Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Skills and Tasks Revisited

So the debate in the OD&D community rages on: Should every task the PCs attempt simply be a matter of an ad hoc decision on the part of the referee, or should one employ some form of skills system, as Rob over at Bat in the Attic does? Fortunately, the Old School renaissance is not about everyone doing everything the same way. Or so I'm told.

As I noted when I originally posted on the subject of skills in OD&D, I do believe in having some kind of simple, consistent skill system in play for the same reason that I believe in having a simple, consistent system for resolving combat. I believe that only having some kind of skills system makes the thief class consistent with the way the rest of the game is played and avoids the "have to have a thief to disarm the traps" syndrome. I believe that a good system should neither require certain skills in order to have a chance of success at an action that is physically possible, but should only provide a minor bonus to the chance to succeed in the action. I also believe that a character's stats should provide a significant influence on the outcome--a character with a natural 18 in dexterity should have more than a 20% improvement in his chances to hide over one with a 10. And finally, I believe that skilled play should count most of all.

When I first unveiled my little attempt at creating a skills system last year, a lot of people were confused, and understandably so. I frankly didn't present it very well, lumping several concepts together into a single, confusing chart. That was definitely an error on my part, especially since I didn't explain exactly how I came to my design decisions. So here I thought I'd talk about some of the alternatives suggested in dealing with non-combat, mundane task resolution:

No Skills; Referee Fiat
James of Grognardia fame has repeatedly stated his preference against any kind of unified skill system altogether, and that's certainly his right. However, his position has left him conflicted about the role of thieves in his campaign; on the one hand, they have a quite venerable pedigree in OD&D, but on the other, they require some sort of consistent adjudication of their special skills or else the class ceases to make any kind of sense. And if the thieves get special skills that get bonuses to accomplish certain actions, how can one reasonably deny these to other classes? As the Alexandrian notes, the game's consistency quickly begins to break down and becomes DM-vs-Players instead of NPCs/Monsters/Environment-vs-players.

Most other options suggested for OD&D involve using an existing mechanic in a new way.

Saving Throws as Skills
One rather ingenious idea is to use the saving throw mechanic, applying applicable modifiers for ability scores, and a plus or minus modifier depending on the background of the character and the difficulty of the proposed action to determine the final target number. For example, a fighter is attempting to leap onto an already moving horse to pursue an opponent. He has a saving throw of 14 and a dexterity of 14 (+1 bonus), gets a +2 bonus for the physicality of the action and comes from a tribe of mounted nomads, so the referee gives him another +4 to the roll. The action is of moderate difficulty, so the referee gives no penalties to the attempt (though if done while trying to dodge an opponents swing, he might apply a -2 or -4). In the end, the player needs to roll an 11 or better to successfully catch the horse in motion and mount it without causing it to come to a halt. A roll of 1 might indicate that he falls on his face.

This system has a couple of advantages: First, it doesn't really require the creation of a new mechanic other than some thought into how to ad hoc modifiers for difficulty. And since the saving throw target number automatically decreases as the character rises in level, it can serve to reflect a generally rising competance in all areas as the character grows. The major disadvantage--although your mileage may vary on this one--is that it minimalizes the role of the characters ability scores in determining success or failure; depending on how much of a bonus the referee gives for high stats, a character with an 18 in the relevant score may only have a 10%, 15%, or 20% increase in their chances for success over one with an average score.

Use the Reaction Roll Table
Another attempt to use the Encounter Reaction tables as a general way of resolving tasks. A roll of 2 = catastrophic failure, 3-5 indicates failure, 6-8 indicates a partial success or success of a relatively easy action, 9-11 indicates success, and 12 indicates a fantastic success. Due to the bell curve of the dice, small bonuses count for a lot: A person with no bonuses only has a little under 3% chance to roll a 12 (fantastic success), but a +1 bonus improves that to an 8% chance, a +2 to a 12%. A +3 bonus not only gives one a nearly 17% chance of fantastic success, but reduces the odds of any kind of failure to 3% (which is why B/X and BECMI only grant a +2 to reaction rolls for an 18 charisma).

This is actually not a bad system at all for general task resolution, and I've adopted it for my own campaign as a sort of "heck if I know" table. A character wants to try to shove a heavy boulder over to start a rock-slide; heck if I know how to calculate that, so roll 2d6 and add your strength bonus. A cleric wants to know if they've come across a certain symbol in their studies? Heck if I know; roll and add your INT modifier.

But while this system makes for a handy mechanic for those situations when you just want a general idea of success, it starts to fall apart if you try to implement any special bonuses for background, learned skills, etc. due to the aforementioned power of even modest bonuses.

Ramping Up the Dice

This is the system that I've implemented and described back in Skills: The Middle Road. It basically developed when I noted how often the d6 is used to resolve action in play (hardly a surprise given D&Ds pre-polyhedral Chainmail origins). For example, surprise is determined on a d6, with a roll of 5-6 indicating surprise. Getting lost is rolled on a d6. A roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 indicates successful foraging for food. And so on.

From there, it was a simple step to invert some of the rolls as given in a simple fashion: High is always good, low bad. And from there, it wasn't hard to imagine characters with relevant backgrounds and/or learned skills using something other than the ol' d6 to determine success. Instead of needing to roll a 1 or 2 on a d6 to find enough food, one had to roll a 5 or better--only it didn't have to be a d6; it could be on a d8, d10, or d12, depending on the skill of the character.

Ability modifiers can and often do, of course, play a significant role. The question is whether a single ability score in a single character would be the deciding factor in the success or failure of the action. So, for example, Dexterity will modify an attempt by a single character to actively hide, but not the surprise roll (which is rolled for the party).

Clever use of equipment also makes a much greater difference to characters under this system. In D&D3 a +2 circumstance bonus doesn't go far; under this system, a +1 bonus for cleverly pouring water on the floor to look for a pit trap, using a climbing harness to scale a wall, or using a spear to aid in balance while walking across a narrow parapet makes a considerable difference to the character in question. Therefore, it actually makes sense for a party on a scouting mission to carry minimal equipment and use only light armor and to move at 2/3 their normal pace, granting a total of +2 to the surprise check--especially since, in my game, winning the surprise roll means that you detect the other party before they detect you, giving you a chance to avoid them altogether. Even without the whole party consisting of elves, halflings, and thieves, its a significant advantage.

I've deliberately avoided target numbers (Difficulty Levels, or DLs) higher than 6 in most cases, and in cases where they do run higher I've tried to make sure that there are ways for even low-level, unskilled characters to have a chance at achieving success through careful play. For example, the DL for hiding in the shadows with no actual cover in bright sunlight when someone looks directly at you is something like a 10. A halfling might be able to pull it off (in the wilderness, at least), or a high-level thief. Everyone else had better find some cover or climb a tree or something to get that target number down.

I've come up with a list of probable PC actions, the appropriate ability scores and backgrounds, if any, and some DLs to use for comparison, but it lends itself to easy ad hoc rulings, and it doesn't seem to be confusing my younger players at all. Mostly I just tell them what die to roll and which ability modifier to use, and they're happy with that.

Is it "Old-School"? I really don't know--and I really don't care anymore. It's fun, and that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Mapping Love

I'm really loving this map.

Mapping in D&D is always one part science and two parts art. The science part is a matter of very consciously putting the PCs in a place where they can manage to get to a wide variety of environments very quickly. Putting them into the equivalent of, say, Medieval France, is likely to bore them sooner or later ("Yay, more woods."), and they're not too likely to deliberately travel down to the Middle-East. This is why Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms both have inexplicable magic deserts right next to the core campaign areas.

And, of course, there's the art.

Many game masters complain about their lack of mapping skills but when you get down to it, how much do you really need? The famed West Marches campaign was drawn as a simple vector map that was easy to zoom in or out of at will. Blackmoor was apparently based on a redrawn map of Denmark. For a non-gaming example, Robert Jordan's original Wheel of Time world map isn't all that much to look at. I doubt Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms maps looked much like the finished product either.

And yet all of these worlds have enjoyed fame and long life. Why is that? Simply put, because each of them had the map as a starting place, a framework on which to build the narrative, not as the end goal. I noted in my previous post that I've been guilty of forgetting that when creating my own maps, resulting in work that is very pretty to look at, but not robust enough for continued adaption in gameplay. My current map project hits a nice middle ground, I think, between inspirational beauty and gaming utilitarianism.

Despite the above, I do have to say that inspirational beauty is an important component to me when making my maps. That's not to say that the map needs to be a frame-worthy work of art, of course. What it does need to do is make the DM wonder, "What's in this little corner over here?" and "I wonder who lives around that lake over there?" It should be a jumping-off point for fleshing out the world even in the middle of play. A simple sketch on graph paper can be every bit as useful as a professional poster map for that--it just has to have enough incidental detail.

