editions and completely new ones.  I think I'll soon be combing through spell lists and pondering unique new effects to compose such a list.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Quick thought on wandering monster checks

A very short post today.

In B/X, the rules specify rolling for wandering monsters every other turn in the dungeon, with a 1 on 1d6 indicating that an encounter will take place next turn.  For whatever reason, I always had trouble with this "every other turn" procedure.  I'd forget whether I had rolled or not last turn; sometimes I ended up rolling several turns in a row, and sometimes I'd skip several turns, distracted by more pressing matters.

Well, wait a second - we've got that seldom-used d12 just lying around.  How about rolling every turn, with a 1 on 1d12 indicating an encounter?  The odds aren't quite identical, but are within 1% of being equivalent to 1 on 1d6 every other turn, and it's one less thing I have to remember from turn to turn at the game table.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The art of picking a pocket

Of all the classic thief abilities, the one that seems to see use least frequently in my games is Pick Pockets. I blame the rather unimaginative name, as well as some misconceptions that I and my players have held about the ability.

As a young DM, I saw pocket picking as an act of stealth: You sneak up on someone, and if you manage to do so unnoticed, you carefully fish about in his pockets.  This, obviously, made it extremely difficult to pull off a pocket-picking, because it inevitably required a Move Silently roll to get close enough to the target.  Making one roll with a relatively low probability of success is bad enough; requiring two made it essentially pointless even to attempt.

But the classic pickpocket operates in a crowded marketplace, not a dark dungeon, and probably the most classic ploy is bumping into someone and surreptitiously relieving him of his valuables while pretending to apologize and dust him off.  That's much less about stealth and much more about manipulating the target's attention and perception.  Through a combination of words, gestures, eye contact, and other subtle techniques, the thief draws the mark's attention where he wants it, and away from what he's really doing.

What else might a thief do with such a talent for misdirection?  Planting an item on the mark is an obvious possibility -- the reverse of a traditional pocket-picking.  A sneak attack for double damage, a.k.a. "backstabbing" is another one.  A good line of patter keeps the target from noticing the dagger which the thief intends to stick between his ribs.  If the thief is good enough at it, he might even be able to pull it off in a crowded room without giving himself away.

Simple faux-magic tricks (i.e. prestidigitation) can be carried out with panache, as can all sorts of variants of the old shell game.  Switching a desired object for a worthless replacement right under the nose of the owner?  Absolutely.  Need a lock of someone's hair for some nefarious alchemical purpose?  Roll the dice.  Slipping poison or a sleeping draught into a goblet of wine?  Yep, that too.  Or maybe you'd rather save the king's life by switching his poisoned goblet for a safe one, without making a big scene.  Same principle applies. 

As DM, I'd ask the player for a general description of the character's "cover" -- what's his excuse for getting close to the mark and what's he saying or doing to divert attention and suspicion while he works?  Maybe he's flirting, or pretending to admire a piece of jewelry worn by the mark, or chatting with her about the artistic merits of a painting they're gazing upon.  If it seems decently plausible, roll the dice and see if he succeeds.

"Pick pockets" strongly implies that the ability is only good for picking pockets, but the same set of skills that allow a thief to lift items off an unsuspecting mark are useful for a multitude of other sneaky things as well. Terms like sleight-of-hand or (my new personal favorite) legerdemain are much less constraining, encouraging more imaginative use of the technique.  Pretty much anything a player can think to try that involves diverting a mark's attention away from some small manual task could be considered an application of this versatile skill.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The continuing evolution of Goblins & Greatswords

It's been a weird few months, with occasional crests of mental clarity and deep troughs of frustratingly impenetrable brain fog.  For most of that time, my fantasy heartbreaker project, a.k.a. Goblins & Greatswords, has been relegated to a back-burner position and left to simmer.  It turns out that back-burner simmering is good for gaining new perspective on things.  This is mostly a thinking-out-loud sort of post; nothing's set in stone.  Any comments or insights from other minds are welcomed and encouraged.

First off, I'm thinking of shooting one of the most sacred cows of D&D-like RPGs: The d20 combat attack roll.  Instead, I'm looking at a roll of 1d12 plus an exploding weapon die. (Whenever the maximum is rolled on the weapon die, roll again and add to the total.)  Weapons that are difficult to use or have weak armor-penetrating ability get a smaller weapon die, like a d4, while those that are easy to use and/or good at breaking through armor get larger dice, i.e. d6 or d8.  Damage would still be capped depending on the weapon type.  As before, the objective is to beat the target's AC (ascending), with one point of damage scored per point the roll exceeds the AC, up to the cap. 

The most basic system would be to simply assign d4, d6, and d8 weapon dice to light, medium, and heavy weapons, which would have damage caps of 4, 6, and 8 points respectively.  An advanced option might assign weapon dice and damage to each specific weapon type.  Thus, you could have weapons that are relatively easy for an untrained combatant to use but less damaging, and weapons that require more skill to handle but potentially deal bigger damage.  Maybe a war hammer uses a d8 weapon die, with max damage of 4, while a sword uses a d4 and max damage 8.  A good all-around weapon might be d6/6. 

Monsters would probably just use d6, with their Hit Dice accounting for most of their combat ability.

This is, in principle, quite similar to simply adding flat bonuses or penalties to attack rolls, but using an extra die instead injects a little more randomness.  It's also, I think, easier to remember than a + or - modifier to a roll, because it's an integral part of the roll, not something tacked on as an afterthought -- though maybe that's just me.  And hey, finally the d12 gets some serious love.  We're talking one of the game's most often used mechanics.

It also introduces some potentially useful and interesting quirks.  For one, characters attacking unarmed obviously wouldn't roll a weapon die with the d12, so unless they're highly skilled fighter-types, they probably won't have much success punching a guy in plate armor (AC 16.)  That seems like a good thing to me.  It also means that grappling a weapon-user is more difficult, even if the opponent is completely unarmored, since achieving a grapple requires beating the opponent's combat roll, not its AC. 

Also, with two dice in play, there are at least four different "critical" conditions.  Rolling 1s on both the d12 and weapon die makes for a critical fumble of some sort, typically resulting in loss of the next combat action.  A 1 on the d12 and max on the weapon die might mean the weapon breaks.  A 12 on the d12 is a critical hit -- damage is uncapped! If the weapon die explodes on the same roll, the target could be in a world of trouble.   

Outside of combat, I'm rethinking how thief-like skills could be handled.  A binary pass/fail roll isn't usually very exciting, and there's not much player agency involved.  Could thief skills be reworked to be more exciting and engaging?  Maybe.

Let's scrap the percentages, and instead express skills as a simple bonus, ranging from +1 at 1st level up to somewhere around +12 to +16 for level 15.  Expressing it as a bonus implies that the character is just better at things that anyone can attempt -- starting off only slightly better, but eventually completely outclassing the untrained.  That's a pretty good parallel for combat, which the rules allow anyone to do, but fighters are just better at it. 

Want to pick a lock?  Any fool can try, but a character with some skill at Tinkering has the best chance.  Roll a d6 and add Tinker bonus, if any.  What do you need to roll?  Depends on how good the lock is.  A cheap lock takes a 5, a good one a 10, and a masterful one a 15 or even 20.  Didn't make it on the first roll?  Keep trying, if you've got time to burn!  Each attempt takes a full turn, but the rolls add up.  Just don't roll a 1 -- that wipes out all your previous progress, and if you do it twice in a row, you're just stumped and can't figure out that lock.  Think you're a lock-picking ace?  Get twice the difficulty level of the lock in a single attempt, and you crack it in just one round! 

Same thing goes for disarming a trap.  If you get two 1s in a row, you accidentally set it off.  

How about stealth?  A binary result -- either you're detected or you're not -- is lame.  Instead, if there's someone who could potentially notice you, the GM rolls 2d6 and subtracts your Stealth skill bonus.  Multiply by 5, and that's how close you can get before you'll be noticed.  If the result is zero or negative, you can sneak right up under their noses!  Oh, but the GM won't tell you the number.  You'll never know for sure just how close you can get until you actually try.  Sneaking past a monster at a fair distance is relatively safe and simple.  Skulking right up behind it to take its key ring is lot more daring.

