Friday, February 26, 2016

How campaigns reach orbit

Zak Smith once make the analogy to me that D&D campaigns are similar, in one way, to rocket flights. If you can reach a certain amount of orbital velocity (player buy-in and enthusiasm), the campaign can just keep going forever on pure momentum as the players achieve goals and pick new ones. But boosting up to that level of investment takes a lot of energy, and you have to "do something" during that time to keep players engaged and events moving along. In the case of standard D&D, the "boost phase" of a campaign is when you're exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and collecting loot. They provide short-term goals while the deeper story is developed.

Another analogy I think works is how good television shows may start with a "monster of the week" format, but as recurring heroes, villains, and sub-plots become developed, the show can mature to a longer, more character driven, and much more satisfying long-arc format. Shows from my youth that made this transition include Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Babylon 5. To bring this back to D&D, campaigns start with a "dungeon of the week", and then ideally mature into something better.

However, that's for standard D&D. I want to develop a one-line description of the most common boost phase of various popular campaign worlds. Here are my attempts, but please feel free to chime in with refinements and improvements:

Standard D&D. Collect rumors on monster activity, explore dungeons, old keeps, etc.; kill monsters; take their stuff.

Ravenloft. Investigate rumors of villages or families disturbed by paranormal enemies; try to find ways to discourage the enemies from bothering them further, or find an escape plan to safety. Direct confrontation is rarely a wise course of action.

Spelljammer. Get a ship, get a crew, find a job, keep flying. Wait, no, that's Firefly. Get a ship, go explore abandoned hulks and meteor fields for salvage. [I had a post on my old blog, which I stupidly deleted, about how Spelljammer needs rules for super-cheap and crappy ships that PCs can start with]

Dragonlance. [Note that I'm assuming general campaign play, not one of the core adventure paths]

Dark Sun. Try to survive while avoiding the Templar's police. A lot like D&D, except the "treasure" is often water and food resources.

Planescape. Learn the cant, bang around bad neighborhoods, take jobs that send you to the burgs and safer planes.

Al-Qadim. Assemble a caravan, head for another city to trade. Inevitably get way-laid by some form of genie, who makes life interesting. Roll on the Random Pissed Off Djinn table. Sorry guys, you're all cursed until you retrieve the Lost Diadem of Sultaness Sul'Kira ma Dar of the El Dynasty.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Morlock Drill Cities in D&D 5E

A Drill City is an entire city worth of Morlocks in the form of a giant drill, making its way through the underworld.

The culture of a Morlock Drill City is ruled by Hate Priests, and they direct the hate of all Morlocks at the Eloi (their word for any soft (aka, neutral or lawful) surface-dwelling humanoid) and away from each other, allowing their society to function.

The part of the puzzle not mentioned is how the drill cities are powered and maintained. Obviously Morlock society must be able to at least maintain these cities, or they would quickly break down from the rigors of drilling through the underdark. Who are the engineers?

In D&D 5E terms, it's obvious that the two most common form of Wizard are Conjurers and Transmuters. Morlocks have no interest in the subtle nature of divination, illusion, or enchantment, or the defensive arts of abjuration. They also do not produce many Evokers, as they prefer to kill their enemies with knives and teeth - blowing them to smithereens with a Fireball doesn't leave any bits for eating.

But Conjurers and Transmuters are useful. They are the engineering class of the Drill Cities.

Transmuters are the more common, lower caste of wizard, and they perform two functions. They take in the ore that the great drill produces and extract all the useful minerals and metals from it, siphoning them into reserves of materials. They then magically transmute these materials into useful alloys and shapes to form the machinery that allows the Drill City to function. Most of it goes into the drill face itself, as it needs constant maintenance to not be worn down to a nub. But they also make the glass cloning vats Eloi meat is grown in and the metal pipes and boilers that drive the city and move steam and waste. Morlock Transmuter Stones can be sacrificed to jump-start a cloning vat or permanently transform a captured Eloi's hands or other body parts into specialized forms (the same way insect colonies have specialized drones). The Chief Transmuter of a drill city would not try to lead or influence the Hate Priests, but he is influential enough to be immune to their machinations.

The Conjurers are a smaller caste of specialists. Only the most promising Wizard apprentices are admitted to their ranks. Their function is to summon and trap the Fire and Steam Elementals that power the drill city. They take great pleasure in torturing a Fire Elemental, repeatedly dowsing it in water to produce steam that drives the great machines. Ultimately this kills the elemental and then the Conjurers are driven to summon a new one. Fire Elementals are relatively easy to contain though, as they are surrounded at all times by water which they loathe. It is a cage to them. The Steam Elementals are far trickier to manage, as they can escape into the steam tunnels and wreak havoc, but their use is necessary to clean out the miles of pipes and vats that allow the city to grow food, move water around, and manage waste. Many "unfortunate incidents" in the Drill Cities are the result of an escaped Steam Elemental.

Despite being the Engineering class of the Drill Cities, no Morlock wizards, not even the Chief Transmuter, have Scottish accents. None of them. Anyone who breaks this rule will be drawn and quartered.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

D&D Supers

I've recently been taken by an idea that won't let me go, which is to run a D&D campaign as if it were a Superhero setting like the Marvel and DC Comics extended Universes.

The idea is to run D&D mostly by the book, but the conceit of the setting is that NPCs (unless they achieve super-villain status) are capped at 3rd level. The PCs are among the elite few who are Big God-damn Heroes. The campaign starts with everyone at 10th level, and they have reached these heights of power by D&Dified comic book logic. Maybe their soul was merged with the soul of a dragon, or they are the child of a God (like Hercules and Achilles), or they pulled an Artifact-level sword from a stone. Whatever. The point is that by one means or another the PCs have been plucked from among the ranks of the commoners to stand with the Super-Heroes

True magic items would be rare. Since NPCs are capped at 3rd level, they won't be making much beyond low-level scrolls and potions. Every significant magic item was either made by a Super-Hero or a mystical being of great power (dragon, angel, demon, djinn, etc.). But the PCs (unless it is part of their character concept) would not be using magic items often. (And when they need one, finding it is a Quest with a capital Q) Instead the normal DMG guidance for when to give items to PCs is followed, but instead of an item the PC develops a new power intrinsic to their existence. A super-power, if you will. The PC doesn't have a Flametongue +2, but instead all weapons wielded by the PC are +2 and  an burst into flame if he or she wills it to be.

This is both good and bad for the PCs. It's reliable (you can't lose your power as easily as you can lose an item), but also inflexible. There's no easy way to switch items if the beasty you're fighting is resistant or (worse) immune to what you've got.

Enemies would be straight out of the comics books, D&Dified. Super-villains intent on taking over the golden city, dragons conspiring with evil princes to have the best pick of the virgin sacrifices, hordes of demons trying to break into the realm of men, etc. For the most part, common, everyday life among the commoners would be fairly low-magic, but for the PCs they exist in a rarefied atmosphere of magic and mayhem.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Magic Item

Decanter of Endless Air.

Like a Decanter of Endless Water, but breathable Air. Useful for creating air pockets in flooded caves, rapidly inflating flotation devices, or making the beasty that swallowed you belch you out. Air becomes stale normally.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Forgotten Realms

Here's the Gazetteer to my Forgotten Realms. It's not Ed Greenwood's FR, and certainly not R.A. Salvatore's. The only parts you really have to read are the Guiding Principles and Rules sections. Pre-History is optional; it's not as long as the Silmarillion or anything. The Present Day should probably be at least skimmed, but the more you put into a game, the more you get out of it.

