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.