The Elf is Hardcore Mode

March 16, 2020

In 1E, elves can’t be brought back by 5th level Raise Dead, but they can by 7th level Resurrection or an expensive set of charges from a Rod of Resurrection. Seems like few groups actually used this rule, allowing easy Elf Raising. I sure always ignored it.

Many tabletop games don’t have Raise Dead type effects at all. Car Wars lets you save your XP progress by encoding a clone. But Shadowrun has nothing; dead runners stay dead.

Later, when Roguelike games became popular, there was a more-common concept of permadeath in video gaming as a feature of the game or more often a special gameplay mode.

Some games have a lineage system where your success during a life impacts your future lives. See: upgrading the town in Heroes of Hammerwatch. The 1E Oriental Adventures hardback has a family system where your honor score affects your family so that other PCs you roll up in your family start with benefits.

And of course in an ongoing D&D game, the dead PC’s impact will be felt in future sessions. His equipment may have been salvaged by other party members or else strewn about the dungeon by looting monsters. Nethack features a “bones” level, where a dead player’s remains and loot are haunted by his ghost and whatever killed him still stalks the area! But bringing that dead hero back is still not an option. In a D&D game progress will have been made by the now-dead PC, such as puzzles completed and treasure looted, even if already-cleared areas may repopulate with monsters and eventually treasure.

But focusing strictly on the concept of a “hardcore mode”, if you die you don’t get to respawn; you reroll a new character. This is the expectation at low-level D&D play just because no PCs can cast Raise Dead (until you’re a 9th level Cleric), and the group can’t gather the resources to hire someone to cast it, and possibly because even if they could spend that money they wouldn’t want to since your PC is only level 3 and it’ll take no time at all to re-acquire a few thousand XP on a new character. After a certain point, though, a Raise Dead is expected.

So playing a Hardcore Elf who can’t be Raised makes a difference only during a level band between about 7th and 12th. Before then a Raise wouldn’t happen anyway, and after that a Resurrection is on the table. That’s a fairly limited slice.

What if we extended the Hardcore Elf playstyle indefinitely upward? Say that no magic, not even a Wish, can bring back an Elf. We could extend the playstyle downward too, if we made some limited Raise Dead available to characters level 2 and upward. Include a magic pool that takes a level and brings you back, so it’s not usable for 0-level townsfolk who represent 99%+ of the population, and it becomes a worse choice the higher level you get, eventually making a Raise Dead spell very preferable if you can get it. The Elf would be unable to use the pool because it’s not a Resurrection effect that bypasses his racial detriment.

Why would we do this? Elves live a long time, so this becomes an Achilles style roleplaying choice: live a long boring life or a short one full of excitement, heroism, and success. But also Elves just have so many racial benefits for which this can be a balancing detriment. To make the distinction way clearer I’d lower Dwarf and Gnome age categories closer to Halflings. And finally it’s an interesting choice (and interesting choices should abound in D&D) and players who hate it can 100% avoid it.

What to do if the player just really likes Elves and wants to play one? Maybe he’s willing to drop most of the Elf racial abilities and penalties if he can just keep those pointy ears. Allow me to introduce the Half-Elf.


Dragon Scale Armor

October 15, 2018

Running a 1e campaign now featuring a dragon (a few, actually, but one main dragon). So dragonparts will be on the treasure menu eventually.