  • No spotlight-hogging NPCs. All the famous NPCs are either historical figures long dead (Elminster) or real but the stories you've heard of them are highly fictionalized bard's tales (Drizzt - there's a dark skinned elf ranger in the North, but he was never a Drow, and the stories about him are only slightly more real than Chuck Norris Facts).
  • Weird it up. FR is fairly vanilla, whereas "All Bells & Whistles D&D" can have some weird stuff. I use the weird stuff and integrate it into the FR setting.
  • Trust NPCs (or not), never stereotypes. I'm more than bored with the predictably haughty but basically Chaotic Good elves and grumpy but basically Lawful Good or Neutral dwarves. I want all the PC races to be available as villains, adversaries, or competitors, not just humans or monsters all the time. The world and society should reflect that too.
  • Points of Light / Sword & Sorcery / Albion. On the big Fantasy O' Dial, move the needle a good bit away from Tolkien and closer to an Arthurian Barsoom with a dash of Lovecraft.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Races Available - As per 5E PHB, but no Dragoborn. Yuck. See Variations below.
Classes Available - As per 5E PHB.
Alignments - Law, Neutral, Chaos. That's it. No good/evil axis.
Optional Rules - Feats but no Multiclassing.
House Rules -
  • Wizards and Sorcerers can go Chaotic Insane.
  • Initiative: Group. Roll one d20 + Highest Prof bonus.
  • Encumbrance: 1 medium item per point of Strength. Smaller items weigh 1 Str per bundles of 3 (daggers) to 20 (arrows). Armor weighs 1/2 its AC bonus when worn, full AC when carried.
  • Coins: Starting money & equipment priced in Silver. 1 gp = 50 sp.
  • Small Weapons: Small PCs buy weapons normally, but damage reduced 1 step (d12, d10, d8, d6, 4, d3).
  • Hit Points: Start with Max. Roll full Hit Dice pool each level; take new total if higher.
Race Variations
Dwarves - Typically Lawful but often amoral in the sorts of contracts or bargains struck and no internal sense of "fairness" or "full disclosure". Only the Duergar go for slavery though. Big fans of magic, like German myth. Fond of forging magic rings. Average height is 4 1/2 - 5 feet. Most common class is Fighter (Eldritch).

Elves - Halfway between Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Hellboy II. Typically Chaotic, Immortal, Immune to weather-based extremes of cold and heat. Many see mortal races as mortals look on animals. Love music and dancing, but often use Enchantment magics on non-elf "invitees" to revelry. Many humans have gotten lost in the woods or severe frostbite this way. Same size as humans but leaner. Do not worship gods (the elves were here first) but can be clerics of Ao or Cosmic Forces such as the Light of Creation of the Weave of Reality. No Drow! Drow are an Underdark cult, not a Race. However there are the Norns, a kingdom of elves in the far north, that really hate mortals and wish they'd leave the planet (use Wood elf stats). Elves of the High Forest or the Dales are High Elves. Most common class is Warlock (Fey).

Half-Races (-Orcs, -Elves, Tieflings): Not necessarily of recent Human-X pairings (and Half-Orcs never are). The old blood sometimes pops up after generations, like red hair. More common in some lands than others (also like red hair). Half-Orcs and Tieflings are always born to Humans. Half-elves may be born to elf or human parent, and usually thinks of self as elf or human, not a race. Only Aglarond and Silverymoon have enough half-elves to make their own culture. Appearance of each is very subtle and they often pass for "ugly or odd looking" humans. Tiefling's horns are small enough they can be hidden under a hood or droopy hat.

Halfings: Think of them as "surface goblins". They're sometimes called "Hobs". The sub-races are Skulks and Grunts. Here's a picture of one. Excellent turnip farmers and pig herders. Bathing optional.

Gnomes: I don't have strong convictions here, so let's go with PHB standard. Open to suggestions.


Ao creates the Weave, a field of magical energy that holds back the Darkness Beyond the Stars and allows for a space where Light, order, and life can happen. The few beings from Before The Time of Light which are inside the Weave are rendered comatose and hidden under oceans or in the hearts of moons.

Ao creates the world and the Immortals - Elves, Dragons, Titans, Ghul, Shaar, and Djinn. Most of the dragons fly off into the Far East beyond what is now the Hordelands. The Djinn head south across the Shining Sea. Nothing is really known of what happens to them.

Elves (who are truly immortal and immune to inclement weather) take up residence in the Great Forest that spans unbroken from Sword Coast to the Hordelands, north of and around the coasts of the Sea of Fallen Stars. The Ghul set up their kingdom in Unther but are few in number. The Shaar spread across the Shining South.

The Titans are few, but so powerful they declare independence from Ao and declare Toril belongs to them. Ao kills their leaders Tharzidun, Aber, Lan, and Mer, disintegrating their bodies and shattering their immortal souls into millions of pieces. Tharzidun's soul-shards form the first demons, Aber's soul-shards land throughout the world and bond with natural plants and creatures to make treants, unicorns, sphinxes, and so on. Lan's soul shards bond with rock and metal, forming gnomes, dwarves, giants, and less common beings. Mer's soul-shards remain as free-roaming spirits of places and things (e.g., the spirit of the old tree), but occasionally take more physical forms such as dryads or water elementals. The remaining Titans flee to other planes of existence.

The elves, shaar, and ghul battle for supremacy over the Realms. The elves and shaar are equally strong, but the ghul are few and beset from both sides. In desperation the ghul build Gates and start importing mortal slaves from other worlds (of which goblins and humans are the most numerous) to serve them in their palaces and as soldiers. The ghul learn how to tap into the Weave created by Ao, using Evocation to make weapons, Enchantment to control the mortal minds, and Necromancy to make use of their bodies after death.

Unther expands quickly into elven and shaar territory, and Eastward. Some human slaves escape on horseback into the Hordelands. Humans bring their religions with them from other worlds, and their prayers attract the attention of foreign Gods. Some Gods divert their attention to Toril and empower clerics and paladins.

Human Liches created by the Ghuls encounter something in the high plateau of Thay, and are changed by it. Their minds are made incapable of being Enchanted by the Ghul, and the Liches set up their own kingdom in Thay, determined to enslave as they were enslaved and tear down their former masters.

Despite harassment from Thay, Unther continues to expand. Its mortal armies consist of weak mortal soldiers, but they are legion in number and replenish their numbers faster than the Shaar or Elves can match. The Ghul begin experimenting on their mortal subjects and create many varieties of goblins, plus orcs and trolls from human stock, making their armies even more ferocious and harder to kill.

Desperate for power to resist the Ghul, the Shaar develop ChaosTech powered by the energies from beyond the Weave of Reality. Unfortunately as a side effect of reaching deeply and recklessly beyond the Weave for more power, the Shaar are exposed to the Darkness Beyond the Stars and are driven mad. Their rational plans become less rational and they cease to care about the morale of their troops. Eventually someone did something really stupid and blew up the heart of the Shaar Empire and caused it to collapse into the earth. Rivers filled in the crater, forming the Lake of Steam. Sahuagin live among the broken ruins of the Shaar capital. The living weapons developed by the Shaar (the Illithids and Beholders are most famous) retreat deep into the bowels of the Earth.

Humans and goblinois (including halflings) flee in great numbers into empty Shaar lands and also the elven lands and some join forces with the elves to resist the Ghul. The pacts forged in Myth Drannor and Aglarond set up human kingdoms within elven lands that resist Unther forces. In Calimshan and the Shining South, far beyond Ghul or elf control, the first independent human and goblinoid realms form. Bugbears become a problem in the northern forests.

Auril, one of the first elves to awaken, cannot abide living side by side with mortals. They are beneath the elves and usurpers of a world made for them. She loses elf political infighting and leads her followers onto the Great Glacier and further north into the Frozen Lands. Her followers make her Queen and worship her as a living God. She is the Queen of Storms and Darkness and no mortal has seen her Palace of the North.

