Initiative: Declared, Phases, Speed and Length

January 3, 2014

Here’s an alternate D&D initiative system.

1: It involves declaring your actions before you do them. And then during the round you can’t change your mind.
2: Action goes in phases: Ranged, Movement, Hand-to-Hand, Items, Spells.
3: Within a phase the order is determined by features of what you’re using.

First, you roll initiative. Whoever loses must declare first, and the winner declares last, giving him the chance to see what’s coming and decide his plan for the round. Roll d6 for each side (usually PCs and Monsters but you could have multiple forces).

The declaration is “I’m moving to X” and also “I’m doing Y”. You can declare some or no movement AND you can declare one or no action phase.

Phase 1 is Ranged combat. This includes fired missiles like sling stones and arrows, and also thrown weapons, but not activated spells or magic items. All ranged combat occurs simultaneously and before any other phases. This means when two parties meet, they can always exchange missile fire before closing to melee (unless surprise was involved). If you declared a shot and for some reason no enemy is available, you still shoot (probably at the place where the enemy used to be before it vanished). This won’t come up often because there’s no time between declaration and Phase 1.

Phase 2 is Movement. All movement happens in order of the slowest to fastest. So a Move 6 character gets to do his entire movement before a Move 9 character can go. This order works unless there’s some effect related to proximity, such as an aura of fire, for which you should move piece-by-piece; for example, the Move 9 will move 3 spaces for every 2 spaces the Move 6 gets. Because melee occurs after all movement is finished, this should come up rarely. For longer-term movement where terrain knowledge, vision, size, and dexterity are factors, use a set of Pursuit rules such as in OD&D.

Phase 3 is Hand-to-Hand. Within this phase, melee weapons can strike if (A) there is an enemy you can reach after Move is finished, AND (B) you had declared HTH previously. If you did not declare HTH, you can’t attack. Similarly, if you held a bow and declared Ranged, you can’t also attack HTH if someone moves up to you. You can strike HTH at any of the targets available – but if you declared a HTH and there’s an enemy to attack, you must do it. Of course you don’t have to strike friends if they’re the only ones available. If there is no enemy and you don’t get to strike HTH you’ve still used up your declared action and cannot act later.

The order of attacks in Phase 3 is determined by weapon length if movement occurred, or by weapon speed (reverse order weapon length) if no movement occurred. If a spearman fighting an axeman wants to keep winning HTH order, the spearman needs to keep advancing or retreating. If he gets stuck in a corner or his allies behind him don’t want to retreat, he’s stuck standing still and fighting the axeman which means the axeman goes before him in HTH order.

All melee weapons are ranked as Short (Dagger, Hand Axe), Medium (Sword, Mace), Long (Spear, Staff). If two Short weapons fight, the result is simultaneous (and may result in a double-kill as with Ranged attacks). If you throw a melee weapon it goes during the Ranged phase instead and weapon length / speed doesn’t matter.

Phase 4 is Items. This includes opening a door, using a key on a door to lock or unlock it, pulling a lever. It also includes activated magic items like rings and wands. The order of resolution here is that smaller items go before larger items – so a magic ring is very fast while slamming a door shut is probably one of the last items to get used.

Phase 5 is Spells. Spells go off in order of lowest-level first, meaning when you cast you need to decide whether to cast a fast weak spell or a strong slow one. Another caster might attack you with his spell before you fire yours. If you’re hit for damage or severely jostled you lose the spell and it doesn’t go off. Since all spells go off last, and you are actually casting throughout the round, you are in danger of being attacked throughout the round by missiles and then by melee and magic items.

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Held actions (for example, a melee attack or slamming a door if you see someone coming) can interrupt another phase. But you can’t hold up more than one action and you can’t take other actions in the interim. You could, for example, declare a held missile action. The next time an enemy comes within view you fire automatically – on its movement phase and before it can finish that movement. You could declare a held Spell and on the next round when an enemy Teleports in you would complete the casting and fry him.

Even though you can’t make actions while holding an action, you can still move normally.

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Magic can improve your initiative in various ways. It can make you more aware, giving a bonus to the initiative roll and letting you declare second more frequently. It can affect which phase your action occurs in – for example, you might be able to make a second missile shot in the Spell phase. Or it can affect the resolution order within the phase – for example, a Sword of Speed that has length Medium but speed Short.

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Yes this is finicky, but it’s also more chewy and offers more opportunities for magic to affect things. Because it’s also less based on die roll, it allows for better planning. It also lets us take advantage of weapon speed and length in a way that isn’t irritating and cumbersome, and more weapon features make the decision of which weapon to use a more interesting one. It makes Movement matter within a combat even if the distances moved are relatively short. Finally it makes the Initiative roll completely good instead of a mixed bag: if you roll d10 and act in order, the people who lost initiative have to wait, but they also have more information to use when their turn comes around.

Restoration

December 16, 2013

In OD&D there was no Restoration. If a Wight struck and you lost a level, you were stuck adventuring to regain the lost XP. This made Undead terrifying to players, as much as they should be terrifying to the characters. Eventually the rise of a vampire PC named Sir Fang and his Undead hordes influenced the creation of the Cleric class to combat them [Citation Needed].