Hear noise (or, more generally, Alertness)?  The GM rolls 2d6 for you and adds your bonus, making it harder for someone to sneak up on you.  If the other guy has Stealth, his bonus is subtracted; the two abilities work against each other.  Listening down a corridor or through a door?  Roll 2d6, add  your bonus, multiply by 5 if through a door or 10 otherwise, and that's how far away you can discern something at the volume of typical speech. 

I haven't yet sorted out how to bring every thief skill into this model, but I'm liking it so far. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Foreshadowing danger

Old school play is associated, for good or ill, with lethality.  Characters can and do die.  Save-or-die is a thing.  Encounter balance is at best a loose guideline, not a sacred entitlement.  Some old school DMs will actually make you roll your hit points at 1st level, and a good many of us don't go in for any of that negative hp business, either: zero hp is dead, full stop.  Some of us don't even allow spells of resurrection in our games.  Dead is dead.  Get out the dice and a fresh character sheet, because your old guy isn't coming back.

That's one of the complaints that new-school gamers have against the OSR: It's a meat grinder.  Who wants to roll up character after character only to watch them die ten minutes after entering the dungeon?  A deadly game and a survivable one don't have to be mutually exclusive, though.  The buffer between fragile characters and the merciless jaws of monsters is player skill.  Old school play is not merely matching character skill against dungeon hazards; it's matching character skill AND player skill against the monsters and traps in the dungeon.  Choices made without information are random, and neither require nor benefit from player skill.  Player skill requires information to make choices -- which means that danger needs to be foreshadowed.

Foreshadowing can be applied to entire dungeons or areas, as well as to specific locations within a dungeon or other adventure locale.  With good foreshadowing, the players can decide to avoid some area if they believe there might be something there they can't handle.  They may also prepare themselves to face whatever is there.

There are lots of ways to go about foreshadowing, and varying degrees of subtlety.  Which ones you use, and how blatantly you apply them depends on the particular situation and the skill level of your players.  Very young or new players will probably need more obvious clues, while long-time players may relish the challenge of a more difficult puzzle. 

Rumors: Before the party even leaves town, they might pick up rumors of very dangerous creatures and places.  Naturally, first-hand accounts are usually the most reliable and least distorted, but tavern tales and folklore have value as well.  If the locals tell you that the Wraith King had every chest in his tomb trapped, or that the orcs have something huge and ravenous chained inside the old mine, or that legend says a demon is sealed beneath the abandoned wizard's tower, you might want to take heed.

Spoor: Direct physical evidence of a creature.  This could be tracks, tooth or claw marks on logs or rocks, droppings, slime trails, shed hair or scales, scorch marks, or whatever signs a monster or group of monsters might leave in its wake or use to mark its territory.

Aftermath of an attack: Bodies, body parts, blood, or equipment and possessions of past victims.  These might bear the marks of how they died for extra clues.  Was it bitten clean in half and left behind?  Bludgeoned to a pulpy mess?  Parts of it eaten?  Robbed or ritualistically disfigured?  All clues for a clever party to interpret.

Behavior of other creatures: Birds, rats, insects, and other creatures may be aware of approaching danger before the PCs are.  Maybe the party's own mounts and animal companions know something they don't.  Do they flee, fall silent, perch all around and watch expectantly, panic, drop dead, chitter or cry warnings to each other, or something else?  What if it's bears, wolves, or elephants flipping out instead of mice and sparrows? 

Smells: Does the monster or its lair have a particular odor? Rotting carrion and brimstone are scents associated with peril, but anything that's different from the rest of the area may be a clue.  Ozone, tar, stale sweat, smoke, acid, mineral spirits, pulverized stone, mold, fresh moist earth ....

Sounds: The chittering of an excited horde of kobolds, the labored breathing of a slumbering dragon, the click of claw on stone, heavy footfalls approaching from far down the corridor, ghostly whispers, howls and roars of rage, the screams of victims or prey ....

Messages: Inscriptions on sealed portals, vague warnings scrawled in chalk or charcoal, a forgotten adventurer's journal, a rat-gnawed map of the dungeon with something illegible scribbled in red, a magic mouth or phantasmal force, hash marks chiseled into the walls beside doors (a secret code) ....

Information from other dungeon dwellers: Maybe the goblins know what lives farther back in the caves, but you won't find out if you just slaughter them on sight.

Sixth sense:  A bad feeling upon entering or approaching some place.  Dreams or premonitions.  Especially appropriate for creatures or places of a supernatural persuasion. 

Changes in the dungeon:  That twenty foot high door made of burnished bronze, when every other door in the dungeon is man-high and made of iron-bound wood ....

Of course, this is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list.  When you describe details which foreshadow danger, it's a good idea to crank your verbal drama dial up a notch or two from your narration of less perilous dungeon features.  A lot of your descriptions are simply background imagery, setting the scene, but foreshadowing is serious business and it's important that you cue your players in to the difference.  Use scary and ominous words.  Repeat yourself if you need to.  Modulate your voice for maximum impact: an awed or sinister whisper, dramatic pauses, or whatever tone you feel best conveys the emotion of the moment.  Leave no doubt in the players' minds that while you've described other rooms in the dungeon as rank and musty, the smell wafting up from that dark staircase is way beyond that. 

For extra impact, double up on foreshadowing.  For instance, the party may hear a story of a knight who bore the token of a sword thrust through an anvil, who was slain by an evil coven of hags.  Then when they find an old rusty shield with the sword and anvil device, they'll know what it means, and what may be in store for them.  Or perhaps they learn of the Wraith King who worshiped a god of unending life and sealed himself away in a vast room full of fabulous treasures, and then come upon a huge golden door deep in a shrine devoted to that god.  Or they discover an adventurer's log with a drawing of a hideous monster accompanied by fevered ramblings of what it did to his companions, and then find granite columns bearing the slashes of huge, terrible claws.

Occasionally, it's OK to throw in a twist.  Maybe things aren't exactly as local rumor has made them out to be.  Perhaps the dragon is really just a gang of bandits stomping around with dragon-foot-shaped boots to discourage anyone from prowling the forest near their hideout, or the giant bellowing dire threats to intruders into the mountains is really just a goblin shouting through a hollow log.  It's important not to do this too often, to reward the players with correct information if they investigate in a way that would reveal the deception, and for it to make sense in hindsight even if they are fooled.

In the end, if your players go charging into a killer encounter and get their party wiped out, it will more than likely be because they chose to take that risk, not because the DM sprang a "Gotcha!" on them that the dice couldn't save them from.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

From rules-lite dungeon crawl to rules-heavy railroad

Looking back across the years and all the various editions of D&D (and other tabletop RPGs,) you can't help but notice how the hobby has evolved and changed.  Two of the most obvious ways are in the volume of rules and the style of play.  Where once there were unscripted dungeon crawls run with a system described in a rule book hardly thicker than pamphlet-size, now there are carefully scripted and paced adventures geared toward telling specific stories,and rule sets comprising many hundreds of pages spanning two or three volumes or more.

Rules expansions have been driven by a few different factors.  One of the earliest was the need for a uniform set of rules for tournament play.  Beyond that, though, I think once players and GMs master a rule set, there's a natural tendency to explore adding more complexity.  Sure, modeling combat with only attack and damage rolls works, but here's a nifty sub-system for stuns and knockouts, and one for disarming, one for grappling, and one for fighting from horseback.  Here's one to codify exactly what characters' non-class-related skills are and what effects they can achieve.  Here's another to model the effects of fatigue, hunger, thirst, and sleep deprivation on physical and mental performance.  Here's twenty-seven new variant character classes.  And so on, and so forth.

