Tuesday 15 January 2013

Surreal World

Continuing the series of encounter tables courtesy of Dali, Bunuel, Bosch, Baum, ELP, and many more. The idea is to roll five times - once each for the adjective and noun in each column, and once for the verb. What's your wildest creation?

Monday 14 January 2013

Logs and Hogs

It was in yesterday afternoon's game session after a long absence, that I became aware that almost all the elements of the adventure were random. And it was good.

Our heroes were trekking across a long alley of scrubland, returning to civilization with the evidently plot-vital bard Diarmuid Sans Peer. I was using the "moor" encounter table from Red Tam's Bones and rolling a custom d20 where three sides indicated an encounter, and various other sides indicated other things (more on that sometime later).

First I rolled "encounter clue" - to a manticore. The party spemnt some time puzzling over some unusual, biological spikes stuck in a tree by the road.

Next I rolled - "encounter" - with the manticore itself! The monster was an awful shot with its remaining tail spikes and the group easily finished it off with arrows and the bounding assault of the evidently heroic Diarmuid.

After a few more non-results the party approached their old cache of purple worm ivory. But they were disturbed by Goatgamble, a spriggan who had been randomly generated as a hallway encounter as they entered the Vernal House in Faerie. The reaction dice said that he had fallen madly in love with Elidath, the elf henchwoman. In exchange for helping the party he had steered them to a magic mirror that would create an evil duplicate, and induced Elidath to stare into it, so he could have a compatible copy all his own.

Now Goatgamble was back, in giant form, with evil Elidath riding his shoulders. She knew as much as the real Elidath where the loot was buried and demanded a couple of tusks. No way! The log the spriggan threw did little damage and the ensuing hail of arrows drove them off.

Soon it was time to camp for the night. Two encounters! The first was with four wild sows, and they accounted well for themselves even after one was charmed and driven off by Diarmuid, using the tricks I've been talking about recently to create a grinding "piggy pile" melee where they had the upper trotter. And the first encounter solved the second encounter, with a pack of wandering wolves, who turned out amenable to being bought off with a hog carcass.

If only all sessions were this easy. The party's task as they see it is to deliver the bard to an uncoming religious synod which will likely be crucial for the outcome of the war with Faerie, as foretold by several converging prophecies. Asked whether they want to take part in this intrigue or adventure, they replied "Intrigue ... and adventure!"

Stay tuned for that, and I also owe my readers a review of Red Tam's Bones, now that we're done with it.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Solving the Dungeon Thief's #1 Problem

One of my players, who runs a rogue, has long been aware of the paradox that arises when you take a standard-model human thief-type into a dark dungeon. All their skills are optimized to scouting ahead in the dark, hiding when foes approach, and surprising them in the back in a fight.

Except they can't see in the dark.

1st edition AD&D gets around this problem because you'd be a dope to run a human thief anyway. I'm running Basic-type so I don't have that "solution" at hand. But the answer lies in a piece of folklore I'd ben aware of ever since I read John Bellairs' The House With a Clock In Its Walls as a kid:

The Hand of Glory.

Originally, this magical object was not an actual hand, but the mandrake root, supposed to grow under gallows, with soporific and hallucinogenic properties that sometimes led to it being described as "shining like a lamp." Transforming "mandragore" to the French pseudo-etymology "main de gloire," the "Hand of Glory" came to be imagined in English folk magic as the actual hand of a hanged man, combined in some way with a candle made from the fat of that hand - either grasped in the hand, on the back of the hand as in the Gorey illustration, or made by actually lighting the fingers.

Just as unclear is what this Hand of Glory actually does. It is always mentioned as a tool for burglars, but variously it puts the inhabitants of the house to sleep; paralyzes them when they see the light; or opens locks and doors. Also, the flames can only be extinguished by blood or milk.Bizarrely, the version found in the 3rd edition D&D SRD allows the holder to wear an extra magic ring. (You have to wonder about the kind of campaign this would be useful in, where characters are going around tricked out with three or more magic rings.) Charles Stross' Laundry novels of modern magic take the Hand even further by treating it as a sorcerous zap gun.

But the one legend of the Hand of Glory that solves the thief's dungeon problem is the lore, also used in the Harry Potter novels, that it emits a light that only its holder can see. This is the basis of my Hand of Glory.

