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.

Campaign Starting Premises

I spent a few hours last night going over my Kingdoms of Kalamar stuff and brainstorming, trying to decide whether to continue with developing my homebrew or starting KoK back up. I finally decided to run a game in KoK again--why reinvent the wheel?

(That's not to say that my earlier work was wasted; I intend to shamelessly import it into KoK.)

So I've worked up a pair of starting situations/adventures for the game. The one that I use will depend entirely on whether it looks like we'll have a stable group or not.

The first adventure idea is the one used in the old module Treasure Hunt, in which the PCs, a bunch of ordinary, 0-level commoners, start off as slaves on a ship that wrecks on a not-quite-deserted island, and in the course of the quest to escape the island rise to 1st or 2nd level classed characters. In my original KoK campaign, the PCs then set out to cross half the continent to return to their homelands, and in the process began discovering hints that their kidnapping wasn't just the result of random slave-raiding . . .

Because of the amount of travel the PCs had to do to get back home, this premise will work best with a stable gaming group, so that we don't constantly have to handwave people dropping in and out.

The second idea can work with either a stable gaming group or a series of ad hoc groups: The PCs are commoners from a small village on the outskirts of Tokis, a province of the Kalamaran Empire which has been suffering economic collapse due to a combination of war and a locust swarm. Things are desperate, and made more so by the fact that all of the "classed" NPCs have been conscripted for the war effort against neighboring Pekal. Into the middle of this situation, a band of monks arrive bearing relief supplies--but as events unfold, they discover that the monks are clerics of the Locust Lord, determined to destroy their village as a sacrifice to their dark god, as they have already done with the village up the road. Furthermore, the evil clerics have uncovered the dungeons beneath the ruins of an ancient monestary (I'd cheerfully steal the Grognard's megadungeon project for that), so even after dealing with the bulk of the clerics, the PCs would have a dangerous entry to the underworld nearby that needed to be dealt with--or not, if something else caught their eye.

This scenario would lend itself to a modified West Marches-style campaign, but with the PCs having a definite tie to the home area. Once they've accumulated a bit of wealth, they might find themselves trying to smuggle food supplies across the border from "enemy" states, dealing with confiscatory taxes and tarriffs set by lords desperate for cash, or even viewed as a threat by the local power structure. I'd have to avoid the temptation to create plots, but there would be situations a-plenty to throw at the players and see how they react.

Of course, it's quite possible to combine the two scenarios: Just have the island the PCs crash onto be a lot closer to home and then have them wander into town in the middle of the above situation and have to save what remains of their friends and family. In fact, the Locust Lord adventure that I outlined above was developed during our original KoK campaign for just this purpose.

I'm not quite sure which way I'm going yet, but I suspect it'll be the Locust Lord option. Even if it isn't, Treasure Hunt comes with its own module, so I don't have to do much prep work there. That means that detailing the PC's hometown and surrounding area is going to be my focus while I wait for my turn behind the screen. I'm enjoying it already.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kingdoms of Kalamar

While gaming last night, I also got a chance to propose my OD&D ideas to the group, and once I explained the basics of the house rules and the two premises I was considering (to be detailed in a future post), they were very receptive, especially one friend (last night's DM) who had been reading the Labyrinth Lords rules.

Interestingly, several wanted to return to the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting, maybe even reboot a campaign that we started years ago but were unable to finish. I don't really mind that idea; KoK is pretty old-school in a lot of respects, being humanocentric with plenty of wilderness to play in, and there's plenty of room for my Law vs. Chaos (Man vs. Faerie) ideas.

The Kingdoms of Kalamar setting was first published by Kenzer & Co. in 1994. I actually have the original boxed set, which I bought at DragonCon that year. In the spirit of the original World of Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms boxed sets, it contained two beautiful poster-sized maps and two thin booklets detailing the world and its nations and major geographic features. More akin to Greyhawk than FR, it gave a broad treatment of the whole continent rather than focusing on a particular area, one that contained the usual mix of elves, dwarves, and halflings, but which very much had humans in control. This was in part because the game was deliberately system-neutral (though it used AD&D conventions for simplicity's sake in some cases), containing almost no rules--just lots and lots of history and situations to spark the imagination.

With the advent of D&D3 and the OGL, Kenzer & Co. re-released Kalamar as a semi-official D&D3 world. The world guidebook, now a hardcover rather than a box (but still with those beautiful color maps glued inside) was still rules-light, but they soon released the Kalamar Player's Guide, which contained the usual mix of new classes (prestige and otherwise), skills, feats, equipment, and spells--many of which are quite good, btw, and which I've imported into other campaigns. With the changes in WotC/Hasbro's approach to third-party efforts, KoK is limiting its participation in 4th ed to a single e-book, with future suppliments using the Hackmaster rules-set.

Kalamar is far from perfect (in particular, some of the names really bother me--P'bapar just doesn't have the same ring as Greyhawk, Lankhmar, or Waterdeep, does it?), but it does embody some of the best elements of pulp fantasy: Decadent kingdoms, grainy morality, and magic that is rare and mysterious instead of a substitute for technology. The Kalamaran Empire is not The Evil Kingdom (TM), but neither is it good, and if you're on the wrong side of its borders, it may certainly seem evil and a force to be fought--or, a citizen could see it as the bastian of civilization trying to bring light to a darkened wilderness.