Sometimes these things add interesting choices to the game, which as far as I'm concerned is about the only legitimate reason for rule expansions.  Sometimes they're bolted on in a (misguided, I believe) attempt to increase realism.  In either case, they add complexity, against which the benefits of the new rules are often not adequately weighed.

Players and GMs alike seem to gravitate toward ever-increasing rules-bulk.  Perhaps on some level, the "game" aspect of a role-playing game impelled us to try to fit all the myriad possibilities promised by RPGs into a more familiar game format.  You might house-rule your Monopoly game, for example, but it's still governed by objective rules.  At no time would it be considered appropriate for a player to try something not specifically authorized by the rules, nor for the Banker to make an ad hoc ruling to determine the outcome. 

It's true that within the framework of a rules-lite system, a character can try almost anything, but in a system laden with subsystems, modifiers, and conditional rules, the player doesn't have to rely on the GM's ruling.  These are the odds that the action you want to try will succeed; this is what happens when you succeed, and this is what happens when you fail; it's right there in the book!  The GM is absolved of the responsibility of making rulings which might anger players or provoke arguments: This is what happens, not because I say so, but because it says so right here in the book!

Railroading, at least in my experience, has somewhat different roots.  When I first learned to play the B/X game, I had as my template the module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, which was an admirable example of a setting without a particular story.  What the PCs did there, and how the inhabitants reacted to them, was the story.  This is true of almost all the early modules for non-"advanced" D&D (i.e. Holmes and Moldvay/Cook.)  Look at the B-series modules up until about B5 or so.  Look at X1: The Isle of Dread.  Even when there's a backstory to the setting, it's meant to provide information to DM and players, and to explain why the setting is currently the way it is, not to dictate an outcome.

Somewhere along the line, though, adventure modules shifted in focus.  Instead of a backdrop against which a game group could generate their own stories, the core of the module was a story crafted by the module's author, and any NPCs and setting elements were there to serve that story, and also unlike those earlier modules, they very likely would never be used or visited again.  These adventures featured programmed, scripted events to drive the plot forward at least as often as they featured map-based encounter keys.  Instead of moving from room to room in a dungeon, the party moves from event to event in a timeline or a set of possible timelines.  While the spatial matrix of the dungeon constrains the absolute freedom of the players to some degree, the narrative matrix of an event-driven adventure limits them in much more profound ways.  Sometimes an adventure seemed to consist of nothing but a series of set-piece encounters, each with the purpose of providing the clue that leads to the next one.  Occasionally, the outcome of an encounter might influence which branch of the matrix the story would proceed upon, but almost invariably the branches converge again at the same climax anyway.  

What drove the change from the spatial structure of the dungeon or wilderness crawl to the temporal/narrative structure of the story-based adventure?  My guess is Frustrated Novelist Syndrome: module authors wanted to show off their storytelling chops rather than just provide game groups with some interesting scenery to chew up in any way they choose.  As reading material, many of these modules are wonderfully engaging.  They're full drama and intrigue, intricate plots set in motion by spectacularly detailed and backstoried antagonists.  There are clues both subtle and explosive weaving every plot thread together, and careful pacing to build tension slowly to a thrilling climax.  And you think to yourself, THIS is what I want my players to experience! 

Perhaps DMs were writing scripted, event-based adventures on their own initiative before the slew of published modules that enshrined the form as an RPG staple, but in my case at least it never occurred to me to do it any other way than the Caves of Chaos/Isle of Dread template until I read some of those magnificent railroads, and I admit that I caught the bug.  

These things represent, to some degree, independent trends in RPG evolution, but they're also connected in some interesting ways.  For instance, an airtight set of rules can facilitate the running of a railroad.  The GM can more easily anticipate what players will do and how often they'll succeed, and players are conditioned not to try anything that's not explicitly endorsed by the rules.  A complex set of tactical rules can also give a player some measure of agency, or at least the illusion of it, when engaging with the various set piece encounters in a railroad adventure.  He may have little or no control over where the story goes between those set pieces.  It may be a foregone conclusion that he and his allies will defeat the ogres blocking the bridge and go on to meet the baron, but with enough flashy character abilities and combat options, he can at least show off his system mastery and beat those ogres with panache!

Both also stem, in large part, from a lack of trust and a corresponding need to exert control.  The players don't trust the DM to make impartial rulings.  The DM doesn't trust his own judgment under pressure.  The DM doesn't trust the players to accept rulings.  The DM or the players or both don't trust in each other to make an exciting, memorable story through spontaneous interactions at the game table.  Ultimately, whatever the merits or demerits of rules-intensive game systems and story-driven adventures, they fail to solve those issues.

What does this say about the OSR, then?  Is there more to it than just nostalgia?  Perhaps a backlash against one or both of these trends, which, while they both clearly have their beginnings in the halcyon days of TSR D&D, are generally scorned by self-identified old schoolers these days? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gauging combat challenges

In the comments of a fairly recent post, I was asked to describe how I judge the challenge level of a combat encounter.  Short answer is that I don't have any hard-and-fast formula, and more or less eyeball it.  But of course that only evades the real question, which is what do I look at when eyeballing in order to make a judgment?

Firstly, let me say that encounter balance, as fetishized in some recent editions, is abhorrent to me.  Crafting every encounter to be "level appropriate" takes the fun out of the game, in my estimation.  I don't like railroady scenarios with scripted highs and lows that require easy victories over mooks and dramatic nail-biting climaxes.  And no encounter should be a mandatory combat - if the players can talk, bribe, sneak, or trick their way past something, the DM absolutely should not nullify that to force them into Exciting Combat!™

That said, I also don't want to create dungeons full of killer encounters or boring cake-walks.  An adventure should include plenty of opportunities for winnable combats, as well as encounters that demand more discretion.  Balance, to me, takes place at the level of the entire dungeon or scenario, not zoomed in to the individual encounter.

The amount of damage a group of creatures can do in a round is, I think, the most important consideration in judging their threat level.  Two primary factors contribute to this: the damage potential of each attack, and the total number of attacks per round of the group. 

I would weight the total number of attacks more heavily. A fight against four goblins is likely to be more deadly than a fight against a single ogre because the goblins get four chances to hit every round, while the ogre only gets one.  Against a party of 1st level characters, the goblins could potentially kill four in a round, while the ogre can't finish more than a single one at a time, no matter how much damage it rolls.

Damage per attack I would judged based on how many attacks it would take to kill a typical PC.  The more rounds the party can stand against it, the less dangerous it is to them.  Can it kill a PC with a single attack?  An attack that just hurts a character is a prompt to make a choice: withdraw or fight on.  This is an important consideration because character death, if it happens, is more likely to be seen as a result of player choice.  A one-hit kill is just a one-hit kill.  If you want to give a 1st-level party a fighting chance to engage in combat without too much anxiety, make sure to have some monsters that do 1d3 or 1d4 damage around.

Hit Dice are the usual unit of Monster Toughness in old school games.  Dungeon levels are supposed roughly to correspond to the average HD of the monsters found in them, and BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia D&D even have an encounter balancing formula which is based on Hit Dice.  However, Hit Dice are a distant third in my estimation of monster threat level.  What they are is a fairly good indication of how long a monster will last in combat, and thus how long it will get to keep making its attack and damage rolls against the PCs. 

Hit Dice also affect the chances of successfully attacking, but only by about 5% per HD, which is a lot less than extra attacks do.  A 1 HD creature needs to roll a 14 or better to hit AC 5, which translates to a 35% chance.  A second attack increases the odds of getting at least one hit to 57.75%, better than having 4 extra Hit Dice! 

Quite often, big HD correlate with big damage, but not always, so it's still a good idea to gauge them separately.

All else being equal, a single high HD monster with multiple attacks is usually more dangerous than a group of lesser creatures whose HD and attacks approximate it.  Consider a pack of five 1 HD orcs with 1d8-damage weapons and a 5 HD owlbear with three 1d8 attacks.  Each orc will take 5 or so points of damage to kill, and each one killed reduces their number of attacks by one.  The owlbear gets its three attacks per round until it's dead.