Incidental details like odd little woods in the middle of the grasslands, long lakes in the middle of rivers, the odd hill overlooking the great plains, circles of monoliths, cairns, broken towers, etc. should be sprinkled in liberally. They give the PCs landmarks, places to get a better idea of the lay of the land, mysteries to pursue, and otherwise give the world a feeling of verisimilitude. Not every ruin needs to have a dungeon beneath it (though enough should to encourage the player's to look), a five-page history, or even a name. Nor does every hill, though if a random encounter roll turns up goblins, one should consider the possibility that the hill is their lookout. If you come up with names and histories for them all later, wonderful--especially if such development was for the needs of the campaign. If not, they only took a moment to scrawl in anyway.

As long as we can avoid the temptation to barrage the players with six minutes of historical exposition every half-hour, they'll enjoy the detail of a map well made.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mass Cannibalism

This blog has certainly been all over the map of late: First I talked about doing a homebrew, then I started up a Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign at the behest of my players, and now I'm back to doing a homebrew. A few weeks ago I complained that CC3 took too long to generate a map in and was looking at other hexmappers, and now I'm back to using CC3. It's been very schizophrenic, to say the least.

A lot of it has to do with the group dynamic that I hinted at in my "Drama" post a few weeks ago. The request by my players that I run KoK again had a lot to do with the desire of some to get into a deeply political campaign, and they knew how well that particular setting lent itself to that kind of game. This proved to be an enormous frustration to me since it was my desire to get into an old-school exploration game, and as I noted was a great frustration to my wife and daughter as well.

Going back to a homebrew world is honestly the desire of my heart and seems the natural extension of getting back to my roots: A small but wide-open area with only a few human outposts but lots of ruins, lost cities, dangerous terrain, and fell creatures to contend with. It also avoids the urge to overload my players with too much information up front. But that doesn't mean that everything I worked up for KoK is going to waste. Oh, no. As I said back in "Green World Design," "All authors, whether professional or amateur, steal from someone. Might as well start burglarizing my own home." Except that I'm going to plunder a bit from Kalamar as well.

After all, there's no need to waste the material that I ran up for Religion on the Frontier; I'll just transplant it. Ditto the material that I worked up for the secondary campaign base, Daruk; it's now fleshing out Raven's Gate, my own little City on the Borderlands. The rough outlines of the world and its lands are already there in my Recycling Redux post.

Game tonight; I need to find more material to cannibalize for my Shrine of the Cat. Maybe something involving actual cannibals.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Joys of Mapping

James over at Grognardia has complained about not liking mapping all that much. I have to admit that I feel exactly the opposite. I love mapping. In fact, I have whole notebooks filled with maps that I've never used for anything, but just made for the fun of it. I do a lot of cannibalism, stealing names I like from unused maps and reusing them in others.

To the left is my current campaign map, still in progress, rendered in Campaign Cartographer 3. Yeah, I know a few months ago I complained that it took too long to render a map in it, but I ended up catching the bug again and working up the above. It's a different style than I'm used to using for the program, one that doesn't try to close the space between the trees and has a bit more emphasis on contour lines than I have in the past (having been impressed with their use by the Kingdoms of Kalamar Atlas). For reference, here's a map of a kingdom in my original campaign world, Newoldearth:

As you can see, I put a little too much emphasis on trying to give it a "finished product" look while still trying to show the hills among the forests. The result is disjointed and, frankly, far less amenable to attempts to update it by, for example, inserting a vale into the mountains or a ruin into the woods.

Sometimes we just need a fresh start. I knew it was time for me when I found myself more and more wanting to map something fresh, something where I could be surprised by what was over the next hill, something that didn't have a bad case of canon lock-out for new players. Right now, Asryth is that world for me, because I don't have a clue about its history beyond vague outlines of the last two hundred years. Pretty much all I have is one map showing an area about 200 miles across.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Caves of Chaos: Sessions 1-3

Well, with the bulk of the group currently out, I've been playing with my wife and daughter, running them through the ever classic (B1) Keep on the Borderlands. Our sessions have been short due to our daughter's bedtime, but fun nevertheless.

Shamayim the shamaness, Kitty Crystal the elven warrior-mage, and Joshua the fighting man met by chance in the free city of Daruk, called the City of Brass by some. Hearing rumors about a humanoid-infested collection of caves somewhere to the west, they decided to try to win their fortunes.

In the first session, they entered the goblin caves, headed right (west) and ran into the goblin guards adjacent to the ogre. They managed to kill most of the guards, but Joshua was severely wounded before the ogre even showed up. Kitty (my daughter's character, if you couldn't guess) ran after the goblins who escaped through the secret door in back just in time to see the ogre stand up. As already noted, she tried to attack the ogre and got in a pair of thin scratches before her character's meat was properly tenderized for the cooking pot by the ogre's club.

In the second session, Shamayim and Joshua finished recovering in town and set out to hire some additional help to go back to the caves. They recruited Leah Kitty, another elven warrior-mage and hired a pair of freeswords (or rather, a freesword and a freemace) named Frejar and Brennan. The five opted to avoid the goblin caves with the friendly ogre, opting instead to try a cave on the opposite end of the valley.

Entering the cave, they traveled thirty feet before their front two ranks, including the two hirelings and Leah, fell into a pit trap, taking a battering in the process. Immediately, six reptilian dogmen (kobolds) appeared from a nearby alcove and attacked them. Josh leapt across the pit and fell too with his sword while Shamayim lowered a rope to their trapped companions. By the time they were out, the whole party had taken serious wounds, with just about everyone down to one or two hit points, but they nevertheless carried the day and managed to keep any of the kobolds from escaping to warn their kin.

In session three, having found but a few coppers on the bodies of the kobolds, the party took their remaining shields and spears to better equip the hirelings and took off down the left hand corridor, lighting torches to see. They found a room filled with trash and rubble--and eighteen giant rats led by a rat the size of a wolf that wore a silver chain set with gems.

At this point, the shaman needs to be explained. It's a subclass of the cleric, based on the 3.5 ed Kingdoms of Kalamar variant. Among its class abilities, rather than turning or controlling undead, the shaman can turn and control animals. The shaman succeeded in her turn check (aided by the rats' low hit die) and managed to get control of all eighteen. Shamayim started to take the larger rat's necklace, but noticed that her control started to slip (it actually tried to bite her), so ended up returning it. They searched the room before backtracking and wandering deeper into the kobold caves.

They found the kobolds' storage room, but made sufficient noise (Shamayim screamed when they discovered a human arm in the meat supply) that a pair of the kobold chieftain's bodyguards came to investigate. Leah slew one, but the other managed to kill Brennan and make a break for it. The party took off in pursuit and encountered the third guard and the chieftain, who came to support their comrade. Shamayim summoned her new rat friends, who made short work of all three and the chieftain's women. The largest rat bowed to Shamayim before returning with his fellows into the darkness of the cave. They searched the room quickly, found the chieftain's golden necklace, his treasure chest, and a few other coins, and then made haste to the exit.

End result: 1280 gp worth of treasure, split among three PCs (320 gp each), one hireling (160 gp) and one dead hireling's wife and children (160 gp, enough to keep them comfortably for a good few years if they're careful). The party members got about 50 xp for the monsters each, but since xp is principally awarded by spending gold rather than finding it, I won't know how much closer each PC is to their next level until they report their intra-adventure expenditures.

All things considered, a pretty good collection of adventures. Hopefully they'll continue to be fun for all involved and hopefully some more of my regulars will start showing up again.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Painful Lessons of Growing Up

I ran another game for my wife and daughter today. We're still doing the ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands. My brother wasn't there, but they went in with his character anyway (a bit unorthodox, but he wouldn't have minded, I happen to know). They picked Cave D: the Goblin Lair and started working their way through. I used dungeon tiles to illustrate the terrain for them and they soon ran into the goblins adjacent to the ogre's cave. Mistakes were made, hilarity ensued.

The fighter went down on the second round (at exactly zero hit points, I ruled he wasn't dead, but stunned and out of the fight), but not before taking a goblin with him. The little one used her burning hands spell, but a bit too late for best effect. Meanwhile, they didn't even try to stop the goblin running for the back corner of the room, nor did they decide to break things off when he disappeared into the secret door. Instead, they managed to finish wiping out four of the five remaining goblins, the fifth running after his buddy.

My daughter took off in hot pursuit, arriving just in time to see the goblins bribing the ogre next door for help. "I'll attack him!" she announced.

"Are you sure?" I asked, describing again the 10' monster with the giant club.

"Yeah!" she said.

After that, there was nothing for it but to let the die roll where they may. She managed to draw blood through a couple of scratches on its thick hide before he whalloped her with his club. My wife's character, a shaman, high-tailed it out of there with the fighter with sound of a meat hammer slamming against a rack of ribs until the bones cracked ringing in her ears.

My daughter was upset at losing, but listened to me as I explained to her why it was sometimes better to run than fight before heading off to bed. We're going to roll up her new character tomorrow, possibly a sister or cousin of the dead one bent on getting her vengeance.

Live and learn. Or die and learn. It's all the same in ol' D&D.

