Thursday, 10 December 2015

Interesting Buffs Are Visible Buffs

I've had enough experience now with the spell lists of D&D and with creating my own distillation and derivative to notice something. Prayer and Bless, spells that give mechanical bonuses to friends' die rolls, are boring. This is usually masked by the existence of more useful spells at their levels, so they are rarely memorized. But working them out for my own game,where B-list spells become useful due to the no-duplicate-spells rule ... yeah, there's still something tepid about mechanical bonuses.

Is it that spell-casters would rather strike with their own effects than throw buffs on friendly characters? Not really. Enlarge and Haste shimmer with awesomeness. In my own campaign, the lowly Shield spell conjures forth a short-range, moveable force shield that gives +5 AC,maximum 20, versus attacks from one direction. This has been most welcome.

No, the real problem is that bonus-giving spells are abstract, intangible, bloodless. They exist in the rules, not in the world that characters can see or interact with. Look at the difference between:

* A Bless spell that gives you +1 to die rolls for a given time .... and one that sets a guardian angel over you, who lets you re-roll one die affecting you at any time.

* A Strength spell that gives you +4 to the stat ...and a Strength spell that lets you bend iron like lead, lift half a ton overhead,  and wield a huge improvised weapon for d12+4 damage.

* A whammy that gives your sword a +2 enchantment ... or a mojo that makes it crackle with red fire for d6 extra damage, or glisten with arctic cold for+2 to hit and damage.

"Hey, but healing gives back abstract numbers - hit points -and it's highly desired!" That's true, but the exception proves the rule. Character types that do nothing but heal are derided as boring to play even if they're valuable to the party. Fortunately, the above examples give a formula to improve any boring effect:

Make it concrete. Make it material.

By creating a visible thing, rather than just tweaking a stat, you make it interesting. Let's apply it to boring, by-the-numbers healing.

* A healer who spins silk casts and bandages from her fingers like a laid-back Spider-Woman.
* A healer who blesses food to have healing properties, with the catch that there must be a different kind of food or drink in the feast for every 2 hp healed.
* A healer who needs to wash you in water for light wounds, a bath for critical wounds, and full Baptist immersion for the strongest effects.

* This dude from 3rd edition. He's great at regenerating limbs. If you're injured but not maimed, he'll grow you a new limb which you can use until the old one gets better, at which point it falls off.

One thing you'll notice about all these is that their presence in the material world starts sparking off ideas for creative uses, advantages and disadvantages, just like the Force Shield beyond giving an armor bonus can also be used to stop a door or carry a load. If something only affects the rules level, there is only one use for it. A big part of the old-school philosophy is letting things exist and work in analog simulation space: descriptive problem solving instead of (or at least in addition to) skill rolls. Making buffs (and magic item and monster effects) visible works with that.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Running and Hacking the Lantern of Wyv

At London's one-day convention Dragonmeet last weekend I ran one of the One Page Dungeon Contest winners from this year, "The Lantern of Wyv" by Michael Prescott. As usual, I find one-page adventures near perfect time-wise for four-hour convention slots (though this slot was more like 3 1/2), but can't resist tinkering with the adventure as written.

The pregenerated characters were all based on rock stars from the 60's, mostly associated with the Rolling Stones, in homage to the song "Lantern." Each one had a secret goal - to use the Lantern to get back home; to gather white "moon pebbles" or wyvern venom for, um, alchemical purposes; to experience new sensations; to rid the Bay of the wyverns that had taken over since the owner of the Lantern died; to scrounge spells; to make sure the wizard buried there is resting easily. Some changes were:

1. The adventurers start from a village a half day's walk away from the bay,populated by refugees from the wyvern plague. They had 1/6 chances of encountering a wyvern and a human hunting party from the survivors in the bay, and got the latter. These gave useful information that the wyverns are attracted to shiny and colorful things, and traded a dose of anti-venom for some food and equipment.

2. More detail about the tower where the flying barge "docks" (25 feet above the top). The wizard Radomenus has only been dead 20 years and the tower was the site of her funeral and wake. It's a three-floor octagonal construction some 20' wide and rises 25' with its top levels blasted away (the stone appears melted, which wizards may know is the signature effect of a high-level white fireball). All around the tower in the long grass are melted chunks of stone and the pieces of a dismantled spiral stair.

Also in the grass and leaves by the tilting wooden door is a small iron figurine of a cricket-bodied man in the act of playing the fiddle and bow. If brought within 5' of a place where Radomenus has lain (the biers in the tower and the barge, the black table in the Lantern) the residual radiation will inspire the figure to chirp out a slow rhythm, which gets more hectic with proximity to the white sand or to Radomenus herself.

Inside on the ground floor are scattered, decaying folding chairs (the wizards at the wake quarreled on leaving and the place was never properly cleaned up) surrounding a bare wooden bier with few surprises. A few balled-up scraps of paper when put together reveal a neatly scribed program for the funeral. In the game I prepared this prop on the train up and threw wadded-up pieces of the puzzle at the players as they scoured the floor. This gave such clues as "shrouding and shielding of the body", the hymn "that is not dead which doth eternal lie,"and the conclusion of the wake with an "abolition of the tower."

Using rope to go up past the middle level, with some uninteresting long-spoiled food and drink left over from the wake, the adventurers found themselves on the melted stump-roof of the tower and waited until the flying barge came to stop there, 25' up. A levitate spell from the gnome and some ropework had everyone up there quickly, although the healer fell and broke her ribs.

Using the information from the hunters, everyone lay low and covered up their armor for the ride and survived without a wyvern attack (1/6 chance, up to a certainty if showing bright or shiny objects).

