Sunday, 4 October 2015

Wizardry Demands Cosplay

Having discussed the armor-mobility tradeoff, another balance issue in fantasy games is whether wizards get to wear armor.

In editions of D&D up to 2nd, the explanations were as vague as hit points. The metal in armor disrupts magical energies;the encumbrance limits the wizard's gestures; you need training to wear armor, which the wizard doesn't have. While earlier editions ignored the rather obvious exceptions to the first two explanations (wear leather armor; cast spells without gestures), the third eventually became canon, starting with 3rd edition. With the rationalization of this rule came the rationalization of the way out. If the wizard becomes proficient in stomping around heavy armor, at the expense of more class-appropriate character development, he or she can certainly wear it.

These game-world reasons, though, are maybe besides the point. Their slow development over time shows that a stronger reasons is game balance. More specifically, class role protection. A wizard should have reasons within the game mechanics to act like a wizard, lobbing spells from the back row, protected by tougher characters up front. So, we make the wizard weak in single combat; fantasy artillery.

But I think there's a third reason. Wizards need to look like wizards, and the archetype of a wizard (unlike a knight, or a cleric militant) has nothing to do with armor.

Here's what convinced me: Let's accept the "game balance" reason and any of the game-world reasons of conductivity, encumbrance, or training. How would the strategic wizard dress for adventure or the battlefield?

Remember, this is a world where a spell-caster can turn the tide of battle, if not interrupted by a well-timed arrow. So your wizard is standing there like the officers of Napoleonic warfare, in a bright costume of visibility and authority, ready to be picked off. In civilization things are not much better; sometimes wizards are respected, other times they're burned at the stake. The logical, rational play is to dress your wizard normally - as a goose girl, traveling peddler, pack bearer, or whatever. Letthe magic do the talking, when it needs to.

Indeed, these considerations (or maybe just the inconvenience of flowing robes and a tall hat in a cave crawl) seem to have come into play designing the Ral Partha line of official AD&D 2nd edition miniatures. In keeping with the mundane fantasy-realism of that period, the "adventuring mages" and "wandering sorcerers" all sport practical breeches-and-jerkin combos, with nary a horned headdress or navel gem in sight,

Well, to hell with that! Wizards should be flamboyant, identifiable; that should be their mark, their pride, their penalty. It's not that armor encumbers or disrupts the magic, but it'snot part of the outfit. And the outfit is necessary for the magic to work - the wizard needs to feel like a wizard, needs the ritual vestments of the role in order to believe and have the forces of the universe believe. This is a principle of hermetic ritual magic (pdf) and it is a good reason in a game world as well.

What can wizards look like? They can go for shabby but unmistakably sorcerous, like Gandalf; they can dress like a god, a priest, a performer, an extreme dandy; they can show too much skin or cover up too much skin. This series of photo posts gives a good idea.

The "cosplay" rationale also means that there are certain type of armor wizards can wear. If flamboyant, impractical, otherworldly, then the armor can be worn, but it's likely to give less protection for more restriction of movement. For example:

I would rule this "ritual armor" as costing 10 times as much as light (leather) armor and either encumbering as medium armor, to a move of 9" (Bam and Biggs) or giving only 1 rather than 2 points of protection (Cher).

Friday, 25 September 2015

Armor vs. Mobility

D&D and many other fantasy skirmish combat rules include a delicious tradeoff between protection and movement in choice of armor.

Even "D&D for Dummies" says so (via Google Books)

This tradeoff shines brightest when the DM applies old-school logic and throws in monsters that can't be defeated in a toe-to-toe combat, but can be run from. Each armor-wearer has to decide whether their armor makes them half as likely to be hit by low-level grunts, or lets them get away from slow and overpowering monsters.

The weird thing is that in  D&D up to 3.0, plate mail is really not that expensive compared to the tons of treasure you are required to harvest to level up (xp from monsters being stingy). So cost doesn't figure much in the tradeoff - especially given that armor is a common form of loot. In my campaign, armor is expensive and monsters and carousing count for more, so treasure amounts can be moderate at early levels; character typically get access to medium armor around level 2 and heavy around level 3.

The other weird thing is that as you get magic armor, the tradeoff disappears - it gives both greater protection and mobility. In my campaign, magic items are rare and the standard improved armor comes in either dwarven steel (+1 to armor class) or elven steel (+1 mobility class), where each bonus is valuable separately.

But hold on! Isn't the mobility-protection tradeoff overhyped when you look at actual medieval armor?

Plate armor wasn't all that restrictive of movement.
Armor didn't have to be expensive.
Wearing armor slows speed only through increasing fatigue.

And leather armor affording the same protection as metal, although lighter, would restrict movement in the same way, because to be effective at all against weapon it had to be thick, or treated through boiling to become a hardened material.

Well, the sovereign answer to all of this is that gaming combat doesn't have to be realistic - in fact, should include any and all misconceptions that are crucial to a fictional genre.

But here's the more satisfying answer: the mobility tradeoff is true on a large scale and over the long haul. Along with time and distance scales and archery ranges, this assumption built into D&D seems to be imported wholesale from the larger-scale wargames both Gygax and Arneson were most familiar with.