A Good Old-Fashioned Hex Crawl

I started on this post before the drama mentioned last post kicked-in, so some of the details aren't immediately relevant to my campaign anymore. Even so, the overall

Just on a lark, I did some poking around a couple of weekends ago to see what sort of gaming software I could find on the web and I came across a little piece called RPG Manager and another called Hexographer, both of which can be used to make hex-based maps. I saw some potential in both for my own campaign.

As I played with the programs, I found myself recreating the maps from the Kingdoms of Kalamar Atlas in hex form, using a 6-mile hex as my scale. I found myself surprisingly delighted with the results. I haven't used a hex map as the basis for a D&D game since . . . well, almost ever. I used the more easily obtainable graph and plain white paper in my younger years and Campaign Cartographer since my 20s. The latter made beautiful maps and was fairly easy to scale, but was time-consuming to use. Nevertheless, I remained far away from hex maps for years.

Recently, I came across my old JG stuff and had some fun going back through it. While it didn't sell me on the wisdom of the hex entirely, I did like the way it enabled sandbox play, since one could simply set up the contents of each hex and assume that if the party passed through it, they had a good chance of encountering whatever was there. Some have decried this as unrealistic, but it serves a useful purpose: It gives the party a basic unit of exploration in the wilderness, just as the 10' square does in the dungeon. Few referees would force the players to describe the area they are searching down to the square inch; rather, we rule that it takes a turn to search a 10'x10' area. In the same way, while it may be realistic to have the party miss the entreance to the dungeon by a mere hundred feet in a forest, it's bound to lead to frustration and styme exploration.

Of course, not everything in a 6-mile hex (an area encompasing approximately 20 square miles) need be seen the instant a party enters it. A lot depends on the type of terrain, how big the object (or creature) is, whether it was built on a hill (as most human fortresses are) or hidden in a cave, whether the area's paths (whether paved roads or just the easiest way to traverse its contours) pass near it, etc. There are too many factors to create a table that would cover all situations, so the referee will need to make a ruling based on his best estimate of the object's size, form, and prominence.

To give an example of how this works in actual play, let me share some highlights from this last week's game: The party, following up on rumors of Dejy raiders wearing palid masks, decide to seek them out in a nearby wood. The first day, they left late, traveled a hex through clear terrain and two hexes into the woods. A random encounter showed a result of a "wreck" of some sort, so I ruled that the players found a crude cart at the bottom of a ravine. One player asked if there was any sort of trail. I said there was (common sense dictating that a cart needs a trail to go far in heavy woods) and the party followed it along the ridge of the hills that lay to the south.

They encountered nothing of note the second day, but on the third day, a random roll indicated a band of cultists. Fortunately, the party's thief, scouting ahead, won the surprise roll and was able to hide before they noticed him. The cultists were turning on another trail leading to the south and, as it turns out, up the slope towards the monestary of St. Gaxyg. At that point, the party is outnumbered and decides to avoid a confrontation, instead taking shelter for the night in a nearby cave . . . which another random encounter indicated was the haunt of four dryads.

What tickled me is how well the hex-crawl worked with random tables. I simply created the encounter tables for the forest, including a "Ruins/Relics" result which directs me to a set of random tables drawn from the old JG Wilderlands sets. The existence of an actual trail through the woods all followed from a random cart on the road, and the path of the trail followed the contours of the land. The other encounters were equally random, with the imagination filling in the blanks. There's definitely something to be said for the Oracular Power of Dice.

Of course, not everything in the campaign is random. After all, I created specific encounter tables for the region in the first place, which gives a good idea of the local population distribution, and my map does include specific sites to visit. But by including that random element, I got a chance to be surprised, and being surprised is one of the greatest pleasures of a referee.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Drama and D&D

It's been a while, but fortunately, not for lack of gaming. I've been busy working on a private wiki for my players where I've been posting many of my thoughts on the game and much of the work for the KoK campaign that I'm running.

It's no uncommon thing for gaming groups to break up, reform, and break up again, whether due to life's responsibilities or the social monster Ars Ludi warns us about. My own group has gone through one of its shortest cycles ever due to said monster, which reared up in a social/moral incompatibility that has forced at least one couple to leave the game and may have lost me another couple. If any of my players reads this blog, I'm not out to point fingers over that particular issue, but to point out something that I discovered almost immediately afterwards.

My wife and daughter are new to the role-playing thing. As was often the case with new players, it is sometimes difficult to get them comfortable in the group dynamic. Well, after the break-up, I sat down with them and my youngest brother and rolled some dice.

They loved it.

It turns out that what was keeping them silent for so much of the game was my group's--and one player in particular's--propensity to go for drama instead of adventure. It was a propensity that I was well aware of and was trying to nip in the bud with a West Marches-style sandbox, but nevertheless the old scene-chewing kept rearing its ugly head. It took six sessions and outright being ordered by a superior officer to even get the group to head towards my version of St. Gygax-at-Urheim, and they still haven't progressed into the tunnels beneath.

On the other hand, I set my family's new characters down in a free-city on the far side of the mysterious Duchy of O'Par, gave them a quick background and a few rumors, and they found the Caves of Chaos before the little one had to go to bed. We're going to do their first exploration of the Caves on Tuesday, hopefully with another friend or two's characters in tow.

And they loved it. No drama (or attempts thereof), no grandstanding, no complicated backgrounds that needed filling in, just two humans and an elf, coming to a backwater city on the very edge of civilization to find their fame and fortune and happily diving into the adventure without once turning to the director and asking, "So in this scene, what's my motivation?"

It occurs to me that maybe I've been trying to hard to play with the same group of friends for too long. There's an enormous pleasure in watching a group of neophytes attempt to navigate a module I was first introduced to some twenty-three years ago. I have several other potential players trying to work out their schedules to be able to come who are just as new to the game. D&D is a great avenue for drama, but its the sort of thing that one should be eased into after getting a chance to mow down some orcs, not have forced upon them in their first playing sessions.

You'd think I'd have had that figured out already. Sometimes you know something, but it still takes a little epiphany to make it really click.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


I don't think I actually have anything approximating a following yet, but for anyone who is following this blog and lamenting the lack of updates, the fact is that I got married on June 14th. Things were busier than expected going in and I'm still settling my new wife and daughter (who already loves D&D) into the house and getting caught up on the work that piled up during my honeymoon. Hopefully we'll have everything settled out soon and I can get back to rambling.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Quote of teh Week

From Jeff's Gameblog:
The original D&D seems, quite obviously, to be a pastiche of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard adventure stories, set in a Tolkeinian world of Moorcockian morality, using Jack Vance's magic system, redacted for multiple protagonists. No wonder things are confused.

-Kenneth Hite

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Right Tool For the Right Job

Alt Title: "When All You Have is a Warhammer . . ."

The first character I ever played was a cleric named (I think--I've been trying to remember for weeks) Argos of Apollodan. I remember rolling him up at the tender age of 10, not even knowing what a cleric was, just that they could repell the undead, would later get spells, could wear whatever armor they wanted . . . and couldn't use bladed weapons for whatever reason.

"So what should I get instead?"

"How about a mace?"

I had a vague idea of what a mace was from having read The Lord of the Rings a few months before, so I bought that and off I went.

For the first several years of my gaming life, the mace seemed an odd weapon created solely for the use of clerics. If you were a fighter, you carried a longsword or two-handed sword (depending on whether you wanted to forego a shield), along with a spear for blocking charges and a dagger for backup. The mace did less damage and just seemed all-around less heroic than the sword.

Of course, as I got older and more knowledgible of history, I eventually learned why weapons like the mace, warhammer, and war pick were invented, and why they were mostly prevelant in Medieval Europe, where armor-crafting became a rather advanced science: They were for getting past plate armor.

In fact, the reason Europe stayed with the straight sword-blade instead of creating curved blades like the Middle- and Far-East was not because of a deficiency in their smithing abilities (as proved by armor-crafting so advanced that Japanese Daimyos were known to import plate armor if they could afford it), but because while a light, curved blade with a razors edge (like a katana, sabre, or scimitar) is wonderful against lightly armored or unarmored opponents but lacked the same ability to penetrate chain and plate that a straight-edged blade did (especially in precision thrusts into narrow vulnerable points in the armor).

OD&D (white box and previous) presents pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach to weapons, with everything inflicting d6 dmg. This is not actually a bad abstraction since all weapons have trade-offs, but it does mean that a clumsy mace is just as effective against a nimble, unarmored opponent as a light saber, while that saber can cut through plate armor just as well as the mace.

AD&D attempted to set matters to right by creating a complex set of tables giving not only weapon damage, but the space needed to effectively wield the weapon and bonuses and penalties to hit based on the target's armor class. While this may have added historical realism, it was so cumbersome that nobody, Gary Gygax included, used them on a regular basis.

Second edition tried to simplify these attack modifiers, but did so in an optional rule that was simply overlooked by many groups. It also failed on a certain front that 1st edition had previously: The tables gave to-hit adjustments included only humanoid armor types (light, medium, and heavy), so all weapons remained equally effective against all monsters except for damage.