If the PCs get hold of discarded scales, I wouldn’t give the remnants any magical value. Too shabby, like cooking and eating the dry outer layer of an onion. Also from a game perspective the players might have believed they were taking a big risk exploring the cave but actually there was no risk – so there should be little reward.
Dragonscale armor is incredible mainly because Druids can use it. Depending on the rules you use, it can also be very powerful. Any players would of course prefer to skin the dragon and produce as many suits of armor as possible, at least one per PC and perhaps a few to throw at favored henchmen, and several for immediate sale to supplement the inevitably disappointing dragon hoard. 
The Dragon Magazine / Encyclopedia Magicka way is to make it poor-AC but give energy resistance.
The white-bound Monstrous Manual 2e method is no special energy resistance but amazing AC value rivaling even magical platemail, but as light and non-bulky as leather armor – clearly desirable for 1e Barbarians, Thieves, etc. 
In both above examples you could get at least a full suit, maybe more, and some shields, out of one dragon carcass. But heavy use of slashing weapons and energy spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt would destroy the hide and make it impossible to get armor out of it. Up to the DM how much damage that takes.
DDO lets the player pick whether the armor will end up light, medium, or heavy, and gives good AC and energy resistance, but you have to kill 20 dragons to get the scales needed for one suit. I think we can chalk that up to the typical MMO grind. But it’s certainly not 1 dragon = 10 suits!
I want the players to have to make a decision regarding the hide. They shouldn’t get everything they want. The hide shouldn’t be worth more than the hoard. Here’s my take on it: 
The armor must be made from certain specific scales, so any dragon can provide only enough hide for one primary purpose. That purpose could be one suit of armor OR three shields. If the dragon is smaller than average, there’s a 50% chance of one armor, OR you can always get one shield. If bigger than average, you can for sure get 1 armor, with a 50% chance of a second suit of armor, OR you can get 5 shields. You need to decide whether to go for armor or shields and then make your rolls, and then the pieces are already cut up and you can’t switch. Even with a big dragon you can’t get both armor and shield. All the extra hide and small scales left over can be used for decorative things without any bonus. This is how you end up with treasure like a bronze coffer laminated on the outside with dragonhide. 
Secondly, the armor must be made by a team of expert hirelings. Because the material is so rare and strange, a normal hireling won’t be enough: roll d% for each hireling to determine his ability to work with exceptional materials. The player can discover what the 10s place for his hireling is, after a full year of employment, but knowing the exact skill is impossible. You’ll need an armorer, alchemist, and leatherworker.
Third, the armor will take 1 year to complete. Historically it wasn’t unheard-of for really elaborate armor to take that long. Dragonscale should be the armor of heroes and emperors.
Fourth, the armor will not always come out perfectly. The armor will normally be equivalent to chainmail with a magic bonus equal to the age category of the dragon. But, skip categories 3 and 6. At each of these points, instead of an AC bonus, the armor grants the wearer +2 to save and -1 HP/die of damage (to attacks of the dragon’s breath type). So, armor made from an Ancient (8) Red Dragon will be Chainmail +6 with Fire Resistance. BUT, the armor could drop in age-category-equivalent if the hirelings are low-skill. For each of the three, roll d% trying to get under the “exceptional material” percentage. Each of them who fails will reduce the age-category of the armor by 1 place.

I rather prefer the armor being “fairly bulky” because it prevents Thieves from getting access to truly incredible AC values. But the magic armor will offer MV 12″ so it’s desirable for anyone who can use it. 

Use the same process for PCs trying to get dragon-horn bows, dragon-claw daggers, dragon-tooth spear heads, etc.
So, here’s how it works out in play: the PCs slay the dragon, HUZZAH! They begin carving pieces off the dragon immediately while its eyelids are still drooping. But they quickly realize the Fireballs and Lightning Bolts they fired during the battle not only fused the hoard into a mass of precious metals they’ll need to chisel apart to transport, and ruined half or more of the magic items in it, but the many sword wounds they inflicted ruined all the dragonparts. No armor for them because they took the easy route in the battle. I’ll make them roll (because it’s more painful that way) a % chance of ruined hide based on what percentage of the dragon’s HP were cut or burned vs. hammered. 
Next dragon, these players are more cautious and clever. They resort to maces and flails, Magic Missiles, etc. to end up with an undamaged hoard and pristine dragon hide.
They can’t make the armor themselves, clearly. So they go around trying to find expert hirelings. They won’t know the hirelings’ skill level, unless they hire a bunch and work them for a year to discover it. So maybe they employ their contacts as high-level adventurers and pay heavily to borrow some NPC lord’s expert hireling, because he would know the worker’s potential.

After securing three hirelings with good percentages, work begins, and the party must employ them for a year without any other benefit from them. Finally, the work is done, and they end up with armor that’s probably better than the best armor found in the hoard. But if you had to make a choice between getting the hoard or the hide, you’d probably choose the hoard. 

Unless you’re a Druid.

Separately, it’ll be interesting if the PCs decide to drink or bathe in the dragon’s blood …

First Level Treasure Placement, and Weapon Proficiency Slots

August 9, 2018

I’ve talked a bit about this here:

I recently came across a small problem with a new 1st level group for a 1E campaign. They went through a dungeon, got some XP, and later on did a second small dungeon. Here they found a forgotten armory behind a secret door, containing two weird +1 weapons.

Because the PCs didn’t have proficiency in the two weapons, they decided to sell them to get XP and level up to 2nd. This is just fine, because as I described before they get to make that cost-benefit analysis.

The two weapons turned out to be higher-value than magic swords, probably because of their relative rarity on the magic item tables. So the group of 4 split 6,000 GP and 6,000 XP. With their activity in the rest of the dungeon it was enough to bump some of them just short of 3rd.

Then, enjoying the success of that choice, they proceeded to sell off everything they found. I don’t know how it happened, but they convinced the party Thief it would be a great idea to sell a pair of Gauntlets of Dexterity for the XP. Seems crazy from my perspective.