3. There had been a lot of ropework getting up the stairless tower and onto the barge, and rather than go through all that again I decided to make the central shaft of the Lantern different. The levitating magics that allowed people to move between levels are still in place, but have become unstable. For each level in space, each 5' area around the rim of the shaft and each minute in time roll a d6, where 6 = "going up quickly" and 1 ="going down quickly." Various ways to navigate were tried, including trial and error, rope, and throwing flour into the air to see which way the currents go (adventuring use #2,407 for flour). The slight chaos thus caused had the gnome on the third level and the rest of the party on the first.

4. The first level, along with the radioactive "new flesh" healing slab, had the addition of some formless lumps of flesh that used to be servants. I was ready to use them in a fight (as lemures) but seeing no need to kill time I instead had them just be features in an empty room, that protested and asked to be returned to oblivion when put on the resurrection slab.

5. The second level was mostly unexplored, although the shaft room was the venue for the final fight. I had prepared a map of my campaign world with crossing ley lines for the players to find, as well as a kind of a game where a wizard could piece together torn up and incomplete spell names and descriptions to create unreliable new magics.

6. The third level was pretty much as described. The gnome tiptoed past the bulk of the transformed Radomenus (sleeping, by my dice) and messed around a bit with steering crystals and the pit of radioactive sand before filling a wineskin with the stuff and, casting it into the flux currents, found one to gently go back down.

At that time, looking at the less than 30 minutes remaining, I decided that Radomenus would wake up and crawl down for the final boss fight. Well, 8 hit dice of blob don't last long against eight level 4 characters, and the one lightning bolt she licked off before Hideous Mirth and a hail of arrows got to her only critically injured a henchman. I didn't even think to have her summon wyverns before descending, so the party got cheated out of that experience as well. Next time she will be better prepared...

Resolution 1: Prep without mercy. These are one-shot characters and there's no need to be gentle.

Resolution 2: The one-page format lends itself to four hours pretty easily, so any padding added at the front will detract from the meaty, cool stuff at the end.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Paraphrase Third-Party Conversations

It's always an awkward moment in any role-playing game when the game master has to represent two, or worse more, non-player characters talking to each other. The exercise resembles nothing so much as young Danny's conversations with his own wagging finger in "The Shining." Using funny voices, the GM ekes out an extended scene while the players sit and watch.

But this is as destructive of the social nature of RPG as any paragraphs-long set-piece room description or boxed text would be. The point of the game is to construct a shared reality through interaction. Awareness that you, the GM or player, are entering into a monologue-as -dialogue should be a sharp signal to shift gears.

To what, exactly?

While some advise to skip such scenes entirely, I don't think it's possible or desirable. Instead, what I do now when I feel a sock-puppet play scene coming on is to paraphrase. That is, switch from this:

COURT WIZARD (bad Peter Lorre impression): Eeeuhh, my lady, what these adventurers propose is verrry reckless.
QUEEN (bad Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones impression): But the bones of my forefathers are endangered if the rumors are true!
COURT WIZARD: They were placed there to watch over an ancient evil! Who knows what these bumbling louts will awaken?

To this:

YOU: The Queen supports your mission to rescue the bones in the tomb, but the wizard is agitated and warns her that you may disturb an ancient evil.

This leaves it open for the players to intervene and address either party, at which point a player-GM conversation can take place in character again.

Come to think of it, the goal of maximum interaction also suggests a light touch when describing scenes, but that'a topic for next time ...

Friday, 6 November 2015

Easy Rule for Broken Arrows

Among the logistics of adventure gaming that I currently handwave is the depletion of arrows and other missile ammo. In practice it's too tedious, forgettable, and character-sheet-messy to cross off every arrow (and pick them up again).

So, if there is a thing that people are supposed to do, and they don't do it, and you think it adds to the play of the game, it's on you as the rules hacker/designer to make it easy. I think as long as people are buying arrows in lots of 12 or 20 they should pay attention to depletion. But until now I haven't come up with an easy rule that makes some kind of sense.

So happy, sucking up all your ammo.
Here it is:

1. If an arrow or crossbow bolt does damage but does not kill its target, cross it off; in effect it gets stuck in there and broken off by the still-alive creature. Sling bullets are hardier, so do not suffer this fate.
2. If the party flees the scene of a combat without time to rest and pick up missiles, anyone who shot missiles crosses off two if the fight was short, five if the fight was long, and more for epic fights. If a player thinks this is too many, they are free to keep track of their missiles one by one.

If your players are marking down TWELVE ARROWS or TWENTY ARROWS IN QUIVER, they can just cross off letters from those phrases as ammo gets depleted. Same goes for TWENTY BULLETS IN POUCH and TWENTY QUARRELS IN CASE.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Bigger, Badder Gelatinous Cube

Gelatinous cubes in D&D have a strong bid to be one of the top ten iconic monsters. They embody the silliness and peril of the dungeon, the conceit that a whole ecology has sprung up around this artificial monster zoo with perfect 10' cross-section corridors. You can outrun them, perhaps, but you can't outflank them, and therein lies their threat.

My players killed a wandering gelatinous cube, in the last session but one. They were lucky I filled an oddly shaped but unkeyed corridor in the Castle with peaceful if creepy slugs whose markings resembled human faces. The slugs creeping out of the way of the coming cube alerted a rear guard, whose location at the edge of the lantern light would have otherwise been just what the cube is made for. Now aware of something fishy, they saw light reflections on the surface of the cube and melee was joined.