Rather than add a new table into my game, I've simply assigned a few weapons minor modifiers to attack rolls: Maces and warhammers get a +1 to hit against medium armor types (e.g., chainmail) and a +2 against heavy (e.g., plate). Battle axes, longbows, and crossbows get a +1 against medium or heavy. Any kind of sword can be given a curve that increases its damage range by one die (e.g., a curved longsword uses a d10 instead of a d8 for damage), but which comes at a cost of -1 to hit medium armor and -2 to hit heavy.

No new tables, just a few notes on certain weapons. I wonder how many fighting-men will start carrying a mace or battle-axe as a backup weapon when facing armored knights or metal golems?

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Belated Pesach Shalom

I should've posted this last week, but I've been rather busy. Grilling enough meat for over a hundred people can really wear one out, especially when my impending marriage means that I don't have enough vacation and personal days left to take off more than the bare minimum of required High Holy Days from work. So I was cooking for the synagogue Seder all day Tuesday, was up until after midnight cleaning up, went to work on Wednesday (where I posted my brief RIP for Dave Arneson), and then took off Thursday for the High Sabbath.

I'm always tickled by the number of gamers who are devout followers of traditional Christianity, like Prokopius and, to judge by his Easter post, the Grognard. This in a hobby that supposedly leads one into Satanism, human sacrifice, and suicide. Yeah, I started gaming in the 80s, and I'm still a bit bitter about the slander, a modern-day blood libel with gamers baking the blood of children into their dice rather than Jews baking it into our matzah.

And yet, the entire game is built around the concept of a war between good and evil, a war that requires good men to sacrifice greatly for their narrow victories--and which often leaves those same men on the outskirts of society, exiles from that which they protect, as James points out here:

As I've argued at length in this blog, the game is in fact at its most
coherent when the PCs are rogues (with or without hearts of gold). But the assumed roguishness of most characters doesn't banish the possibility of there being good or evil. Like the gunslingers of the best Westerns, the PCs are individuals who use barbaric methods to fight "barbarians" on behalf of a civilization that, by the barbaric nature of their own actions in its defense, they must be excluded from. This kind of tension can only exist in a world in which morality isn't treated as subjective or an agreed upon convenience.

This idea is prevalent in both the Jewish and Christian worldviews. In Judaism, there is a strong underlying belief found in both the Talmud and Kabbalah that at any given moment, there are a certain minimum number of righteous Jews for whom the world is maintained. This isn't egotism, but flows naturally out of the idea that the world was created for the sake of Torah, so if nobody continued to practice Torah, the world would cease to have meaning and would cease to exist. Therefore, by continuing to follow Torah and to retain the unique culture that God Himself has crafted for us despite the persecution and pressure to assimilate that we face on all sides, the Jewish people as a whole stand as a bulwark for the world.

Christianity has a similar worldview, in that the Christian sees the present world as "enemy ground," with Satan variously called its prince and even god in the New Testament. Christians, like the "redpills" in the Matrix series, must sojourn through a world that they can never be fully a part of, seeking out others of a "rougish" spirit who are willing to take up the journey and the battle as well. Only by continuing the fight and reaching every corner of the world with the message of its Creator and true King in the face of great adversity and persecution can the Second Coming and the beginning of a new era of peace and truth occur.

In both faiths, the call is to be a "rogue" by the world's standards, not to conform to whatever the current political correctness is, but to walk a different, and often lonely, path.

In the same way, the band of adventurers who live on the frontiers of civilized society in OD&D. Their goals may not be as intrinsically noble as "saving the world"--one may be in it for the money, another to become the greatest swordsman in the world, another for arcane knowledge, another just for the thrill of cheating death--but nevertheless, they end up being civilizations best defense against the forces of Chaos and/or Evil by way of breaking that civilization's rules and living according to a different code of honor. And while they may occassionally receive recognition and honor, such rewards can become a snare, as the rulers granting them expect the footloose rogues to settle down and follow the rules of civilized society in return.

This marvelous fusion of ancient mythology, Judeo-Christian ethics and outsidership, and American "Western" (of the Clint Eastwood sort) mythology is the very heart of OD&D. Small wonder, then, that so many Jews and Christians feel at home in its mythic realms, the occassional brush with Zeus and Thor notwithstanding.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

R.I.P., Dave Arneson

From the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Shalom L'kha, Dave. You will be remembered, and missed.

Monday, April 6, 2009

On Combat Rounds and Rules

It's funny how I've gone back-and-forth on the issue of the proper length of a combat round. I started with the Moldavy rules set and AD&D1, both of which stipulate the length of a combat round at 1 minute. My friends and I, teenagers all, thought this way too long, so we sort of unofficially house-ruled that the actual fighting took place in less time, but that the minute per round included the time spent resting and picking up after the fight. 3rd Edition D&D agreed, reducing the length of combat to what was previously known as a segment, 6 seconds. We all agreed that this was exactly as it should be and all was right with the world.

As I've gotten into D&D's roots, I've become ambivalent about the proper length of a combat round. The 1-minute length, I've found, actually makes historical sense within D&D's wargaming roots in simulating mass combat, e.g. where each mini on the board represents 1o or 20 armored men. You can make the case that it makes sense in one-to-one ratio of D&D combat, but then, you can make the case that a lot of blows and parries can be made in six seconds as well.

My own experience in melee combat comes from a brief stint in LARPing and some small amount of kendo training from a friend (who happens to be one of the best swordswomen in the USA). It was never my experience that it took whole minutes to land a telling blow, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that in LARPing one doesn't really get a sense of what armor is supposed to do (it simply adds hit points) and in kendo, one is unarmored. However, if one takes the hit-point bonuses from armor into account in LARPing, combat could take a couple of minutes to resolve as blows were exchanged. I've watched SCA fights, and the length was about the same in most cases. However, my martial artist friend is also quick to point out that in unarmored one-on-one fights, even (especially!) between two skilled opponents, the fight would tend to be over in a matter of seconds--and yet, we know from medieval records that a battle between two armored knights could go on far longer.

OD&D was never designed to simulate one-on-one duels between unarmored swashbuckers or samauri, but between small to large groups of heavily armored opponents; hence the one-minute combat rounds. It seems that we actually need a separate rules-set for the duel between two musketeers--but since the game presumes a medieval European flavor, where duels would take place between armored knights, I see no real reason to try to create them now. (If one of my players gets into a situation where such rules are needed, we'll just ad hoc them on the spot.)

Given this, I'm planning on returning to 1-minute rounds in my OD&D game: It makes sense of the "talking is a free action" rule (which is horribly abused in 6-second rounds), provides a literary rationale for the length of spell-casting (more on this in a moment), and makes sense when it comes to giving PCs a chance to work out their strategies and try crazy maneuvers.

Speaking of "crazy maneuvers," one of the things that I like in principle about editions 3-4 is that they provide rules for doing things like maneuvering your opponent into position, fighting defensively, doing hit-and-runs, etc. That's not to say that one couldn't do these things in OD&D, but how much one could pull off largely depended on referee fiat. Provided that each instance of fiat was remembered (or written down) as a reasonably consistant house rule, this wasn't a problem, and formed part of each group's organic experience of the rules arising out of the gameplay instead of vice versa (as James explains here). However, I remember well how quickly something I had let a player get away with once under the "rule of cool" heading would become a headache as everyone used and abused it, leading to me nerfing said maneuver or coming up with odd reasons why it wouldn't work, leading to cries of foul play from my players . . .

The trick, as with dealing with non-combat skills, is to have some sort of baseline that lends itself to play without creating artificial strictures. For example, during our brief stint in 4th ed., I really enjoyed employing the rogue's ability to manuever opponents into more advantageous positions via the use of Erroll Flynn-style swordplay. However, this came at the cost of two disassociated mechanics: 1) Only rogues could pull this off for some reason, and 2) they could only do so a limited number of times per day. So I created the following rule that any character could employ:

Maneuvering Opponents
A character may choose to forego the opportunity to do damage against a given opponent to instead attempt to maneuver him into an advantageous position. On a successful attack roll, the combatants make contesting strength of dexterity checks (combatants choose), if the attacker wins, he can move his opponent 5’ for each point that he won by. He must follow the target to move it more than 5’ in any case.

In other words, the burly fighting-man might drive an opponent back by hammering blows down upon his shield or locking shields and shoving hard, while the nimble thief Erroll-Flynns the guy into position. The one being driven back might choose to stand his ground and simply push back, or else maneuver to one side without actually leaving his square.

This rule works well with another that I've ported over from OD&D, the fighting-man's ability to make attacks on multiple opponents of 1 HD or less. In my house-rules, this ability is negated if there is any opponent of more than 1HD within 15', the distance one can move in a single combat round without having to charge (which leaves one vulnerable to set spears, pikes, and pole arms). Basically, the nearby presence of an "elite" on the other side prevents the fighting-man from mowing through the scum, whether due to having to trade blows with the elite, the elite's leadership keeping his men in formation, or whatever.