Anyway, by now they’re level 5 and 6, and grumbling about how they don’t have any magic items. When I point out they sold almost everything, they claim none of the items that they found were “useful” and would have preferred to find a bunch of magic swords, bows, and armor instead.

I bet. I started thinking about how I could have done this better.

Recently I’ve been thinking that the existence of monsters with a “+ Required To Hit” ability suggests the quality of magic weapons players should have if they are of the right level to fight that HD of monster. To have a satisfying fight, where the monster’s ability comes into play, some but not all of the party should have weapons that can hurt it. If everyone has +1 weapons, a Gargoyle fight is just like any other, but if none have them the fight becomes impossible and (while still acceptable to include in the game), less satisfying.

Secondly, I’ve been thinking about placement of magic items vs. money treasure. I usually prefer to include more magic item treasure, considering 1 GPV of magic item = 1 GPV of treasure to be included, meaning if they keep the items they’ll get less XP than expected. I prefer that because the players can choose to sell the magic item if they want, but generally they can’t choose to buy magic items with the gold they find. It doesn’t work the other way.

Third, level advancement speed. I think there’s a lot of fun gaming to be had at each level. If the PCs lunge through levels, they don’t have a chance to become acclimated to their new abilities and find interesting uses for them, and player skill doesn’t have a chance to grow to match character level. Players don’t get a chance to ease into an understanding of the varying danger of the obstacles they face in each new adventure. Also, too-fast advancement reduces the sense of accomplishment at earned acquisition.

This brings me back to a recommendation to Future Me: for low-level parties, carefully limit the value of magic items the PCs encounter. Instead of a 3000 GP Polearm +1, include a 500 GP Dagger +1. Gauge the total treasure value of the adventure with the assumption they will sell it!

I don’t think it’s necessary to “beef up” later adventures if PCs sell magic items unexpectedly and end up higher level than you intended. After all, they’re less powerful than their level would suggest because they lack those magic items.

There’s also the proficiency issue. If you want them to keep magic weapons instead of selling them, place magic weapons they’re likely to have proficiency with. Don’t assume they will be willing to blow a proficiency slot on the new weapon, because they will expect that eventually a weapon will come along that they are proficient with. The player won’t hold onto the item just in case he encounters a monster with +1 Req. To Hit defense. He probably won’t keep the item and spend his next weapon proficiency slot on it. He’ll just sell it.

To help reduce this problem (and this is something I’ve always done anyway), don’t require players to spend all their proficiency slots as soon as they get them. They might want to spend them all, but it’s a good idea to save one so you can learn a new weapon if you find a good magical version.

An M-U will want to spend his one slot on dagger or dart. A Thief will need a sword and either sling or dagger. A Cleric will likely want one blunt weapon and be willing to save another slot. A Fighter, depending on whether you use the Weapon vs. AC table, might be OK with two weapons out of four starting slots.

To actually learn the new weapon and spend that slot, I’d require that the player either go up a level (so it’s part of the week of training), or spend a week just practicing with the weapon in town, or use the weapon in five significant combats. Remember this is just for spending an empty slot you already earned.

1E Fighter Exceptional Strength

August 3, 2018

Here’s the skinny in case it’s been a while:

In 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, if you’re a Fighter (but not a subclass like Paladin or Ranger), and you roll 18 Strength, you then roll d% to get an exceptional strength result from 01 to 00. Normally, an 18 STR has +1 to hit and +2 damage in melee, while a 19 STR gets +3 to hit and +7 damage. In between this huge gap the exceptional strength fills in with five categories, as follows:

STR Table

I’ve been watching a conversation on Dragonsfoot about this, and read a few old threads, and I kind of have a problem with EX-STR as presented.

First, I believe most Fighter players will end up with an EX-STR character; if the PC rolls up with a 16 STR the player will end up getting the PC killed off through “brave” play and get another crack at it. Another DFer suggested that when the player rolls up the character, with the +1 STR from the age modifier, anyone with 17 STR might play a human Fighter, while those with 16 might play a Half-Orc Fighter (another +1 coming from the racial modifier), because they’d be bumped up to 18 and trigger the EX-STR roll. Those with STR 15 or lower might play some other character. If they can arrange to suit, and don’t roll an 18, they might instead play a Ranger or Paladin if they qualify.

Essentially, EX-STR is a Fighter class ability, but only a minority of Fighters will have access to it. (Side note: I would exclude 0-level humans from rolling EX-STR. Gain a level, buddy, then we’ll talk)

However, I find that most players have a character they want to play before they roll. In a group of 12+ players everyone can just fill in various roles. But in a group of 4-6 players that doesn’t work as well.