Hand of Glory

Availability: -6 (can be reliably had in only the largest metropolis)
Price: 500$

This magical item is made from the hand of a hanged murderer. It is considered a disreputable item of sorcery, if not evil in itself. When properly mummified and prepared, the hand grasps a candle made from its own fat. The lit candle burns for an hour and illuminates a 20' radius with a sickly yellow light that only a person holding the Hand in his or her own hand can see - the light source is invisible to normal and darkvision alike. Thus, it is prized by experts in sneaking and hiding, for it lets them explore completely dark areas without being spotted.

The candle also may not be extinguished by any normal substance other than a life-giving bodily fluid - blood or milk. If so extinguished, however, it may be lit and used again for the remainder of its burning time.

Making a Hand of Glory requires 150$ in materials, one full day's effort to prepare, a month waiting time, and the casting of continual light, invisibility, infravision, and continual darkness on the same day at the end of that time. The most difficult requirement, of course, is that of the hand itself; many enlightened rulers now order the cremation of hanged criminals to prevent their use for black magic of this kind.

Friday 11 January 2013

Boring Combat 4: How Boring Are High Levels?

And now to the alleged problem that started all these musings. Do high-level combats really degenerate into boring slog-fests, wading through morasses of hit dice to get to the kill?

Well, let's start out dividing high-level monsters into those who got there by virtue of their enormous size, and those who are a more reasonable size but super specially tough and magic.

Those latter creatures - vampires, beholders, liches, dragons, demons and so on - have loads of spells, powers, and attacks to justify their challenge. Fighting them should be harrowing, not boring. If it's boring, what are you still doing playing the same characters? Are the so tricked out that they make every saving throw, dodge every attack? After the beholder should there come the uber-beholder, in an ever-swelling progression of N+5 hit dice? Maybe in a computer game, or an RPG that needs to sell more and more game books to the power-mad adolescent mentality. But anyway, that's a different topic.

Now, you get the big, big monsters at risk for being boring in the mathematical sense, with lots of hit dice and not a lot of special gimmickry. Not sentient, so they don't come with cool stuff like allies or siege engines or tactical setups. Big lumpy things like ... er ... dinosaurs. And mammoths. Elephants, too. Whales?

Not the only way to add interest value.
You see the problem here - at high levels, you don't run into those creatures a lot. And when you do, it's likely to be outdoors. So running the combat, you'll realize that there's actually a lot going on when a thirty-foot long dinosaur rampages through a jungle forest or a rocky outcropping. It crashes into branches and trunks, sending them flying. It sends boulders rolling. It bites you at the front, stomps you if you get underfoot (and best believe it will be rolling into close combat range to do just that), and if you come around at the back there's a thrashing tail that sends you flying. They don't need fiery breath or magic spells - sheer size and momentum will do the trick.

Those aren't in the rules as written? So what! You're playing old school and it's your game. Later editions sure as hell try to build this kind of special excitement into every monster, calling them special attacks or feats or daily powers or whatever. You, too, at every level of challenge, should be thinking what makes this creature's fight different. A guy with a sword, even the most magical sword, shouldn't be able to bring a dinosaur down even after hacking at its left toe for ten minutes. Make them do something dramatic for the kill, use the climbing-on rules, run and jump into its open mouth. Treat the combat as a living riddle, not an exercise in subtraction, and your players will feel they're working for the kill - not just adding escalation factors.

Okay. My campaign begins again on Saturday (and then immediately goes on hiatus for three weeks as I gallivant about stateside.) I doubt any dinosaurs will come up, but you never know.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Fungoid World

Another interlude of encounters from the "roll d20 once, twice or three times" set. Apologies in advance for leaving out the rusts and smuts.

It's funny - this series doesn't get the most pageviews, but has a very loyal following. I guess I should bait-and-switch more with a title like "If You Use The d8 You're Playing D&D Wrong" or something?

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Boring Combat 3: Dumb Animals Turned Smart

Guerrilla goblins are all very well but surely you can't realistically have wolves, bears, and giant rats running around with complicated traps, tactics and outflanking maneuvers?

Well, no. But with a little common-sense tweaking of the standard D&D combat system, even the most straightforward creature can become an exciting, terrifying combat threat.