It is easy to imagine how a party might employ these rules, with one character maneuvering around the line of orcs to attack their leader and push him away from his men to allow the fighting-man a chance to quickly dispatch the 1HD orcs. Of course, this could happen in reverse as well, with the orcs pushing back the 4th level fighting-man to let the 4+1 HD ogre decimate the PCs' hirelings . . .

Another rule that I swiped from one of the OD&D blogs (and unfortunately, I can't remember which one--if anyone knows, please let me know and I'll update this entry to give credit to the source) was on the proper use and sacrifice of shields:
Shield Block
Any combatant who is carrying a shield may, after being targeted by a successful attack, choose to sacrifice his shield to avoid the attack. If the character doing so waits until after seeing the damage roll of the attack, he must make a successful save (modified by strength or dexterity; player’s choice) to successfully intercept the attack. If the saving throw fails, the shield is not broken and the character takes normal damage.
This will also let me give a little more life to my humanoids without having to up their HD, since most will be happy to sacrifice their shields to have another chance to slay or run. It also has a fine literary and historical precedent: In viking duels, each duelist was given three shields. If all three were broken, then he had to fight shieldless--a huge disadvantage. (This was portrayed in Crichton's Eaters of the Dead and the movie version The 13th Warrior.)

Other rules arise easily enough out of these two: Disarming an opponent uses opposed strength/dexterity checks just like maneuvering them. Breaking a weapon is not always possible (Mythbusters showed that a properly forged steel weapon will flex rather than break), but doing so requires a strength vs. dexterity roll at a significant penalty (-2 for breaking a spear haft, -6 for breaking a two-handed sword, for example). One does not provoke an "attack of opportunity" by making attempts at special maneuvers, however--one simply loses the opportunity to do direct damage that round.

Theoretically, a character could spend time training in the fine art of disarming, either using a d8 instead of a d6 or else getting a bonus to the attempt.

The flexibility looks right, and the necessity of a successful attack roll first should balance things out at various levels of play. When my turn to referee rolls around again, we'll see how these rules do in actual play.

Our Prayers for Dave Arneson

Word is quickly percolating through the blogosphere (yes, I'm using up my cliche quota for the day) that Dave Arneson's health is rapidly declining. I got the news from Lord of the Green Dragons. Dave has been struggling with cancer for some time, and it looks like that battle is drawing to a close. Our prayers go out to Dave's family and for Dave himself, and we hope for a peaceful passing and also to see both him and Gary at the Resurrection.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Sephiroth in D&D

No, not every fangirl's favorite white-haired pretty-boy. The actual Kabbalistic idea, worked into the Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope's Stonehell. That's just awesome bonus for the players who will discover it as they map it out.

And I have no idea why I didn't catch it in the first part of the map. I must be slipping or something.

I Want These Frakking Toys!

Why couldn't they make this kind of cool stuff when I was a kid?

Santa Claus Gods

The Greyhawk Grognard has made a post today talking about the role his faith (neo-paganism) plays in his games. It's a question that I've wrestled with over the years as well, so I thought I'd ramble about it a bit today; like many of my posts, this is completely off-the-cuff and being written in between getting work done, so you'll have to pardon the complete lack of structure (and likely the complete lack of a point as well).

My own faith is Messianic Judaism: That is, while I believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah and the Son of God (though I've got different ways of expressing that than classical Trinitarianism), I don't believe that He came to establish a new religion called Christianity in place of the "old law" of Judaism. I don't have a problem with Christians in general, nor do I think they're going to hell because they treat Sunday as holy instead of the Sabbath, but I do get amused that they seem to think that Yeshua came to set me "free" from all of the feast days that I love and enjoy as a Jew. (How many Christians want to be set "free" from Christmas and Easter?)

As a Jew, I've a certain sympathy for the "evil church" trope that floats around fantasy literature and by extension, D&D. At the same time, I've enough historical background to know that that's an oversimplification: There were good popes who tried to protect the Jews and who issued papal bulls denouncing the synagogue-burners as well as those who put us in ghettos and initiated the Inquisitions. There were many individual Christians who have been friends of the Jews in every era, including during the Holocaust (as the garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in the Yad Vashem testifies).

Btw, while we're dispelling bad history, let's knock down a few mythical edifaces that the neo-pagan movement is trying to build: The Inquisitions were not going after Wiccans, because Wicca didn't exist at that point. They were targeted against Christian heretics and Jews--specifically, Jews who had converted to Christianity but still retained Jewish practices. Messianics, in other words. Moreover, pagans were not more open-minded and inclusive than Christians: Pagan Romans were feeding Christians to lions for the first three centuries of the faith's existence, and pagan Vikings and Saxons were raping, pillaging, and burning Christian villages before the northmen were converted by (mostly) peaceful Christian missionaries.

Nor are pagans more open-minded today, in my experience. The Greyhawk Grognard admits to characaturing the church in his games--which is his right, but one wonders if he would appreciate a campaign in which good faux-Christian clerics went around converting blood-drinking, violent pagans who were characatured as a bunch of unthinking imbeciles who worshiped the devil himself and fed the good clerics to lions for sport.

I've got some experience with this. My old home-brew world was based heavily on Europe of the 500s, including having fallen portions of the old empire but with a strong Byzantinesque empire still running in the east. I based it heavily off of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium (which, along with its sequel, should be required reading among gamers) and the movie Excalibur, specifically on Merlin's wistful line, "The One God drives out the many gods." I didn't take a personal stance on whether this was a good thing, and on the frontiers I had numerous cults rising around a resurgence in the belief in the old gods, which I based on actual Celtic and Teutonic beliefs. Several of my players, particularly those with a pagan or pagan-sympathetic worldview, didn't like it. Word got back to me that they thought that I was trying to force my own beliefs into the campaign and on them. (One wonders how they thought that an analogue to Eastern Orthodox Christian beliefs reflected my own, other than the monotheist part . . .)

Nevertheless, this was a major part of my decision to go with the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting; as a referee, I'm here to entertain (and be entertained, of course), and if a significant number of my players feel I've erred in how much of my personal beliefs I've brought into the world, then I'm willing to make adjustments for the good of the group. I don't hand out tracts at my table (or anywhere else, come to think of it). Nor is this a tract for my particular religion; rather, it's a rambling discourse on religion and clerics in D&D in general.

There is an implied assumption by many that D&D is inherantly polytheistic and pagan. Certainly, there is some truth to this in 2nd and 3rd Edition, where one's cleric's powers are dependent on which diety they worship, but there is no reason that this has to be so. As has been documented elsewhere, the original rules implied a kind of Christianity (with "crosses" being sold instead of "holy symbols," for example), with the quasi-Christian clerics going to battle against demons drawn straight out of Judeo-Christian lore. One could also easily cast clerics in the role of mystics in tune with "the cosmos," as the Grognard does, or men supernaturally empowered by pursuit of some great cause, as the Moldavy Basic rules do. I once toyed with the idea of clerics being attuned to artifacts called Foundation Stones, which offered protection to cities from the dangerous wilderness a few miles away from their walls.

Furthermore, many D&D and other fantasy worlds assume that there is in fact a Creator that the gods are subject to: The annotated Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends indicate that Weis and Hickman intended to explore the gods relationship with the All-Father someday (before this was derailed in the abominable Dragons of Summer Flame). The Forgotten Realms has Ao (though it is stated that he's not at the top of the chain either). Middle-earth has Iluvatar. Dennis McKiernan's novels have Adon. Jordan had the Creator--and no other true gods (unless one counts the Dark One).

Likewise, many real-world religions have some acknowledgement of the Creator, even if they emphasize the worship of lesser beings: Many Native Americans will speak of the Great Spirit, as did an African ex-shaman that I heard interviewed once. The pre-Confucian Chinese religion worshipped Shang-Ti, which translates as "Emperor of Heaven," and speak of Him in terms that could have been pulled straight out of Genesis and Isaiah. Even today, Oriental peoples will speak of "the will of Heaven"--a phrase not unknown in Traditional Judaism. Hinduism ultimately looks past its pantheon for the Brahman, and though there is less in common with HaShem in the Brahman than there is in Shang-Ti, nevertheless, the search for "the One" is still present. This was true of the pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophers as well, who had become disgusted with their adolescent super-hero gods and had been seeking in fits and spurts the truly transcendent for some centuries before the world ever heard of Yeshua HaNetzerai.

The Bible itself, while consistantly insisting that there is only One Creator and One God for Israel, is frank that there are many lesser beings (angels, demons, etc) running around, many of which will provide miracles in return for worship and sacrifice. The issue was never whether these other "gods" have a real existence, but whether they are worthy of worship in place of or even alongside the Holy One.

Given the variety of real-world religions and the imaginations of the referees and players out there, there is absolutely no reason to be locked into a "there are many gods, but each cleric only worships one--and the Creator, if He exists, doesn't interfere" paradigm for fantasy gaming.

What if the gods were clustered into particular families or "political" groupings, and clerics represented these groups rather than specific individuals?