Dragons, long absent from the Realms, return in great numbers from the East. They ravage through Unther and into the north, burning forests clean and leaving vast swaths of plains and scorched hills. So many Ghul are killed in one battle that Unther disintegrates. Chessenta, the Vilhon Reach, and Mulhorand declare independence, and the few Ghul who survive retreat into their temples and give up their dreams of ruling the world. The Great Elven Forest is so badly damaged that regrowth isn't possible and the loss of Elven dominance over the North becomes foreseen; large numbers of them leave by ship for the Undying Lands of the West or via Spelljammer Ship to live among the stars.

Thousands of years pass. Human kingdoms rise and fall. Wizards rise to power, create wonders, and disappear.


The Year is 2314 D.R. More than two-thousand years have passed since men and elves formed a pact at Myth Drannor to resist the Ghul and Shaar forces from the South. Some elves living today still remember that. No one has seen a Ghul or Shaar in over a thousand years however, and the elven forests were burned beyond recovery by a rage of dragons, leaving vast open plains and clear dales for humans to build cities and kingdoms. Only the Summer King in the High Forest, the Queen of Storms and Darkness in the Frozen North, and the Fair Court of Myth Drannor remain.

You Are Here:

Uthmere is the City-State of the Grand Duke Fandrell. His excellency claims to be Grand Duke of all of the Great Dale and Ashanath, but his troops rarely patrol past Carwyth Hold halfway through the Dale. That's a bit West of "here" actually - you're in village somewhere along the road to Ashanath. The great woods to the south and north keep you from wandering too far from the road.


Both the Rawlinswood and the Forest of Lethyr are inhospitable and dangerous, but for different reasons. The woods to the north are full of monsters out of Narfell and the further north. The woods to the south are thick with magical beasts and druids that like to keep city-folks out.

Impiltur is the only civilized realm within a month's travel. Its southern cities are ruled somewhat competently by the Circle of Knightly Lords, and they are the premier maritime trading cities of the Sea of Fallen Stars, taking goods to Chessenta, Sembia and Mulhorand.

Thesk to the south has one well-patrolled road kept clear and safe by Impilturian trading houses so goods can flow from the Hordelands and beyond.

Narfell to the north is, as ever, a wasteland of demon-worshiping barbarian tribes, chaotic cults, and twisted ruins. Nearly two-thousand years ago the Banite Emperor of Narfell tried to take on Unther and Thay simultaneously using Shaar weaponry and chaos-tech. The counter-attack, plus the forces unleashed when the weapons broke, have left it a ruin of wild magic - but also attractive to certain kinds of wizards or cults for setting up shop.

Damarra is full of human clans often at war with each other or raiding south into Impiltur, Uthmere and Thesk on their longboats. If you can find a way through them to Vassa, that place is relatively okay by comparison.

What do we do now? 

We crawl hexes, that's what. You're near the town of Phandelvar if you start somewhere.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Most Important Rules

What are "the most important rules" in D&D? This is a question I have asked myself recently because I'm trying to boil the game down to something so simple that my four-year-old son can play with me. Part of that simplification means simply changing the game to a board-game format where he can see the dungeon in front of him (visualizing verbal descriptions really isn't his thing yet), but this process still has lead me to believe that "the most important rules" in D&D are often overlooked, and have been overlooked in recent decades and gone unwritten entirely in the 5E Basic Rules (as far as v0.2) and Starter Set.

(And yes, of course the Basic Rules are a work in progress. But even if every single issue I discuss below is addressed by the full Basic Rules v1.0 released in December or January, it seems very odd to me to release them in such a backwards fashion)

The most important rules are not stats, or race, or class, or alignment, or anything like that. In my first iteration of Ultra-Basic D&D (or Ultra-Basic I) characters only had two stats - Gold and Hit Points. The object of the game was to collect 10 gold pieces before losing your Hit Points. That's it. And that played pretty well. We will introduce more options later.

The most important rules do not include a long and detailed monster list either. Do you need monsters? Sure, but not fifty different kinds. Those are "nice to have" extras, but you can start playing D&D with a very short list.

Is combat important? Well yes, but it doesn't have to be complicated. In Ultra-Basic I combat is resolved with a d6 and everyone has the same flat 1-3 miss, 4-6 hit probability. In my next version (Ultra-Basic II) I will introduce classes with variable to-hit chances on a d20 (Fighters will hit on 8+, Wizards on 13+, etc.), but still ignore enemy AC or all modifiers. Maaaaaybe we will introduce Advantage, but probably not until Ultra-Basic III is released when he's 6 or 7 years old. Enemies are always goblins that die in one hit, and in Ultra-Basic II we will have more than one monster type, some of whom are tougher.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves! Combat is one of the last things we resolve in D&D. Let's see the steps I had to go through to get there.

Step 1: Draw a Dungeon
Graph paper, pencils, some ink and crayon to fill in details. Just a basic dungeon. But isn't it amazing that the 5E Start Set and Basic Rules have no guidance on how to do this? How many rooms are good? Should I avoid linear maps? How often should traps occur? There is nothing on this. The dungeons in Phandelvar are actually pretty decent examples of the form, but how can a game called Dungeons & Dragons have no rules whatsoever on making dungeons?

Hopefully this will be rectified once the DMG is released and the Basic Rules are updated to include basic DM guidance, but I what are kids who just have the Starter Set supposed to do once Phandelvar is fully explored? I'm sure they'll muddle through, as I did as a kid, but still, something would be better than nothing.

Step 2: Explore the Dungeon 
This step includes a lot of sub-steps, but the Basic Rules only touch on some of them. The Basic Rules name exploration as one of the key pillars of the game (good!), and then provide rules for movement (including stealth), finding traps, and vision. Good so far.

But what about encounters? Where are the monsters? What are they doing? Are they friendly or not?

Whom do you meet?
To make Ultra-Basic I I had to come up with a Random Encounter/Dungeon Room Table, and basically cribbed the one from AD&D. A simple d10 roll for each room had odds for Monsters, Trap, Special, Secrets, Treasure and Empty. I then needed sub-rules for what sort of "Special" results you can get (Dungeon Alphabet to the rescue!), how many monsters there were, and treasure. (This is related to drawing a dungeon - filling it in. But in Ultra-Basic the dungeon content is generated as you play, not pre-generated by a DM. Four-year-olds don't appreciate well crafted dungeons that "make sense" and do appreciate very much spinning the "What's in the room?" spinner.)

Are they helpful?
In my mind, what really makes D&D a "roleplaying game in a fantasy world" is that not every encounter has to be a fight. Many monsters can be spoken to or reasoned with. Many "monsters" in the old encounter tables aren't even really monsters. Are halflings monsters? In Ultra-Basic I there's only one type of Monster (Goblins) and they're always unfriendly but in Ultra-Basic II that will change, and this is something even a five-year-old who cannot read or understand "leveling up" can use and play with. And it's lacking entirely from the 5E rules, as far as I can tell. This is amazing to me. Is the DM just supposed to use fiat to decide each encounter? That's the road leads towards railroads, in my opinion, whereas Reaction Tables leads towards a complex world that surprises even the DM.

What do we get?
Finally, we needed rules for figuring out what sort of rewards you get. Ultra-Basic I only has two rewards - Gold and Healing Potions. That will probably stay the same in Ultra-Basic II. Maybe we add silver and gems (for math and variety!) in Ultra-Basic III in a couple years.

Step 3: Define the End Game
What's the point of D&D? When's the game over? How do you know if you're making progress?

This is an interesting this - the 5E rules have no purpose. Just a hamster loop of XP and levels up until you're 20th level. Then ... what? What was it all for?

Games don't need a point. No one really asks why you're trying to checkmate the opponent's king in chess. Maybe for some people reaching 20th level is good enough. But that seems a bit empty to me, considering that you're expected to invest mental energy into the persona of a character. What does that character want out of life?

