Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Ability scores revisited

For a variety of reasons, I've always been a fan of 3d6 in order when generating ability scores for D&D characters. However, after spending an embarrassing amount of time generating characters at http://character.totalpartykill.ca/basic/ (Why is this SO MUCH FUN?!) some potential flaws have become apparent. Firstly, "hopeless" characters with no above-average scores and multiple way-below-average ones are a lot more common than you might think. Moldvay's suggestion of allowing players to discard such a character and roll a new is an acceptable patch, but is, to my mind, an inelegant solution at best.

Many people wouldn't consider the inverse of this, a character with no low scores and multiple very high ones, to be much of a problem. (I, on the other hand, have been sorely tempted to fudge scores downward if I roll an uber-character, because I find such characters profoundly uninteresting ...) Depending on the players and the group as a whole, it may not be, but in my groups, having one character with an 18 and a 16 and a couple 13s can easily make those who have a 14 in their prime requisite, a 7 or 8 in another score, and a bunch of 9s and 10s feel inadequate, especially if they're playing the same class as the super character. Imagine being the fighter with 14 Strength and 8 Dexterity on the same team as the guy with 18 Strength, 13 Dexterity, and 16 Constitution, and you might feel a twinge of resentment at being constantly upstaged.

One ubiquitous response to this has been to use methods that alter the distribution of ability scores -- typically toward the high end of the scale -- 4d6 drop lowest and other, even more extreme, dice-rolling schemes. What I'm looking at is something similar that will weight randomly-rolled scores toward the middle of the scale. The characters I find most appealing are the ones with abilities mostly in the average range, with one or two particular talents and weaknesses. That fighter above -- the St 14, Dx 8 guy -- would be a blast to play ... provided he doesn't have to work alongside a lot of people like that other guy who overshadow him in every way.

Anyway, to get to the actual point, I've been running some dice-rolling simulations on anydice.com, and the method that produces the most pleasing results to me is 2d6+3. Yes, I'm aware that doesn't allow the full official range of scores from 3 to 18, and I'm entirely OK with that. Let me show you why.

With 2d6+3, you'll get ability scores from 5 to 15, with an average of exactly 10 (compared to 10.5 for 3d6) with a smaller standard deviation. Extremes are a little less common, and the really extreme scores aren't possible to roll straight. A 13 score is a legitimate talent that only 16% of characters will have naturally. But wait, there's still the point-trading aspect of B/X to consider: You can increase an ability by 1 point, at the cost of lowering another by 2. By the book, you can only raise a prime requisite, and can't lower any score below 9, but we can expand that to allow raising or lowering of any score, but no score may be lowered below 6 (or raised above 18.) You want that +2 or +3 bonus? That kind of exceptional talent is reserved to those who work and sacrifice for it! You might be born with the potential to be amazingly strong, smart, charismatic or whatever (a 14 or 15 natural score) but developing it to that degree is a choice, one that requires trade-offs. This way, characters who are truly amazing in an ability are going to be relatively uncommon, and those with 16s or higher in more than one ability are exceedingly rare ... plus, they'll almost certainly be balanced with mediocrity in other areas.

As for the lower limit of 5 created by this method, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. A -1 ability score penalty is a relative common thing, but I'm fine with -2 being exceedingly rare and -3 being beneath the range of a typical adventurer. This also leaves a little room for playing around with ability score loss due to curses, permanent injuries, etc. if that sort of thing tickles your fancy.

Obviously, this scheme isn't for everyone, but if you like the idea of adventurers being superior to the common man in courage and determination more than raw ability, it might be worth a try.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Monster Manual II: Pyrolisk

You might be familiar with the term "palette swap" -- taking a character or creature, usually in a video game, and changing its colors and stats to make a "new" one. Sometimes it's incredibly cheesy, but done right, it can be pretty awesome. The pyrolisk, a palette swap of the more familiar cockatrice, is pretty awesome.