G-cubes in AD&D go down easy, with only 4 hit dice. Even the players remarked on the oddity of a 10' cube of biomass being so easy to kill. AD&D didn't even make them immune to blunt weapons and taking only 1 damage from piercing (as any amorphous corporeal creature does in my game), but a couple of rounds of magic missiles, a few slashes, and one big sword crit did the deed.

Remember, this is a space filled with solid jelly equal to four hill giants in a huddle. Really, it's more a surging obstacle than a monster you can trade blows with. And the trouble doesn't stop when you kill it: the cube should spread proportionately,creating a 6 foot high mound of jelly spread over 20 feet of corridor. Jelly that for a while will retain its paralytic qualities. As you clear it, more slumps to the floor. The players had to spend a long time clearing it to the side, during which some wandering boring beetles appeared, but lost resolve as the party pushed the gel forward at them. (Yes, the paralytic mass has some potential as a short-duration weapon.)

Below is a write-up that shows-not-tells the other observations and innovations I had after the encounter. You'll see that I reject the traditional increased chance of surprise in favor of more descriptive factors that give it an edge, in line with the more situation-based way I handle first moves in combat.


HD: 16 (attacks and saves as 4 HD)
AC: 9 [10]
MV: 3
AT: Engulf 2-8 on a 10' front, save or paralyzed; transparency.
DF: See below.
Mind: Mindless.

This mass of transparent, semi-rigid jelly by preference takes the form of a 10' cube, but can squeeze itself by 50% in any single dimension with corresponding elongation, if needs be. It may have been created long ago to clean the corridors of some underground complex, but along the way has picked up some antisocial habits.

The cube sweeps up and digests organic and siliceous matter: flesh and bone quickly, wood and stone more slowly, but cannot process metal. Owing to its composition it is particularly fond of bone and can smell it at 100', flesh at 30'; in other respects it moves blindly.

The gelatin is translucent, and so virtually invisible if a light source is not within 20' to reflect off its surface. This is not the case if it is carrying partially digested debris (10% chance), metal debris (10%), or metallic treasure (5%), all of which will appear to be floating in the air.

It attacks by surging forward suddenly in one direction. Any creature within melee range takes an attack. A hit means partial engulfment by the gel and its secretions that are both corrosive and paralytic. A failed save on a hit means the creature is paralyzed for d6 turns if human-sized or smaller, rounds if larger. Creatures that do not fall back are engulfed if the cube moves over them; they are automatically paralyzed, take damage each round, and in any case will suffocate to death in a number of six-second rounds equal to their CON score. Digestion is a matter of minutes.

The cube cannot be harmed by blunt weapons, lightning, or cold, and has the immunities of the mindless. Piercing weapons do a maximum of 1 point of damage. Slashing weapons do full damage, the best way to kill a cube being to slice pieces off it. Even on a miss a slashing weapon will scratch the barn-like surface of the cube for 1 point. However, if the cube moves over its sliced pieces it will start to reabsorb them, regaining 1 lost hit point a round. Even with a slashing polearm, which gives immunity to the cube's melee attack, it can take a very long time to kill a cube this way, while it presses forward at 30' a round. Escaping a cube can be as easy as running or ducking into a small door, but dead ends can be fatal.

Fire harms it for full damage with no saving throw, in the manner of an egg white, the "cooked" pieces sloughing off. After it is dead, the cube will subside into a formidable pile of jelly 6' high and 20' diameter, slowly turning cloudy gray. The gel loses its corrosive and paralytic properties after death, to a depth of 1' from contact with air.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dragonmeet 2015: Carry the Lantern High

Dragonmeet, London's one-day gaming convention, is coming up on the 5th December and unlike last year I can actually attend. It is my tradition to run an adventure from the one page dungeon contest, using the 52 Pages system, and name it after a rock song. This year is no exception, as I run Michael Prescott's winning adventure.

In which you have to get to that octahedron in the sky and wrestle forth its secrets. And now the theme will extend to the pre-generated characters, viz.

Well, there isn't much of a schedule visible yet because hey, Dragonmeet. But I am looking forward to it!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Street Guide Without Streets

Cities in adventure games demand a different logic than underground or wilderness adventures. The house-to-house detail that has traditionally characterized city supplements doesn't work and isn't needed, as Zak S first figured out in Vornheim.

Is all of this strictly necessary?
Wildernesses or dungeons are places where access is difficult (so mapping them is fun),but cities are places usually set up so that access is easy through a network of streets (so mapping them is pointless). There is discovery, but it doesn't follow geographical lines. The exceptions to openness -- forbidden cities of privilege; no-go slums of peril -- prove the rule. These areas cease to work as cities do in an adventure game, and begin to work as dungeons, like the hoary cliches of the monster-infested urban sewers or necropolis.

In my own Muleteers campaign, built from Joe Bloch's works, the Grey City counterpoises the tentpole dungeon of the Mad Archmage. Visits to the city sometimes end in impatience to get on with the adventuring, but still can take up to half of a four-hour session. But even though I'm using a detailed street map of the place, the geography never seems to stick, I don't keep a good idea of what shops are where, what they are like, and so on.

This suggests that I need a way to write down and systematize what matters in the city experience.

The Muleteers use the city for the following activities:

  1. Buying equipment
  2. Selling and identifying treasure finds
  3. Leveling up (taking one day per new level, in my rules)
  4. Carousing and other means of spending money for experience
  5. Brokering deals with religious, trade, scholarly and government bodies
  6. In the campaign's early days (less so now, as action has concentrated onto the megadungeon and frontier village), mini-misadventures from random encounters in the streets
For the first five, the journey and exact location are not as important as what can be done there. The random happenings (#6) do sometimes spill out into a full-fledged chase, but for this only a vague sense of geography is needed: the city is divided into districts; each district's streets all connect to each other and the process of finding out where things are is usually trivial; only between districts are there changes of atmosphere, walls and divisions.