So what I see happening at my table is a player who wants to play a Fighter rolls 13-15 STR and doesn’t get the EX-STR benefit, and it’s a bummer, because it’s this huge binary for Fighters; those with EX-STR are effective and those without fight like Clerics.

Matthew- at DF proposed using the EX-STR roll regardless of base STR. So it would be possible to have a 15/76 STR for example. For 1E that might look like this:


The EX-STR stats are additive to the base STR stats. For example, a Fighter with STR 17/33 would have +1 to hit and +2 damage; a Fighter with 9/00 would have +2 to hit and +4 damage. I like that this makes Fighters better at carrying heavy armor and treasure, and bashing down doors, and tearing stuff up – all typical Fighter activities. In this way Fighters are enabled to interact with the environment in certain ways more effectively and on a regular basis, an outcome similar to how Thieves work.

Another argument is that this essentially gives Fighters a higher effective STR; why not just bump up their STR score and delete EX-STR? Partly because 19 STR (from the 1E Deities & Demigods or the 2E PHB) gives +3 to hit and +7 damage; without the gradient given by EX-STR that 1 point has a huge impact that isn’t seen in any other stats. Someone who managed to start with an 18 STR then gaining a bonus from the Fighter class would be launched to a much higher power level.

If you look at the actual effect of EX-STR layered on, as above, the lower 50% of Fighters end up with the rough equivalent of +1 STR if they started at 15 (or bumped up to a point somewhere between 15 and 16, if lower than 14). The next 25% tranche of Fighters gain some significant bonuses, as if they were bumped up to a 17 from a STR of 8-14. Only 10% of Fighters get the truly delicious bonuses: very high ENC limits, reliable BB/LG and Open Door chances, and the ability to break open locked or Wizard Locked doors.

With this EX-ST layering, every Fighter has at least a small damage bonus and carries a little more. 50% of Fighters will have significant bonuses equivalent to a 17 STR. And that ignores the possibility that some of those will have rolled 16-18 natural STR (and as I mentioned most Fighters will get +1 STR from their age and Half Orcs get another +1).

Compare with a houserule that uses EX-STR and just gives Fighters +4 STR. Assume the player who decides to play a Fighter does so because he will benefit from the higher STR score, so his STR is at least 12. With a 13 he could play a Ranger, and with a 12 he could play a Paladin, and below 12 he probably would play some other class. Let’s also assume that the EX-STR categories are retained as lines on the table that you’d have to work through when applying the modifier (to avoid the crazy leap from 18 to 19). Let’s also assume the human maximum is 18/00 and extra bonus is wasted.

This means if he rolls 18 it becomes 18/91, a 17 becomes 18/76, a 16 becomes 18/51, a 15 becomes 18/01, a 14 becomes a plain 18, and a 13 becomes 17. A Human Fighter rolled up with 18 STR would come out as 18/00 with his initial age bonus, and a Half-Orc could achieve that with a natural 17 roll. On 3d6, the player has a 1.85% chance to be able to achieve an 18/00 (that is, rolling a 17-18 and making a race selection based on that).

By the book, you have to first achieve an 18 (meaning a player rolls 16-18), and then roll percentile dice with a “00” result. There’s just a 0.0462% chance of that happening. And the 91-99 and 00 entries feature power spikes larger than the previous ones. Reaching them should be more rare than the 3d6 curve allows.

One way to handle this would be to change your houserule to “Fighters gain +4 STR up to 18, but then must roll EX-STR on d%, with +5% per overflow STR bonus”. This preserves the rarity of high EX-STR values, while offering a greater range of rolled PCs the opportunity to access EX-STR. However, it all but guarantees a +1/+3 combat bonus. The layered EX-STR method guarantees +0/+1.

Why did I choose something as extreme as +4 STR for Fighters? Because if they can only roll as high as 18 on 3d6, they need to work through 5 more increases to get through the EX-STR categories to 18/00. That’s +4 from Fighter and +1 from the age bonus. Once you age up a little you’ll lose that 00 edge and drop to a (still amazing) 18/91. Or you could be a Half-Orc.

Here’s the shower thought that made me want to post: what if we take the 1E PHB at face value and assume that only stats from 3-18 exist? 19-25 aren’t on our radar. How else could we describe Ogres and Giants?

In 1E, Ogres are noted as getting +2 damage when using weapons, or +1/+2 for leader types. In 2E, they have damage modifiers based on the appropriate STR but it’s a half-measure because the attack bonus is built into their HD, but at least the Giants share the Ogre’s notation. In 3E everything has stats and they smoothed out the STR progression, which meant a Hill Giant had to have a 25 STR and a Titan had to have 43. But they still included an encumbrance kludge that ramped up carrying capacity at high STR so a Giant could actually walk itself around.