What if there is a single Creator, but He (or She, if you insist) interacts indirectly through servitor powers just like a human king is more likely to interact with a band of footloose adventurers through his agents instead of personally? And if that's the case, is that Creator neutral, or are some of the gods fallen from their original purpose? What if the Creator went "missing" (as in Kalamar)?

What if clerics are simply mystics whose source of power is unknown, and whether there is a God or gods is just as hotly debated in the campaign world as it is in ours?

What if clerics (and possibly magic-users) get their powers from attunement to some artifact or group of artifacts rather than from sentient beings? Could such artifacts be stolen, and if so, what would happen?

What if clerics serve the Law of the Cosmos, while magic-users get their powers from Chaos?

In all cases, it is necessary to think through the implications of one's implimentation of the cleric class in the way that it will shape your world--because it will shape your world.

There is a great tendency in D&D to treat the gods as Santa's elves, the harbringers of nifty toys--er, spells--and sources of quests, but who don't really affect the rest of the culture. This is hardly surprising, since most Americans treat God the same way, but the result is an impovershed world and many missed opportunities for not only adventure, but immersion.

Take the subject of holy days, for example. Most American Christians have exactly two religious holidays, Easter and Christmas, but don't understand the symbolism behind the trappings. Most campaigns never mention holy days unless there's a plot-specific reason to do so (and then the day in question tends to be just dropped haphazardly into the calendar to fit the timing of the adventure). But to most of the world, feastdays and holy days aren't matters of commercialism and pretty lights for pretty lights' sake, but symbolic recreations of history and legend, reconfirmation of ancient pacts and covenants, and prayers-in-action for future hopes. Failure to carry out these feasts were not just lost opportunities to eat, but were (and are) believed to actually bring down the wrath of the powers ones tribe was beholden to.

Passover is coming up, so I'll use that as a personal example: As a Jew, I keep the Passover Seder every year in remembrance of how God brought my people out of slavery in Egypt as a matter of real history. As a Messianic, I keep the Passover in remembrance of Messiah's sacrifice, which also took place on that day as a matter of real history. Every year, Passover serves as a re-confirmation of the covenants made between the Holy One and Israel as well as my own personal covenants. Every element of the Seder--every food we eat, every cup of wine we drink, every action we take and word we speak--is symbolically tied to these events and covenants; there is nothing that is done "just because."

All ancient cultures have similar rituals and feasts. Men didn't sacrifice animals just because, but as a symbolic way of giving a gift to one's patron diety and/or as a way of saying, "I know I've sinned; take this animal's life in my place." When aboriginal cultures put on masks and paint themselves, it's not for cosplay, but to act out the legends of their people and actively put on the personna of the gods to do so, letting the gods enter into them so that they became temporary incarnations of them. When the Celts put out food on Samhain, it wasn't as gifts to children, but to placate the ancestral spirits they believed roamed free on that night (a similar practice of offering food to ancestral shrines continues to this day in the Far East). Even activities that we in the modern world think of as being purely secular, like prostitution, had a religious meaning: The prostitutes were priests and priestesses, or temple servants at the least, and having sex with them was considered to be a ritual way of having sex with the gods.

The upshot of all of the above is that in every era except for the last two centuries, and even today in most places in the world, religion and culture cannot be separated. And if they can't be separated in the "real" world, where what magic there is is so subtle as to be completely missed by those who aren't looking for it, what chance is there for a secular society in a fantasy world where prayers seal up ghastly wounds and wizards hurl fireballs at their enemies?

I've previously written about how pleased I am at Kingdoms of Kalamar's approach to religion, giving us just enough details about the worship of its various gods to let us quickly construct some local flavor just by seeing who is worshipped thereabouts. The Player's Guide gives additional details about the holy texts each "church" uses. The trick is to insert these details in such a way as to interest players rather than have them rolling their eyes and tuning out. A quick write-up, no more than a few paragraphs (like in the linked post) may prove of interest; setting adventures on certain holy days and using them as backdrop is also a good idea (e.g., the PCs are commissioned by a town to bring them amber from the Urgoth Hills in preparation for the summer solstice ceremonies). Maybe there is a ceremony that nobody remembers the symbolism behind that some curious players might dig into (which I also gave an example of).

PCs should not be forced to participate in religious rituals--but they should know that other characters in the world do, and the better players will get right into the action for the fun of it.

In the end, a world with verifiable miracles should not be a world in which the gods exist only to give spells to clerics, like some etherial Santa Claus being asked for a pony. It should be a world in which the gods influence the culture--yet always in the background of the actual game action, or as hooks for future adventures.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Way of Peace: A Cleric Variant

Since I'm trying to keep to the "basic four" character classes, I'm also working on "variant" rules for each; basically, small changes in each class that can be taken to give them each their own twist, or even take on the characteristics of the sub-classes in AD&D. I've started with backgrounds and skills that can, for example, let a fighting-man take on the role of a ranger. Here are my rules for a non-combat oriented cleric:

The Way of Peace: A Cleric can choose to forego shields and metal armor and weapons (i.e. restricting themselves to leather and hide armor and clubs, staves, and slings) in return for increased magical ability. This option may be taken at any time, but once chosen cannot be reversed unless the Cleric falls into the Dark path. The Cleric undertaking the Way of Peace receives the following benefits:
  • Casts spells at one level higher than normal; i.e. a 1st level Cleric who follows the Way can cast one 1st level spell per day.
  • Receives his Wisdom modifier to his armor class in addition to his Dexterity modifier.
  • Can do 1d4 + Sm subdual damage with an unarmed strike, and does not cede initiative to an armed opponent when using an unarmed strike. (Dark Clerics who once followed the Way can do normal damage instead of subdual damage when fighting bare-handed.)
"The Way of Peace" may not be the best name for this variant, since it also gives the cleric some martial arts ability--perhaps "Mystic" would be the better name.

Next up, a shaman variant.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Religion on the Frontier

One of the areas in which KoK really shines is in its presentation of its gods. Granted, there are almost too many of them to keep track of, but by carefully selecting an area's locally-worshiped gods, you very quickly get a good idea of what the culture in that area is like, including holy days and rituals. For example, here's the write-up I just completed on the frontier area of Tokis that will be the starting place of my campaign:

Throughout this region, the most common faiths followed are those of Taladari, the Holy Mother; Regorike, the Raiser; and Dirasip, the Eternal Lantern, with due reverence given to the Bear (Belanar) and the Great Huntress (Kalenadil). The Old Man, Natirel, once had a powerful church in the area led by St. Gaxyg the Grey, and though they have died out, the stories of the King of the Battlefield live on, it being said that he battles the Storm Lord (Bilapi) during the winter storms. More disturbing are the cults of the Locust Lord (Alu), the Flaymaster (Pirabi, called Slen by his followers due to being a transplanted cult from the Wild Lands), the Prince of Terror (Goli) and the Confuser of Ways that are said to be growing in the countryside.

The following feast-days are commonly observed:
  • The 25th of Declarations, the wedding-anniversary of King Adoku, in honor of the Mother. The people build bond-fires from scrap wood and dance around them; afterwards, the priests mix the ashes with holy water and use the ashes to bless new buildings and building materials.
  • The first day of Spring (the 1st of Renewal), in honor of the Raiser, a day of feasting and joy in which seeds are brought out and blessed for planting.
  • The first night of Harvest, the holiest night to the Raiser. Farmers bring bushels of grain to sacrifice, which are then distributed to the needy.
  • The summer solstice, holy to the Eternal Lantern and the Bear. The people bring offerings of small white, yellow, or gold gems (or stones, for those too poor to offer gems), which are arranged in a perfect circle in preparation for full noon. Prayers are said, followed by songs of praise and feasting, and a tree seedling is planted in the center of the circle.
  • On the night of the winter solstice, some plant tree seedlings at the borders of their property to placate the Bear.
  • On nights of the full moon Veshemo, woodsmen, hunters, and rangers sacrifice an animal freshly hunted that day with a gold or silver arrow.
  • Every year, on the 9th of Siege-Hold, a mandrake is ritually hewed with an axe and then burned in a fire. Nobody remembers why, but this is in celebration of St. Gaxyg’s victory over the shade of the mad elf-lord Sincarai, after which the forces of Chaos were driven into Urheim, and the Abby built over it.

The evil cults also observe the following days:
  • Just before the month of Frosting, the Order of Agony kidnaps a strong, healthy individual to ritually torture for the whole month before finally staking their victim out on the snow.
  • The House of Hunger gathers during the waning of the moon Diadolai, especially during the winter months. It is typical to find livestock slaughtered in such a way as to spoil the meat during these seasons—this is usually disguised as wolf attacks.
  • The Prince of Terror’s holy days are secret, but always announced by pinning a shrunken head up in a public place to inspire fear.
  • The Gathering of the Confuser of Ways is never known outside of the cult.
A little flavor and several conflicts, all set to go. I've got a calendar generating program that'll make it easy to track the phases of the moon and give me room to do day-to-day write-ups as well.

This continues to shape up very well.