The result is this template and guide (click to enlarge):

You'll see that with access to private and secret establishments, there is a process of discovery in the city too, but it works differently. The examples give an idea how: random encounters and establishments, if treated right, give clues and leads to others. This can be expanded to whole districts of social elites being off-limits unless you know the right people. I'm going to try this method at the next city phase of our adventures and see how it turns out.

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.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Drop a Gem on 'Em

Yes, this table of gems as found object is cool but it's intended to work backwards, after you've determined gem value rather than before. And running Castle of the Mad Archmage as I do, more than once I've been brought up short by a treasure description that reads just, "6 gems."

The first time, I devised some method of multiplying d20's and d10's that generated rich enough gems to insta-bump the party a level or so.

The second time, I thought "Let's roll 3d6, take the lowest as the number of zeros, and d10 as the lead digit." Then after rolling a couple of gems, "OK, lowest minus one."

(Later, I figured out that the first method gives an average gem value about 50,000 and the second, 5,000. Lowest of 4d4 x d10, however, gives an average value of about 700. All heavily skewed, ofcourse; the typical gem will be closer to 50.)

And then I really wanted a gem table, and of course because AD&D or 3e is not good enough I had to roll my own. Including fantasy gems. It's weird that all the gem tables in D&D have not included otherworldly gems. Like the glowing green "gromstones" I imagined as a teenager, or some possibilities that arise from the infrared spectrum. And there are real stones that sound like the products of fantasy - iolite (renamed here "Jolite" to stop being misread as "LOLite") and alexandrite.

The true gems are really rare (only about 6% chance) but you can bump things up for richer hoards by making some or all the dice d6, maximum 4.

Uncut gems are a cool find. Will they discover a flaw, or a rare inclusion? Can scrying magic bump your sales price?

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Security Through Oldschoolity

Recent discussions started by Kiel and continued on G+ have got me thinking about why completely separating an adventure's text from its map, or printing the map devoid of details, still seems like a viable idea to publishers. Is it just tradition?

Looking at the design of the first TSR modules, it seems clear that one goal was to have the map contain as little information as possible, so that an accidental peek by players behind the screen would not reveal too much.

Thus, the need to constantly flip back and forth between the big map and the numbered section of text, rather than using map insets in the text or text notes on the map.

This technique is what security experts call "security through obfuscation." By making things hard to find for yourself, you try to make them impossible to find for others. Closely related is the idea of "security through obscurity," which you also saw in old school Advanced D&D with the injunctions that players not be able to access the DM book or monster manual. And of course, the very cerulean color of the old-school maps is another security device, to make them unreadable by the xerographic technology of the day.

Today, with everything available online legally or illegally for most published modules, the best defense is just to assume that players are their own security; that they play not to defeat you, but to enjoy discovery and surprise;and that you the GM help them in this goal by keeping the map discreetly covered, but with whatever marks are necessary to help you run the game smoothly.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Road Warrior Backwash

Mad Max: Fury Road is as great an adventure scenario and visual production as everyone says it is. But did it ever show out the concept of backwash: when an idea developed in one medium (say, fantasy literature) incubates andmutates in a derivative medium (say, roleplaying games)  until the mutant breed becomes the new standard and washes back into the originating medium.

The derivative medium is, as others have pointed out, Games Workshop's 40K and in particular its Orks and their Gorkamorka subgame, spawned from the unholy union of The Road Warrior and football hooligans. But damned if by parallel evolution or homage over 35 years, George Miller hasn't returned the dividend in the form of tribal skinheads called Warboys (or is it Warboyz?) and even a musician stand.

Now you get it.
Indeed, the way 80's and 90's franchises are clawing out of their shallow graves these days, I'm wondering if the keepers of the Aliens world wouldn't do well to inject a little Space Hulk and undo their last few regrettable outings.

The "Citadel": just me overreading, or a really high pitched dog whistle for nerds?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

This Monster Has No Picture

If you doubt the value of art, look upon the creatures in the AD&D Monster Manual that have no illustration. When you leave out the "you know what they look like" (bears, lions, etc.) and the hard to see vermin (cerebral parasites, ear seekers, floating eye, slithering tracker, gelatinous cube), and the "souped-up version" (ghasts but tell me why, why the neo-otyugh gets two illustrations of its own) and the inexplicably passed-up opportunity to illustrate a nymph ...

and the masher, already humiliated enough from losing the purple-worm status it enjoyed in Blackmoor (but it had art, it just got lost) ...

you are left with the monsters that have no illustration because there is nothing to illustrate. There is the shadow, which is visible but shadowy and also would have made a fine illustration. And then there are the monsters that are invisible by nature.

Also inexplicably, there are three of these. You have the aerial servant, the invisible stalker, and the wind walker. Each of them is spun off from the air elemental with a few variations in immunity.

Ral Partha's Aerial Servant. Funny.
Does nature create redundancies?  Ask the dolphin, tuna and penguin. But art demands unity; novels reuse characters, though it stretches the credibility of coincidence; and so, there is something more satisfying about surmising that these three creatures are all just different aspects of the same elemental being.