In the original version of D&D the implied end-game was to become a Lord and build a Keep, and then shephard the next generation of adventurers. Gary himself mentioned there was no reward for reaching 20th level other than recognition from your peers for accomplishing that difficult thing. I think the real reward people were looking for was to see their PC graduate into the constellation of "important NPCs" that moved and shook the game world. "King Azoun and Vandergahast have put out a call". And so on.

In Ultra-Basic I the goal is to collect 10 gold pieces. That's it. Like a board game there's no continuity between one game and the next, and that's fine for now. I think continuity will wait for Ultra-Basic III (there will be no Ultra-Basic IV), where perhaps the goal will be to collect three Dragon Gems (but you can't even try to collect them until you're Level 5).

But anyway, End Games are flexible. Maybe you want a campaign where the end game is to kill a Dragon King, or become one, or decisively defeat a Dragon Army, or just build a Keep and tutor the next generation of adventurers. But you should have one, and 5E doesn't even discuss the need. That seems weird to me.

Conclusion: Here are my "Most Important Rules in D&D"
1. DM Procedures for making dungeons (and later, Wilderness Maps, Kingdoms, Planes, etc.)
2. Procedure for exploration and random encounters
3. Reaction Tables - what sort of encounter is it?
4. Combat (and maybe a few spells) (KISS).
5. A progress metric (Can be Gold Pieces, XP, or User Defined. But have one).

Together these rules are the procedure for Playing D&D. Set-up, Exploration, Conflict Resolution, and Winning Conditions. All the options for character building and monsters to fight comes later, in my opinion, so it seems weird to me that D&D 5th Edition (as released so far) contains so much of the latter and with such obvious gaps in the former.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A revealing habit of speech

This is a post about rhetoric, but you may need a bit of background first. (Or if you know already know all about #5EConsultancyGate, skip the next three paragraphs)

In the fractal nest of D&D sub-cultures I identify with a group of bloggers, gamers, and forum posters who participate in what's generally referred to as The Old School Renaissance, or OSR. OSR gamers (as you might guess from the name) prefer to play older editions of D&D (and new games that hold to the old style) such as were popular in the 1970s and 80s, while eschewing the newer Editions. There's no formal mailing list or membership organization though - it's just a conversational identity.

Now new edition of D&D, 5th Edition, is now being released and one of the things that sets 5th Edition apart from the previous two editions is that Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of D&D) deliberately set out to win back the OSR gamers' business, and towards that end they hired two of the more prominent OSR community bloggers/forum moderators as consultants during the three-year development process. The free basic edition of the rules (Hey, free PDF! Share it with your friends!) credits Zak S. and The RPGPundit (the latter is very private and never shares his real name) as contributors. Good for them, right?

Well immediately after the rules were released both Zak S. and The RPGPundit were libeled by another group of gamers from a different set of forums. (The linked post is merely one example of what was going around) The claims made were obviously untrue to anyone who knows anything about either man, but they gained some traction for a while. It seems to be dying down now, but was ugly for a bit.

But what interested me, and this is where we get back to rhetoric, is that the people who were defending Zak and Pundit referred to D&D, and gaming generally, as "a" hobby, while the people who were lying about them called it "the" hobby. I think that's a relevant distinction and suggestive of the liars' motivations.

The Church. The government. The company. The hobby.

A habit. An interest. A preference. A hobby.

The first list is one of structures with hierarchies. The latter is one of personal matters which are internal to an individual.

You see, there are already formal structures with hierarchies in gaming. Every company that publishes a game has a hierarchy from CEO down to the mailroom. Fan-run groups like the Adventurers League have a hierarchy. But "the hobby" generally - what's that?

What I think is going on is that the liars who attacked Zak and Pundit talk about "the hobby" to imply and try to persuade their readers that "the hobby" is a group, and as such (like any other self-respecting group) it has standards of conduct and rules for admission.
"But what standards? What rules?" 
"Well, I'm glad you asked ..."
This is what's really going on. The liars want to be in charge of something, but they know that they have no hope of ever being put in charge of any of the existing hierarchies like the Wizards of the Coast corporate management, or even the Adventurer's League fanbase. Their personalities are too abrasive and their beliefs too fringe for that to ever happen. But if they can imply the existence of a new hierarchy, and get some gullible fools to believe in that, and then present a system of conduct and rules for admission that seem reasonable to someone who has never received the benefit of common sense or a classical education - then maybe they be in charge of something. They get to point the fingers. They get to say who's popular and who's not. They are the alphagirl at the lunch table, dispensing social rank to whoever accepts their authority.

It's a mind-game, all of it. A sort of sleight of hand where they first create the need for rules and order, and then provide it in the form they prefer. Don't fall for it. Your hobbies are just your hobbies, and yours alone. If you want to join a larger group, I won't stop you, but make sure it's a real one with a fair and transparent hierarchy and a means for leaving easily if they cease to meet your needs. You deserve better than mind-games and tricks.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

d100 Arcane Mutations

Table 1: Marks of the Beast (d100)

If on any roll you get a result that is contradictory to a previous result (skin is both scaly and furry), disregard and roll again. You can also agree ahead of time with your DM that you are slowing turning into a particular type of creature or monster (perhaps the same as your Familiar or a totem animal), and your DM will choose which step you take in the process instead of rolling on the Table. If this option is used, each step should be about the same amount of change as described below. (You don’t become a living scarecrow in one go)

Note on Head Adornment: Some results below cause you to grow antlers, horns, fins, etc. on your head. These are noted with an [HA]. Any subsequent conflicting roll of an [HA] result causes your original result to grow longer and thicker. Assume 6” length and 1” thickness per result.