Quickly the Restoration spell came about, most likely a result of players bitching and moaning about level draining. D&D isn’t a game with lopped-off limbs and plucked eyes, where your adventurer must retire because he took an arrow to the – elbow. While some players consider one character to be “my character” (even from campaign to campaign) and resist attempts to get them to play something else, many players are willing to restart with a fresh PC should the worst happen. But few want to give up on a crippled PC who would otherwise live a long life. I believe this is why there are few rules in D&D that give permanent disabilities.

We have two competing values: Undead need to be scary to players, but players don’t want permanent negative effects.

One way to reconcile these is to give in to players, as D&D has from 1E AD&D onward, in increasingly dramatic ways. Since that capitulation has been thoroughly explored, I’ll ignore it and try the other direction.

You could go for the other extreme, saying that yes, there are things in the world that are insidious, debilitating, horrifying. You may not want to fight this monster, for if you survive you will bear deep scars. I’d suggest telling players this from the start and make it clear that only Wishes can remove level drain (as this is a fairly big house rule) and that by no means will every party get their hands on even one Wish. I haven’t tried this.

Or you could compromise, saying that Restoration exists but there are risks. The level drain is the Morgul Blade of D&D. It is the cold fingertip of some netherworld creature yet grasping at your heart from beyond the grave. Extricating that cold claw has the chance to fail or even get worse. Roll System Shock with -5% per total level drained. This means if you’ve been drained 5 levels, restoring a level has a -25% penalty. Then the next spell is vs. a PC with 4 drains, meaning that SS roll has a -20%, etc.

For 3E use a Fort save (DC 10 + Monster HD + Monster CHA modifier + Total Number of Levels Drained).

Failure means the spell failed. There should be some reason why you can’t just cast Restoration constantly, maybe an expensive material component or a restriction that the spell can only be cast during a full moon. Maybe you get only one chance per month with each character, or only one chance against each lost level.

A critical failure, which is 01-05 on System Shock or 1 on the Fort save, means the creature was able to grasp the unfortunate more fully. This means another energy drain hit as if by the original creature – which may mean two levels lost.

I don’t exactly like that compromise but it’s the best I’ve thought of. Maybe the No Restoration rule would work better. But in that case you can’t use energy-draining Undead like any other monster. Respect how important this will be to your players. Sending a dozen Wraiths against a party is pretty much a “rocks fall, everyone dies”.

It also makes Clerics so much more important, because Turn Undead may be what saves the entire party instead of just invalidating an encounter as it works now. But will the party be too cocky if they have a high-level Cleric?

This will also be a big wake-up call to players who feel like they can bulldoze a dungeon with impunity. Might be a good idea to include a lot of these permanent-injury monsters, such as Vorpal-types (Slicer Beetle, T-Rex I believe), Parasites / Curses / Diseases (various molds and oozes, lycanthropy, mummy rot). Permadeath (except via ultra-rare Wishes of course) would include Swallow and Digest (Purple Worm) and Annihilate (Sphere of Annihilation, Disintegrate).

These should all be rare both to limit their devastation and make their appearance more poignant. There should be opportunities for avoidance if they can identify the threat, and a chance of avoidance for each PC (an attack roll is required or a saving throw is offered). Probably at least one PC will fall victim to the effect before everyone understands the threat level and has the chance to decide to flee or press the attack. It’s possible some valiant hireling will be the one to perish, or some Ranger’s ferret.

But then the DM gets to lure them in. That haunted tomb definitely contains a Holy Avenger, says the temple’s High Priest. That vault is clearly piled high with funeral goods but Shadows flicker at the edges of your torchlight. The ruined castle is home to a Vampire who mostly keeps to himself, feeding on bandits and sheep, but whose lair is said to contain fabulous artwork.

Making certain monsters palpably dangerous asks the question, “Is this fight worth it?”, which is an interesting decision for players.

You Want M-Us to Invent Spells

July 25, 2013

I know every time I play an M-U my head is full of plans for cool spells to research, but there’s always some bummers: gotta have the gold, access to a library, etc.

What if you could invent exactly one spell per level-up for free as part of your miscellaneous research? Trick is, it can’t be something that’s already in the “regular spell list” that you could pick from for your free level-up spell before.

So you can make a spell that fills an area with cleansing bubbles and acts like a Fog Cloud as well, but lasts far less time, and ask the DM what level it would be. DM ponders over the course of the next week between sessions and gives you the answer next time. If the spell is too high of a spell level, you get it as soon as you reach the right M-U level to cast it. Or you can accept the DM’s amended spell that will work for you right now.

We assume an unbiased DM who isn’t out to screw his players or give them the world on a platter, making a Hold Person variant that also does 1d6 cold damage per round into a 9th level spell, or Mass Grease into a 2nd level spell, etc.