Armor Class rates a little bit lower than Hit Dice in my Monster Threat Assessment.  It too affects how long the monster remains alive and fighting, but unlike a big pile of hit points, which can only be whittled away, AC is bypassed by a good attack roll, and a d20 is a lot swingier than most dice you might roll for damage. 

Special attacks are trickier to assess.  For low-level parties, their effect is actually minimal.  A failed save vs. poison might kill you, but so will a single good solid physical blow, and dead is dead.  The odds of missing a save and getting hit in combat are only a little bit different.  A save-or-suck power is similar to a low damage attack: it's a cue to rethink one's position, not instant Game Over.

Save-or-die and save-or-incapacitated powers become a big deal at mid levels, not because they become more absolutely dangerous, but because they're now a lot more dangerous relative to attacks that do hp damage.  An orc with a sword and a medusa with a petrifying gaze can both take down a 1st level character in one round.  Only the medusa is likely to be able to do the same to a 4th or 8th level character.  The character's hp increases almost always greatly outstrip saving throw improvements, and while healing spells and potions are by now fairly common, spells that will reverse the effects of poison and petrification are still either out of reach or in short supply.

By high levels, saving throws have improved enough to make the success rate of save-or-die effects acceptably low, and the party probably has access to remedies, which makes them an inconvenience rather than a deadly peril.

Of course, the number of attacks principle also applies to special attacks.  If a monster can direct its special attack form against multiple targets at once, or there are several of the monsters in the encounter, it magnifies the threat level in much the same way.

Lots of attacks > big damage per attack > high HD > high AC

Combinations of those factors are possible, naturally.  So, lots of attacks + big damage per attack generally trumps big damage and high HD;  big damage and high HD beats high HD and high AC, etc.  What about lots of attacks and high AC vs. big damage and high HD?  How do special powers change things?  Use your own judgment.  It's an art; not a science.

Putting It In Play

In practice, I try to balance a dungeon as a whole, with a lot of encounters that I think the party could handle without too much trouble, some that would be quite risky, and a few that would almost certainly be disastrous if handled with straight-up combat. 

Remember that a good fight is one that costs the party some resources to win, not necessarily one in which the sides are evenly matched.  To a wise adventuring party, evenly matched battles are to be scrupulously avoided except in the most dire need or the richest possibility of reward.  Evenly matched means that both sides are likely to suffer losses, and either side could end up defeating the other.  That might sound exciting, and it is sometimes, but an adventure is more than one fight.  It's a war of attrition.

In a good dungeon, the PCs might be able to win any given fight, but they probably can't win them all, one after another, in a gauntlet match.  Even winnable fights must often be avoided, in order to conserve resources for fights that are not merely winnable, but important and/or profitable.  "Can we win this fight?" is an important question, but so is "What about the next one?"

1st level parties are the toughest to plan for because, with their low hit point totals, outcomes depend heavily on the very swingy d20 attack roll.  1st-level characters and 1 HD monsters can go from full strength to dead with a single attack.  A seemingly even battle can become lopsided very quickly if one side has a run of lucky or unlucky rolls.  Additionally, if the party includes a spell-caster, the outcome may hinge heavily on which spell he has ready and whether he still has it or has already used it. 

If you want to design a dungeon for low-level characters in which direct combat will play a big part, encounters should be predominantly with numbers of monsters smaller than the PC party, with 1 HD or less, low damage potential, and poor ACs.  A few encounters can be with even smaller numbers of creatures with 2-4 HD and better damage or AC.  Anything bigger, tougher, or more numerous is a serious risk -- but don't let that discourage you from including a couple such encounters.  It ain't all about chopping things up with swords, and part of the fun is knowing the difference.

As characters gain in levels and hit points, they generally survive longer, and overall, combat becomes less swingy.  The more rounds they can go without dying, the more rolls are made, and the more rolls made, the more the cumulative result is pulled toward the average.  Characters with a few levels under their belts can go toe-to-toe with monsters well above their weight class more successfully than low-level ones can because hit points increase a lot faster than damage potential. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll win, but an ill-chosen fight is less likely to wipe them out before they can even realize their mistake and run away. 

Still, I think it's good to follow the rule of thumb that the majority of encounters should be ones that the party could handily best in combat, but will take a bite out of their resources.  The more fights they pick, the more their resources and hit points get ground down, the closer they get to being that 1st-level party all over again, when life and death can hinge on a single misguided choice or bad roll of the dice... 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

SOS! Help a blogger out! (No, not me)

Sometimes it happens in life that you find yourself in a situation that's not right for you.  Changes must be made, and it takes a boatload of courage to make them.  You set off, away from the familiar but unbearable, and into the great unknown. 

Sometimes, it can go amazingly right.  Things fall into place.  You have a plan, and all the rolls of the dice are coming up golden, or at least all the big ones are, and you can weather the little misfortunes.

Other times, things go sideways.  Despite your best plans, there are aspects of the situation simply beyond your control, and all it takes is one bad roll of the dice to send everything down the tubes. 

That's where one of my favorite people in the OSR blogosphere is right now.  You may know him through his game blog, Violent Media, or through his writing blog, Daily Fictive.  If you don't, well, here's your chance to check them out.  Edward's a good guy and an awesome writer.  I haven't yet had the pleasure of his acquaintance in conventional spacetime, but he's one of the bloggers with whom my socially-anxious self has interacted most in cyberspace, and he's never been anything but super cool.  (If you're reading this, Edward, I'm sorry I'm so godawful lousy at keeping in touch.  Found out about your dire situation through a post on False Machine.)

Anyway, he and his family have found themselves in a tough spot following some necessary changes they made in their lives a while back, and after several months of fighting the good fight against a craptastic economy and health issues, their resources are just about tapped out.  Now, I've been dirt poor all my life, but at least my situation has always been fairly stable.  I'll have to wait for my next paycheck to chip in a bit to help them out, but I plan to do so.  If you'd like to extend a helping hand to a fellow RPG enthusiast and writer, go here:

If you're hesitant to make outright donations, or even if you do donate, consider laying down a few bucks for one of his published game products.  (I especially recommend Fetishistic Arcana and Smile With Us, Friend, and I have my eye on The Quickly Equipped Murderhobo too.) 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Walking Dead season 6 post mortem

I know I've been slacking on the D&D stuff lately.  More is on the way, but right now I have other things on my mind.  Specifically, I've been watching the internet lose its collective shit over the season finale of that zombie apocalypse show on AMC.  In a world which contains police brutality, drone bombings, the IRS, the Ebola virus, and a thousand other truly awful things, you might think people would save their genuine outrage -- all that seething, virulent fury -- for something a little more consequential than a TV show.  And of course, sadly, you'd be wrong.  But I digress.

(Caution: Spoilers ahead)

In general, I liked season 6, especially the stuff that most fans (or at least the most vocal fans) emphatically did NOT: The ill-conceived walker cattle drive gone awry, Morgan's flashback episode and anti-killing ethos, Carol's breakdown, Rick and Daryl's excellent adventure with a truck full of supplies and Jesus.  I wasn't crazy about the way the show handled Glenn's brush with death, and I do wish the writers would forget the silly gimmicks to gin up buzz in the fandom, but hey, that's TV, right?  The finale lived up to the hype for me; despite charges of the escalating Savior roadblocks being repetitive, this is the first time in a long time that I felt like Rick and company were really, truly afraid.  I almost believed Eugene's desperate, brilliant plan might let them get Maggie to the Hilltop ... and then those whistles started.  Easily one of the most powerful "OH SHIT!" moments in TWD history, in my book.