Kalamar, Judges Guild-Style

I remarked last week that one of the Kingdoms of Kalamar's greatest assets was also one of its greatest weaknesses, that being the way the Atlas is set up. As I remarked then,

[T]he Atlas lacks those details that mean the most to referees and players: names for those ridges and other geographic features, small woods and bogs in out-of-the-way places, ruins and castles, and notes on local non-human (or non-civilized) populations. You can write them in with a felt-tip pen, but you'll hate to "ruin" the book.
Well, I've decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and "ruin" my Atlas in order to create something akin to the old Judges Guild Wilderlands sets.

For background, my first encounter with Judges Guild was sometime in the 90s, when I was browsing the dealers' room at Dragon Con--the best way to find wonderfully odd games and playing aids back in those days before the Intarweb. Anyway, I was rummaging through some old books, and I came across a couple of items from a company that I at that point in my life knew nothing about: The first was a notebook of hex paper, complete with numbered hexes and little tidbits of information about creating wilderness adventures, and the other was this strange bundle with two sets of maps titled The Elphand Lands. I bought them up on a lark and spent many an hour pouring over them for ideas for my own homebrew world.

I've often regretted that I've never actually played a game set in the Wilderlands. I thought about picking up the boxed set for D&D3.5, but found the price to be more than a bit steep. It's too bad, because the Wilderlands really are in many ways the perfect D&D world-in-a-box. Every other campaign on the market gives you the overview of a world, but leaves you to work out the nitty-gritty, low-level details that actually makes it possible to adventure there. The Forgotten Realms came closest to the JG ideal by focusing on a relatively small area from the Sword Coast to Raven's Bluff, but even there you had to come up with your own encounter tables and adventuring sites. With a JG product, on the other hand, you could literally open up the box, pick a random place to plob in the PCs, and just let them wander. Nearly every 5-mile hex had something interesting for them to stumble across, while leaving the descriptions bare-bones enough to force the referee to bring his own creativity to the fore.

In any case, I'm taking that approach with the KoK Atlas. My location-based notes about the world are being organized according to the Atlas' page numbers, and I'm scribing small numbers onto the pages to reference in my notes. So, for example:

The Old Watchtower of Rellas
Situated high on Rellas Hill, this ancient watchtower stood guard over the eastern border of the then-expanding Kalamar Empire, later falling into disuse and ruin as the frontier moved further east through modern O’Par. It has long been a meeting place for rangers and other adventurers, the nearly-bare hill that serves as its foundation giving a wide view of the land about. Now, however, it has become a watchtower for goblins in the employ of the Locust Lord, who use it to plan raids and ambushes.

Below that, I've noted the creatures that might be found there and what treasures might be found. As I get past the bare-bones level, I'll include maps of the various locales that might need them, but right now I'm just brainstorming a paragraph or two at a time. I've photocopied the map as well, which I'm using to draw encounter regions. As I've done so, the political situation has started to really take shape. It'll be interesting to see if the players decide to get involved in it at all, especially as they move into the natural endgame of building their own fiefdom--and it'll be even more interesting to see which side they take, or if they'll try to take on all comers.

It's been a while since I've been this focused and thrilled with campaign design. Before, I had a million ideas competing for attention, with a half-dozen uncompleted maps lying strewn across my floor. Now that I've settled on a world, the rest is flowing naturally from the world's details and the seed ideas that I started with.

Now, if James will just hurry up the details on Urheim . . .

Heh, Died Last Night

My instincts obviously broke a bit last night. We did all right against the obelisk that spawned will-o-wisps any time we were dumb enough to hit it, found the secret door and figured out how to get past it (actually, one of the relative newbs figured it out--good on her), and wandered down into a room with a festering pile of corpses. A quick detect magic revealed something apparently buried under the pile, so I went to try to shift some corpses with my spear.

I should've brought a 10' pole.

The pile animated and attacked--and I don't mean that the individual corpses in the pile animated and attacked, I mean the whole pile rose as a solid mass and attacked. So naturally, we decided to have at it.

I really should've taken the hint when I critted no less than three times, using a magical sword that crits at x3 vs. undead and abominations, and it kept on coming, but by that time, I was in full berzerker rage. It got its collective hands on me and I got in one more good blow before it snapped my barbarian/fighter in half and absorbed him into the mass.

The paladin was next to go.

Fortunately, we had weakened it enough by this point that the party was able to take it down by using our entire oil supply to set it on fire and repeatedly fireball it with a wand. It turns out that my character hadn't been completely absorbed, so the cleric was able to raise me with her staff of life.

We're a party of 8th or so level. This was an EL 13 monster. If the dice hadn't been wildly in my favor, I wouldn't have done enough damage before dying for the rest of the party to bring it down. A strangely lucky break, given the way the dice have been rolling for me of late.

Anyway, the xp we got from that encounter was enough to offset the level loss for resurrection, so I didn't actually have to rework my whole character sheet, but I did miss the chance to level up with the rest of the party. Ah, well, it's a light price to pay for my foolishness.

Besides, I had a great time, and that's what it's all about when you get down to it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Explaining Race

For some reason, modern fantasy literature and gaming seems to have a burning need to explain how the magic works. Most D&D worlds have one or more dieties of magic that make it work. Some form of magical "field" that envelops the world is common, as are "mind magics" which are simply psychic powers and thaumaturgy, having a lot of magical and/or spiritual beings on your rolodex. There's certainly nothing wrong with explaining the whys of the magic of one's world, but neither is it necessary: Tolkien certainly didn't need to explain to us why magic worked in Middle-earth; it simply did.

What is necessary to explain is why so many different intelligent races live together on one world and what exactly the demi-human races are. Referees who do not take the time to work out such details will invariably get the "humans with pointy ears" syndrome that plagues many a world. Those that do, those who can succinctly explain what makes elves, dwarves, and halflings different from humans in their world, will find their players far more ready to embrace the role of playing a truly non-human character.

There are four basic origins for human/demi-human mixtures on a world: Parallel evolution, gateways, fairyland, and magical mutation. As we look at each of these possibilities, we should note that they are not mutually exclusive. Middle-earth, for example, had elves, humans, ents, dwarves, and halflings individually created by Illuvatar and/or the Valar, but also saw Morgoth magically mutating elves into orcs, ents into trolls, etc. as he waged war on all that was good. There's no reason the referee should not do the same in his own world.

This entry could just as well be termed "parallel creation," since many fantasy worlds presume that the mortal races are the creation of the powers-that-be. This origin is the most common in pulp fantasy (with gateways coming in at a close second), which often features decadent remnants of a once-great species that ruled before man evolved from monkey. Howard's Hyborian Age was rife with such throwbacks, as are the stories of Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber, but as noted, Tolkien also had parallel creation as a central theme in his Middle-earth.

In such worlds, mankind tends to be the dominant species, with the elder races having passed their zenith and on their way to extinction, and the overall tone of such a world tends to be a bit bleak, either mourning the passage of an Age of Legends or taking for granted the eventual fall of Man and the rise of an inhuman successor. On the other hand, properly done, such a world impresses the reader/player with its yawning abyss of time, leaving a world littered with the corpses and ruins of many ages.

In some worlds, such as the Forgotten Realms, Planescape, or Andre Norton's Witchworld, the backstory includes an ancient race of powerful wizards (or technologists) who left behind a great network of gates linking the world to many other worlds, and through which the inhabitants, flora, and fauna of those worlds game to the main one of the story. In such a world, the original dominant species may have died out or moved on, or else their civilization may have fallen and their descendents may live on as just one of many races. These worlds tend to be wonderful hodgepoges, where a knight might ride his horse next to an elf riding a chocobo, and there's no reason for humans to be dominant except within their own kingdoms. In Katherine Kerr's Deverry novels, for example, humans dominate the titular kingdom and the island nation of Bardek, but the elves, dwarves, and other races all have their kingdoms in the surrounding lands where they can ignore the humans most of the time.

A "gateway" world makes for good gaming, since it becomes easy to explain the existence of so many strange monsters in close proximity to each other and offers pleny of opportunity for plane-hopping for groups that like that sort of thing. Interestingly, the Realm of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon was just such a world, with the unaired finale strongly suggesting that not only the kids, but everyone in that world had been pulled to it through a gate originally.

Where a gateway world has numerous portals to many worlds (most of which are suggested to be just other planets like our own earth), a world with a realm of Faerie is chiefly defined by the dichotomy between the natural world and the faerie world. This kind of world is exemplified by Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and in a modern twist, in Mercedes Lackey's Serrated Edge novels.

The World of Greyhawk was implied by the Dungeon Master himself to be somewhere between this and the gateway world. In Oerth, humankind is the natural and native race, with elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes coming from some other world, which is why they are restricted to small pockets around the edges of human civilization (e.g., around the Lortmill Mountains)--humanity has a few thousand years of head-start and the advantage of being on their native soil, so to speak.

Whether Faerie is actually another world or is a natural part of the game world that just happens to only manifest where the Law of civilization doesn't reach is a matter for the referee to decide.