If you really don’t want to get creative, instead your researches result in a roll on some M-U chart that gives things like scrolls, potions, something your familiar dragged in, and hunchbacked hirelings.

M-U Spells Disseminate if you Sell Them

July 19, 2013

Here’s what I’ll call the standard way to handle M-U spells: you have a spellbook, and the spells in the spellbook are what you can choose from to memorize. If you want a new spell, you need to find a magic scroll or a whole spellbook or invent a new spell through rigorous research. But the spell is a magical thing, it detects as magical, and you can’t just hire some scrub scribe to transcribe it.

This makes spells less common because there’s an investment in copying them.

And I would say in general that fun is had when the PCs gain new spells slowly, and when enemy M-Us have spells they don’t have yet, and when the enemy M-Us can play some of the same tricks the PCs use.

It’s also kinda fun to be able to sell your spells if you’re in a bind. But if a PC can make this “free money” by selling his spells, why wouldn’t he? If PCs are so free with their spellbooks, why are NPC M-Us so secretive?

I think it’s espionage; if you have a secret, you are more powerful for it, in direct relation to how few other people know the secret. And in terms of magic, the secret itself has physical power separate from social power or the ability to take advantage of opportunities because of extra knowledge.

So, you can also trade spells with other M-Us, but beware: every M-U you give a spell to is a 1 in 6 chance that every other M-U will have access to it. If you sell it 6 times everyone is gonna be running around blasting that stuff. And that’s a bad thing if the spell you sell is one you’d rather not have used against you.

This works better if there is a standard spellbook everyone starts with. I’d recommend maybe 3 good spells and 3 lame spells per spell level up to 6th. Beyond that anything is uncommon. So that every M-U isn’t walking around with a 10k gp spellbook, it would also help if spells had virtually no cost to transmit. What if a spell was more of a set of instructions, a way to exploit your knowledge as an M-U and your spellbooks? Then selling it isn’t a matter of recouping material costs, it’s a matter of how badly the other guy wants it.

So, we now have a situation where your M-U PC looks around and sees a bunch of other M-Us around town with their own agendas and their own mysterious powers. One may be a master of the Webs, and another may exploit the mysteries of the dreaded Ray of Enfeeblement. And of course nobody tells what all their tricks are, and rumors abound.

An M-U who emerges from the dungeon with new spells will be approached by emissaries fro many wizards wanting to trade or buy, but most offers will be insincere: traps, or lowball offers, or just attempts to figure out exactly what the spell is. Some may be just and true, and might remain good friends for some time. Of course, these good friends are also somewhat likely to pass the spell on to others.

The only people who will not add to the dissemination chance are PCs. Trusted henchmen add to it. Your mother adds to it. NPCs gotta pay the bills sometimes.

And if a spell gets disseminated, it gets added to the standard spellbook for PCs and NPCs alike, with an X in 6 chance next to it until the chance is 6 in 6 whereupon it just is always present. Any potential buyer for a spell (after the first one) will have a chance that it’s already in his book. A spell simply can’t be sold more than 6 times because there are no more buyers, and the more times you sell it the more work it is to find a buyer (and the more likely the buyer is undesirable, unfriendly, more likely to assault or cheat the seller).

Note that in my experience, players typically share spells freely anyway, so this gives an interesting choice between keeping a spell secret or benefiting from selling it.

I imagine this working on a small-scale campaign because M-Us travel around in a small area and make a few desperate trades if necessary. In a globetrotter campaign, I assume NPC M-Us are just as mobile, so information disseminates just as quickly on a global scale as it does on a local scale for a local campaign. Yeah, this means if you sell Fireball in Cormyr there’s an instant 1 in 6 chance every Waterdhavian M-U knows it. Magic is magical!

And, of course, my personal “guaranteed spell list” would not include the most useful spells like Fireball and Fly, but would include less-useful ones like Levitate and Magic Missile. Just enough to get by without adventuring – except any M-U worth his salt will DEMAND to adventure to get new spells!

And if the PCs capture an NPC spellbook with Fireball, and share it among themselves, and agree not to share it – imagine their chagrin and suspicion when one of them ends up taking one of the lavish offers from some NPC and M-Us start showing up with Fireball! Who did it?!

Spell creation is a process that takes years of labor for a high-level and high-INT M-U, and may end up being fruitless. Just like mathematicians working on difficult math problems that lack proofs and solutions.

The repercussions include de-magicking the world. When only a few rare M-Us know Continual Light, you won’t expect to see Continual Light along every village street. If you want a spell to have that kind of widespread Ebberon-style impact on the world, include it in the auto-spell list.

PC M-Us should be a little happy about this since they actually start with a lot more spells (albeit not great ones) and they can feel like they have something rare and powerful even at low level if they find a new one. Plus the interesting choice of disseminating it or not.

 

Finally, this can replace Chance to Learn Spell if you don’t want to keep it. But I like the idea that an M-U can come across a spell and just not grok it. No matter how hard he tries. Makes every M-U different without needing specialist classes.