In case you missed it, everybody's freaking out over the fact that the Big Season-Ending Death, brought about by the Babe Ruthless of the apocalypse, Negan, and his barbed-wire baseball bat Lucille, was shot from the perspective of the victim, without revealing who the victim actually is.  I think it may have been a mistake from the standpoint of continuity and momentum, but I can't bring myself to be angry about it like so many have.  I felt the first-person viewpoint of the killing was a good choice, largely because I really don't want to actually see a beloved character's brains splattered, and also because it was absolutely chilling to experience such a thing from the victim's point.  Nonetheless, it might have been a good idea to reveal the victim's identity, either with a shot of the body lying on the ground, or with a well-placed scream of the character's name by his/her compatriots.

This being the internet age, most of us will probably know well before October who the unfortunate victim was, as word gets around about which actors are and aren't on set when filming begins for season 7.  Until then, it's fun to speculate, so here are my predictions.


Aaron: Aaron is a sympathetic, likeable character with some interesting nuances.  He's arguably the bravest of the Alexandria residents, prior to the arrival of Rick's crew, but he's mild-mannered, level-headed, and compassionate.  He recognizes Daryl's reticence as uncertainty of his place in the new world of Alexandria, and offers him a bike and a job to soothe his restless soul.  He tries to help Maggie get outside during the walker siege to search for Glenn.  He's a good guy, and an interesting one.  He's also, thus far, been a relatively minor player.  Killing him would be a cop-out.  Fans are expecting someone with more impact.

Rosita: She's been with the gang a bit longer than Aaron, but hasn't had a whole lot of character development.  She's generically likeable, generically brave, and generically expendable, which means fans would feel cheated if she's the one to take Negan's home-run swing.

Rick: Probably the safest of the lot, considering that he's the main character of the entire series.  I don't think the writers are desperate enough to bump him off for the sake of shock value, at least not yet.

Glenn: This is his comic book death, and fans have speculated for at least the last couple seasons on whether it would be his fate in the show too.  But the writers have teased his death twice this season alone, and now they've given us this cliffhanger.  Can you imagine the backlash if, after six or seven months, they come back with, "Surprise!  It's Glenn, just like in the comics, after we went to crazy lengths to make you think it might not be!"?  Before the cliffhanger, Glenn's death would have made sense to the story, but now it only makes sense if the writers really enjoy hate mail.  Seems like a spectactularly bad move that even the occasionally tone-deaf TWD writing staff should be able to hear a mile away.


Carl: One of my friends is convinced that it was Carl who got clubbed, but in a couple watchings I didn't see anything to suggest it.  I'm not quite sure he passes muster as a "beloved" character, either, but he is Rick's son, and his death would send Rick into yet another tailspin.  I'm skeptical that the writers would throw him over after putting him through his comic book ordeal of losing his eye, not to mention an unresolved storyline with Enid, but I wouldn't put it past them, either.  With Judith still alive on TV, this Grimes kid may be expendable.

Sasha: She's not the most beloved character in that lethal lineup, but she's been with us a while, and we've gotten to know her, even suffered with her through the deaths of Bob and Tyreese.  The writers are just cruel enough to kill her off now that she's found hope in a future with Abraham, and just spineless enough not to pick a higher-profile character.  Don't write her off yet, but don't get your hopes up too much either.

Daryl: Everybody's favorite redneck might seem a natural candidate, and indeed earlier in the season he was my top suspect to take Glenn's place at Negan's home plate, but the fact that he had almost no part in the finale, other than to be dragged out of a van, bloody and pale, to kneel in Negan's eeny-meeny game, makes me doubt that he's in serious jeopardy.  He's arguably the most popular character on the show, and properly done, his death would have generated some serious heat for Negan.  Now, though ... I don't think he's untouchable, but it would be one of the most unceremonious exits of a major character in the show's history.  He didn't even get in so much as a defiant glare at the villain.  The writers have to be a little bit leery of angering the fan base by giving him a less than heroic death.

Abraham: He's not quite among the top tier of most beloved characters, but he's distinguished himself enough from the pack to be a contender, especially if the writers can't bring themselves to off someone more prominent.  Prior to the showdown with the Saviors, Abe had found a new lease on life, even expressing an interest in a future and children with Sasha, which is never a good omen in this show.  He's the most spirited of the captured survivors, standing up and daring the maniac to mete out the punishment to him instead of his friends.  Plus, he cheated his comic book death when it went to Denise instead, so he's already into uncharted territory story-wise.


Maggie:  Yes, I do believe the writers are sadistic enough to swap Glenn and Maggie's comic book roles.  Not only is she a much-loved character; she's one of the most sympathetic, unambiguously good people in the zombie apocalypse, along with her husband.  With Glenn probably off the table, Maggie's death would provide a similar impact.  From a story perspective, it would make sense for Negan to choose her, considering the effect the mere suggestion had on Glenn.  Murdering her and her unborn child would certainly set up Negan as the most evil bastard in the show's history.  However, as weakened as she was, it seems unlikely she would have been able to get up after being struck the first time -- the sole glimmer of hope for her fans, in my estimation.

Eugene: He's still a survivor in the comics, where he plays an important role in the war against the Saviors and beyond, but did TV Eugene just sign his own death warrant by handing over his bullet-making plans to Rick?  He's not loved by fans in the same way that Rick, Daryl, and Michonne are, but he evokes other emotions like pity and sympathy, and he has gotten some pretty important character development over the last few episodes, which is often the kiss of doom for TWD characters.  With his newfound sense of heroism, he might even have had it in him to stand back up and "take it like a champ" after that first blow as a final act of defiance and inspiration to his friends -- a heartbreaking moment that could generate some serious hate for Negan. 

Michonne: Do the writers want to yank yet another romantic rug out from under Rick?  My gut says yes, they do.  She's got the standing in the fandom for her death to make an impact.  A powerful shock factor weighs heavily in the balance, since she's still alive in the comics.  The only thing she doesn't have is a significant role in the finale, which may just get her a reprieve, to look forward to a long life or at least a more meaningful death at some future point.  I just wouldn't count too heavily on it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

New magic item: Pocket portal

This curious item consists of two small mirrors, each about the size of an average human palm.  It is activated by speaking two command words, one of which is engraved on the back of each mirror.  It may be deactivated by touching both mirrors at once and speaking the command words again.

When activated, a small two-way portal is opened between the two mirrors.  Light, sound, air, water, and small objects may pass through from both sides.  Differences in air or water pressure will cause gases or liquids to flow from the side of greater pressure to the side of lesser.  Naturally, the rate of flow increases with pressure difference; water will gush through a portal on the bottom of a deep lake much faster than through one lying in a puddle.

The two mirrors must remain on the same plane of existence for the portal to function. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

New magic item: Hole Paint

This viscous black liquid usually comes in a stoppered jar or flask, frequently with a brush or dauber affixed to the inside of the stopper.  It has no effect if consumed by a living creature.  When applied to any solid non-living surface, it creates a void up to 10' deep in the material, penetrating all the way through material less than 10' thick.  Any creature or object of an appropriate size may pass through or occupy the hole.  Note that the hole created is not an extradimensional space; it is an actual physical gap in the material to which it is applied.

A flask of Hole Paint usually contains enough paint to cover about 10 square feet, though it need not be used all at once.  A dab is enough to create a peep-hole, an eighth of a flask will make a hole large enough to extract loot from a locked chest, and an entire flask makes a hole about 3-1/2 feet in diameter through which most characters can easily crawl. 

The hole lasts until the paint is scraped off or washed away with a solvent such as vinegar or alcohol.  Anything inside the hole when the paint is removed becomes encased in solid material.  This is immediately fatal to living creatures. 

If splashed on a non-living construct such as a golem, a flask of Hole Paint will cause 6d8 points of damage.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Goblins & Greatswords: Armor and weapons

Figuring out the combat system for my fantasy heartbreaker turned out to be pretty easy compared to nailing down the particulars of the weapons and armor that characters will use in it.  I want different types of weapons to have meaningful differences, but I don't want huge complicated tables with lots of messy modifiers to look up or remember.  After a lot of false starts, I'm tentatively happy with what I have now.  