What if the 3-18 range existed as a variation within the creature type? Man-types like Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Hobgoblins etc. all have similar capacities, with variation introduced via ability score modifiers. But an Ogre or a horse just has a different baseline. You could roll 3d6 to find a horse’s STR and note if it were exceptional. Same with INT; the horse will still be Animal intelligence but you could gauge the comparative INT of two horses.

As a specific example, I could roll STR for an Ogre and if it came up 16-18 I’d add the appropriate modifiers in combat. If it came time to bust down a door, I’d need to account for the greater size and mass of the Ogre, because the Ogre will be better at breaking the door than a Human with equal STR. It certainly is larger, and wields a bigger weapon, dealing 1d10 damage instead of (say) 1d6 or 1d8. Like much in 1E, it’s a judgement call.

Using 3-18 as a scale relative to creature type rather than as a universal scale frees us from 19-25 stats. A Girdle of Giant Strength would, instead of setting STR to some total, grant a really nice bonus to STR related tasks and also grant boulder-throwing. A Strength spell would just work as written, capping at 18, with overflow improving EX-STR if the target is an eligible class. But it would be equally useful cast upon a Human or an Ogre.

Because most creatures will be average, it’s not even necessary to roll all of their ability scores. Maybe just for specific types, or set a high score to add difficulty to a monster that has separated itself from the pack through selection pressure.

One interesting question is why, if Gygax knew how STR scores 19-25 would work because they were in the Girdle of Giant Strength entry in the DMG (and we can assume it’s similar or identical to what was used in his campaign), why did the Monster Manual entries not explicitly use those STR scores? Did he feel it was better for an Ogre to deal 1-10 points of damage instead of 3-10? Or, in the same way that the Skeleton deals 1-6 damage regardless of weapon used, was this a holdover from the earlier edition which was never updated? In OD&D, Ogres deal 1d6+2 damage (that is, normal damage for an attack +2 points), and Giants deal 2d6, 2d6+1 or +2, or even 3d6 damage due to their huge size. The Ogre bonus damage meant it was way stronger than a max-STR Human.

It appears the progression from OD&D through 3E was a process of formalizing how STR worked, although there’s an excellent argument for monsters using different, simpler rules from PCs.

From the construction of the table, it also becomes clear that Strength is valuable in the game, so valuable that few people have any bonuses from it and those bonuses are small. However, attack and damage bonuses both affect damage output, and with that in mind a given score in STR approaches the value of the same score in DEX or CON. But you’re effectively one ability score point lower in the modifier output for STR when compared to DEX or CON. With STR being such a valuable score, a Fighter class ability related to STR is even more necessary for the expected operation of the character.

TL;DR: In a lower-power game true to something between OD&D and 1E, you could have all Fighters roll Exceptional Strength and layer it on their natural STR score. They get a minimum of +0/+1 in combat and extremely high STR is rare.

In a medium-power game you could give Fighters +4 to starting STR up to 18, then have them roll d% for Exceptional Strength, with +5% per point of bonus overflow. They get a minimum of +1/+3 in combat and extremely high STR is still rare, but more common. Fighters become attractive compared to Rangers and Paladins.

Or you could ignore the problem of players wanting to play a specific class. Have everyone roll stats. Anyone who wants to play a Fighter needs a 16 and write in Half-Orc, or needs a 17 and write in anything but Halfling, or else play a Ranger or Paladin. STR under 12 means you’re not playing any kind of warrior-type.

Dog Names

March 25, 2018

I don’t know your life, but if you’re anything like me you could use a d20 list of dog names for your campaign. I require players to name any animal they acquire, but NPCs frequently have dogs and frequently yell their dogs’ dumb names while the PCs are around.

  1. Bonewin
  2. Barf
  3. Barkley
  4. Dogberry
  5. Hambone
  6. Bonemeal
  7. Boneson
  8. Arfred
  9. Ribeye
  10. Tenderloin
  11. Babyback
  12. T-Bone
  13. Mignon
  14. Oxtail
  15. Wagmore
  16. Chuck
  17. Sirloin
  18. Brisket
  19. Shank
  20. Angus

Approximating the area of a hexagon

March 13, 2018

I needed to figure out how many square miles are in a hexagon. Turns out, nobody wants to give a straight answer when all you know about the hexagon is the distance face-to-face, which is what we all use in the hex and chit world.