Its cultures could use some more development, but are given in neat, broad strokes that let the referee fill in the blanks: The Kalamarans are largely a Greco-Roman culture, but with strange Jewish touches here and there (they have a city called Bet Seder, for example). The Brandobians are your classic western Europeans (specifically, the Frankish Empire after it was divided among Charlemagne's sons). The Fhokki are your Teutonic/Celtic/Scandanavian barbarians, the Dejy your Native Americans (who have brought maize into an otherwise European setting), the Renaarians the peoples of the Mediterrainian, and last but certainly not least in KoK, the Svimolz are black Africans at the height of their civilizations (i.e. the Ethiopian empire that rivaled Egypt).

Best of all, while numerous supplimentary products have been released for KoK, none of them advance the timeline or change the setting in any significant way. After seeing FR and Krynn go through numerous cataclysms and Greyhawk rearranged by war, this is a welcome change.

There are, as I said, flaws: The world has a steep learning-curve to properly utilize; probably not on the level of EPT or Harn, but there are many connections between people, places, and events that are just hinted at in the text. For example, we are told in the descriptions of the gods that the Overlord was imprisoned and it is hinted that he is loose again, but unless you read the history of Pel Brolenon, you won't find out how or what he's up to. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--I've found great fun in charting the alliances between different gods, nations, and power-groups--but it does make it difficult to play "out of the box."

Another problem isn't just the sound of the names, but the number of them: Every single one of the setting's 43 gods has about a dozen different names, one for each culture. While this is very Tolkienesque, this will result in most people just defaulting to their titles (the Overlord, the Knight of the Gods, the Stormbringer, etc.) instead of using proper names--as indeed the KoK products themselves do.

In addition, the world may just seem too mundane for some. Of course, it can be argued that settings like FR and Eberron go so far into the fantastic that they take the enchantment out of magic, but Greyhawk, which is about on par for the magic we see in in KoK, still has such events as the Involked Devastation and the Rain of Colorless Fire and such places as the Sea of Dust and the Bright Desert to remind us that this is a world of magic. Kalamar, in its quest for versimilitude, lacks all of these. Of course, since only the last thousand years or so of history (the history of Man) are detailed, the DM is free to create cataclysms and magical places of his own.

And finally, one of the setting's greatest assets also highlights one of its greatest weaknesses. I speak of the Atlas, a wonderful resource which shows the entire world at a scale of 25 miles to the inch. The Atlas primarily shows physical elevations, but major forests are marked by dotted lines, and pretty much every village and every trail is shown. However, the 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.

All of this is just me pondering whether to put Asryth aside yet again, dust off the KoK material, and take another romp. I needn't waste much of the work I've already put in, and if it gets my players excited about playing OD&D, it's probably worth it. Plus, it'll relieve some of the strain on my most inelastic resource: Time.

We'll have to see. I've still got several weeks of Scarred Lands 3.5 before it's my turn to ref again. If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I'd love to hear them.

Dungeon-Delving Instincts Returning

We gathered to play in my friend's Scarred Lands campaign last night (3.5 ed). To be blunt, our play style going into this campaign was pretty sloppy, as a result of a combination of going over-narrativist in our style in the last few years, a brief stint with 4th ed, and having to bring two new players up to speed (one, previously a dedicated MMORPGer, said last night that table-top gaming was "better than a raid").

I finally had to shift my character's role around a bit. I had been trying to play a warder role (Jordan reference) to another player's ice witch, as apropos to the setting and our cultural background. The problem is that player isn't really comfortable playing the role of party leader, so I finally bit the bullet and took the role myself.

We were tracking the source of the abominations that had been plaguing the countryside and a nearby town, and last session we found a back-entrance to the source. After some careful scouting out of the cave-entrance, we climbed an 80-ft cliff face (with some misadventures caused by my character's ill-fated attempt to better secure the grappling hook and the use of a wand of levitation) and proceeded inside, finding the cave to be lined with a greenish moss that glowed when we were near, seemingly activated by our presence. The old instincts kicked in, and I ordered the party to gather some of the moss from the walls, which would provide a dim light-source when we didn't want to broadcast our presence but wanted to see. I also had the cleric cast a light-spell on my dagger, which I could hold with my shield-arm and quickly sheathe to dowse the light if need be.

We only had one significant encounter (a pair of chokers) and one magical mishap (the dwarven cleric's new magic axe caused her to go berzerk and attack the paladin; we were able to subdue her without anyone getting killed), but it was an enjoyable evening, with lots of in-jokes and puns that didn't interrupt the flow of the game too much, several hilarious situations (including a prank where the elven rogue levitated a letter to the sorceress from "her future self"), a tense encounter where we knew we were being stalked but couldn't see what was doing it, and some excellent teamwork on the part of the party. It was what D&D is supposed to be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Recycling Redux: Ripping Off Mythology and History

One of the great problems a referee faces in building a homebrew world is coming up with names for nations, cities, and even people that are evocative, memorable, and roll off the tongue. You can always tell when you've failed: Your players will nickname whatever it is "Bob."