The key is close combat. It was Steve Jackson's micro-game Melee - precursor of the GURPS system, and an elegant, d6-based simulation of skirmish combat in its own right - that introduced the rule that two figures could occupy the same space and be locked in close combat, where most long weapons were useless. A less drastic version of this idea for D&D can be found in Ronald Hall's initiative system - someone locked in close combat with an unsuitable weapon would only lose initiative, but still attack normally.

To refresh, here's my application of the idea in my own close combat rules:

The thing is, I don't use these rules as a DM to their full extent. I probably should, but I've had a soft spot for my players until now. I originally put them in to make players consider taking a variety of weapons - dagger or short sword for close combat, for example. But as dangerous as a guy with a knife in a brawl is, an animal with teeth and claws is much, much worse.

A wolf is coming at you. To close, it has to not get hit by your attack, and then it's in there with you. It may even go for the "attack to hold" option in order to knock you down. And when you're on the ground under a predator, you're in a bad way. Your best weapons are useless and its best weapons are in prime working order. If your friends try to help you, they risk hurting you instead.

Things get worse when outnumbered or outflanked. In my system, you can only fend off something advancing to close range if you can hit it. If one wolf engaged you from the front while another attacks from the side or back, you will be in close melee with them in short order. The same goes for spiders. monkeys and stirges dropping from overhead.

For even worse threat, make it so you can get in close without any problems if you're two or more sizes smaller as well as bigger. Giant rats suddenly don't look so pathetic when they're under-running your front lines. If you don't kill them quick, they'll be hotfooting your wizard. Not to mention what happens when something really small decides to climb on you.

With not-so-dumb animals getting into the maneuver and positioning game this way, an attack by a bear or a pack of wolves turns from a toe-to-toe slog into a tense nightmare for players.

Next up: High level combat and why it's only boring in theory.

Faerie World

Slight break from the combat articles to share the latest in a very slowly progressing series ... Fitting, too, as my regular campaign is finishing out an adventure involving the faerie realms.

Monday 7 January 2013

Boring Combat 2: Low Levels, Intelligent Foes

As I mentioned last time, first level in an old-school game is the baptism through fire of excitement in combat, when your hit die is not too many numbers ahead of the damage die. The situation also creates excitement through other means, if you engage with it, mostly schemes of low cunning in an attempt to not get your character killed.

(Of course, that kind of excitement can be sustained almost indefinitely playing with a system where characters aren't protected from death at high levels, or hacking D&D to be such a system. Along with a lot of frustration and gravestones, of course.)

It's low levels after first where you see boring, line-em-up D&D combats begin. As an example may I present the incident from the high school campaign I played in, where we found a room with about 100 kobolds in it. Our fighter - 2nd or 3rd level as I recall, plate mail and shield - simply stood behind the doorway and took care of them as they came on, in what must have been about 15 minutes of steady dice rolling.

With the wisdom of experience I realize that this kind of play was copied from the computer games we played and had nothing to do with how real authentic kobolds (or even experienced skirmish gamers) would approach the situation. See, I've come to know several kobolds personally and they tell me that instead of the suicide rush, they would fade back, harry with slings and arrows, provoke a charge, and then come at you from all sides. They would choose or make living spaces where they could loop around in that situation and sneak up from behind. This is even before I mention all the Viet Cong-style traps and hazards used by the legendary Tucker's Kobolds. I shudder to think what poor preparation my high school D&D experience would have given me for being jumped by kobolds.

The basic insight is to think of your low level intelligent monsters as possessing the same survival instinct and strategy as a set of good, experienced 1st level characters, rather than being dumb numbers in a computer game. The way to use that insight, without even resorting to traps, tricks, burning oil, or features of the environment - though each of these certainly have their place - is to recognize that combat has more than one dimension.

In the case of kobolds and other intelligent humanoids, that dimension is mainly horizontal. First of all, maneuvering around horizontally allows the foe to bring superior numbers to bear. Also, think of the party as a long worm with an armored head and a soft tail. Horizontal maneuvering puts that tail in jeopardy. Finally, most systems have a mechanical advantage for those who attack from the rear or otherwise outflank their foe.