After relearning some geometry, this is the simplest possible approximation I can give you: a = (w / 1.732) * (1.5w)

That is, the area is the width “face to face” divided by 1.732, then multiply that by 1.5 times the width.

Example: A Greyhawk 30-mile hex has width 30. It’s area is about 779 square miles.

a = (30 / 1.7320) * (1.5 * 30)

a = (17.3210) * (45)

a = 779.4457

Which means if your stronghold-building wilderness-clearing 9th level Fighter wants a Greyhawk hex all to himself, he’s clearing almost 800 square miles of monsters. Get to it, Gutboy Barrelhouse!

This is the kind of formula I’d put on the second DM screen that you pull out only in extremis. Like how composition books have commonly-used formulae on the inside covers.

Watch this become by far the most useful thing I have ever done :/

EDIT: As was pointed out, my formula is off even as an estimate. I checked it against Red Orc’s linked calculator and I was extremely close to being off by doubling the area, so I changed the formula. Regarding Black Vulmea’s formula in the linked Promise City blog post, I guess you have the textbook formula but it looks like the above approximates to yours – close enough for horseshoes anyway. Thank you all for revealing my mathematical decrepitude!

Why Do Boring Stupid Combats Happen

April 14, 2017

I have two specific situations where boring stupid combats happen, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make them not happen.

Imagine a scenario where the PCs encounter something and they fight it and they’re just the right power level for it. The fight lasts a normal amount of time, they get to use some special abilities on it, they have a chance of dying, random chance matters, they might have to make interesting decisions (use up more spells now and not have them later? Use up consumable magic?), and they get to see the monsters’ gnarly abilities, and they might consider fleeing or roleplaying instead of rolling for initiative. So I’d call that a fulfilling combat encounter.

What happens when the PCs are way too weak? 2nd level PCs fighting some Trolls. I’d say this encounter works just great; it’s clearly too tough, the players can choose to try to parley, flee, or almost certainly roll up new characters.

What happens when the PCs are way too powerful? 6th level PCs fighting 20 Kobolds. I’d call this encounter boring because there’s no risk, no real reward. But at least it’s over very quickly so we can move on to better things, and because the PCs know they outclass the monsters so much they’re more willing to try parleying for information.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too weak? 3rd level PCs fighting 20 1st level pirates. The encounter might be surmountable, or they might fail. But the PCs will probably use up consumables to survive, so they have a fine chance of victory. The outcome is shabby though because the fight takes a long time and they burn up more resources than they could gain from the spoils. I find these encounters to be very dissatisfying mostly because they take up a ton of table time. I hate when a game session boils down to a single combat encounter and limping away to lick your wounds. I’ve seen the big dragon fight take one session and the treasure take another, and players don’t seem to mind – but that’s a pretty epic encounter. Not just 20 dumb sailors or skeletons or whatever.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too strong? 4th level PCs fighting a big pack of wolves. They can’t get out of it by just Fireballing them, and the wolves do chip away at the PCs. The players are loathe to use consumables or even memorized spells because they feel the encounter is going to be easy enough. They may fail to take tactical advantages. So they end up wasting a lot of time and end up getting almost no reward for the investment of table time.

One could argue that skilled play is rewarded with more and better play opportunities. If the players decide to avoid a lengthy fight they can enjoy a better-balanced encounter that they choose later. And a DM carefully balancing fights reduces the incentive to learn those gameplay skills. But then again if you have three or four bad game sessions in a row it could seriously affect player enjoyment (and even attendance). It’s worth thinking about this.

But I don’t have many good answers.

One solution was present in BECMI, where extremely high THAC0 on the table that more than guaranteed a hit, would deal extra damage to that very vulnerable target. So there was still a benefit for a high-level Fighter vs. a low-AC monster. You could say this is like a 3E Power Attack, except automatically applied when it would have a benefit. Which I feel makes Power Attack a better rule because it involves interesting choices. The BECMI rule however could have a houseruled corollary where a very low chance to hit against a very high AC would deal reduced damage even if you hit. Or you could remove the “natural 20 is always a hit” or “nat 20 is counted as 30” that a lot of groups use. The high-AC rule makes it clearer when a fight is out of the PCs’ league, and means a really tough monster will not only deal more damage to weaker PCs but take less from them.

Another solution I’ve used is that subsequent low-level encounters in an area will have heard of the PCs and avoid them, or surrender, etc. These Kobolds found the bloody mess of the last Kobold band the PCs slaughtered. This helps prevent the fight that’s boring because it’s way too easy. Another option is saying the encounter is “played out” and the PCs actually only encountered an empty Kobold village that cleared out because the PCs were in the neighborhood.