Professor Tolkien loved names and languages, and it shows. The names of his imaginary locales feel right because he had put so much thought into them, not only in giving them consistent meanings, but in giving them sounds that feel right to the ear.

Those of us not so blessed with his gift for tongues have the unfortunate tendency to pepper our imaginary worlds with an overabundance of hard consonants and extraneous y's. Sometimes this works despite our inability; Michael Moorcock's worlds are populated by many an unpronounceable name, and yet the chaotic arrangements of letters feel right in a backdrop of reigning Chaos. Oerth thrives on names like Ulek, Furyondy, Iuz, and Ket. Other times, however, the a poorly thought-out name results in snickers and broken enchantment in our players.

My own history with names is a checkered one at best, and perhaps because of this I jealously hold on to those which feel right from campaign to campaign. Galadan, the central state of the Great Empire of Man, is a holdover from my previous world, as is Westerlin. However, for each name that I like, I have three horrid ones: Ki'Torad, Sarakan, Shadhar, etc.

As I've worked on Asryth (a name that has hung around, unused, since my early teens), I've found myself taking a page out of Robert E. Howard's playbook. Howard was a master of mixing history and myth into a wonderful hodgepodge backdrop for his characters, most notably in Conan's Hyborian age: Nemedia (as in, "Lion of"), Ophir ("Golden Wedge of"), Shem, Stygia, Asgard, and of course Cimmeria are all names from ancient history and/or myth, and they instantly evoke in our minds an image of exactly what they are supposed to be like.

Paizo, makers of the Pathfinder game (a better legacy to D&D3.5 than 4th Edition), are no strangers to borrowing heavily from real world history and myth in creating their default setting. While the setting name, Golarion, could use some work, it earns its pardon with a plethora of perfect fantasy names: Absalom, the setting's Greyhawk or Lankhmar, gives us a vague feeling of unease, named as it is for King David's rebellious son. Osirion, the setting's Egypt, is named for Osirus. While not every name is perfect, they do tend to evoke the right feelings in the reader, because they sound so familiar, even if it takes us a few minutes to place them.

With that in mind, I've started pulling names from history, mythology, and fairy tale to populate Asryth with. Here we have Annwn, mist-shrouded land of the immortal Lord Arawn and his hounds. To the north and east of that is Thule, land of an almost albino people. To the east lies Ahazhurus, a land half-based on historical Persia, and half on the strange menagerie presented to us in the movie 300. There is Elysium, the land of the golden plains, and deep beneath the surface of the earth is Agartha, the City of Eternal Night. Across the southern seas are the Vagabond Islands, as they are called by the people of Galadan, which are the last remnants of Mu. The demon-haunted lands of Al'Adiin border Hivalla, the Land of Gold.

I may even name the capital of the Empire Gan'Eiden, and put a pair of trees in the center . . .

Monday, March 16, 2009

Conan Could Indeed Climb

Amityville Mike over at The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope, an individual whose insights I hold in high esteem, has made an interesting observation about the risks in introducing any kind of skill system into an OD&D game:
My problem was that by defining concretely what a character CAN do, you’re also defining what he CANNOT do, or at least not do well, and I, for one, have grown very tired of falling off horses.

As both a player and a referee, I have very little interest in the words, “You can’t.” I don’t like being told it and I don’t like telling it to my players. I much more prefer the words, “Give it a shot.” By introducing skills, in whatever form, to D&D you’re beginning the trek down the slippery slope that leads to metagaming; where people (and their characters) aren’t willing to try to perform actions outside of their narrow field of expertise simply because they didn’t put points in a certain skill or spend a slot to get a certain proficiency. To me that’s a very boring way to play the game. The victories are always that much sweeter when accomplished by someone who had the slimmest chance at success.
Strangely enough, I agree with his reasoning and concern, but I think that his implied solution--to avoid any kind of non-combat skills system altogether--is also very limiting. Certainly, everyone should have a chance at succeeding in attempts at physical interactions like climbing walls, hiding, sneaking up on opponents, riding a horse, finding food in the wilderness, etc. But that doesn't mean that every character should have an equal chance of doing so. Every character has a chance of hitting an opponent with a weapon, but obviously some (fighting-men) will be better at it than others (wizards). Not having a fighting-man's proficiency in force of arms doesn't keep the wizard from engaging in physical combat, but it does make other options more attractive.

In the same way, literature--pulp and otherwise--is filled to the brim with characters who have special skills above and beyond those held by most. Conan could indeed climb, and could climb walls that civilized men thought impossible without special tools. Strider was a tracker and survivalist par excellence, though Frodo and Sam were able to sometimes find food in the wilderness. A Mongolian archer will have a skill with his steed that few others can match, and so on.