Otherworld's Invisible Stalker. Funny.
  • The aerial servant responds to a cleric's high-level spell. With the wisdom of holy magic, the spell only contracts the servant for a clearly defined short-term mission of capture and return, using the power of religion to control it. As a result, the creature serves willingly and commits more of its essence to the task, appearing with a nigh-unstoppable 16 hit dice.
  • The invisible stalker responds to a magic-user's high-level spell. This contract of service is more loosely defined, and tempts the wizard to push his or her luck at the risk of having the stalker undermine the instructions. Under these terms, the creature commits less essence, appearing with only 8 hit dice.
  • The wind walker is one of these creatures, loosed from service by the death of its summoner a long time ago, or bound to this plane because of some mishap. It is easier to hit because it abandons its dutiful silence to howl and rush, and weaker because of its long residence on the material plane (implying that there are fresher, larger specimens roaming around.) Alienation from their homeland has also turned wind walkers evil-natured and indiscriminate in their destruction. Their telepathy is something implicit in the description of the aerial servant and invisible stalker, else how would those creatures understand instructions in all the possible languages of wizard-dom?

Wind-powered walker is much cooler, anyway.
So, although naturalism in a magic world may breed a huge variety of invisible monsters, from the players' point of view the whole game of figuring out "oh, what invisible monster is attacking us today,or maybe it's a normal monster turned invisible by that darn mad wizard" is not really worth the candle. As well as being disrupted, very simply, by the handy bag of flour.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Improving 52 Pages: Overkill and Monster Experience

So if we are going to be handing out experience for monsters, and the 100 xp per hit die rule is generally good in my experience, there is one situation where it appears to fall down: overkill, where a higher-level party gets an overly large amount of experience for an encounter with six giant rats that is trivially dealt with.

To put it formally, a group in control of tactics is going to have a much easier time dealing with 8 x 1 HD orcs than 1 x 8 HD giant, for any number of game mechanical reasons. The danger ... the bad player behavior that you don't want the rule to encourage ... is that players will seek out weak rather than challenging combats in order to advance. And even if they don't (because that is a rather dim view of what they want in the game), they will have a weak encounter and realize it gave them quite a chunk of experience and wonder why the system is not pushing them toward the more exciting kind of play.

AD&D, as I've mentioned before, solved this just by giving very low xp awards for low-level monsters, altogether. Combine this with exponentially increasing the amounts of xp needed to level, and you have a situation where a high-level character effectively gets peanuts even from single-handedly wiping out a company of 100 orcs. Allow me to demonstrate the special technique of statistics:

That is not a typo: a single AD&D fighter, forced to gain experience only by fighting, has to kill 138 typical 1 hit die monsters to reach second level, so I've scaled everything from there. Going up in level, this number drops to a "manageable" 53 2nd level monsters to reach 3rd, but after 7th level experience required out-climbs monster experience again. To reach 10th level, over 15,000 orcs have to bite the dust under your sword, making your share of wiping out a small orc platoon seem negligible anyway.

(As I recall from playing AD&D, we were able to level at a reasonable pace not from monsters or even monetary treasure, but thanks to the generous experience awards for magic items. And you wonder, why the obsession with taking treasure and magic items away from the party...)

Of course, AD&D being AD&D, Gygax also put in a completely unnecessary rule toward the same goal, further complicating experience awards by instructing DM's to add up the levels and HD equivalent on each side after a combat, and dock the party proportional experience if they outpowered the foe. This rule, besides being cumbersome to apply and hedged round in even vaguer clouds of subjectivity, seems to be more appropriate to the original 100 xp/hit die rule.

My concession to this logic, within the 100 xp/HD system, was to have characters gain only 10% of the usual experience from monsters they outclassed by 2 or more level equivalents, and 50% if outclassing by 1 (although I didn't really apply this last one). In practice, however, even the 10% rule created an awkward splitting of points between higher and lower level party members.

Here's my latest try, and we'll see how it does in actual play.

Rather than using division, it uses subtraction: higher level characters simply discount one or two creatures of a sufficiently lower level. Although this appears in the "basic" 52 Pages rules that only go up to third level, the intent is to increase geometrically, so that 4 monsters per character are discounted at 3 levels up, 8 at 4 levels,, and so on.

If this means that an 8th level party of 5 can plow through a regiment of 320 orcs without getting any experience ... well, after the first 80 orcs or so fall without any casualties in return, the DM is better off just calling a rout than gaming through the whole tedious sequence, hoping to overwhelm the party tanks with a slew of lucky hit and damage rolls... lest we forget the lesson of the 100 linear attacking kobolds.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Anatomy of an Unused Rule

What prompts a game writer to include rules that they don't even use in their game? It happened to Gary Gygax, writing the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, putting in all those rules about weapon vs. armor and contracting diseases on the random and grappling.

It happened to me - the decision to give experience for sites, not monsters, in the 52 Pages  rules never came about in my own games.  I kept on with a version of the 100xp/ hit die rule from the oldest version of the D&D, the one that has worked well and given a decent rate of advancement of the last four years of play (together with xp for treasure, carousing and occasional story awards for momentous acts that deliver none of these) .

You could argue that writing a rule you don't play reflects a failure of playtesting; in my case, more like a mistrust of playtesting. Why deviate from something that works? Experience, and a look at the AD&D DMG, gives two main reasons.

1. Misguided realism. The driving force of blogs and heartbreakers - the need to install a system that more accurately models some process. These fail for a number of reasons.

