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.