At first glance, this would seem to be just another form of parallel evolution, but where the former sees the various races as having been created by the powers-that-be from the ground up or having evolved naturally over eons, creatures shaped by magical mutation were transformed very suddenly either by some magical chaos or by the deliberate experimentation of some powerful being. We've already cited the creation of orcs from elves in Middle-earth; the creation of trollocs and myrdrall in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series would be another example (this time by a mad scientist rather than by a god).

Not all such mutations result in evil beings, however. In Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels, many good as well as evil or just dangerous beings were transformed in the magical cataclysm that nearly destroyed the world in the series' backstory. In one trilogy, we meet a young woman who was transformed by magic into a cat-girl for the pleasure of a powerful and evil adept--but she herself is by no means evil. Jack Chalker's Changewinds trilogy shows just such a magical cataclysm and its effects on those caught up in it in action.

My original concept for the campaign world was based heavily on the Faerie concept, and I'm importing a modified form of that into the Kingdoms of Kalamar. Officially, KoK presents a world of parallel evolution, with the elves, dwarves, and other races having all had their day in the sun and now having retreated before the onslaught of the nations of men--and with the very strong possibility that man will be replaced by the hobgoblins in time. In my campaign, however, elves aren't just long-lived humanoid beings, but creatures of Faerie and Chaos who are subject to strange moods and stranger motives. Dwarves aren't just short men with beards, but anthropomorphic personifications of the roots of the world. Gnomes and halflings have never had empires of their own, but are deeply connected to the Fey, who live in hidden dells and beneath the roots of the great forests that still remain.

The PCs will have to decide for themselves whether they are aligned with the Law of Man, pushing back the wilderness; whether they will ally themselves with Chaos, trying to tear down the Kalamaran Empire; whether they seek some kind of balance; or whether they are simply unaligned and out for personal fortune.

Whichever side they choose, those playing demi-humans won't be allowed to play humans with pointy ears, but will have to stretch themselves into looking at the world in a new and alien way.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Thief

The thief, for all of its long history in D&D (having first been introduced in the Greyhawk supplement), is not the best-loved class among grognards. The most common complaint is that it "open[s] the door to a more generalized skill system, which I see as a large nail in the coffin of old school play," as James Maliszewski points out. Philotomy expands on this common objection:
Over time, I've come to prefer the game without the Thief class (i.e. using only the original three classes). The role the thief usually plays (scout/sneaky-guy) is easily filled by the other classes; everyone can attempt to be stealthy, search for traps, et cetera. Also, without the Thief and his special abilities, these activities are often performed by the player describing how he goes about it, rather than rolling against a skill, which I think is a lot of fun.

[Quoting Mike Mearls]:As others have mentioned, the thief is a self-justifying class. More importantly, I'd rather the players use critical thinking and deduction to figure out traps, unlock doors, and so on. I'd prefer to allow any player of sufficient creativity and wits to figure a way past an obstacle. To me, that's the appeal of original D&D.
I obviously don't have a problem with a generalized skills system, provided that it simply improves a character's chance of doing something, rather than restricing other characters' ability to make the attempt. However, the thief skills, having no parallel in the other classes, do pose a problem for the players conceptually if nothing else: If they look at the chart and see that their thief has only a 25% chance of disarming a trap (for example), they will naturally conclude that nobody else would have so much as a snowcone's chance in Gehenna. This is compounded by a statement in the Moldavy Basic rules that "[t]hieves are the only characters that can open locks and find traps without using magic" (p. 45, emphasis original).

But we needn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There's a lot of appeal in playing a character who lacks magic or the strength to be a great warrior, but who lives by his wits and can simply sneak, perceive, climb, and make opportunistic attacks better than anyone else, like the Batman when he works with Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. (And Batman is widely considered to be the most dangerous of the group.)

Here then is my own attempt to house-rule the thief's abilities in a fashion that melds with the skills system that I've created. Those who wish an "old school" thief that gets away from using the percentage die but which also does not presume any kind of systematized skills rules should check out James' house-ruled thief class. The following is designed to be compatible with Labyrinth Lords, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry (for which it was designed), and falls under the Open Game License:
The Thief
The thief is a man who lives by his wits rather than force of arms or eldritch might. This is not to say that the thief cannot fight when the need arises, but his real strength is the numerous skills he picks up in his travels. The thief has numerous skills that he brings to a party, especially stealth and detecting and bypassing traps and secret doors. Despite the name, not all thieves are out to steal; some are scouts in the employ of some lord, while others are simply rogues given to wanderlust, who travel the world to sate their curiosity. A thief is a welcome addition to the adventuring party, provided that he does not steal from his companions.

Hit Die Type: 1d6. After 9th level, a thief gains 1 hp per level (Constitution bonuses do not apply)
Armor/Shield Permitted: A thief can only wear light armor, and cannot use a shield.
Weapons Permitted: A thief may use any light blade, a longsword, a club, a quarterstaff, or any missile weapon.
Prime Attribute: Dexterity.
Special Abilities:
Backstab: When attacking an unaware opponent (e.g., after winning the surprise roll) or flanking an opponent with an ally, a thief may roll two dice for damage. At fifth level, he may roll three dice and keep the two highest results. At ninth level, he may roll four dice and keep the three highest results.

Extraordinary Climbing: A thief can climb sheer surfaces without the need for special equipment. His chances of success are 1-17 on 1D20. This chance increases to 1-18 at fifth level and 1-19 at ninth level.

Beginning at first level, a thief uses a d8 to surprise or sneak past an opponent when alone or operating with thieves of similar experience. Otherwise, a thief's surprise chance is equal to that of the least sneaky character in the group. This die increases to a d10 at 5th level and a d12 at 9th level. The thief may apply his Dex modifier when actively sneaking past.

Tools of the Trade:
When possessed of appropriate tools, a thief can open locks and disable small mechanical traps on a roll of 6 or better on a d8. This increases to a d10 at fifth level and a d12 at ninth level. Note that especially well-crafted locks and traps may require a higher roll to successfully pick/disable.

At first level, a thief uses a d8 to detect secret doors and hear noises (needs a 6 or better in each case).

A thief can only be surprised on a roll of 6 or better on the surprise die.

Master Thief:
A thief of 9th level or higher who constructs a hideout will attract 2d6 thieves of 1st level who will come to learn from him. Each of these thiefs will bring in 2d10 gp in guild dues and tithes a month, in addition to accepting missions from their master.

A quick note on the surprise die: In my house rules, a given person or group is surprised on a roll of five or better on the surprise die, not a roll of 1-2. This allows me to incorporate the surprise die right into my skills system.

Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it balanced and compatible with the ethos that a fighter should have a chance at hiding and stalking, or that a wizard should be able to try to climb that wall? I think so. Ultimately, we'll have to see it tested in-game.

Why (Commercial) Worlds Fail

When you've been playing D&D since the mid-80s, you see a lot of published campaign worlds come and go. Some, like Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms, become icons of the game. Others, like the Judge's Guild Wilderlands, Arduin, and Kingdoms of Kalamar, fill solid niches, even if they never reach the same level of popularity. And a great many disappear altogether from the published world, kept alive only by shadowy cults who worship in the dark corners of the internet.

Ahem. Sorry, romanticizing a bit here.

In the 90s, TSR engaged in a number of grand attempts to create unique, non-European worlds for fun and profit. Two in particular stand out in my mind: Darksun and Taladas (the lost continent of Krynn). Taladas has a very special place in my heart, in no small part because the authors clearly had a great love for culture, and spent a great many pages detailing what the lives of people who lived on a continent that still bled a sea of lava at its center were like. They also took great joy in subverting, spindling, and mutilating every cliche we had grown comfortable with in Dragonlance: Kender weren't just ADHD and annoying, they were paranoid and stole your stuff to keep you from using it against them. The most civilized nation on the continent was an early-Roman pastache ruled by minotaurs. Many of the elves were plainsmen in the north. Etc. I'll have to do a retrospective one of these days.

So why wasn't Taladas a commercial success? I could blame the lack of support (e.g., novels, modules, advertising), but there's a deeper issue at work: Too much fantastic (yes, I'm using that as a noun) all at once is like too much spice in your food.

D&D works because it taps into the Western collective unconcious, combining the familiar elements of myth and fairy tale with our self-perception that we are natural explorers. A good D&D setting has its own familiar tropes which make it easy for anyone who has played the game, or who has simply been exposed to a bit of fantasy to drop right in and feel at home. Changing a few assumptions around--say, making your elves exiles from the woods who now live on the plains, as Katherine Kerr has done in her Deverry cycle--is like adding a pinch of spice to that old standby meal of beef stew. But changing too much at once makes it more difficult for a person to digest what you're setting before them.

Veteran players, temporarily bored with faux-English countryside and woodland elves, may find delight in such settings, but in the long run, we all return to the comfortable and familiar.

It's better to start the PCs off in an area where they can make an instant connection and then introduce new elements as they range father about than to require them to read three single-spaced pages just to get an idea what their native culture is supposed to be like. They want to kill things and take their stuff, not take a course in anthropology.