  • The GM finds it hard to use the rule on the fly. See AD&D grappling and any number of "Rulemaster" procedures. 
  • The rule makes the game more difficult and less transparent for the players. Many rules that give combat options have this fault. Tactics shift to knowing which attack option or power move to use at which time, rather than common-sense ideas based on movement and positioning.
  • The rule takes away focus from the main action of the game. In 52 Pages I found that recording where on your body you kept each piece of equipment, although consequential for play, was not appropriate to an adventure game. Encumbrance is just fine as a list-based "you're carrying too much stuff" consideration.
  • There are other ways to save the peasants.
  • The rule misunderstands the way the players want to interact with the setting. If you want nasty element like disease or sexism in the game, it's better to present examples in the game (plague-ridden towns to be avoided, female NPCs having a hard time) rather than mechanically restricting or punishing the players with random disease chances or gender limits.
2. Misguided control. This kind of rule tries to use carrots and sticks to motivate player behavior, but ...
  • To encourage something that players do anyway (like giving benefit points for roleplaying).
  • To discourage something that really isn't a problem (like players killing monsters "just for the experience points")
  • To discourage something that really should be handled by better campaign management or interpersonal skills (like player misbehavior towards others, or characters gaining excesses of treasure from the system.)
My experience points rule fell into the latter category. It treated my players like cow-killing, rat-farming murderhobos when they really weren't --and when in any case there were easy fixes available, like awarding xp only for hostile attackers and awarding less xp for "overkill" of much weaker foes. More on that next time.

The advantage of having experience come from concrete achievements rather than abstract geographical goals? It's adaptable to using other people's adventures -- I don't have to go through Temple of the Iron God or Castle of the Mad Archmage putting little stars in key rooms. It also feels less arbitrary to give out experience through things that exist in their own right. The only feature I would consider adding would be to give some kind of reward for bypassing traps, and that is easily enough figured - say, 50 xp for each 4 points of average damage, with more for unavoidable or lethal designs.

So next time I'll explain the one innovation that I used in coming up with my new experience rule, to deal with a specific problem implementing it. Will it be destined for the dustheap? Let's see ...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Six Alternatives to the Exposition Dump

At some point a campaign of sufficient gravitas will demand that certain hard facts be discovered in the course of adventuring -- insight into the history and cosmology of the world, more precious to the players' voyage of discovery than a stash of rubies or +2 arrows would be to their characters.

Well, that was easy.
The standard way to impart this mind-shaking knowledge is through an Ancient Book or Eternal Sage holed away in some corner of the world. Here are six alternatives that leave more room for player input, misinterpretation, or overinterpretation.

1. Reliefs or Murals. Lovecraft presented horrible, unbearable facts about the history of the planet this way in At The Mountain of Madness. Rather than shout "HEY YOU KNOW HUMANITY IS A FAILED SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT" far better to describe or sketch cryptic scenes and give the players wiggle room to misinterpret them. Also keep in mind that images are a common way to present propaganda - that narrative may very well be unreliable, although its visual reality will tend to fool people seeing it more so than words would.

2. Exam Questions. I did this recently for my Game of Iron campaign- they found a suite of rooms with a bunch of unmarked exam papers dealing with the Big Questions of the dwarven past, sans question, scattered around (these being ancient dwarves the answers were graven in runes on copper foil strips). I used four different fonts to create four different students with different styles of writing and degrees of knowledge, and pulled the resulting strips of paper out of a bag.This is one of the best ways I know to impart information while creating doubt and variously reliable narrators.

3. Rosetta Cryptogram. The players have to figure out a text that's written in a known language but unknown script, with just a few clues (known places on a map, captioned pictures of known gods or monsters). This is an actual puzzle,in English or whatever language they know, for the players. Make sure to leave a few letters that can be figured out only by context ("... and he shall be freed from the ...cage? cake? cave?")

4. Shadow Play. The shadows, ghosts, or bones of persons past still enact a dumb-show of the terrible events that went on in this place. Most suited to local history but, to convey cosmic truths, you can set up a whole stage where the spectral troupe enacts a mystery play.

5. Degenerate Chant. As done well in Riddley Walker, awfully in the old Star Trek episode The Omega Glory, and with ample historical precedent ... the clue to history lies in the correct interpretation of a children's rhyme, folk song, or ritual chant, which has become corrupted, streamlined, or sanitized over time.

6. Pop Quiz. Here, it's the sage or oracle who asks the players what they think happened. In the straight-up version, all they get is a "yes", "no" or "kind of"reply to their guess, with no follow-up questions. In the postmodern version, if you're OK with the players helping create the world, their answer becomes canonical truth, perhaps with one deviation ("the sage says, 'That's almost right...'") The important thing when running the postmodern version is notto let the players know this ahead of time.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Osgiliath Is Brasilia

There is something not quite right about this argument against the design of an unattributed map of the Tolkien city, Osgiliath (the art, if you look it up, is by Dan Cruger but I'm not sure how much of the design is his). That something comes from the hidden assumptions when we - meaning people in the English-speaking world - talk about "fantasy" anything.

* Merrie Olde England is the quintessential medieval kingdom. (Cue Robin Hood, jousts, chicken legs, friars, & c.)
* London is its capital.
* Therefore a realistic medieval city will follow the same planning logic (or lack thereof) as London.
* Etcetera.

First of all, this isn't even true of the medieval world, where most urban dwellers by numbers lived in Chinese cities built on a grid system. All right, it isn't even true of medieval Europe, where the Mediterranean world had Roman city planning to build around -- although as this lecture points out, the original grid often got clogged and complicated for reasons very different from cows needing to find water. None of these reasons enter into Tolkien's world.

Another totally unrealistic fantasy city.
And if you look carefully at Tolkien's Europe-by-analogy, Gondor is the successor state to Numenor's Rome-cum-Atlantis. Osgiliath, too, was a purpose-built capital founded by scions of an advanced civilization. In other words, there is every reason for it to look more like Rome, Washington DC, or Brasilia than London.