Your Domain is a Henchman

July 4, 2013

I can’t remember where I read it, but it was on a blog in the past few days. The idea was to have your “name-level” PC get a domain (stronghold, village, whatever) that would “attack” nearby resources to gather them. So it has HD and uses the same sort of systems as in the main game.

I’d like to expand that idea to just have a character sheet for your domain. HD is population (in general units of people, not individuals), AC is its defenses. You could utilize the six ability scores too (CHA affects immigration and trade).

Another way to look at it is like board games that have a central board and each player has a side board where they develop their own stuff. The central board has limited opportunities that the players scramble for and bring to their side boards. I would say the domain is a personal board and the player develops it as a side interest, with the PCs coming together to adventure in the “main board” of the rest of the game setting. Of course, players would be able to affect each other’s domains if they wanted, whether by taking central resources or directly assisting or hindering each other.

Each class should utilize different resources more effectively, should gather some more efficiently, and those two shouldn’t necessarily be the same resources (encouraging trade). They should have different goals too, for example an M-U might need to have a domain to create spells, magic items, dabble in cloning, etc. Clerics might be able to create holy relics, healing potions, holy water, train Paladins, etc. Fighters would have the largest forces of trained warriors, and thus able to protect the largest amount of land and gain the greatest agricultural production (needed to feed those men … ). And all of this should be graphically clear with the layout of the personal domain boards exactly as it happens in the board games that inspired this.

Basically, I’m trying to encourage the D&D endgame, partly by making domains feed benefits into the PC’s adventuring, partly by not requiring retirement to run a domain (such as “taking care of your Thieves’ Guild takes up all your time, no time for adventure”). If a PC enters the domain game late, it’s not a huge problem, since they’re not in direct competition and the benefits of adventuring still outweigh the income from the domain. In fact, I look at the domain’s profits as going into domain development instead of the PC’s purse, and the development allows transactions instead of giving direct benefits.

A specific example would be an M-U who wants to clone up some monsters to assist him. He needs a secure place far from the prying eyes and pitchforks of the locals: a fortified tower or mansion would be ideal. After setting up whatever defenses he feels necessary, he must spend resources to set up the vats and apparatus for monster-mashing. All this requires resources to be gathered from the countryside: weird plants, monster parts, bottled gasses, salts and sulfurs gathered from steaming pits, etc. And of course craftsmen need to make things. So the M-U either needs to gather villagers who can gather these things, or needs to have magical minions do it, or do it himself. However he manages, all those resources don’t go toward the “GP” line on his character sheet. Instead he now has his vats, and can spend in-between-adventures time mixing up the poor things. His future resource gathering will probably go toward a spell research library, an alchemy lab, observatory, more defenses, improved resource gathering, a special forge for working adamantite, crystal gardens, etc. His vats will produce some monsters that he can bring on the adventure or use for defense of his mansion.

If his M-U buddy doesn’t want to do the same kind of domain side-game, that’s fine. He will end up with an excess of money: he won’t be able to spend it on making magic items, he won’t be able to spend money to grow weird crystals, etc. Maybe he can make a deal with his buddy who has a domain, to buy his stuff, and maybe his buddy will sell him stuff at-cost. Or maybe he will decide to make a domain of his own and develop different things, and the two M-Us happily trade their wares.

It’s not sandbox vs. railroad, really. New terminology for the middle ground.

March 3, 2013

While I think the terms Railroad and Sandbox are descriptive, they are awfully value-laden. They’re also the extremes: frequently a campaign with a strict story will have divergent paths and relevant choices, and a campaign with few demands on the player to follow the story will still have overarching plot and boundaries.

I suggest the following for campaigns more aligned toward the middle rather than an extreme on the player-choice axis, but still leaning toward one side or the other.

A Managed Play campaign is one where there is a significant predestined plot but players can make choices along the way that can affect the outcome. The DM probably writes an appendix to each adventure with plans for when players end up doing A, B, C, or D. There are several endgames, possibly with a point value from completed adventures or just eyeballing the result of the adventures up to that point. Or maybe it’s not that strictly pre-written, and the DM wants a result to happen for a major event, but the status of small events are entirely up in the air.

Managed Play is like a Disney amusement park. Everyone who comes thinks they can wander as they choose and experience the park however they want. But the park’s designers know how to build to regulate traffic flow and attract attention. You probably end up riding almost everything once and then grabbing dinner.

In a Managed Play campaign you draw all the dots (adventures, scenes, locations, whatever) and then connect them to form the plot. You flesh out the connected dots, but the ones outside the path you either don’t bother describing or give just a brief outline – because nobody will end up there.

A Distributed Play campaign changes things up by not connecting the dots ahead of time. The DM prepares a campaign without knowing what the players will do. His job is not to direct them to certain dots, but to make the dots known to the players so they can decide what to do. They may choose dots poorly (the adventure was to difficult for their level, or too easy and boring, or required some relic to complete that they don’t have yet). But the choice is theirs, and they may experience satisfaction at knowing their successes and failures are their responsibility.