So while a heavily armored fighter can indeed run around and do jumping jacks, they tire a lot quicker from that activity. And being able to sustain a pace is what matters for a unit-based wargame where turns are a matter of minutes.

So in a gaming context there are three situations where movement matters.

1. Exploration and long-distance travel. Over ten-minute turns, hours or days, fatigue and needing to rest would definitely slow an armor-wearing person to about half the move a non-armor-wearer.

2. Tactical movement in combat. Here,movement from one foe to another, to flank, and so on tends to be short and sporadic. I've noticed that movement rates in dungeon combat, even if cut short to reflect being cautious and the possibility of making an attack. In a 30'x30' room, a plate-armored fighter's six 5' squares are enough to cover just about any kind of tacical movement needed, and an unarmored 12 squares are just excess. So even though the lobster-plated guy is entitled to more because fatigue's less likely to come in, it probably won't interfere -least of all if you are using area positioning or "theater of the mind" to run combat.

3. Hauling ass. In chase situations, armor and load will determine who catches up or gets away, and while it makes a slight difference in timing whether this is due to fatigue or movement, the ultimate effect is the sme,

4. Charging. Again, realistically an armored fighter making a long charge might suffer a round or so less of arrows and spells from the defenders before closing than their low  movement rate would indicate. But it's likely they would get there in less than full fighting trim. So, the slower movement here can reflect the fighter conserving energy.

In short, "realism" is often invoked as a reason to "fix" D&D but in this case I think the stark simplicity of the speed/armor tradeoff. If you want to cover short-term speed bursts I recommend ruling that you can move as unarmored in armor, but take 1 hp nonlethal fatigue damage per level each round you do so, that can be regained at 1 hp/level with each round of rest.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Stupid Good: The Case For Custom Alignments

It so happens that in my campaign that the party:

* contains a priest of Ygg, God of Knowledge At Any Price;
* has been fighting demons sprung from a painted canvas, who claim fealty to Lord Fraz, Princeof Deception;
* has also antagonized a hierarch of Pholtus, lawful God of Blinding Light,a narrow-minded and fanatic sect familiar to Greyhawk canon.

Yes, these could be summed up in basic D&D alignment terms as Neutral, Chaotic and Lawful respectively. Or in AD&D terms as Neutral, Evil and Good.

But a different, um, alignment of forces occurred to me. Ygg stands for knowledge, the two other cosmic adversaries obfuscate and deny it. Once this "second axis of alignment" has been sketched in, other possibilities fall into place- the holy mystical force that stands for Knowledge Good, the merciful and cruel Oblivion personifying Stupid Neutral, and the Luciferian figure who brings humanity Knowledge Evil.

This kind of thinking is much more satisfactory to me than the usual second axis of Lawful/Chaotic tagging on after Good/Evil. I mean, it's really not clear whether Law/Chaos is supposed to be about:

* a cosmic force for the organization of matter and energy?
* a political philosophy of social organization?
* a matter of personal style separating staid bankers from wackadoo Malkavians?

Best Lawful buds for life!
This makes it the weak axis, more suitable for explaining why elves and dwarves, or demons and devils, distrust each other. I mean, since when does Jehovah team with Asmodeus to fight elves, Zeus, and Demogorgon?

It's far more interesting to cast out the Lawful-Chaotic axis and create your own cosmic alignment struggle, for a campaign, region, or episode.


Step 1: Fill in the blank with some THING interesting: "_________ is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it."
Step 2: Think of ways you can be for and against this THING.
Step 3: Now personify "good" (morally upright)and "evil" (morally corrupt) variants on both the pro-THING and anti-THING forces.

Example: THE SEA is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

You can be for the Sea by celebrating its life. You can be against it by celebrating ... dryness, the creation of new lands, ice ages ... so ...

The Good defender of the sea is the mermaid goddess SHAI, who tends the dolphins and whales and bargains with land-creatures for fish using a great random wheel of coral.

The Good opponent of the sea is SAINT COURVAL, who represents the dominion of wood over water. Ship hulls, docks, stilt houses are her domain, she blesses the salt-thirsty mangrove's roots, and her exorbitant ambition is to plank over the whole surface of the sea.

The Evil defender of the sea is the predator DAGON, half squid, half shark, bringer of the tsunami, begetter of the hurricane.

The Evil opponent of the sea is THULIS, Ice Demon, Wind of the Arctic Pole and Presence of the Ice whose lust is to roll forward the glacier, gather up the seas in piles of ice, and lock up the tides forever.

See, players like to think in terms of good and evil - the bright knight versus dark demon is a fantasy cliche. This cuts good and evil down to size - while the distinction looms large in players' minds still, it's just a lifestyle choice within a larger and more clearly defined struggle over the way the world should be. So, strange bedfellows and moral dilemmas are more compelling and believable than if you have your second axis based around, "Say, I rather admire the way you carry out completely unacceptable actions in an orderly and predictable manner."