The city, in fiction, endured for a thousand years without any of the economic burgeoning or social decay in Tolkien's world that the real European Middle Ages experienced. Again, you can bust Tolkien's world for its assumption that vital goods are dutifully brought by silent farmers to the real scene of the action, where kings and knights rule steadily and wisely unless interrupted by Sauron's evil meddling. But Osgiliath's design in that Middle Earth Roleplaying product, its rational avenues and small size, fits perfectly with those assumptions in Tolkien's very low population density world.

The military critique is another thing, and you can surely see how Osgiliath fell --five hundred orcs in canoes floating downstream would be enough to cause serious havoc. Consider, however, that the place was founded as a refuge on a seemingly peaceful continent, and there might be room for the kind of planning hubris that plagues purpose-built capital cities ("But you must live on both banks of the river so I can build the BIGGEST BRIDGE THERE IS!")


  • Yes, there is room for a materialist analysis of fantasy literature and gaming.
  • That analysis, however, has to proceed from the terms of the fantasy world itself. 
  • So, internal contradictions raise the most problems. 
  • External contradictions are problems only if people think they are not -- like the popular view that Tolkien's world embodies "the medieval" (instead of what it does, which is to completely skirt around the medieval with an 18th-century bucolic society's view of the sanitized sub-Roman Dark Age in which it finds itself)
  • Analysis from original sources will always beat received ideas. I mean, the next fantasy city I design is at high risk to be, like Florence, a rational avenue-planned city now dominated by the blocked-off compounds of warring clans, arrow towers and all.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Improving 52 Pages: Fighter and Rogue Combat Powers

Part of developing the 52 Pages Next, the Expert-like rules extension for my game, involves coming up with alternate powers (feats, whatever) for fighters and rogues as well as what they can do at 5th level. Well, here they are:

It bears repeating my design philosophy here: powers should add effects without adding decisions that slow down play. Most of them are either straight bonuses,consequences on things that happen anyway in combat, or "cool things that happen on this die roll." I find this is vital so as not to slow down the pace of Basic-derived D&D, where the tactical decisions should be less "which power should I use now" and more "how do I position myself and use weapons to best advantage?"

As I prepare for converting my existing Band of Iron players to the very latest version of 52 Pages - they've been playing the 2011 version for some time now - I realize that they've grown very fond of their Whirlwind and Quickshot feats - they really light up when they roll a 5 or 15 for their extra attack, even though these are underpowered compared to my new powers which give you 5 numbers to get an extra attack. So, I souped them up a little and added a couple more.

Yes, Weaponmaster is a little tribute to the old Rules Compendium stuff. I had to think hard on impaling to not create super-ridiculous archers with +d6 damage when ambushing, potential +d6 from Deadshot,and double damage (Runequest style) on top of that. I think the die minimum answer is a nice compromise.

Oh yeah, elves and dwarves now get one feat at level 5.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Improving 52 Pages: Skills

The skill system in my 52 Pages house rules is based on d6 rolls, owing a debt to the d6 system in Lamentations which itself hearkens back to the original D&D of resolving "skill" determinations as chances out of 6. Recently I've been having thoughts about it and have come up with what I think is a definite improvement. Here is the system as it stands:

After over a year of play, I've found the high levels of skill, failing only on a 1 in d12 or d20, are easily reached by a rogue or a gnome within a few levels, because those classes gain two skill points a level instead of one. I'm not against this in itself - it's good at a certain point to be reliable at such everyday things as sneaking or climbing up a building. The problem comes with trying to scale these super-skills to more difficult tasks. Even if you interpret the -2 for a hard skill as applying to skill ranks and not the die roll, a rogue who started with 3 in a skill and concentrated on it through level 3, getting 7 marks and having a base d20, can meet a hard skill with only a 1/6 chance of failing.

I came up with this system which I think is not just more elegant, but could be the dead-simple engine for a whole game if applied to things like combat (although Paolo camped a stone's throw away a while ago, with something that eventually became 5MORE...).

Instead of using different dice at high ranks of skill, once past 5 marks, you start adding on Reroll marks that let you reroll a failure on that skill every time you use it. Importantly, this anchors the highest level of skill at 5 in 6, with hard tasks, at -2, having a natural maximum of 3 in 6. On the other side, rerolls can be gained by getting bonuses above 5 marks; for example, if you have two marks in Stealth, but you are sneaking around in your native (background) terrain and the thick terrain makes it easy to hide, the +2 for background and +2 for easy task give you six marks: 5/6 success and one reroll in case that fails.

A side bonus is that the same die is used for all skill rolls, eliminating the confusion of switching around to different dice that I've see new players thrown off by.

If you want to set some tasks as near-impossible, they would be at -4: 1 in 6 for a master-level skillsperson, and even someone with two rerolls would be not at all sure of getting it.

The other fix is that rogues get an extra skill box per level but they must split the two, allowing more even advancement.

I'm not even sure this is entirely necessary. The two groups I game with are unusual in that they each have 3 rogue or rogue-like gnome characters, so each one can specialize (and has) and it looks like they have the whole gamut covered even at level 4 or 5. Lone rogues in a party may instead find it more efficient to spread their skills out more.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

One Page Dungeon: Antonius Abducted

The richest place in my formative years was the lending library in my well-funded, open-minded suburban hometown. It was there I laid hands on the Arkham House Lovecraft volumes, everything Tolkien and post-Tolkien, science fiction novels I wasn't even close to understanding but enjoyed anyway, the Holmes edition of D&D, the Monster Manual.