A Distributed Play campaign can be played several times by different groups (or even the same group!) with dramatically different “story” results. This isn’t really possible with a Managed Play campaign. The players will be able to say “this is what we did during the Locust Wars” rather than “we did the Locust Wars campaign and ended up siding with A instead of B”.

Because it might not be obvious, it’s called Distributed Play because the adventures in the campaign are distributed around the map / timeline instead of just pre-planned, and also because the burden of decision-making for the story is distributed to the players more than in Managed Play.

This is just how I see the middle ground for the railroad vs. sandbox axis. I’m sure you all can come up with different possibilities. Personally, I suspect pure railroad or pure sandbox games are pretty uncommon, and most hover somewhere around these two. Also, the terminology is intentionally bland. If you can think of spicy terminology that’s not unduly positive or negative, you did my job better than I did. Or you could just use two positive terms, or two negative terms, but people will end up using the positive term for the one they like and the negative for the one they don’t.

Land grants from the king to his soldiers

February 11, 2013

Something just popped into my head and it might be useful to someone.

You know how if you hit level 9 or whatever you can establish a stronghold, right? We assume you’re under the aegis of some king, because otherwise anybody can just go out and establish a tree fort or whatever in the empty howling wilderness.

Second, and here I’m mostly drawing on a vague understanding of how the Vikings handled it when they conquered England and how the Romans handled it in general (so it might be horribly off-base): if you serve the king as a soldier, eventually he grants you citizenship (if you need it) and a plot of land. A regular old soldier would go to war and come back to a cottage or something. But big heroes / warlords / generals would come back and get control over a big area, maybe even become the new king / emperor / topbigman.

Using 9th level Baron controlling a keep and village plus surrounding countryside and 1st level as a Veteran with a cottage, here’s what I came up with.

1st: Cottage and small plot. You can retire and feed your family plus pay your taxes and sell a little surplus. You get a vote.
3rd: Larger farm with a house, requiring lots of your children or else hired hands to manage fully.
5th: Townhouse or large farm as above, plus some special right – maybe you hold a license to be a miller, or a village mayor. You’re one of the dozen important people in the village.
7th: Townhouse and large farm, plus an exceptional right – a guild head, tax collector, command of a few hundred soldiers, or some office at court. You’re the most important person in the village, or one of the dozen important ones in a town.
9th: Right to build a keep and maintain a village, plus a townhouse, plus some great office like warden of a forest, command of a thousand soldiers.
12th: As 9th but you might get a special office like ambassador, general, or admiral.
15th: As 12th but also supervision over a dozen Lords (9th) as a Duke-equivalent, and you’re counted as not much less important than a Prince – one of the dozen important people in the kingdom.
20th: Just go out and crush some jeweled thrones under your sandaled feet, because you’re only less important than the king because he’s the king. If you found or conquer a neighboring kingdom, maybe your old king would like to style himself an emperor – or maybe you’ll beat him to it.

I haven’t read ACKS but maybe this is how they handle it? I think it makes sense for the first generation after conquest, but the Emperor’s kid is probably gonna be a snotnosed little 1st level punk. At least, unless there is continual warfare, the 20th level king’s kid will end up being 12th or something, and his kid will be 6th, and his 1st (if not degrading faster). This assumes the king refuses to let his kid be a worthless shit and forces him into combat training.

1st edition Identify is weird

February 10, 2013

I just finally read the Identify spell in 1st edition PHB, and it’s pretty crazy. 2nd Edition D&D simplified Identify a lot and made it much more useful. I think that was a result of ID not being playable as it was, but maybe the change ignored some fundamental reason for just why ID was useless. Here’s the skinny on 1E’s ID spell:

1: The caster takes a CON hit so you can’t adventure soon after.
2: You have to put the item on, so consequences of the magic (like curses) apply to the caster.
3: It works on only one item per spell, and has a 15% + 5% per caster level chance to ID one power on the item, and he gets one identificatin chance per level on the item.
4: There is a large chance of mis-identification or failure even if the above percentage succeeds, based on the M-U’s saving throw.
5: Charges aren’t known exactly, but within 25% of the true amount.
6: If you wait too long after finding it, you can’t ID the item. The limit is just 1 hour per caster level after finding it.
7: The material component is a 100 GP pearl – again, this is just for one magic item.
8: You can always grind up a Luckstone and get +25% to your success chance (which is 100% stupid and I’m certain nobody has ever done this in a serious campaign).

OK, so, let’s say the party finds a pair of magic gauntlets. Jimmy the M-U is their wizard of record, only Level 1 but willing to try Identifying. But there’s a problem: Jimmy doesn’t have Identify memorized (as he has only 1 spell and they’re on an adventure, so he probably took Sleep or more likely something dumb like Hold Portal because that’s all he has. Also who took Detect Magic to figure out the item was magical int he first place?). He needs to get out of the dungeon, sleep 8 hours, memorize Identify, and cast it. But then he’s 7 hours past the deadline so he can’t identify the item at all!