Armor comes in three types: Light, medium, and heavy, giving a base AC of 12, 14, or 16, respectively.  Light armor includes light, non-metallic, and relatively flexible options such as leather and padded armor.  Medium armors are made of metal or other hard material, but in flexible forms such as mail, scale, brigandine, and such.  Heavy armors are made of large rigid plates of metal or some other hard material.  The exact type of armor a character gets in any of the three classes is determined by the player and GM, and has no further game mechanical effect. 

Shields increase AC by 1, as usual.  I'm considering making a shield a requirement to use the character's Combat Rating defensively, too.

Weapons come in broad categories: Axe, Blade, Bludgeon, and Stick, and further divided into light, medium, and heavy types.

Axes are chopping weapons which are good at breaking through armor, and so receive a +1 bonus to combat rolls.  Damage is 4/6/8 for light, medium, and heavy types, respectively.   Examples include the hand axe and tomahawk (light), battle axe (medium), and polearms* (heavy.)  All axes use the wielder's Might modifier.

Blades are slashing and slicing weapons.  They are among the hardest to master, but have the highest damage potential at 6/8/10.  Examples include daggers and short swords (light), all of the various "normal" swords (medium), and great swords such as the bastard sword and two-handed sword (heavy.)  Light and medium blades use the wielder's Agility modifier.  Heavy blades use Might.

Bludgeons are blunt, smashing weapons.  They are the easiest weapons to wield, and also good at delivering impact damage through armor, and so receive +2 to combat rolls, but also have the lowest damage potential at 3/4/6.  Examples include the club/cudgel/shillelagh (light,) the mace and war hammer (medium), and the maul (heavy.)  All bludgeons use the wielder's Might modifier.

Stick weapons are long, slender weapons used mainly for thrusting maneuvers.  They gain a +2 bonus to Interpose actions.  Damage is 4/6/8.  Examples include the quarterstaff (light), the spear (medium), polearms* and lances (heavy.)  All stick weapons use the wielder's Agility modifier.

*Since polearms typically feature both heavy chopping blades and spear points or spikes, they may be used as either axes or stick weapons, whichever is most advantageous to the wielder.

Most light and medium weapons (except the quarterstaff) may be wielded with one hand, and combined with a shield if desired.  Most heavy weapons (except the lance from horseback) must be wielded two-handed.

Missile weapons are another can of worms with which I'm still grappling... 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Where everybody knows your name

A week or two ago I was poring over the forums at dragonsfoot and came across a thread about characters wishing to build or buy a tavern in-game.  Most people seemed pretty neutral on the idea, with one or two wondering why players in a D&D game would want to concern themselves with a mundane enterprise like running a tavern, and a few looking at the up-side potential. 

This was of interest to me at least in part because my players back in the day were wild for in-game business ventures in general, and their characters owned their share of taverns.  At least in the case of my players, I can say with confidence that they were not at all interested in the minutiae of running the business.  They were not keeping track of inventory, worrying about current prices of ale and wine, tallying up daily receipts of silver and copper, or fretting over maintenance of the premises.  Why, then, would players want to own a tavern or other business in the game world, and why would the DM let them?

It's a little bit about fame and prestige in the game world.  Buying or building an inn or tavern represents the point at which a party of characters graduates from grubby murderhobos to genuine members of the community.  It's a step on the ladder that's within reach of low-level characters, long before the giddy heights of name level and titles of nobility.  

Even more than that, it represents the players taking on a personal stake in the game world, or at least their chosen home town or village.  Expressing a desire to open up a tavern is expressing a desire to be a part of your fictional society.  Town isn't just the safe zone where they're allowed to rest without wandering monster checks and erase gold and add equipment to their character sheets; it's become a place in the shared story that they care about.  And they'll care about it even more once they own a piece of it: Orcs raiding in the countryside and bandits preying on traffic on the high road aren't just opportunities for mayhem and loot; they're calls to protect the players' (fictional) financial and (real) emotional investments in the game. 

An inn or tavern is a place characters can call home and store their loot, but it's also a place that attracts interesting people.  There's no better place to hear weary travelers talk of faraway lands.  Bards and minstrels will stop and regale the locals with their songs and stories, too.  That's true in any watering hole the characters might visit, of course, but when you own the joint, you can have your serving staff keep an ear out for things even while you're not there, and you can do everything in your power to make the place more attractive to the best performers.  The better the inn or tavern, the better the quality of the rumors you can gather there.

Speaking of NPCs, a position at an inn or tavern is a fun way for the PCs to reward less fortunate NPCs that the players would like to keep around.  The beggar who provided them a vital clue, a peasant rescued from a goblin lair, or a former retainer who has given up the dangerous life of adventurer's assistant might all find new life as tapsters, handymen, grooms, or barflies in the PCs' establishment.

Lastly, an inn or tavern can be a source of income, but that should probably be much less than characters can make by adventuring.  Most of the proceeds of the business will go toward inventory, maintenance, and wages for the folks who run the place in the PCs' absence.  3d6 gp (or whatever your base coin is) profit per month sounds about right to me.  Perhaps adjust the amount depending on how much traffic the location gets - less for a backwater hamlet, more for a major trade route.  The PCs may pocket the profits or reinvest them in improvements.  If they manage to make their business truly exceptional in some way, extra d6s can be awarded.  Dealing with losses and shortfalls is usually no fun, unless it's used as an adventure hook: Trolls have taken over the bridge north of town, or the baron just across the border has imposed a stiff tariff on goods entering the domain, and traffic has dried up.  Time to strap on the armor and weapons, dust off the spell books, and show them who's in charge here!

Inns and tavers, for the reasons discussed above and more, are the most obvious choices for PC investment, but others are possible too, such as pawnbrokers, blacksmith shops, or even trading or shipping firms.

Done right, a PC business provides many interesting ways for players to interact with the game world and its inhabitants.  Just leave the quill pens and accounting ledgers in the background where they belong and focus on the possibilities for adventure and intrigue that open up when players are willing to invest their characters' coins and their imaginations in having their very own piece of your world.

Friday, February 12, 2016

New monster: Melting zombie

Dreams are weird.  I seem to have an inordinate number of dreams about zombies, often also including members of The Walking Dead cast.  Well, what do you get when a run-of-the-mill Walking Dead dream goes sideways?  A new monster to disgust and terrify a game group, of course.

Melting Zombie

Armor Class: 8
Hit Dice: 2**
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1 or 2
Damage: 1d6/1d6
No. Appearing: 1d6 (2d8)
Save as: F1
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic

This shambling horror looks just like an ordinary zombie at first.  Unlike the normal animated corpse, however, it hungers for fresh meat.  When it is first damaged in combat, the rotting skin, blood, and organs of a melting zombie liquefy, forming a horrible puddle of necrotic slime.  The slime has half the zombie's hit points and moves at a rate of 30' (10'.) It can seep through small cracks and even climb up walls to reach its prey, and its touch dissolves living flesh.  This amorphous mess cannot be harmed by weapons, but is vulnerable to fire and holy water. 

The other half of the zombie's hit points still reside in the skeletal frame, held together by muscle and tendon, which continues to attack by clawing and biting.  Both parts must be killed, or else the zombie will re-form, regenerating 1 hit point per turn.

A character hit by either attack must make a saving throw vs. death ray or contract a rotting disease which will kill the character within 1d4 days unless cured.  A character slain by a melting zombie, whether by damage or by disease, will reanimate as a melting zombie 1d4 turns after death.  Melting zombies may be turned as wights.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Goblins & Greatswords: An alternate resolution mechanic for the thiefly arts and other skills

A while back, I posted my ideas on how the skills of thieves (plus a few others) would work in my fantasy heartbreaker, Goblins and Greatswords.  I chose to stick with the percentile dice model used by most old school iterations of D&D, as opposed to a simple d20 or d6 mechanic.  One reason for this is that rolling two dice allows for special results to be triggered on a roll of doubles.  Another is that the percentile dice "roll-under" format allows degrees of success to be easily determined and scale in the right direction: just take the tens digit of a successful roll, and the highest degrees of success are possible only with the highest levels of skill.