The problem with non-weapon proficiencies in AD&D1 and 2 was not their existence, but their implementation. The rules simply didn't give comparative odds for a non-proficient character making attempts at climbing, riding, etc. The d20 system does, but it still links one's non-combat ability (ranks) to one's combat and magical skill (levels) and breaks down at higher levels due to a lack of skill caps to reflect the limits of mortal ability--a person without a skill maxed out will find himself "unable" to use his skills in high-level adventures as the DM tries to find ways to challenge those with 20 ranks tucked away in Move Silently.

In any game, the referee has three options when it comes to skills:
  1. Simply declare everyone to be equally skilled at everything not covered by the rules. The city-bred wizard has the same chance to forage for food in the wilderness as the barbarian.
  2. Take character backgrounds into account and simply ad hoc any bonuses or special ability in play.
  3. Set up some sort of non-combat skills system.
Option 1 is as limiting to play and character development as the most math-addled skill system. Option 2, which many OD&Ders seem to favor, is perfectly viable in certain groups, but as I know from personal experience can result in either the loss of good playing time to haggling or complaints of referee bias. Option 3 removes a lot of potential for referee bias (or accusations thereof), but does have the effect of making players feel more limited in what their characters can do.

Some OD&D referees might resent the "bias" argument. However, there's a very good reason for having an established rule for adjudicating non-combat actions: OD&D tends to be on the lethal, gamist side of role-playing:

An interesting side effect was that West Marches put me (the GM) in a more neutral position. I wasn’t playing any scheming NPCs or clever plots, so I wasn’t portraying intelligent opposition and didn’t have any ulterior motives. The environment was already set, so instead of making up challenges that matched the party I just dutifully reported what they found wherever they went. When I rolled I would freely tell the players what bonuses or target numbers they were up against, so the players looked at the dice to see the result, not me.

In many of the West Marches games it really felt like the PCs versus the world with me as an impartial observer. The players didn’t “see” my hand just the game world, which is about the most any GM can hope for. --Ars Ludi, "West Marches"

My own attempt at house-ruling secondary skills is by no means perfect, but falls somewhere between 2 and 3. I tell my players up front what the "base" odds of accomplishing an action are, and let them negotiate the use of their backgrounds and acquired skills. By having quantifiable bonuses for their skills, they feel that the time their characters spent on training those skills and/or received as a reward for the completion of some adventure was worthwhile.

The keys, I think, are found in two elements of the system:
  1. Skills provide bonuses, not ability
  2. There is no systematic list of skills, so one cannot "lack" a skill
Whether the system will work in the long run or will break down at higher levels remains to be seen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

To Rule, or Not to Rule?

I posted a simplified run-down of the skills house-rules I'm working on over at the OD&D Discussion Board. The responses have been interesting, ranging from interest to kindly picking apart my rules (which is what I was looking for, in truth), to one fellow who seems to be objecting to having any kind of system for adjudicating skills at all.

And I'm certainly not objecting to his preference for no rules when it comes to handling non-combat and non-magic skills. The game can certainly be played without a secondary skills system, as most of us back in the 80s managed quite nicely. However, there does seem to be a segment in the grognard camp (and I'm not basing that on this one encounter, but on a few dozen hours reading boards, blogs, and websites) that rallies to the cry of "Rulings, not rules!" and objects to anyone attempting to house-rule in a semi-stable skills system.

As I pointed out in my reply, one might as well complain that OD&D's insistence on quantifying armor class and hit points "constrains original thinking" in combat. Why not have the players describe exactly how their characters execute every blow and let the referee ad hoc the odds of hitting and parrying on the fly? Answer: Because then it becomes the referee against the players instead of the referee adjudicating the rules.

I'm trying to hit a middle-ground here, giving the players something stable that they can judge their characters' abilities by, just as they can see how strong, how smart, how good a swordsman, or how powerful a magic-user their character is. Of course, I'm under no illusions that my solution here is perfect, and we'll have to see how it actually withstands play, but I don't think it violates the spirit of OD&D or is too complicated to use.

We'll have to see how it handles in actual play, of course.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cheat Your Weasly Black Heart Out . . . But Do It Fair

I have to admit, when 4th Edition was still a sail on the distant horizon, I peered daily through my spyglass to try to discern its ultimate shape. I never bought the two little design books that they put out (and tried to charge a ludicrous amount for what was essentially an advertisement), but I did read them off the shelves at my local bookstore. In terms of the design philosopy and the "points of light" concept (which was really just getting us all back to the Keep on the Borderlands, when you get down to it), there was a lot to be admired. It's too bad the final product doesn't (in my view and that of my core gaming group--and yes, we did play it) measure up to its potential.

One thing about the design philosophy that caught my attention in a good way, however, was the very simple way WotC explained how they developed the rules:
  1. Have a simple core mechanic. (Basically, use a d20 to determine if you hit, roll damage if you do.)
  2. Find ways to cheat against that mechanic.
The error in 3rd Edition which made it so complicated is that it tried to make everything conform to the base mechanic (hence the name "d20" for the rules-set) instead of finding ways to break it. The result was that any NPC, or any modification of any monster or magic item, required rebalancing against the core mechanic. Want to make an ogre tougher? Give it levels as a fighter--but then remember to give it the extra skill points and feats that go with that! Or give it levels as a cleric, wizard, or even an adept--and in addition to the skill points and feats, you have to give it the proper number of spells (perhaps even generate a whole spellbook), and don't forget the stat modifiers!