Let’s assume Jimmy knows this and instead races to town to pay someone to identify the item. He spends time exiting the dungeon, travel time back to town, and scampering from wizard to wizard. Say it takes 2 hours to return to town. Let’s also assume that the town is fairly chock-full of Wizards who are (1) willing to risk doing ID, (2) awake and willing to be bothered, (3) have ID memorized, (4) are at least 3rd level.

Here’s a little table of the success chance for varying levels of M-U:
Level — Chance — Save %
3 — 30% — 45%
4 — 35% — 45%
5 — 40% — 45%
6 — 45% — 55%
7 — 50% — 55%
8 — 55% — 55%
9 — 60% — 55%
10 — 65% — 55%

For example, if you’re level 6, you have 6 tries. On each try, you have to roll under 45%, and also under 55%, to succeed on that try. If either fails, that try fails. I’m simplifying here, since the save is actually a roll over on d20, but I converted it to percentage chance for easy comparison.

For a L4, you could expect about one success out of four tries, but then only about a 50% chance to confirm that success on the saving throw. Which means if you have the L4 M-U ID it, it’s a roughly 50-50 chance of success.

If he fails, you need to run around and get another M-U to try it, which probably means an extra half-hour at least of searching and travel (plus the 1 turn casting time), so every other try will have to be done by an M-U one level higher than before.

Finally, I believe the higher level the M-U, the less likely he will be to want to do ID services. After all, he has:

1) More to lose, since he’s higher level
2) Greater income, which means he expects a higher fee
3) His own high-level projects he’s working on, meaning his time may be unavailable
4) A grander mansion, which he’s less likely to allow potential thieves into
5) Finally, far fewer M-Us exist as you go up the levels, for the same reasons there are more Community College graduates than Ivy League PHDs.

So for those reasons, I typically assume no M-U over 10th will ever perform ID services and even those are rare.

Anyway, let’s assume the adventurers are simply out of luck when it comes to magic item identification until about level 5. At that point the party M-U Jimmy can do it himself with a reasonable chance of success. But you need to escape the dungeon to identify, which means wasting time entering and exiting in the same manner as the 15-minute adventuring day. You also need to carry the ID spell at all times just in case you find something because you don’t have time to re-memorize, which means one less useful spell at all other times.

And of course, it only works on one item! And you need to use up a 100 GP pearl per item! And there’s still a 1 in 20 chance per try of mis-reading the item and getting a false result.

By level 10 the spell becomes useful to Jimmy. He’s virtually guaranteed to successfully ID the item and can get multiple readings per spell to sift out false results. He has the money to spend on ID pearls so it’s no big deal. And finally he doesn’t have to carry ID at all times, since he can leave the dungeon and camp to memorize before the 10 hour time limit is up. But again, by that level, will his player be willing to take the risk of cursed items fusing to him and ruining his character?

Here’s my big point: if we assume Gygax intended it to be this way, it means he meant ID to be pretty useless. What alternatives are there?

Legend Lore is a 6th level spell, which means you need a 12th level M-U to cast it. It doesn’t specifically say it gives magic item properties, it just gives any legendary information about the target. You also have to sacrifice a magic item (just a potion) and the casting time is days or weeks.

Bardic knowledge includes Legend Lore and magic item identification, and the fact that Bards don’t have the harsh requirements in the Legend Lore spell mean hardly anybody is going to cast the spell. Bards can’t ID things they can’t use unless it’s a written magic item, which means they can probably ID most things. But Bards have to be Fighters, then Thieves, then Bards before they get any percentage chance. A single-classed Fighter in the group will be 6th level by the time the Bard gets a 5% Legend Lore chance (and that assumes the Bard rushes through F and T, which is a terrible idea). A well-done Bard will have a 25% LL chance by the time the party Fighter is about level 9.

The Bard is an optional class, kind of a weird mix of the dual-class rules and a proto-prestige class like the Thief-Acrobat, sequestered in the appendix after psionics. I hesitate to say Gygax meant Bards to be the go-to solution for magic item identification.

So besides ignoring the ID rules, what are PCs supposed to do? You can reliably Detect Magic, but don’t know what the thing does. Maybe the DM is supposed to say the command words are inscribed on the item. That’s a lot like the problem with modern computer passwords: people often stick them next to the device protected by the word even though that violates security, because they can’t be bothered to remember them. I dislike that concept for magic items because M-Us have memory as a class ability and any M-U able to make a magic item will be able to memorize the command word with no problem. Then again, runes and inscriptions on magic items are a solid staple of fantasy. And if you put the item on or say the command word and see a visible effect, you can safely write down that this is a Cloak of Batman or a Wand of Blowing Shit Up.

Purely from a paperwork perspective, it’s important for players to know what their junk does because otherwise the DM has to keep track of all of it. If you have about 1 magic item per level, that might be okay, but a game with greater-than-Gygaxian magic drops will have long lists of stuff for the DM to track at high levels. We already do it for cursed items, why extend that paperwork to everything?