However, there are some things I don't like about it too.  It's very inelegant when applying modifiers, for one, and ability score modifiers are something I very much want to include.  The standard -3 to +3 ability score modifier is dwarfed by a 100-point range.  Sure, you can convert those to plus or minus 5, 10, or 15%, but you're still asking your players to crunch bigger numbers at the table, and either adding them to the base chance or subtracting them from the roll, which feels weird.  Then there's the problem of looking up numbers in a table every time you want to do something.  It's a lot easier to remember that you have a +5 bonus to your Stealth skill than it is to remember that you have, say, a 47% chance of success.

So, I'm considering a system using a roll of two dice, but adding them together in a roll-over format.  My first thought was 2d6, but the range just isn't big enough to accomodate both improving skill by level and modifiers.  2d10 has the range to work, but the "success" point would have to be at some wonky number like 16 in order to start with reasonable odds, and 2d8 has a similar issue. 

2d12, now...that's interesting.  (Go here and click on the "At Least" tab if you want to follow along with a visual aid.)  There's a 10.42% chance to roll 20 or higher, which means that, if you set the target number at 20 (intuitive and easy to remember!) the average schmuck who has no bonus in a skill would succeed roughly 10% of the time.  Start out with a +1 bonus, and you're up to 14.58%, which seems good enough for a dabbler in the skill.  A more serious student of a skill might start at +2, for a 19.44% chance, which maps pretty well to the beginning percentages of most thief skills in B/X. 

Add a bonus for a high ability score, and a character could start with 25%, 31.25%, or 38.19% odds - a meaningful bump, but not so much that it swamps the whole system.  There's still lots of room for improvement, which is desirable because I want leveling up to mean something, and it doesn't if you're bumping against the 100% success ceiling too soon.

Rather than using a table of percentages, increasing at different rates for Basic, Good, or Elite skill progression, I'd use a relatively simple formula:  Basic starts at +1, and gains an additional +1 at odd-numbered levels.  Good starts at +2 and gains +1 at levels divisible by 2 or 3; thus at level 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15, and so on.  Elite also starts at +2, and gains +1 at every level.  One interesting feature of this is that Good and Elite are essentially the same at beginning levels -- all the way through 4th, in fact -- but Elite slowly pulls ahead at higher levels. 

Here it is in table form, so you can clearly see the relative progressions.


If levels top out around 15 (and really, there's not much reason to go beyond that, is there?) then a Basic skill ends up succeeding 61.81% of the time, Good 85.42%, and Elite 97.92%, before any ability adjustments.  That sounds about right to me.  

Of course, we also still have easy access to the special-effect-on-doubles mechanic.  It's the degrees of success which get a little funky: something along the lines of subtracting half the larger die roll from 7, to generate a number between 1 and 5 (no 6 - if neither of your dice are higher than 1, you obviously didn't succeed - snake eyes is always a failure) with higher levels of success reserved to those for whom lower dice rolls can succeed.  (I could simply subtract the higher die roll from 13, but that generates a number between 1 and 11, but thats an awful lot of range.  Some skills use the degree of success for the number of questions the player gets to ask of the GM, for instance, and any more than 5 or so seems like it would bog down the pace of the game tremendously.)  Only a couple of skills, as I've written them, really make use of degrees of success, so this might not be a big issue anyway.

I'm still a little bit on the fence about this, so please weigh in: If you were running a game, which one would be easier, more fluid, more intuitive to use?  Is this the respect the humble d12 deserves, or is 2d12 for one of the game's core resolution systems just too weird to stick?  Would the moderate fiddliness of calculating degrees of success with 2d12 make you not want to use that particular mechanic?  Is there something else that strikes you as broken or unworkable?  Let me know in the comments!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Battle of wills

I keep meaning to expound more on the topics of character classes in my fantasy heartbreaker, and on campaigning with micro-settings, but sometimes a new idea pops into my head that's just too intriguing (to me, at least) to wait.

One thing about the D&D magic system that's always bothered me a little is the standard saving throw.  Unless an effect causes direct harm through hit points of damage, it's usually a starkly binary outcome: Fail the save and the spell has full effect; make the save and the spell has no effect at all.  That means that a spell-caster takes a huge risk in casting a non-damaging spell, especially if it's at a single target, because if the target makes its save, the spell is simply wasted.  And since saving throws depend entirely on the level or HD of the target, and usually not at all on the skill of the caster, even a high-level wizard is hesitant to use a big-ticket spell on a particularly formidable opponent (and at the same time, reluctant to waste potent magic on a low-level pushover.) 

Most of the time, in fantasy fiction, a hero doesn't just fall under a spell instantly, nor does he just shrug it off.  There's almost always a great battle of wills between the hero and the villainous wizard or priest.  Sometimes it's shown as a battle inside the would-be victim's head; others, it's depicted outwardly with alternating shots of hero's and villain's faces grimacing with the tremendous effort of overpowering the other.

Hmm...overpowering.  Thinking of it in those terms reminded me of the grappling system I cooked up for G&G.  It's essentially one character trying to overpower another, except mentally/spiritually/magically rather than physically.

Here's the idea:

Whether the saving throw is made or failed, unless with a natural 20 or 1, respectively, a spell can result in a battle of wills between caster and target. 

If a save is failed, then the target may continue to resist, and if the save is made, the caster can continue to force the spell on the target.  The "loser" of the initial save must overpower the winner for a number of rounds equal to the difference between the number needed to save and the actual result of the roll. 

For instance, if Monfort the magician casts a charm spell at Wilfred the warrior, and Wilfred needs a 12 to save but rolls a 9, Wilfred may still fend off the charm if he can resist Monfort for three rounds in a battle of wills.  If Wilfred made his save with a 16, Monfort could still force the effect into Wilfred's mind by overpowering him four rounds in a row.

Each rolls 1d6.  The caster adds the adjustment for his or her Presence ability score (Charisma for standard D&D) and half his or her level of experience.  The target adds its adjustment for Wit (use Int or Wis in D&D) and either its level (for spell casters) or half its level (for non-spell-casters, rounded down.)  High total wins.

If you like, use the target's Might (Strength or Constitution) for spells which affect the physical body, like polymorphs.   For monsters, use half the creature's Hit Dice plus whatever adjustment you deem suitable for its mental strength, or just its full HD for body-affecting spells. 

Also if you like, the target may take damage when losing a roll, either psychic/subdual damage or real physical damage, depending on the nature of the spell, at a rate of 1 point per point of difference in the magical overpowering rolls. 

During each round of struggle, the caster and the target are limited in their actions.  The caster must maintain concentration, may move at only half speed, and cannot attack or cast other spells.  The target may move at half speed and engage in combat if it wins the round's overpowering roll, but at a -4 penalty to its combat rolls (or attack rolls, for D&D.)  The caster may abandon the spell at any time.  The target may likewise give in and allow the spell to take effect, which is a viable option if damage is inflicted on a failed roll. 

If the caster's concentration is disturbed, such as by an attacker making a successful combat roll, the target automatically wins the round.  If the caster is targeted by another spell, he or she may abandoned the overpowering attempt to defend against the other spell, or may maintain it while defending, but adding only half level to the 1d6 rolls.

This is all sort of hastily cobbled together, so of course feel free to point out fatal flaws or suggest tweaks or revisions.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Goblins & Greatswords: Characters, part 1

Characters are pretty important.  The first thing you do when you're playing a new RPG, after you read the books, is make some characters.  What do characters look like in my fantasy heartbreaker?

There are only four ability scores: Might, Wit, Agility, and Presence, rolled 3d6 in order.

I mentioned in the above-linked post that Might affects rolls for hit points, but exactly how was still hazy in my mind at the time.  I'd really like to avoid both hit point inflation and abysmally low hp.  The solution I came up with is to (mostly) divorce hit points from class.  Instead of class-based Hit Dice, the default is a d6.  Might of 13 or more kicks this up to a d8, while Might 8 or lower knocks it down to a d4.