No wonder it took hours to create those perfectly balanced and rule-abiding adventures! 4th Edition's simple design principle was supposed to make it easy, so the poor DM didn't have to spend hours with a calculator. Spells, powers, and exploits were nothing more than simple-to-track ways for the PCs to break the rules on their end--just don't forget to tap your cards!

OD&D is actually built on the same principle. Every spell, every magic item, and every special ability is basically a little cheat against the core mechanic. If you want that ogre to be able to breathe fire once a day, just do it! Don't worry about whether the master weaponsmith has enough levels in "expert" to forge mithril--just declare that he does, and unless there's a compelling reason not to, leave him a 0-level human (dwarf, whatever) for crying out loud!

I remember an apocryphal Conan novel that I read a while back in which the titular barbarian meets a band of montebanks. Among them are a husband and wife team who do knife-throwing tricks; basically, he hurls knives at her and she dodges them at the last possible moment. Now, it's admitted in the novel that neither are warriors per se, but nevertheless their skills surpass those of Conan in their particular areas of expertise.

3rd Edition would have us balancing their stats and giving them levels in fighter and working out feats and in the process giving them a boatload of hit points to the point where they would be superior to normal warriors even in a face-to-face fight--even though the book expressly tells us that they aren't. In OD&D, it's simple: They're still o-level normal humans, but he gets a special +5 (or even a +10--he makes some awesome throws in the book) bonus with thrown weapons, and she gets a special bonus of at least that much to her armor class (so long as she is facing her opponent--in the book, she is knocked out from behind during a pitched battle). You can work out their other stats if you want to--but you don't have to. Just give them a typical monster's stat block, cheat a bit, and go on your merry way.

Those evil cultists don't have to be wizards or clerics: Give them fighting men stats and maybe a few extra bonuses or abilities when they're within their hidden sanctum. You don't have to figure out how many ranks the town guards have in Spot; just decide whether they have received training (are skilled) or not and then throw in whatever bonuses seem appropriate when the thief tries to sneak past them . . . or just give him a target number and have him roll the dice.

Now for the "do it fair" part. You can cheat with the numbers all you want to--as long as you don't change them once battle is joined. If everyone in the party crits on that ogre in the first round and it never even gets a chance to show off its cool fire-breathing ability, don't give it extra hit points just because you're miffed at the players' luck. Especially never do it if it isn't just luck, but also good play that results in the loss of your work.

Of course, you'll have spent less time working, so it won't sting so bad when that happens.

Schrodinger's Character

Blood of Prokopius blogged the other day about the lethality of OD&D vs. that of the newer editions. While his supposition that this is a reflection of our culture's general discomfort with death is interesting, I'm not sure that's the main reason. I think a lot of it has to do with how much we put into new characters.

In OD&D, one can make a new character in fifteen minutes flat--maybe thirty if your group hasn't thought to put together "adventuring kits"--equipment bundles of the common stuff you need to survive a dungeon. In editions 3+, it can take 30 minutes to an hour for even an experienced player to properly tweak a character's race, class, skills, modifiers to skills, skill synergies, feats, weapon and armor stats, spells, equipment, etc. Moreover, today's gaming culture tends to assume that you should have a history and personality that goes along with those stats. It's not just the time, it's the personal investment of imagination that we put into a character, especially when the rules state outright that the character is already a hero by the time he or she enters the story.

So naturally, the DM will feel a bit more inclined to spare that newly-minted 1st level character from that lucky arrow strike in the first round of combat that would have killed him outright in OD&D, whether with hp padding, generous death & dying rules, or just fudging the roll. That, or we can expect the character's identical twin to show up thirty seconds later.

This is one reason why I prefer to randomly determine a character's background (aside from messing with the munchkins); it speeds up the creation process and removes a bit of the investment from a poor mook who might not make it past the first room of the first dungeon.

Of course, there should be investment and depth in a character, but I think these should develop over time as the character survives and (maybe) thrives in the campaign world, proving by his longevity that he's not just a redshirt to other, "more important" characters. Everyone wants to assume that his character is Aragorn--but what if he's Boromir, or just one of the many common soldiers who perished in the siege of Minas Tirith instead?

The proof of the pudding for a character in OD&D is not having a heroic lineage, making him the last remaining heir to the throne of a fallen kingdom, or being a mighty-thewed barbarian. Boromir was the heir to a kingdom (though as Steward rather than King) while King Arthur was a servant boy and more heroes than one can count came from humble farmer or herder backgrounds (Rand Al'Thor, Paksenarion, and Samwise Gamgee, to name a few).

To paraphrase Batman, it's not who a character is inside that matters, it's what he does that defines who he is.

So then, let us make use of the referee's favorite tool for handling situations where the players just won't let go of that red herring: Schrodinger's Gun. In the player's case, this means that until he has actually voiced or written down an aspect of his character's background, it's in a state of indeterminency.