1. Skin (or fur, scales, etc.) changes color. Roll on Table 2.
2. Skin changes to wet scales, like a fish.
3. Skin changes to dry scales, like a lizard.
4. Skin becomes soft and wet like a worm.
5. Skin changes to coarse fur, short.
6. Skin changes to soft fur, long.
7. Sprout feathers all over your body. Roll of Table 2.
8. Nose flattens, nostrils become slits, eyes blink sideways.
9. Pupils assume shape of hourglass. Can see everyone aging and dying.
10. Pupils become ovals like a cat.
11. ‘Whites’ of eyes and eyelids change color. Roll on Table 2.
12. Arcane runes appear all over body, including some on face.
13. Finger and toe nails become talons. Scratching an itch really hurts.
14. Toes become longer and webbed, feet scaly. Cannot wear shoes. Swim speed +5.
15. Small wings grow from shoulder-blades. Too small to fly. They flap when you’re nervous. Roll d3 for bat, bumble bee, or pterodactyl.
16. Neck widens to greater than head circumference. Mouth widens.
17. Hacking cough. -2 Con instead of -2 Chr.
18. Crippled leg. -2 Dex instead of -2 Chr. -5 Movement.
19. Burned hand.-2 Dex instead of -2 Chr. Cannot hold weapons in that hand.
20. Warts. Lots of warts. Several big ones on your nose.
21. [HA] Head grows single curled horn. Off center. Roll on Table 2.
22. [HA] Head grows two horns from forehead. Roll on Table 2.
23. [HA] Head grows tall ridge like a sailfish. (HA results produce more of them)
24. [HA] Hair becomes thick as noodles, twitches occasionally. Cutting it causes bleeding.
25. [HA] Head grows two antlers from forehead. Roll on Table 2.
26. [HA] 1d6 metal spikes. Roll d4 for steel, bronze, silver, green.
27. Grow barbed tail. Prehensile.
28. Grow furry tail. Prehensile.
29. Grow heavy tail. Must lean forward to walk or stand, but balance improved.
30. Furry goat legs, hooves. You can wear a kilt or short skirt but hate pants.
31. Jaw juts out, lower canines grow to 1” length.
32. Ears grow tall and pointy, with tufts of hair.
33. Eyebrows become crested and tall, like Thufir Hawat.
34. Eyes become solid and hard like stones. Roll on Table 2.
35. Body smell of sulfur. You can light candles and lamps by pinching them.
36. Body smell of embalming fluid.
37. Body odor smells of bat dung.
38. Long whiskers from cheeks and eyebrows.
39. Most body fat leaches away, leaving skin pulled tightly over bones and muscle.
40. Cheeks expand and droop.
41. Every expelled breath is visibly smoky, like a pipe.
42. Allergic to grass, trees, flowers. Sneezes expel explosion of soap bubbles.
43. Pass gas. Constantly.
44. Numerous blackheads. They occasionally pop and expel a black fungus.
45. Skin becomes like bark, hair like small branches and leaves.
46. Can only speak using ventriloquism. Lips won’t open. Direction and distance of words random.
47. Telephatic projection tourettes. “Nice tits!” “… you brown-noser.”
48. Your voice sounds like granite wheels rubbing against each other.
49. When you speak, people hear your words and sibilant hissing simultaneously.
50. Eyes glow. They are visible at night. Roll on Table 2.
51. Flames flicker and candles go out in your presence.
52. Insects occasionally crawl out from under your clothes or out of your mouth.
53. As 49, but serpents.
54. Your pockets always twitch, as if something is in there.
55. Your body appears to be in a state of decay. Patches of hair fall out, skin is loose.
56. Eyes become unnaturally further apart, grow larger.
57. Eyes merge into a central large eye. Distance vision not affected, oddly.
58. Fingers lengthen on both hands.
59. Fingers fuse on one hand into two bigger fingers. (Other hand if rolled again)
60. Lips harden into a beak. Roll d3 for squid, hawk or crow.
61. Grow gills on neck. Double length of time you can hold your breath.
62. Grow three more sexual organs (penis or vagina) on random part of body. Functional.
63. Refuse to wear pants or underwear. Can wear loose robes or skirts, but frequently expose self.
64. 1d2/day cough up a glowing slug 6” long. Roll Table 2 for color of slugs.
65. Mouth moves when you talk, but doesn’t match the words you say. A lip-reader only sees foul insults.
66. Eyes in the back of your head. You can’t see through them, but they watch things.
67. Ears move to top of head. Roll d3 for bat, coyote or owl.
68. Skin becomes loose and saggy all over.
69. Emit glow from mouth and nose. Roll on Table 2.
70. Veins become visible all over body. Roll on Table 2 for color of veins.
71. Grow 2d12 inches taller. Weight does not change, you appear stretched.
72. Tongue becomes long and flicks the air.
73. Your presence gives off a chill. Your breath fogs from cold.
74. You appear to sweat blood. (It’s just sweat though)
75. You sweat slime. Your skin is always slimy from that. Roll on Table 2.
76. Your head occasionally spins all the way around as an involuntary reflex. You can’t do it on purpose.
77. Fu-Manchu mustache, but tentacles like catfish.
78. Nose and mouth stretches out like a baboon.
79. Eyes become a field of stars.
80. Eyeballs fall out. Putting gold spheres stamped with runes in the sockets allows normal vision.
81. Nose widens at bottom to match width of mouth.
82. 2” bronze disc with runes appears embedded in forehead. Flicking it produces gong noise.
83. Your speech includes a vocal tic that sounds like chittering insects.
84. Any clothes you wear become wispy and frayed, ripple in unfelt wind.
85. When you speak, listeners see flames about your head.
86. When you speak, listeners see shadows move in their peripheral vision.
87. You regularly throw off sparks, particularly when touching things (from fingers) or speaking (from lips). Your personal items have lots of tiny burn marks on them.
88. Your hair floats about your head. If you cut it, it grows to at least 18” length overnight.
89. Limb falls off. Clockwork device grows to replace it over 1 week.
90. Heart pops out of chest, leaving scar. No noticeable effect other than lack of pulse, but everyone can just sense that you’re missing something.
91. Steam always being emitted from ears. Face turns red and ears make loud whistling noise when angry.
92. When you speak, your words also appear as glowing letters that roll out of your mouth.
93. Skin (or fur, scales, etc.) gets stripes 1d4” wide. Roll twice on Table 2. (This replaces any previous change in color, but cannot return to a solid color if you roll that in the future)
94. Skin (or fur, scales, etc.) gets polka dots 1d4” across. Roll on Table 2 for color of dots. (This goes on top of any previous change in color; base color can change in future if hasn’t already)
95. Neck grows 4” longer.
96. Skull above eyebrows turns translucent. Brain visible.
97. Line drawn down center of body from head to crotch. Right or Left side (roll d2) still looks like you, but the other side now appears to be swapped out from someone else. Any previous marks of the beast on that side are gone. Roll on Table 3.
98. Small suction cups on hands. Can pick up very small items. Cannot wear gloves.
99. Eyes spread further apart, third eye appears on forehead, forming triangle. Vision not affected.
100. All teeth replaced with pointed canines. Food must be prepared appropriately. Occasionally take “just a taste” of nearby dead flesh (whether enemies or raw steak).

Table 2: Colors of the Arcane Rainbow (d8)
1. Blood red
2. Purpleish-blue
3. Gold
4. Corpse White
5. Jet black with white spots.
6. Putrid yellow.
7. Toad green.
8. Poisonous orange.

Table 3: Who am I? (2d6)
Ethnic appearance is give in Earth-standard terms. Convert to your campaign’s cultures, of course.

   Gender  Ethnicity
1. Male    European
2. Male    East Asian
3. Male    African
4. Female  Native American
5. Female  South Asian
6. Female  Elf

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learning Spells

I love rules which are both useful game rules (they provide a system for players to interact with that has risks and rewards) and explanations for why the game world is the way it is. That's why I really liked a recent post at Necropraxis on how a magic user goes about learning spells. It's really excellent - go read it.

My own spin on this system follows. It's really a tweaking, so I make no claim to great originality here. This is just how I would do it. My main design concern here is that I want players to take risks, or at least want them to want to take risks, and to sympathize with the NPC wizards who take those risks and get a bad result. I'm also not going to re-state everything that Benjamin made in his post, so you need to read them together to appreciate the full effect. Here it is again.

Default rules are given in D&D 5th Ed. terms. Alternative rules compatible with B/X games also given.

Means of Learning Spells
There are only two ways for a magic-user (or wizard, if your game has other magic-user types like sorcerers) to learn spells. You automatically learn two spells when you level up. You can pick one of them and the other is rolled randomly. (Roll first, then pick) The only other means to learn spells is experimentation and research.[1]

Spell Research
Magic is called "the Art", but there's a logic and system to it as well. A magic-user must learn and master Arcanum, the language of magic, before casting his first cantrip. But learning to speak arcanum means that even the most puissant and rare spells can be understood by the competent wizard (at least in theory), for all magic is based on the vocabulary and grammar of power. For this reason, any magic-user may attempt to learn any spell of a level he can cast simply by taking a week to work it out. No special materials or tools are required. However, the odds of success when taking such an informal route are not good.

The Roll: Roll a d6 and apply the modifiers below. The total of your roll plus any modifiers must equal 6 or greater to succeed.

Mishap: On a result of -1 or less (after modifiers), a Risk is taken (see below) even if none was intended. 50% chance of a bad result. Roll d6 to determine which Risk is threatened.

One Chance Only: You may only attempt to learn a spell once. Each wizard player should keep a list of all possible spells in the game, and upon failing to learn a spell, that spell is crossed off forever and may never be learned without the intercession of a god or Wish.[2]

Each of the below actions modifies the odds of success by the specified amount. There is no need to improve the odds of success beyond +5. It is possible to guarantee success on the Learn Spell roll - if you're willing to pay the price. Each modifier can only be applied once, except Risk, which can equal any number the player chooses - but see below.