Of these weird materials, some promised a regulation or explanation of the fantastic world - D&D, of course, laying down the rules of fantasy in a way that the heroes of Pratt and DeCamp's Compleat Enchanter series did, with arcane mathematics. The world of Shannara proved nothing more than a post-apocalypse, and Larry Niven's fantasy world was physics by another name.

But I also read Lovecraft, Borges' book of imaginary beings, Dunsany, Brian Froud -- fantasists who made no excuses or explanations. Tying them all together with a visual language of strangeness were the great coffee-table volumes of art where I became acquainted with Hieronymus Bosch. His devils drew from Church iconography, but there was the fantastic and even science-fictional in his ceramic-like architectures, his mutant creatures, flying farragos and garish colors. In my imagination he was as much an illustrator of weird tales as Sidney Sime or Lee Brown Coye. What matter that those tales were not written -- not yet?

Which brings me to my undying fascination with the central panel of Bosch's Temptation of Saint Anthony. Here it is (it gets really big when you click it, and click again).

It hasn't got the symmetries and tapestry-like coverage of the Garden of Earthly Delights, or either of his Last Judgments. There is dynamism, scene, progression, the varied freaks converging on a parody of a Mass laid on a dicing table. Others join the haphazard choir underfoot, or flit overhead. There is that bizarre ruin with its mess of perspective; the disasters in the background -- fire, war, demons -- while nonchalant or dazed washerwomen go down to the filthy water.

Weird symbolism abounds and, as with Bosch's other works, has prompted all sorts of theories about his hidden message: alchemical is it? more broadly esoteric? or politico-religious? nationalist? If his figures illustrate proverbs and expressions that have faded with time, perhaps this is just another form of random generation to create compelling monsters, like the tree-archer with his gauntlets and brace of armored hounds.

Me, I see an adventure here. The first stirrings of this in my gamemastering career happened a couple of years ago when I populated one level of my custom upper works for Castle of the Mad Archmage with a collection of Bosch's creatures, mostly from the Temptation, and somewhat differently imagined than presented here. The Muleteers have had several run-ins with them, all terrifying but none decisive.

As this year's One Page Dungeon Contest approached its Walpurgisnacht deadline, I started to consider adapting this level, which uses a standard maze of rooms and passages. But after thinking I ended up favoring the original outdoors setting with its bulbous ruin, its convergence of monsters, its holy man looking serenely if a little desperately out of the frame, as if to say "Look! These are no figments of my fast, no color trails from ergot-laced crusts! You see them too!"

I set the action a few minutes before the scene in the painting. A tactical problem, asking for the various approaching demon-groups to be defeated in detail or confronted as they appear in the main action. Antony needs his crucifix to be of any use, so that's an action task to retrieve it on the scene. There wasn't really space on the page for a random table with all the skulking lizards, birds, demonlings and flying menaces you see in the art, but the water holds a few such perils.

Well, there you have it, with a little help from my long-dead friend. It'snot strictly one page but I am toying with the idea of taking the other panels of the triptych and expanding them into a GM's screen idea ...

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Price of a Hauberk in Gomorrah

It seems almost obscene to extract something gameable out of the brutal and depressing revelations in Roberto Saviano's undercover account of the organized crime economy in his native Naples, Gomorrah. Nonetheless, this paragraph struck me, from the chapter titled Kalashnikov:
To calculate the state of human rights, the analysts consider the price of an AK-47. The less it costs, the more human rights violations there are, an indication that civil rights are gangrening and the state is falling to pieces.
It's made me rethink the usual scheme by which the party adventures out in the boondocks but then has to travel to the big civilized city to get the best deals, or any deals, on the materials of war: weapons, armor, foot-soldiers, and in a fantasy world, usable items like potions or battle charms.

It was not a good day.
But what if the opposite logic holds true? What if the best ratio of supply to demand is not found in the big city, which has to stay peaceful and organized to attract trade and reap taxes, where the state is strong, and men, arms and magic are regulated - and as a consequence, arms are sold only in black markets at greatly inflated prices? What if instead the deals are to be found on the borders of civilization, where swords and mail are regularly looted from the slain? Stocks in the house of war have to be high, for any day now a warlord could strut by looking to garrison a castle or equip a company. And if magic items are bought and sold, the ones useful in a fight are more likely to command a good price in a place where the line between life and death is as clear as the sea's horizon.

And human rights violations. Of course your adventurers (read; your players) are not the kind who would burn a hut to shake loose a few copper pieces, kill cows for experience points, right? But guess what, other adventurers are. And just as much as you lay waste the orcs, the orcs are equipped to lay waste the village, which means that they too have their hidden source of cheap arms and provisions. Consider: have the adventurers gotten to a point where they turn their nose up at loading a mule with the fallen goblins'crappy hauberks and scimitars? There are those on the other side who do not. You may even meet them someday.

Finally, Saviano devotes a lot of space to the economy and mystique of the Kalashnikov, its ease of use, its democratization of mobilization and massacre. A phenomenon confined to the industrial age? Maybe your medieval or Renaissance world is about to experience a rude awakening as one or another evil warlord figures out a way to stamp out reliable longswords with minimal craft. Or - more frightening still - maybe what is being mass-produced is enchantments on swords. Not straight pluses, that would be convenient to the party as loot, the glass-cannon wielders easily overcome. No, these are equalizer bonuses that give a flat attack roll as if you were 5 Hit Dice, and a flat damage bonus of +3 excluding strength. Effects like that get a little closer to evoking the sheer panic of well-armed, low-numbered adventurers who, like the knights and samurai of old, are going to have to get used to the triumph of the masses over the hero ...