For example, a character's background may indicate that he was a professional soldier before losing his marbles and deciding to hunt goblins underground, but it doesn't say in whose employ. Now say that a particular adventure requires getting access to a certain baron. "Hey," the player can suddenly chime in, "I was an archer for him back in the day. I left on good terms." If this seems just too terribly convenient for the referee, they can always roll for it, but in general the player's statement should be allowed to stand.

Of course, that means they also inherit their lord's enemies. So what if the company ran across a group of them before, but not knowing the character's (at that point non-existent) background, the referee ruled (after a reaction roll) that they reacted in friendly fashion. That in itself leads to an interesting development. Perhaps they didn't recognize the character. Perhaps they did, but are the sort who treat a worthy opponent with respect. Perhaps they feigned ignorance or respect and trailed the party to see what they were up to, and now the character's de facto enemy is informed as to their whereabouts.

The same is true of skills that come out of backgrounds. The player rolls the herder background for his character. Later, when the party is trying to make their way down a steep cliff, he argues convincingly that his character herded goats in the highlands, and should be counted as skilled in climbing and balance. He could not later claim to have herded sheep in the steppes when the party is stuck in a vast plain looking for food and water.

To use this system, record-keeping, both by the players and the referee, is key. As each new element of the character's background comes out, it must be written down along with the skill level or other bonus that it grants, just as the character's ongoing development--like when and how he trained various skills--must be.

In the end, if the character meets a swift doom, the player won't feel as cheated for having blown an incredible background on him, but if he survives and thrives for a time, he will grow into a well-developed, three-dimensional character who will be remembered fondly.

Skills: The Middle Road

Rules for non-combat skills in D&D have spanned a rather broad course over the years. In OD&D, there were no rules for non-combat related skills other than magic until the introduction of the thief--a point that most grognards put in its favor, since it encouraged everyone to try their hand at everything. However, this lack does present problems when trying to determine exactly what a character can do that's better than other characters, and as more classes were created to cover these non-combat niches (first thieves, then rangers) the implication set in that unless your class abilities said you could do a thing, you couldn't except by DM fiat.

AD&D attempted to fill this gap someone with randomly-determined secondary skills as an optional rule. However, it gave no real understanding of how a DM was supposed to adjudicate the use of such skills. Later guides introduced the concept of non-weapon proficiencies, which were enshrined in 2nd Edition, but which never really scratched the itch that other games systems had already relieved due to their clunky nature. In fact, the NWPs actually narrowed the possibilities for players by placing in our minds, however unintentionally, the idea that if you lacked the right NWP, you couldn't do an action.

3rd Edition went a different route, implementing a fully-developed skills system that at first glance has a marvelous elegance of design. However, it does have a singular flaw: Advancement in said skills is wholly dependent on class level. At low levels this does not overly imbalance the game, as an unarmored fighter with a halfway decent dexterity has at least a decent chance of sneaking past a pair of guards, even if the rogue is better at it, but at higher levels this rapidly breaks down, until characters are compelled to keep certain abilities maxed out at all times in order to just have a chance of detecting that pit fiend sneaking up on you. In the end, the creative use of skills is still stymied.

4th Edition attempts to fix this problem by having every skill advance with level; "having" a given skill simply provides a +5 bonus over those who have no skill in it. However, in the process the game has sacrificed any sense of customization on the altar of balance.

The extensive rules for dealing with non-combat skills in other systems, both classic and modern, speaks of the desire of players to be able to know in some quantitative sense what their characters are good at. However, if we are to come up with any such system as a house rule for OD&D, it has to meet several basic parameters:
  1. "Having" a given skill, NWP, or whathaveyou should not, as a rule, be a requirement for attempting any adventure-related action or for having a reasonable chance of success.
  2. The system must be scalable, allowing for characters to improve existing skills by the expenditure of time and wealth or as a reward for a successfully-completed adventure (as described in my previous post),
  3. And yet it must be simple enough that no OD&D product must be significantly altered to employ it (i.e., the referee should not have to go through every adventure and install DCs for every challenge or create a complete set of skills for every goblin) and that any referee can easily ad-hoc it during play.
With these guidelines in mind, here is the house-rule that I have created for non-combat, non-magical skills:

There are four levels of competancy for any given skill: unskilled, skilled, expert, and master. All characters are assumed to be unskilled at any given task unless it falls under their class (especially in the case of thieves) and/or background. Having a background that encompasses a particular action means that one is skilled only, since it is assumed that the character left his old apprenticeship to pursue the road to adventure before surpassing a journeyman's skill level.

Of all character classes, only thieves automatically advance in skill levels as they increase in character level, and then only in those areas directly related to thievery (i.e., the classic theif skills of picking pockets, hiding and moving silently, finding and removing traps, picking locks, climbing, etc). In all other cases, advancement or gaining new skills must come as a result of gameplay, typically purchasing training or obtaining it as a reward by some individual or group.

Before explaining further, a particular mechanic must be described. The skill die denotes the type of die rolled for a given skill level, to which is added the appropriate ability modifier (using the Moldavy scale) when a skill contest arises between two individuals. For example, a 1st level thief with a 16 dexterity is trying to sneak up on a 1st level cleric with a 15 wisdom. Since the thief is considered skilled at moving silently, he would roll a 1d8+2 (modified for dex) against the cleric's 1d6 (unskilled) +1 (wis) to determine if he succeeds.