Base Modifier [-3 to +5]: Your base modifier for learning a spell is your Proficiency Bonus - the Spell's Level.

Extended Study [+1]. Instead of taking 1 week, take 1 month per spell level. The magic-user cannot be interrupted more than one day out of the week during this time to get the benefit, so adventuring is out of the question. The magic-user must have comfortable accommodations (at least a private room, but a private tower in a remote forest is better to reduce interruptions) and at least one servant (to prepare meals and such) for the full length of time.

Rushed Study [-1]. Instead of taking one week, roll after one day.

Lab and Materials [+1]. Access to a wizard lab with at least 2,000 gp in equipment (this cannot be assembled quickly; players should assume a six month lead time to commission the necessary tools) and the use of rare and exotic materials in experiments, costing d4+spell level * 100 gp.

Magic Library [+1]. Have access to a library of magical lore. The library must have at least 1,000 gp in books per spell level of the spell you seek to learn. The spellbooks of magic-users other than yourself counts towards this total and are assumed to have a value of 500 gp each.

Written Example of Spell at Hand [+1]. You have a scroll or spellbook at hand that has a copy of the spell you wish to learn.

Assistance of Familiar [+1]. You have a Familiar, and it does you a favor.[3]

Assistance of an Outsider [+1]. You invoke the true name of a demon, djinn, undead spirit, or similar and ask for his guidance in your research. He provides it, for a favor. See Benjamin's post for full details.

Magical Tutoring [+1]. Pay an experienced (at least 3 levels higher than you) wizard to collaborate on your research. The price will probably be steep and not denominated in cash.

Apprentice [-1 or +1]. An Apprentice is a Negative penalty during their first six months with you, after which they become a positive modifier. See Benjamin's post for more details on their personality. After 1d6+2 years an Apprentice becomes a Level 1 magic-user and leaves his master's service. [Note that an Apprentice and Master cannot assist each other at the same time, as assisting someone else's research counts as an interruption to your own research. This is why most apprentice magic-users leave their master's service as soon as they have mastered first level spells.]

Risk [+X]. By being reckless in your experimentation you increase the odds of finding a solution but cut corners on controlling the magic at hand. You can take as much risk as you like when researching as spell, but for each +1 value of the Risk you roll once on the below set of Risks. You cannot control which Risk you take. Each risk outlined below has a 50% chance of occurring. Roll separately for each risk taken.

1. Mark of the Beast. Your flesh is permanently altered. Permanent loss of -1 Chr and roll on this Table.

2. Addiction. You used mind-expanding drugs, and now you're addicted. Roll 4d6-Con. This is how many gold pieces you must spend each day (Minimum 1) to get your fix. -4 to all rolls if you go into withdrawal and casting spells has a 25% failure rate. Curing the addiction requires a Restoration spell and the permanent Level Drain of 1d2 class levels. It's possible more powerful magical healing can cure you without the loss of levels, but there is no firm information on that.

3. Explosion. As the Fireball spell, in your face. Damage type is Magic Flame. No Resistance can apply. Make a Saving Throw as normal. Damage is a Xd6, where X is the level of the spell you were trying to learn. Your Lab is a write-off, if applicable. So is your Library if you were dumb enough to keep it nearby.

4. Alignment Shift. Your alignment slips one step towards Chaotic Evil. If you are already Chaotic or Evil, the other half of your alignment slips a step. If you're neither Chaotic nor Evil, flip a coin to determine which half slips a step. If you're already Chaotic Evil, you go insane and your PC is forfeit. Hand your character sheet over to the DM and pick up 3d6.

5. Defilement. The very land around you becomes defiled and blighted. The exact range, power and nature of the defilement will vary by the type and level of spell being researched. If this is done in a populated area, 1d4 bystanders will be transformed into monsters. If performed near many corpses (such a graveyard or catacomb) the dead will rise. If done in a remote wilderness, the land becomes blighted and attracts fell beasts and magical creatures. Players should expect social and legal repercussions if they are connected with the harm done.

6. Create Monster. Perhaps you summoned a demon with the intent of making aid you, or a djinn who was supposed to give you answers. Or maybe you lost control of your magic and it turned a normal earthworm near your tower into a ravening beast 100 meters long. Or the corpse you'd been dissecting got up and jumped out the window. Regardless, you made something, and now it's wandering the world. Taking the time to stop it while it gained consciousness would have interrupted the spell research and caused the spell to be lost forever - by now it could be miles away. Normally the monster has a Challenge level equal to the level of the spell you sought to learn, but roll d20 - on a 2-4 its CR is doubled, and on a 1 its CR is tripled. Roll on the random encounter chart at the appropriate CR. The DM may specify to keep rolling until you get a result that is thematically appropriate for the character of the spell being researched.

[Note that the Created Monster is assumed to flee at its maximum movement rate for several days after its creation, until it finds a lair and can make sense of its circumstances, however that may not always be possible. Intelligent monsters are fully aware of who created them and under what circumstances. Whether intelligent or not, all reaction roles towards their creator are Hostile.]

The Odds of Success
To give a sense of what the odds of success of researching spells are, I have created the below tables. The first one spells out your Base Modifier for each character and spell level.

The second table shows your minimum guaranteed roll assuming you have access to a Lab, a Library, a Scroll or Spellbook with the spell, a Familiar, and the assistance of either a Tutor (if you're low level) or Apprentice (if you're higher). As you can see, if you assemble your resources and make friends, you can usually have pretty good odds of researching a spell.

The third table shows your minimum guarantees roll if you add Extended Research and Demon Summoning to the list of Modifiers. This is probably difficult for PCs to achieve often (as Extended Research takes you out of campaign play, and Demon Summoning is pretty dicey). But again, it shows that Risk isn't always required.

So why have these rules?
If it's so easy to guarantee success, or at least pretty good odds, why have these rules at all? Three reasons.

One, I like explaining why my campaign world is the way it is. Many of the monsters that roam its dungeons or sewers are the result of magical experiments gone wrong. These rules explain why so many wizards go mad. And so forth.

Two, I want to introduce some risk into learning spells. The primary risk I mean is the risk of failure and never being able to learn that spell. It's a defining moment in a character's development, and will shape their character for the rest of the campaign. Important rolls like that are memorable.

And three, I want players to be tempted. When they're rushed, or don't have access to a library and lab, and really, really need a spell - I want that option to always be there, tempting them. "Here you go, you can have exactly what you need, just roll the dice ..." Muahahahahahaha!!

1: I don't like allowing wizards to learn spells from scrolls and captured spell books. In practice, since I like to use wizards as NPC bad-guys a lot, I find this leads to PC wizards quickly learning every spell in the game.
2: What I've done here is make magic-users (both PCs and NPCs) nervous. If there's a spell that a magic-user desperately wants to learn, they will be tempted to do anything necessary to guarantee the odds of success. This sort of temptation is what leads to interesting role-playing, and great NPC villains.
3: I am proposing a change from Arnold K's system. Rather than the Familiar teaching you a spell, his favor only improves your odds here. The cost of the favor is the same though.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-Dice for D&D: Part II

Fleshing out the X-Dice Mechanic.

I. Tables. 

Here they are.

II. X-Dice: Rules for all Characters

How many dice do you have?
Characters have the highest number of Dice available to any of their classes, based on level. Do not sum the Dice pools. As example, an Elf F3/MU4 would have 3 HD, 1 SD, and 4 MD.

Hit Dice
Hit Points: Each time you advance a level in any class, roll HD and add Con modifiers. If the new total is higher than your current number of Hit Points, note a new Maximum Hit Points.