The MMII describes the pyrolisk as nearly identical to its petrifying cousin, except for a single red feather in its tail plumage and a reddish cast to its wings. Unlike the turn-to-stone touch of the cockatrice, the pyrolisk has a gaze attack that causes opponents to burst into flames from the inside! Instead of a statue of yourself, you end up as a charred corpse. It also has the ability to cause fire sources nearby to explode into fireworks, as the spell pyrotechnics, which has no analog in B/X -- a power certainly worth translating if you can imagine the party's torches and lanterns going off like Roman candles!

Besides an interesting change-up of an otherwise familiar creature, that single red tail feather could be a prime ingredient of fire-based magical items or new spells, making an encounter with pyrolisks a potentially lucrative enterprise rather than something to reflexively run away from.

You can't see it here, but one of his feathers is definitely red.

My B/X pyrolisk would look something like this:

Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 4+1**
Move: 90' (30')
     Flying: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1-6
No. Appearing: 1-3 (1-4)
Save As: Fighter:4
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: D
Alignment: Neutral

Nearly identical to the cockatrice except for a reddish cast to its wings and a single red feather in its tail, the pyrolisk has a gaze that can cause a creature to burst into flames from within, killing it instantly unless a saving throw vs. death ray is made. On a successful save, the victim takes 2d6 points of damage. Any creature resistant to fire, such as from a spell or ring, is immune to the gaze attack, and an individual may only be affected once by the gaze of a particular pyrolisk. The gaze can be avoided in the usual manner, though the pyrolisk is not affected by its own reflection. If not using its gaze attack, it can cause a fire source within sight to explode into a shower of flame and sparks 10 times its original size, inflicting 1-6 points of damage to everyone within the explosion radius, after which the fire is extinguished. Pyrolisks are immune to all fire damage, normal or magical.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Monster Manual II: Quicklings

Long, long ago*, in a galaxy not so far away, I received the AD&D (1st edition) Monster Manual II as a Christmas present. I didn't play AD&D; I ran a mix of B/X and BECMI, but I also didn't really understand the differences between any of those games, and those big hardcover books full of stuff I had never seen before just called to me. Some of the different stats and terminology confused me at first, but it didn't take long to sort it out to my satisfaction. Some of the creatures didn't fit my campaign world/play style at all, but there were also many that would have been right at home in B/X with a little modification, quite a few of which I used for exactly those purposes. This post and those to follow are about some of my particular favorites.

* Since I also received Weird Al Yankovic's "Even Worse" album, that would pin it down to 1988.

Quicklings captured my imagination at first sight. I've always loved dark, enchanted forests teeming with potentially malevolent fey-types as an adventure setting, so right away, they fit right in. These little bastards are CRAZY fast, and I can picture them flitting from tree trunk to tree trunk, unnerving adventurers who barely catch sight of them from the corners of their eyes, staying just out of direct view until they have the PCs right where they want them ...

"Live long and suffer!"

Their stats are a bit wonky for B/X play (1-1/2 Hit Dice?) and they have some powers that reference AD&D spells, which for the most part are rather superfluous, so they'll need a little tidying-up. Properly B/X-ified, they might look something like this:

Armor Class: -3
Hit Dice: 1+1**
Move: 900' (300')
Attacks: 3
Damage: 1d4-1 (dagger)
No. Appearing: 2d4 (2d8)
Save As: Cleric:14
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: U+V
Alignment: Chaotic

Quicklings are a small, slender, humanoid race, perhaps distantly related to gnomes or halflings, who dabbled in dangerous magics. They live in dark, enchanted or evil wooded areas. Due to their incredible speed and reflexes, they are never surprised but surprise opponents on a roll of 1-4 and can make three attacks per round with their daggers. Any group of 10 or more quicklings will have a leader with 3 Hit Dice who uses poisoned blades that will cause victims to fall into a drugged sleep for 1d4 turns unless a save vs. poison is made. There is also a 25% chance of a quickling spellcaster who functions as a magic-user of level 1-4.