The referee can apply additional ad hoc modifiers as he sees fit; for example, the thief might suffer a -2 penalty trying to cross a carpet of dry leaves or gain a +1 bonus trying to cross the soft carpet of the cleric's church (or, conversely, suffer a -2 penalty for the fact that he's attempting to assasinate a cleric in a church).

Regardless of modifiers, a character always succeeds in this type of contest if he rolls his maximum possible result against an opponent's natural 1.

In cases where there is no contest between two statted characters--for example, a thief sneaking up on a goblin whose wisdom score is unknown, a character climbing a cliff, or a character with a jeweler background trying to make a gift to impress a noblewoman--the referee should assign an ad-hoc possibility for success. This can be a number that must be surpassed by the roll of the skill die (the goblin is generally facing the direction the character is approaching from, so the referee rules the thief must roll a 10 or better to sneak up on him), a percentile chance, or any other sort of roll.

In the latter two cases, the character's skill level grants a bonus to attempting the action. For example, the referee (or module) has decreed that any character has a 50% chance of tracking the fleeing goblin through the dusty room, but a character who is an expert at tracking would have a 75% chance of doing so (50% plus a 25% bonus for the expert skill level). In this way, modules and other OD&D-compatible materials do not need prior modification before this house rule is used.

A character can be trained to a skilled level by either an expert or a master, and to an expert level only by a master. Achieving mastery takes long hours of self-study (hence the long training period). Each level of skill must be attained in order; e.g. to go from unskilled to expert takes 4,000 gp and four months, not 3,000 gp and three months. The costs of training may be varied or even waived by the referee depending on circumstance (as in the case of the grateful rangers), but the required times should be considered a minimum, and preclude adventuring or any other lengthy travel. Note that this system works best of the referee is awarding experience points based on the expenditure of gold rather than it's acquisition, since it forces players to make valid choices in terms of advancement, but can be made to work with any system of awarding experience with a bit of fiddling.

Skill Die: d6
No bonuses to die rolls

Training: 1 month and 100o gp
Skill Die: d8
+1 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d4, 1d6, or 1d8
+2 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d10 or 1d12
+3 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d20
+15% on making skill-related rolls with percentage dice

Training: 3 months and 300o gp
Skill Die: d10
+1 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d4
+2 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d6 or 1d8
+4 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d10 or 1d12
+5 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d20
+25% on making skill-related rolls with percentage dice

Training: 6 months and 10,00o gp
Skill Die: d12
+2 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d4
+3 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d6 or 1d8
+5 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d10 or 1d12
+8 bonus when making skill-related rolls with a 1d20
+40% on making skill-related rolls with percentage dice

In cases where multiple dice are used, use the upper limit of the die roll to determine the correct bonus. For example, an expert who is performing an action whose results are determined using 2d6 will get a +4 bonus to the roll. In cases involving combinations of dice with a deep bell-curve (e.g., 3d6), the referee may adjust the bonus downward to preserve the curve. For example, our expert might get only a +4 bonus instead of a +5 on a roll of 3d6 at the referee's descretion.

While certain types of skills are suggested in the background table or canonized by the thief class, no fully codified list of skills exists. This lies in the domain of the referee, with player input. Likewise, there is no list of exactly what each skill might accomplish. This is up to each group to negotiate among themselves, thus preserving the "free-wheeling" aspect of OD&D.

Reward With Skills, Not Magic Items

We all remember how much weaker Conan was as a warrior without his magic sword and enchanted armor and how he needed his elven cloak to make a living as a thief, right?


Well, how about the obvious magical properties of Greywand, Scalpel, and Cat's Claw, which made Fafrd and the Grey Mouser mourn their loss?

Whadd'ya mean they just picked up new swords and gave them the same name?

Pulp fantasy is replete with heroes who are on top of the world, loaded down with gold and the very best in equipment one day, and then are down to a loincloth and a sword stolen from the body of a foe the next. Granted there are exceptions: Some heroes, like Elric, have an iconic weapon (and a few other items, like the Ring of Kings, which appeared only to drive the plot). Likewise, King Arthur had Excalibur and Bilbo Baggins came home with his iconic mithril mail, magic ring, and sword Sting and passed them on to his heir. However, one of the flaws in 3rd+ editions D&D (a flaw which The Alexandrian points out is largely based on a misreading of guidelines as absolutes, admittedly) is the assumption that the PCs would have numerous magical items and trinkets augmenting not only their fighting and magical ability (weapons, armor, wands, etc.) but also their skills and even their very stats.

There is certainly precedent in fantasy literature for characters having magical items giving small protections (amulets of warding and the like) as well as giving them additional or augmented skills (the elven cloaks in LotR), but taken too far, not only does the magic go out of the magic items, reducing elven cloaks to the equivalent of army fatigues, but the player characters become dependent on their collections of magic items to such an extent that Elric himself would shake his head in disgust at their addiction.