To-Hit: Add the number of HD you have to your attack roll. [This replaces attack tables/ThAC0]

Combat: When a player seeks to perform a non-standard attack (pushing an opponent off a cliff, disarming him on his weapon, tackling someone to the ground, etc.), opposed Hit Dice are rolled (add modifiers for high Strength to each HD). Also add any bonus from using a magic weapon to the total. Before the roll each combatant states their goal and the higher total wins. This action uses the characters attacks for the round whether they succeed or fail.

Magic Dice
Use Scrolls: Any non-cleric character with MD can attempt to use Wizard scrolls. If necessary, roll MD (adding any Int modifier to each MD) and on a total of 1 or 2 the spell fails catastrophically.

Spell Damage: When a spell that causes damage is cast, the damage is equal to either half or all of the character's Magic Dice (as noted in the spell description).

Learn Spells: Each level that a character has MD they learn 2 spells of a spell level equal to their number of Magic Dice. [Each "standard" spell level would be divided in half; e.g., Sleep now 2nd level]

[Optional] Magic Points: Each time you advance a level in any class, roll MD adding any Stat modifier to each die. If the new total is higher than your current number of Magic Points, note a new Maximum Magic Points. Magic points are used to cast spells.

Skill Dice
Exploration: Every character can try to do the following things: Climb, Find Traps/Secrets, and Hide/Surprise/Notice. Roll the dice against a static number (some traps are hidden better than others, and some trees harder to climb) or an opposed group's total (such as Surprise vs Notice).

  • Climb: This roll is primarily to determine how quickly you climb. Failure means you cannot climb the surface. You fall for damage (height determined randomly) if all Skill Dice come up 1.
  • Surprise/Notice: Always roll 1d6 (regardless of SD) unless actively on watch/trying to be stealthy.

Trick Moves: Jumping ship to ship from the topgallant? Making your way across rooftops parkour-style? Throwing a grappling hook through a window? Roll Skill Dice.

III. X-Dice: Race/Class Abilities 

Human Fighter:
Deadly Swordsman: Weapon damage equals 1/3 your HD, rounded up.
Killing Stroke: On a natural 20, roll full HD as damage.
Bash Heads: When fighting opponents with 1/3 or fewer the Fighter's HD, make a number of attacks equal to number of HD.

Human Thief:
Backstab: If the Thief is unknown to his target and strikes from behind, add HD to the damage roll.
Thief Skills: Thieves can use their SD for the following skills: Pick Locks, Pick Pockets, Remove Traps, Read Languages.

Human Cleric:
Wisdom: Clerics modify MD rolls with Wisdom.
Learn Spells: Clerics automatically know all spells from the Cleric's Church spell list.
Cleric Scrolls: Clerics can read and cast cleric scrolls.
Turn Undead: Roll MD on the Turn Undead Table.

Human Magic User:
Wands and Staves: Can use Wands and Staves, and make his own.

Spellunker: A Dwarf may roll Skill Dice to: Determine Depth/Slope, Open Doors of Stone, Bypass Traps of Stone.
Hated Foes: Dwarves add a damage bonus equal to their number of HD when fighting Orcs and Goblins.

Hidden Folk: Halflings roll 6d6 SD to Hide or Surprise in natural terrain (unless their actual SD pool is greater than that). They must be alone or only with other Halflings and not wearing metal armor.
No Magic: Halflings never gain Magic Dice, regardless of what classes they take.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Proceduralism vs Inductive Reason

This is a continuation of the conversation initiated by Brendan S. on Proceduralism and continued by Arnold K. on the difference between Proceduralism vs Consensus

If I might compress and summarize the points in those two posts, 

Brendan makes the case that the difference between old school, new school, and indie RPGs are the sorts of procedures the game has stated in the rules. OD&D and B/X have very low-level, granular procedures like determining if a trap is found, or whether an attack hits, but the games do not provide any procedures for actually playing the game. Actions like stocking up on supplies, gathering rumors, and going on adventures are implicit procedures that are passed from gamer to gamer by personal interaction. You might call them cultural procedures.

The new indie RPG scene uses procedures too, but at a higher level. The procedures tell you have to play the game with rules like "Roll dice or say 'Yes'." As Brendan describes, this makes the game easier to pick up just from reading it and you don't need the sort of personal interaction that is necessary to pick up what D&D is about quickly. But the downside is it limits the sorts of games you can play while still being true to the rules.

So far so good.

Arnold then picks up from there and tries to describe the difference between Proceduralsim versus what he calls "consensus" rule making. But personally I don't think this is a useful distinction. It's all procedures. The only question is whether they're in the book or if the group has to make them up on the spot. We call these house rules, and that's hardly a new concept.

So what's this post about? 

The more interesting question to me, when comparing old school, new school, and indie games is when we stop needing procedures entirely and can rely on inductive logic.


Consider that you're playing an elven thief named Mariel. Here are four things you might have Mariel do-
1. Pick up the rock.
2. Throw rock at yonder goblin with intent to harm.
3. Hide the rock under a blanket so it cannot be found.
4. Convince the goblin guards the rock is a valuable bribe. 

What's your chance of success of doing any of these things? 

I would say that the primary difference between old school and indie games is when procedures take over from inductive reason.

Can Mariel pick up the rock?
In old school games this is always answered logically. The rock has a weight and the PC has a Strength score. Absent the use of levers and fulcrums, that's all you need to answer the question Yes or No. If the answer isn't obvious however you fall back to the procedure - make a Strength check. 

Indie Games tend to rely on logic less and procedures more. Maybe a Test of Strength is always required (unless the answer is Yes).

Can Mariel hit the Goblin with the rock? 
Pretty much all games rely on a procedure for combat. The simple reason is that you cannot inductively reason whether you win or lose, because the necessary information (like how well you swing your sword, or if you leave yourself open to a riposte) is not something the players can perceive and argue - the dice reveal this information.

Indie games aren't so different really, but they do tend to use different procedures than old school games. Old school games are more likely to allow the players to use their "player skill" to tip the odds in their favor, perhaps with clever strategy. New school games take this even further, giving more fine grain control over the tactics of combat. Indie games, generally speaking, go the other way and take a more hand-waivey approach to combat. It might be as simple as a single roll of the dice to decide a whole fight.

Looking at the above you might say "Well, it's all procedure then - no real difference". But that isn't so. Old school games still allow for more "logic" then the new school or indie games. A good example would be the improvised use of a non-combat spell or magic item in a combat situation. What would happen if you tricked a dragon into swallowing Daern's Instant Fortress and then yelling the command word? This situation isn't anticipated by the "effects" blurb in the item description so D&D IV rules lawyers might litigate this all to hell, and an indie game that resolves combat by flipping coins wouldn't even allow you try. But in AD&D? Kablooey, I'm thinking.

Can Mariel hide the rock under a blanket?
This is the question where old school and new school games diverge. In an old school game the DM and player would discuss how big the rock is, whether bumps would be obvious, etc. A new school game would probably just roll a Hide or Disguise check.

Will you let us go if we give you this very valuable rock?
Ah, role-playing. Or as D&D IV called it, Social Challenge. DC 28. And that's all I have to say on logic vs. procedure in this category. 


So that's my input about procedure vs inductive logic. Where you draw the line between using one or the other is the key difference between indie and old school.


Actually, my conclusion was a lie. It's all procedure, from start to finish. Even OD&D is 100% procedure. And do you want to know what the old school procedure is?

Use your brain. Look at what your character is (stats, race, class, level) and what tools they have - and figure it out. And if you can't figure it out, roll some dice. Here's some dice-rolling practices we've developed to resolve the more common can't-figure-it-out situations. 

An X-Dice Mechanic for D&D

This is a rough sketch of an idea, not a full implementation. Just putting it down here.