Baldur’s Gate had a Lore skill which allowed identification of magic items based on the party’s highest-skilled Lore character. If the Lore was high enough, you got it, so if you didn’t ID at first you might after going up a level. Or you could pay for ID or cast the spell. It kinda took the Bard LL% and gave a much lower percentage to everyone.

I guess Gamma World had a system for identifying tech objects, which sometimes resulted in destruction of the item or harm to the researcher. That’s kinda cool, and I’d like to see that done for magic items, but items in D&D are pretty simple. If you get the command word, it works. If you put on the armor you can tell it’s lighter and sturdier. Figuring out just how sturdy, or whether it specifically resists fire or acid or whatever, is a matter of manual testing.

I wonder about charges, though. I can see a DM wanting to keep number of charges secret, but it’s less playable because there’s more bookkeeping for him. I’d rather have charges come as a very visible thing, like glowing runes on the side that tell you how many are left or you have to power it by sticking diamonds in the haft and they slowly erode and vanish so you know when to jam more in there.

There Is No Such Thing As a 2nd Level Blogger in D&D

January 24, 2013

I just saw a picture on a writing site of a woman sitting on her floor next to the couch, grapes and nail polish kit, two phones, shoes, and an empty notebook on the floor. It made me want to write this:

Adventurers in D&D get levels because they’re rough and tough and don’t take shit from nobody (much like Clint Eastwood brand toilet paper). You dig into a dungeon full of death-traps and alien brainsuckers and you come out more experienced and tougher. I can get behind this.

What I don’t like is some NPC in town who never left his neighborhood and someone says he’s a 4th level Shoeshine or Meatpacker. Take any Receptionist and add 20 years of experience, I don’t think that’s going to represent even a single extra Hit Point. If anything, a sedentary lifestyle should reduce HP.

I think that’s why I don’t like the NPC classes in 3E D&D (Expert, Commoner, Noble, etc) because some peasant who hits 20th level Milkmaid shouldn’t be able to take 20 stabs to the head and walk away whistling. And if the game doesn’t give detailed rules for a Limner/Painter’s daily duties, and the only people who will be good at it are dedicated NPCs, and there are in fact no ways for the NPC to actually gain levels unless he spends all day taking potshots at sewer rats and stray children from his roof, why include levels for townie NPCs at all?

I’d just as soon say the NPC gains “pseudolevels” based entirely on time spent working, and he acts as multiple workers based on his rank.

Apprentice: 0-1 yr – Acts as 1/2 man
Basic: 2 yr – Acts as 1 man
Normal: 3-5 yr – Acts as 2 men
Expert: 6-11 yr – Acts as 3 men
Master: 12-22 yr – Acts as 4 men, always produces excellent work
Grandmaster: 45+ yr – Acts as 5 men, always produces amazing work

You could stick with the standard D&D system if you really wanted to. Here’s how I’d construct an NPC class.

Commoner
Gains XP: Every month of work gives 120 XP (except first year is no XP apprenticeship)
XP Requirements: As Fighter
Benefits: Act as men equal to level for work related to specialty (choose something fairly specific – blacksmith vs. jeweler or armorer or weaponsmith is ok, metalsmith is too broad, blade maker is too specific).
HP: Only 1d6 ever, modified by CON (never improving)
Saves: Worst of 1st level Fighter, M-U, or Thief in each category (never improving)

Partial work months or part-time hours give partial XP. So if you’re a PC Fighter who wants to do blacksmithing (because World of Warcraft has you convinced it’s a great idea or you just need to fulfill the Dwarf Smith stereotype) and you practice for 8 hours one day per week while your party is in town, you’ll gain your first 150 blacksmithing XP after 7 months.

And no, you can’t gain XP in Blacksmith by adventuring, much like you can’t gain Fighter XP by blacksmithing.

Now we could use the 3E model for professions and crafts, where your skill check (in this case, your worker-equivalent) determines how much money you make. In that case, a lawyer earns as much as a shoeshine and a basketmaker earns as much as jeweler. That is to say, it’s dumb. But it’s also very simple.

We could rate professions, say 1-6, in terms of (a) portability, (b) profitability, and (c) demand. A jeweler or tailor is a much more likely profession for an adventurer than a smelter because it’s tough to carry a forge around. Jewelery is much more profitable than weaving per piece, but the number of pieces demanded is much lower. Then we have to figure out based on population how much demand there is for the PC to dump his goods on the market. Maybe a jeweler just ends up working fewer hours than the weaver and still makes more money: that’s fine. Maybe craftsmen and professionals end up gravitating toward cities: that’s expected.

Of course there will probably be guilds, or at least strong-arm types who want to control the market illicitly. The easiest way to handle this is adding the fees / extortion money to the normal taxes levied, and roleplay it only if someone tries to dodge the tax.

When we talk about sale price of goods, remember the book price is how much adventurers pay for things at the shop. Unless a tailor spends half his time working the register, or hires someone to do it, he’s going to be selling his goods to a merchant instead of selling directly. The merchant is thus a speculator instead of a professional, and his profit is based on how much of his investment he sells and at what price. His role doesn’t fit in this rule. Even if he participates in the carrying trade, he hires sailors and so forth, and we’re talking about caravans and foreign trade instead of a guy working on some metal to make it pretty.