The solution for my OD&D game is simple: I use new and/or improved skills as a reward as much as magic items, and while magic items are not typically for sale in my world, training is. So instead of presenting a party with magical bows and arrows, elven cloaks, or a chest of gold, the rangers of the Westwood might instead spend a summer teaching the party members any combination of survival skills (including tracking), stealth, herb lore, animal handling and empathy, etc. A grateful lord might not have a magic sword on hand to give away, but he might have the captain of his knights teach the PCs better horsemanship and a general knowledge of the gentry of the area. A party preparing for a spelunking expedition won't be able to buy boots of spider climbing, but they can spend the time and money to improve their climbing skills instead.

In fact, such training could extend to the gaining of levels as well, if the referee is using either the acquisition or the expenditure of gold as the primary source of experience points in a game. Those rangers of the Westwoods might be poor in cash, but able to train the PCs another 200o experience points towards their next level instead.

The downside to this system is that the referee has to be extra cautious about giving out rewards. Gold and magic items can be taxed or stolen from the PCs inventory if the referee gives too much away, but skills, once given, cannot be so easily taken back. However, since the skills system being used here employs only modest bonuses to checks as a rule, a moment of weakness should not unduly imbalance a campaign.

Next up, we'll look at the actual skills guidelines as well as a reworking of the thief class based on that system.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Background and Skills (Variant Rule)

In addition to a character race and class, each character has a background which defines their secondary rules-set. This background should be determined randomly, though the soft-hearted GM might allow a player to choose his background or to allow an heir to a previously deceased character to share his predecessor’s background.

The suggested skills for each background are just that—suggestions. A player who can come up with a good (emphasis on “good”) rationale why his background should provide an advantage in a given situation should be allowed to make use of it. At the same time, it is understood that for the most part, characters did not rise above apprentice or journeyman level in their former professions, having long ago left their old, safe lives to take up the call of the adventurer.

How a given profession turned into an adventuring career is a matter for individual players and DMs to work out. A magician from a barbarian background may have left his people as a child to apprentice with a great mage, or may be a kind of shaman for his people. A rogue with the household servant background may have left after robbing his former master, or might have been a spy in some noble’s employ. A wizard from a soldier’s background may have spent many years as a common mercenary before a chance magical encounter made him aware of his abilities, causing him to abandon sword and steel for the more subtle Arts.

It should be noted that in general any character should be able to attempt to undertake any action; having a background in a particular area grants a modest bonus only. (This same philosophy underlies my revision of the thief class as well, as will be shown later.) There is one exception to this rule: Only a character with a background in crafting can hope to create quality, salable items, let alone items of sufficient quality to enchant as magic items.






Survival in home terrain, perception, +2 to saves vs. Endurance



Survival in home terrain, set small traps, stealth



Animal handling and husbandry, survival in home terrain



Agriculture, animal husbandry, foraging



Healing, creating minor poultices that can grant add’l saves vs. poison or disease or heal 1d3 hp (cost 1d3 days gathering herbs or 50 gp per poultice)


Menial worker/Slave

Gains +1 to Str and Con


Household servant

Bargaining, cooking, mending, social checks with aristocracy, some appraisal



Ability to make quality items and appraise within craft, can make a living of Skill + Wis mod gp a week

























Make candles, torches, soap, lye, etc.



Disable small mechanical traps and pick locks, +1 bonus to die if rogue





Ability to make magical potions, ingredients and costs of individual potions up to DM, can identify potions without sampling on roll of 6 or better.



Knowledge of underground and ores, detect slopes as a dwarf



Handling and maintenance of medium to large sea vessels



Navigation by the stars, some sailing skill



Handling and mending small boats, fishing, creating nets



+1 Int, Knowledge in 1d3 subjects



Special skill in picking up rumors (gets twice as many rumors as other PCs), cooking, appraise drinks



Sense motive, disguise OR seduction



Gambling, bluffing and sensing bluffing



Engaging in bluffs and cons, sizing up marks



Ability to use magical items not normally allowed by class (20% malfunction), fortunetelling, minor potions



Appraise items, social checks when offering bribe



Entertain, sing, and play 1d3 instruments



Appraise items, bargain, knowledge of routes and resources in home area



Knowledge of a particular religion, its hierarchy and membership, sanctuary if in good standing


Astrologer/Fortune Teller

Read omens indicating whether action will have good or bad result, need to roll a 6 or better on the skill die to read successfully, a 1 gives opposite indication.


Official/Nobleman (60%/40%)

Knowledge of the hierarchy and legal structure of a realm, social checks with other officials/nobles.





Riding, care of horses, proficiency with lance and longsword, +1 to hit on horseback



+2 to saves vs. forced march, automatic proficiency in spear and shortsword, +1 to hit when setting spear if a warrior



Automatic proficiency with bow or crossbow, making and fletching arrows, +1 to hit with missile weapons if warrior or rogue


Player choice

Note the distinction between a background and the skills that come out of it. “Smuggler” is a background; “appraise” is a skill common to smugglers. This becomes an important distinction as characters learn new skills--one has a background, but one can learn new skills.