You could also use that kind of logic to shift the encounter into a higher or lower level. 0D&D had an encounter table that said larger groups of PCs would draw correspondingly larger groups of monsters. I guess this meant the monsters would pay more attention to a big group of invaders and amass more of a resistance. It also might have been a way to discourage players bringing hordes of NPC hirelings along.

Maybe if you roll a third “Kobold band” encounter, and the PCs dealt with the last two handily, this last encounter is with the rest of the tribe trying desperately to defeat these powerful invaders. That way the encounter shifts into interesting territory, and if the PCs prevail there won’t be anymore Kobolds in the neighborhood to encounter. Either the area becomes more desolate with “empty” encounter results, or something else moves into that encounter space. Perhaps civilized people like merchants or hunters taking advantage of a safer area, which would slowly result in a civilized part of the frontier (and if you roll a multiple encounter result you could end up with some Giant Lizards that encountered some Pilgrims – so what happens next?). Maybe some other monster moves in.

Generally I want the verisimilitude of the world being described by a good set of random tables. So adjusting the roll result after seeing what the dice said feels like I’m not letting the table do its work. But I shouldn’t feel constrained to stick with a basic table regardless of how lame it makes the game. Philosophy that encounters reality either creates a bunch of side rules to cover special cases, or it steadfastly ignores its own terrible outcomes in favor of the simplicity of its basic tenets. I’m happy to use encounter tables and the oracular power of dice to guide the game, and apply reasonable adjustments later. And I feel that adjusting an encounter on the fly in the way I was describing is fine, specifically:

1: To shift encounters out of the “long, drawn-out, boring hell of a game session” either up or down to make the outcome resolve faster.

2: Avoid “waste a ton of time on an encounter without reward” as long as the players had a chance to experience that at least once or twice.

However, I still feel that beefing things up just because the PCs are too effective is outside what I’m comfortable with. Justifying it doesn’t take a lot of effort. “The Orcs were desperate because of your victories and made a pact with an itinerant Necromancer who raises their dead but keeps their souls in his amulet, to their dismay.” Bam, made the area tougher, added some interesting roleplaying opportunities, did good work. Tacking on a couple extra hit dice on those Orcs instead feels like lazy and churlish DMing antagonistic to the players sitting around the table.

As with a lot of things about this game, I bet a lot of people won’t see a big difference between those two. And after a couple years or a couple drinks I could persuade myself there isn’t.

It’s occasionally dismaying to realize I spend a lot of time thinking about D&D and come up with few concrete answers. Everything changes. There are always new things to try. I still love the game, on both sides of the DM screen. But I tell you, if you enjoy sausages, don’t learn to make them.

Who Knows if the Gods are Real

July 24, 2016

I’ve been tinkering with an idea for a while, a way to divide the Cleric spell list from the M-U spell list (because there’s some thematic overlap). All Cleric spells are non-visible.

For example, instead of immediately healing damage with a Cure Light Wounds spell (stopping bleeding, restoring lost blood, setting and knitting broken bones), nothing visible happens. Either the Cleric amps up your natural healing ability and you get more healing by resting tonight, or the wounds look just as bad but you John McClane through the pain and stand up to fight. In the first example, the healing still feels miraculous but it’s delayed and the Cleric’s magic is less powerful. In the second example, we’re explicitly on board with explaining HP as stamina / willpower / fighting skill / morale.

In both cases a skeptical observer could argue some non-magical explanation. Maybe his recovery outcomes were just way better, or the wound wasn’t as bad after all. Maybe the Cleric has just given him a really good pep talk. Either way, a Cleric’s abilities aren’t obvious enough to be proven, and by extension his claim to receive them from a deity. Let’s ignore the possibility he could be deluded or lying and receive his spells from some mortal source.

I’m also assuming the players around the table will always be able to spot mechanical effects. You might be able to put everything behind the DM screen but that would be much more difficult. But if your goal is to make the players wonder whether Jimmy is actually playing a Cleric it can be done for a little while but again it’s tough.

Another example is Animal Friendship. Sure it’s weird that he can get a wild animal to follow him around and clean his dishes, but maybe he’s just an animal trainer!

This unfortunately prevents us from having a Flame Blade spell. But the primary purpose of the spell is to give a melee attack, which is better against Undead, with a secondary purpose of having an instant magical fire which can ignite objects and shed light. The primary spell effect could be replicated with an unarmed damage bonus. A skeptic would say maybe the Cleric just smacked the guy really hard or in the right place, or the guy was intimidated by being attacked by a Cleric and went down easier.