Really interesting things happen when you insist on treating these alignments on a par with good and evil. Players have the option to cast their lot with one side or the other or remain neutral. Spells can detect friends of the sea, items can only be wielded by friends of the land, But if you don't want to give alignment such powers (anyway, I don't in my own campaign), the system can still be a structure for the world and its struggles.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dukljan's Very Gameable Palace

The city of Split on the Croatian coast was built on the palace of the late Roman Emperor Diocletian. Or should I say built in - because the sixty-foot walls of that expansive compound, 500 by 600 feet, bounded the medieval city for hundreds of years. Dark Ages refugees from a nearby town fled to the well-preserved fortress and in time filled in the open spaces with narrow, tall houses and cramped streets. The temple of Jupiter and the mausoleum became a church and a cathedral.

I have just been to visit this postapocalyptic triple-exposure of Roman, Medieval and Late European Touristic. In the central square, former Peristyle of the palace, a rococo cathedral tower overlooks ruined columns and healthy arches. A faceless black granite sphinx from Egypt, as old to Diocletian as his ruins are to us, passes silent judgment on the grimacing heraldic lions carved on the cathedral columns.

Behind that archway is built Diocletian's split-level (sorry, but that is the mot juste) private apartments, the lower, vaulted chambers mirroring the upper works.

In his day these dungeons were flooded with a higher sea level, and his private boats floated past the pillars. As they dried, they filled with twelve feet of garbage from the dwellers above. Now they are excavated and impressive.

And what might dwell in these forgotten chambers beneath the crowded city? Balkan folklore abounds in monsters, most appropriately the chained devil Dukljan, a memory of the works of the late Emperor (on the medieval understanding that any sufficiently advanced architecture has to come from the devil.)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Dragon World

Oh yes, I'm running games a lot .. consolidating my 52 Pages and megadungeon projects... new ideas here and there. It's just that the will to blog about them is not there yet.

Here's something I can show - another themed encounter table. I was writer's blocked on filling a whole table with dragon stuff. Then I had the idea to mix it with classic/cliche dungeon stuff as well. That let me finish it out quickly.

(As with the rest of these, the details are not quite D&D and not quite not D&D.)

Monday, 3 August 2015

Consolation Ability Bump

Observation 1: New players often ask if there is any way they can increase their ability scores. Old school dogma states that only magic can do the trick (often, literally through a magical trick feature.)

Observation 2: The visible frustration in old school games when a player rolls 1 on their hit point die at a new level.


Well, this works because all my classes roll d6 for hit points with various modifiers. But in a more standard game, it would end up giving benefits to small hit dice types over bigger. YOu can either roll with that as a feature, or try this hack; you gain the ability bonus:

d4: on a roll of 1 ,and 3-6 then rolled on d6:
d6: on a roll of 1
d8: on a roll of 1, or a roll of 2 if 5-6 then rolled on d6.
d10: on a roll of 1, or a roll of 2 if 3-6 then rolled on d6.
d12: on a roll of 1-2.

For monks' starting HP roll, if you're not using "maximum HP at first level" or similar, the stat gain ison a roll of 2 or 3 on 2d4; for rangers, 2 through 4 on 2d8.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Five, No Six, Weird Gem Phenomena

Follow up to the table ...

1. Looking at a particularly large piece of banded malachite that had been set as the centerpiece of a table, the land-baroness Xuvena pareidolically descried a more-or-less accurate topographic map of a tract of land she recognized as bordering between three nearby baronies. The treasure she buried there is marked on the map by a small, cross-shaped incision in the malachite.

2. The loose shell of a flail snail, irritated by a chip of crystal, dropped a pearl of like scintillating colors. Viewing it from close up does not lead to confusion, but rather a pleasant, subtly addictive disorientation. The value of this nonesuch is inestimable.

3. Gromstones and hellstones are autoluminescent green and red gems, respectively, that legend says, carry a terrible curse. Their wearer or bearer over months will grow ill, sometimes disfigured by tumors, sometimes by a suppurating rash, or else simply wasting and shriveling away. Only a lead casket, traditional remedy against magical emanations, can keep the stones safe.

4. A new aesthetic fashion in the capital, spread by itinerant philosophers of impermanence and fatalism, has got all the most novelty-crazed courtiers eagerly buying up gems with flaws. The flaws are supposed to represent the inherent imperfection of the universe. Actually, the philosophers are shill adventurers hired by the gem merchants' guild to help offload their faulty product at a premium price. Or so says the rival jewelers' guild, who hires another group of adventurers to discredit the new trend, whether by violence, unmasking, or more likely slander and mockery.

5. Dreading the denouement of a cliche, you nonetheless climb up the idol and pry out its gem eyes, two enormous citrines each worth a bishop's ransom. Your companions steel themselves, but the idol remains blissfully inert, in spite of your many backward glances on the long journey home. You wake up without eyes. The idol can see again.

6. A piece of amber, a trapped fly inside. If magical light shines through it onto a clean white wall, a tremendous shadow-fly is formed, and does its caller's will for a while before dissipating.