Anyway, the tailor will buy materials, add his labor, and sell the goods to a merchant. But the merchant wants to make a profit! So the tailor obviously can’t charge book price. And his costs for materials, facility, and taxes will cut into his profit. He probably makes just about enough to live off of and save a little tiny bit.

And that’s great! That’s how it is. Adventurers despair, you can’t actually get rich working for the Man. Yes, it’s more profitable to steal from the dungeon or whatever. Why do players keep trying to get a sideline in crafting? In my experience, it’s because they either want to roleplay a craftsman (very rare) or else get a little extra money. But by “a little” they mean “a good percentage boost to what I make in the dungeon” otherwise it really isn’t worth the time and skill points.

As a side note, there’s no reason to play an NPC class in 3E. Not even if you’re an NPC. NPCs should all just be Rogues because they get lots of skill points and are more survivable.

Heck, you could ignore the two proposed NPC level schemes and say every NPC is a Thief.

Fix This Dungeon

January 18, 2013

Back in the day, System Shock was pretty awesome. In it you play a cyberware hacker type of guy who has to deal with problems on this broken-down space station. SS2 was also good, and while the graphics and controls were better the details in the original were good enough to play them both.

But there was a complaint that the game felt like playing a space-plumber because your melee weapon was a wrench and you spent most of the time fixing broken things in the ship. The quest to fix the elevators took several hours and it was nearly the first thing you were assigned!

Dead Space is a lot like System Shock. It’s not exact, but if you removed all the text and audio dialogue I’d have guessed it was SS3. In DS you’re actually a space-engineer and many of your weapons are repurposed tools, so it makes sense. And you do even MORE space-repairs!

Anyone who has ever had to find a battery in the garage to jumpstart the generator so you can use the elevator has experienced this gameplay. It’s a nice re-imagining of the “find a blue keycard to open the blue door” game and looks a whole lot prettier.

But what if the dungeon was functional like a spaceship? It would have rooms devoted to controlling various processes. There would be conduits to move energy or materials from room to room. The controls could be broken or missing parts, the conduits could be clogged or mis-routed, and maybe the energy or material source is broken too.

The functional dungeon doesn’t need to have some ultimate purpose that the players can exploit. It could be simply the side-effect of these functions that the players want. Maybe since the level 3 drain system is completely toast you can reverse gravity on level 3 so the water drains upward into level 2, which has a working drain system. Or maybe to get across the Howling Wind Chasm you can extend an ore escalator across. If you also get the escalator working you can zip across really quickly in one direction while people have to labor slowly in the other direction. But does activating it make noise that disturbs the Honkbats? If you activate the Drill Golems on level 8 and the Haulems in the Grand Ramp you can get a steady stream of ore from below – but will this anger the Albino Orcs who were otherwise peaceful before?

Anyway, the ingredients in this recipe are pretty easy to throw together.

1: The dungeon has to be made by people who can make really complex things like this.

2: The dungeon has to have a purpose. Mining, collecting souls, distracting a demon, running a calculation, imprisoning a god, getting heat from lava to make steam power.

3: You need to come up with a Rube Goldberg series of separate processes and break these down into little parts, and think about how each part could go wrong and be fixed.

4: Draw the dungeon map so it performs the function in an efficient way. Maybe throw in a natural obstacle they had to work around when building it.

5: Make up reasons why each process step would be helpful to have working or not, and what effect on the map and inhabitants deactivating / reactivating it will have. Maybe whole rooms shift and levels flood with gas!

6: Parts needed to fix things should be placed where players wouldn’t otherwise go, so exploration is important. Just for a change of pace, have some important stuff just laying out in the hallway. Might help to mark important things – such as emerald and gold circuit boards or something – so players don’t just assume it’s trash.

7: Include a large amount of trash. Maybe the players can think of cool uses for things that you didn’t.

8: The dungeon has to be ruined somehow – the thing that did the ruining could even still be there hiding in dark corners. Are the original makers or their heirs still around somewhere? In stasis?

9: It may help to have a way for players to know what to do here. In the video games I talked about, there’s always a ton of audio and text logs from the crew of the doomed spaceship you’re in. Maybe you could use journals from previous adventurers who were bright enough to think of stuff on their own. You could also just assume that players will gather information using Commune and such, which makes the adventure much more difficult for parties that aren’t high enough level or lack those resources. Maybe notes from the creators are in a strange language or holograms and can help. Maybe Magic-Users will have a roll based on level to get a hint about how something works.

10: Put in some other reason why the PCs would want to be in the dungeon, and make it possible though very difficult to complete this objective without “fixing the dungeon” along the way. Note that partial repair is preferable and PCs may want to take over the dungeon after repairing it. Maybe this is a good way to encourage the domain-endgame? Don’t worry that the PCs will have a huge automated mining operation – assume they will get it and move the game on from there! I think it’s fine when players break my game because the shattered pieces are sometimes beautiful.


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