Hit Dice. Every character in D&D, no matter which Edition, has Hit Dice. They're an integral part of the game.

At least since AD&D (and maybe Greyhawk?), different classes have had different size Hit Dice, but originally all classes had D6 HD, and gained them at different rates. Only Fighters got one every level.

What if we built on this original conception, but expand to new kinds of Dice? The first two categories that immediately jump out at me are Skill Dice and Magic Dice.

Classes are now differentiated in two ways - 
1. Classes gain Dice at different rates. Fighters have the most HD, Thieves the most SD, etc.
2. Classes can use their Dice for special abilities. Anyone can "Find Traps", but only Thieves can use their Skill Dice to "Remove Traps". Only Clerics can use Magic Dice to "Turn Undead" and Paladins use them to "Lay on Hands". 

Hit Dice become a more widely applicable mechanic than just rolling Hit Points. Instead they're a general stand-in for your combat ability, and might be used to disarm someone of their weapon, push them over a cliff, or otherwise perform a combat "stunt".

Multiclassing is easy and painless. You simply have the greatest number of dice available to you from any class (not the sum). A Fighter 5/MU 5 would have 5 HD and 5 MD.

Spells effects (such as Fireball damage) are determined by the number of Magic Dice you have, not your level.

More ideas to come as I flesh out the concept.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

D&D Next: Surprise

I am somewhat astonished that the D&D Next playtest packet has no rule for Surprise. It simply says "The DM determines who is Surprised." How far D&D has wandered from its roots that such a core provision isn't deemed important enough to be playtested...

At any rate, here is my House Rule for Surprise in D&D Next, using the preferred d20 engine.

First the DM determines whether any side of the encounter is Hidden or in the open. A Hidden force has taken the time to lay an ambush, either because they know the other side is coming (aka, an ambush) or they are opportunistically waiting for the next mark to come along (like bandits).

If one side is Hidden, the approaching side makes a Perception contest opposed by the hiding side's Stealth roll. Depending on how much time or effort has been invested into Hiding (making blinds, wearing special camouflaged clothing, or deploying helpful magic), the Hiding party can have a significant bonus to their role. Success indicates that the approaching side notices the hidden side before being attacked. Failure means that everyone on the approaching side is Surprised.

If both parties are in the open (as with a random encounter, or if a band of adventurers stumbles into a monster's lair), both sides make a Perception check opposed by the other's Perception check. Each PC makes their own Perception check, but the DM may group monsters for this purpose. Winning the Perception contest by 5 or more means that you were paying more attention and thereby gain one round of Actions while the other side is Surprised. Any results with 5 or less points difference means that no one is Surprised and initiative is rolled normally.

Characters or Monsters that are in the open may be Alert, Relaxed, or Distracted. Most of the time, you are Relaxed, even when in a dungeon, as maintaining an Alert status requires a WIS check each turn (DC 10), and once lost cannot be regained for 1 hour. Alert characters or monsters have Advantage when making Perception checks, and Distracted characters or monsters have Disadvantage. Sleeping or unconscious entities are automatically Surprised.

Once Surprise is determined in a dungeon or urban environment, multiply the highest successful Perception roll by 5 to determine the initial distance between the parties in feet. In the Wilderness the multiplier is 30 feet. If there are no successful Perception checks, the Hidden party dictates the encounter distance.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Basic Iron Heroes

Before Numenera or Ptolus, Monte Cook released Iron Heroes, a game I have some fond memories of. Iron Heroes was a d20 engine game, and its primary design difference from D&D 3.x was the idea that characters were inherently bad-ass and not dependent on magic swords and armor to stay ahead of the monstrous adversaries. A 10th level fighter with a rusty knife would be nearly as dangerous as one wielding Excalibur. It's not the sword, but the arm that wields it.

I want to offer a rule that recreates that in OD&D or Basic. Towards that end I offer two house rule ideas, one very simple and the other a bit more complex.
Very Simple: Give Fighters and Demi-humans a +1 to-hit and damage at 2nd level. This is over and above their normal to-hit progression and weapon damage. The bonus increases by another +1 every three levels beyond that (4th, 7th, 10th, 13th). Ignore bonuses from magic weapons.
See? Simple. However, personally, I find this unsatisfying. You see, one my "problems" with the current status of D&D combat is that your AC and damage are more or less fixed at 1st level (or whenever you buy plate armor), and never improve without magic. Meanwhile your Hit Points and To-Hit improve with level. But you know what's weird about that? If To-hit improves but AC doesn't, your odds of hitting get ridiculously good pretty quickly, to the point where it's hardly worth rolling. Meanwhile your damage per round becomes fairly inconsequential relative to the number of Hit Points your opponents have. It's like "En guarde! I will now nibble you to death!".

The only thing that keeps the above death-nibble phenomena from getting out of hand is the magic item bonus to damage. And while we have provided that with the Very Simple Fix I proposed above, I want to also propose a system where To-hit is fixed relative to AC at 1st level, and Damage output scales with Hit Points and Hit Dice.

Towards that end I threw together this quick spreadsheet computing the number of rounds it would take a fighter of a given level to kill an opponent of the same number of Hit Dice. This is not a fancy spreadsheet, and does not account for damage dealt back to the fighter or any other factors. However, crude as it may be, it allows us to at least ballpark what sort of numbers would be required to keep a damage-scaling Fighter competitive with player expectations formed by the to-hit-and-magic scaling fighter.

Here's the link to the spreadsheet again. Please note there are two sheets, and the important table is on the second one.

For those who don't want to click through, or find the formatting difficult to read for some reason (like you're on mobile) here's the summary of what a damage scaling fighter would look like:

At Level 1 a fighter has +4 to-hit and a damage multiplier of x1 (this multiplies the number of dice of damage his weapon does).

To-hit only increases a small amount - +5 at 5th, +6 at 10th, +7 at 15th. The reason for having a to-hit bonus at all is that I wanted something to set the fighter apart from the non-fighter classes at 1st level.

The damage multiplier increases 1 step every 3 levels. x2 at 4th, x3 at 7th, x4 at 10th, etc. You can interpret this either as a single blow that does 4d8+8 damage, or as four attacks that do 1d8+2 each. Personally I prefer the latter, as it allows a high-level fighter the option of attacking multiple weak opponents.

Magic items give a +1 to-hit and to damage, but that's the best they ever do.  It's not the sword, but the arm that wields it. Presumably in this campaign, magic items are wielded for secondary reasons, like the ability to detect the presence of orcs, rather than for flat numerical bonuses.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Top Ten Troll Question Part Two

(1). Should energy drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?

I have house rules that require you to roll your Hit Dice to do stuff, as a measure of your vitality and power. So Energy Drain reduces your current Hit Dice pool. 

(2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?

1D3 per round, for 3 rds or until extinguished. 

(3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicating instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work?

No. All poisons acting the same way is boring. There should be poisons that make you Chaotic, or insane, or induce full-body paralysis for a week. 

(4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead?

Roll of the Grievous Injury table. Maybe you'll just lose an eye. And if you die, the reason is specific (Oooh! Gut wound! All your internal organs spill out onto the floor.)

It's sort of hard to explain how much more fun the game is to die in hilariously specific ways.

(5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use?

Basically everyone is a 3e Sorcerer. 

(6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage?

Variable damage. I also offer variable to-hit bonuses.  Choices with consequences are good. 

(7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No?


(8). Should a character with an strength of 18 constitution get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?

What crazy edition are you playing? I play Basic by the book in this regard. 

(9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else?

I have five generic Saves: Might, Fortitude, Dodge, Deflect, and Will. 

Deflect is modified by your Shield bonus to AC, not a stat. 

(10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level  (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?

Bonus spells from high Wisdom at 1st level, if any.