One of the most exciting dungeon combats I ever ran was in Tomb of the Iron God, where there's a room with an array of about eighty skeleton warriors. Skeletons are mindless, but Matt Finch's module had them programmed by smarter minds, so two detachments of them were seen leaving by side passages. The party figured out what was coming, and the fight quickly turned into a nail-biting, moving retreat that just barely managed to avoid being outflanked.

Positioning and range - where you're moving on the map - is the main tactical decision I ask of my players. I've studiously avoided the kind of "combat options" found in later editions simply because positioning will always be an element, an important one at that, and combining optional attack modes or once-per-whatever effects with that tends to bog combat down. I use critical hits and fumbles with effects like knock down or stun, and feats that automatically trigger when a certain number is rolled.

Make no mistake, fighting this kind of positional warfare to advantage is part of player skill. Some kind of graphic display is absolutely necessary, whether figures or whiteboard, to keep options visible and awareness high. If players don't want to exert tactical skill this way, they're probably better off playing in a more abstract system, where the place of positioning is taken by flashy moves and options - kind of like in the old 2D fighting arcade games.

Well, all this is very good for low-level intelligent foes, but aren't things like wolves and spiders just bound to come straight at you and stay boring? That question will be answered in the next installment, wherein I talk about the vertical dimension.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Boring Combat 1: Genesis of Tedium

One of my regrets from the past year, indeed the whole past of this blog, is trying to design rules systems that meet a theoretical need rather than a need that arises in actual play. The biggest offender last year was when I decided that "hey, in theory, combat at high levels can get quite boring with all those numbers of hit points needing a long time to whittle down." In proposing a solution I unwittingly duplicated an idea from 13th Age, which was then in closed playtesting - to increase hit and damage numbers sequentially through a combat, tracking it with a die.

The thing is, I now don't think such a system is necessary at all. 13th Age is welcome to the escalation die, and may it bring much excitement. But to explain my change of heart I'm going to have to recount the history of boredom in RPG combat. If you want the short version: 1) boredom is not just from high level combat; 2) to fix boredom, use what's already there in the game or piecemeal systems that mean something real.

Our story begins not with the combats of tabletop RPGs, but with the first crude attempts to simulate them, the first so-called computer RPGs like Wizardry and Temple of Apshai. I say "so-called" because there was very little role-playing or sense of wonder about these pursuits. You were running a single-minded band of dungeoneers with no other goal than to map blocky dungeons, stay alive, amass loot and gain levels. Of course, this was not too far off from what the majority of adolescent D&D fans cooked up for themselves around the dining room table.


Combat in a game like Wizardry or Bard's Tale laid down a procedure that with few changes is still followed today in the computer RPG genre, especially the more rules-light, anime-influenced "JRPG" games. You have a lineup of characters; maybe a back rank. When monsters appear they also form into ranks. The figures in turn have a bash at each other, or cast spells, use items and so forth.

And now.
There is no maneuver except to flee en masse; no Tarantino moments with fumbles or crits; the environment is assumed to be a standard Dungeon Delvers' Guild 10' square to which you are magically confined. Under these circumstances, the main source of excitement comes from the situation in which your characters are facing death in one or two rounds, either from the feebleness of their own hit points or the power of the enemy attack.

The problem with this is that, under standard D&D rules, hit points grow with levels much quicker than damage does. A first level party facing three orcs have to whittle down only 3 HD but each of those does 1d8 of damage, for example. When the party, now sixth level, faces three hill giants, the enemy's HP have gone up by a factor of 8 but damage only by a factor of 2. While first-level characters are only an unlucky blow or pair of blows away from death, higher-level characters don't see combat damage as that kind of immediate threat - it takes multiple rounds or multiple fights to be worn down to the life-or-death point.

You see the tunnel vision? "Combat is a mathematical contest between hit points, armor class and damage. To solve any problem with boring combat we must tweak the mathematical parameters."

Away with that! Combat in an RPG is a tactical simulation. "Grinding" is for machines. Live figures will be running, jumping, diving, bashing, swinging ... And if we see the enemy as mechanical combat, then the answer to boring situations at all levels is to animate it. That way, you don't need to constantly threaten the players with death to get them excited and involved in the fight.

I'll show you what I mean next post, which is about boring combat at low levels.