Characters gain new Hit Dice only at even-numbered levels, including level 0.  At every new level, all of the character's HD are rolled.  If the new total is greater than the previous total, the new total is used.  If the old total is greater, the character still gains +1 hp, except at 1st level.  Hit Dice top out at six, at level 10, with one more roll at level 11. Thereafter, 1 hp per level is gained.

So, a character with an average Might score, starting her adventuring career at level 1, rolls 1d6 for her 0-level hp, and then rolls again for 1st level, keeping the better roll of the two, and reducing the odds of starting with a miserable 1 or 2 hp.  Let's say she ends up with 4 hp.  At level 2, she gets another Hit Die, and rolls 2d6.  If the total is higher than her previous 4 hp, she takes that as her new hp total.  It's mathematically possible, though unlikely, that she could roll 4 or less; if so, she starts level 2 with +1 hp, for a total of 5.  At level 3, she rolls her 2d6 Hit Dice again, and once again takes the new total or her previous hp +1, whichever is greater.  At level 4, she'll roll 3d6, and so on.

Now that's out of the way, here are the human character classes.  I've changed the names to give them a little different feel from their D&D counterparts.


Men and women who train for physical combat.  They are skilled in the use of all weapons, allowing them to deal damage most effectively, and their training and toughness allow them to survive where others would fall.

Best Combat Rating improvement rate
+1 hit point per level
+2 to maximum damage with all weapons
May divide Combat Rating between offense and defense starting at level 2


Individuals who study the mysteries and theory of magic and learn to cast spells. 

Slowest Combat Rating improvement
Learn and cast spells from any two (of four) spell lists
Read magical writings
Sense magic at will within 10'


People who are skilled in the arts of stealth, deception, and getting into and out of difficult places.  Some are proper thieves; others are simply adventurous rogues and misfits who survive by their wits.

Medium Combat Rating improvement
Skills: Stealth, Tinker, Alertness, Climb, Cipher, and Sleight-of-hand at Good proficiency
May improve any skill to Elite proficiency by reducing another to Basic, and may apply their elective skill choice to improving class skills instead of choosing a new skill, if desired


As in dedicated to the service of a religion, deity, or spiritual ideal.  Either by the strength of their faith or the intervention of divine beings, the dedicated gain the ability to work miracles in the form of spells while still sparing some attention for martial training.

Medium Combat Rating improvement
Learn and cast spells from either Divine or Nature list
Reduced penalty for spell-casting while armored
Sense holy/unholy creatures, objects, and enchantments within 10'

A character of any class can use any weapon and wear any armor, but activities such as stealth and spell-casting are more difficult in armor, and the benefits of weapons are limited in the hands of those not skilled in combat.  So, for instance, knaves would probably find it to their advantage not to wear metal armor, and mages to avoid armor altogether and carry light weapons, but they aren't outright prohibited from donning plate and mail and swinging halberds.

All human characters may choose one additional talent, which they may practice at Good proficiency, or two at Basic proficiency.

 Demihuman classes are similar to the human ones, but with their own special quirks.  Those will come soon in a post of their own.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review: Smile With Us, Friend

Full disclosure: The author has provided me with a copy of the product for review.

Smile With Us, Friend is a short (22 pages, including cover, title page, table of contents, map, four full-page illustrations, and two pages of OGL legal stuff) adventure location written by Edward Lockhart of Violent Media.  It's a quick read, with brief but evocative descriptions, minimal stat blocks, and just enough background for a game master to get a good sense of what the place is all about.  The PDF is cross-linked, so clicking on, say, a location on the dungeon map will take you to the relevant area description, plus there's a clickable navigation bar at the bottom of every page should you need to refer to another section at any time.

The layout is clean and sharp; content is neatly organized with clear headings.  Graphic design is pleasing to the eye without being distracting.  Illustrations are uncomplicated, capturing the unnerving alienness of the creatures in the module with rough strokes and the sharp contrast of orange-against-black color schemes.

Now, on to the meat of the product.  Smile With Us centers around a small cult of humans-turned-spider-things, whose invitations to join them cause hideous mutations in those who decline.  It's unabashedly weird, in ways both overt and subtle, but it's a weirdness that could easily coexist with classic fantasy tropes.  Whether your game is made of weird stacked on top of weird, or you just want to spice up a vanilla fantasy campaign with a dash of weirdness, it's worth a look.  You could drop it into a Grimm fairy tale faux-Europe, a Lovecraftian New England, or an ersatz Middle-earth without breaking the integrity of the setting.

If you're the sort of game master who likes to have everything fully fleshed out right out of the box, so to speak, Smile With Us might seem a bit sparse.  It doesn't have a specific plot, nor are the environs around the lair detailed or any connections to the wider world specified.  If you're the sort who prefers to use published material as a jumping-off point for your own imagination and not be written into a corner by a module author, however, that's a feature rather than a bug, and the module is loaded with possibilities.

The cult's lair is an underground complex of a dozen or so described areas for a party of adventurers to explore.  Besides the cultists, there are a handful of new creatures, one of which is mildly dangerous and the others innocuous but creepy.  You won't find any standard orcs or ogres here, and the atmosphere is the better for it.  Treasure is mostly in the form of household baubles and trinkets, silver, and...hats (it makes sense in context!) rather than gold, gems, and jewelry.

Eight cult member NPCs are detailed, each with a distinct personality, appearance, and mannerisms.  Who and what they are generates conflict with the (not otherwise detailed) local villagers, but with an absence of malice.  They're antagonists without necessarily being villains, and that's something of a rarity in D&D-like RPGs in my experience.  Most of them are even sympathetic characters in their way, all the while they make your skin crawl, which makes for some interesting choices and great role-playing potential.  Played well, they could evoke pity and humor as well as horror and revulsion. 

Given the power level of the NPCs and the amount of loot, it's probably best suited to smallish parties of beginning adventurers. Higher-level parties won't be seriously threatened, but could still enjoy a good role-playing experience if overt violence is taken off the table.  The dungeon does include a portal to another world, in which more seasoned parties might find greater challenges, though.  Only a few tantalizing hints of that bizarre place are provided to seed your imagination; the rest is up to you.

Other than a few instances of words you couldn't say on broadcast TV, which you don't even have to speak out loud while running the module, the material seems perfectly suitable for younger gamers as well as those of us who got our RPG start way back in the 20th century.  I'm looking forward to running it for my nieces and nephew.

Bottom line: If you and your players relish role-playing, interesting ethical dilemmas, and a hearty dose of whimsical weirdness, it's well worth the price of $3.69. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2016 gaming and blogging resolutions

I'm not usually keen on New Year's resolutions, but I have a few things I want to accomplish, and a few missteps I'd prefer not to repeat, so what the hell, let's go ahead and make it internet official.

1. Finish my fantasy heartbreaker project, a.k.a. Goblins & Greatswords.  Also actually play-test it.  (See item 5, below.)

2.  Publish something.  I've been writing about RPGs for a few years now, and I still haven't produced anything other than blog posts.  I'm not sure what, exactly, but I'm leaning toward some micro-settings, such as I've been talking about the last couple posts.  Probably free; at most pay what you want.

3.  Pick up the pencils and sketch pad and draw something.  I used to dabble in D&D-inspired art, but I haven't done much in the last 20 years or so.  Maybe "art" is too strong a word for what I did, but I'd still like to do some again.  Plus, you know, if I'm going to publish a game-related product, it might be nice to have even some mediocre art to take up space on a few pages.

4. Post more consistently.  I think averaging a post a week is a reasonable goal to shoot for.  As a corollary resolution, no more long hiatuses stemming from anxiety/depression breakdowns.  If nothing else, I should at least be able to hammer out an idea for a new monster or magic item or something once a week.

5. Play the goddamn game again!  It's been way too long since I've done more than think and write about it.  If the nieces and nephews aren't interested anymore, I'll just have to bite the bullet and go to a game store or something.