We can replicate the secondary benefits of the Flame Blade and also the Light spell if the Cleric has a spell to make lighting a fire extremely easy (which could be worth a 1st level spell slot in a wet environment the same way Create Water is worth praying for in a dry environment). If he casts it on an oil lamp, torch, etc. the fuel also lasts longer (which gives us a reference to Judaism too!) which makes the spell worthwhile in low-fuel situations too.

Instead of Create Water, the Cleric is able to find nearby fresh water. Same with Create Food and Water – maybe this guy is just really good at foraging!

Hold Person is problematic as written. But it’s also an extremely powerful combat spell that can safely be canned because Clerics are already really strong characters. Or give a weaker version that halts people while the Cleric harangues them and stares them down impressively – but if they are attacked they’re no longer affected. Because the effect is weaker you could increase the number affected to compensate.

Instead of Invisibility or Silence, give enemies a lower chance to notice the party. How many times has a guard suddenly realized a small animal has wandered into his area and he didn’t notice? Or a fellow guard? Embarrassing but explainable.

Instead of outlining enemies in Faerie Fire, enhance the vision of a friend so he sees an extra reflected glint or just feels where the enemy is, and can attack accurately.

1st and 2nd level spells are so easily reskinned so nobody knows if the Cleric is legit. Typical village priests will still need to work to convince laypeople instead of impressing them by flaunting amazing magic spells.

There should also be a spell as a reversal of the intent of Locate Animals or Plants, which helps reduce random encounters.

Only once we get into 3rd level magic do we need to make things truly visible. By the time we get to Raise Dead it becomes difficult to keep things ambiguous. Then again, according to the 1E DMG 1st and 2nd level spells are cast through the Cleric’s own study and influence, 3rd and 4th are granted by lesser divine intermediaries, and 5th-7th are granted by the deity itself.

I love the perspective this puts on the spell lists. Cleric levels 5 and 9 are super important because they represent gaining a connection to powerful servants of their deity or the deity itself respectively.

At level 5 you can cure diseases / blindness / deafness / curses / paralysis, create food, animate skeletons and zombies, speak with the dead, walk on water and flames, and call down lightning bolts from storm clouds.

At level 9 you can speak directly with your deity, raise the dead, walk through the air, travel to a different plane of existence, and call down pillars and walls of flame.

So there’s really a limit on how far you can go making Cleric powers ambiguous in roleplaying. But I think it’s worth it enough to make the effort to reskin 1st and 2nd level spells.

Ah, the old “get us to smash stuff” gambit

July 11, 2016

Imagine you’re in a scary mansion and everything is cold and dark and covered in dust-cloths. You’re some kind of investigator or adventurer or couple driven in by a storm and a broken-down car. A monster pops out (as they do) but not from around the corner or something, but from a mirror. Cliché by now, right?

Said monster, after being shotgunned or pushed over a banister or whatever, runs over to the nearest mirror and pops into it. OK fine, you think, I’ll just go around busting all the mirrors.

So you go around ripping off dust cloths and smashing priceless heirloom mirrors with a big old candlestick. It seems like the monster is running around in its mirror-world trying to get ahead of you, because you’re so successful at smashing mirrors you stay ahead of it.

By the end of it you’re exhausted but triumphant. You even went into the basement (or sent a hireling down) to get the mirrors you know must be lurking down there. Heck, you even emptied the bathtub in case the DM says that counts as a mirror. Great work!

But now the monster is stuck in his own world. What if you wanted the monster to stay out? Like, let’s say the monster is causing problems and in order to attack it you need to lure it out of the mirror-world. You’d need to find a room with a few mirrors (so it feels safe coming out) but just enough that your party can smash them all at once. Is there a way to make a mirror you can control? Does a window between a dark and bright room count, so that you could flip a switch and remove the mirror? Would the monster be able to understand that vulnerability?

Or what if you want to enter the mirror world? Maybe the monster took something or someone in there that you want to retrieve. Could be some difficulty acquiring the correct item if the mirror-world version is still in there too. Or maybe you want to get the mirror-version of something. What is the mirror-version in relation to the regular? Is it evil and has a goatee? Left vs. right handed? Opposite magical effects? And how do you enter the mirror world – does the monster leave a slime you can coat yourself with, or do you have to grapple it and pass through at the same time? Maybe whoever owned the mansion was researching magic to pass through but it requires components / ingredients or is limited-use or requires good timing.

Was the person who made the mirrors important? Is the monster trying to drag him back through the mirror to his original dimension?

How I Want to Build a Module

July 4, 2016

Still working on the module. I have a few basic layout assumptions that differ from how a module is typically done, so I wanted to talk about them and see if anyone has input.

One Page Dungeon Format Extended
The One Page Dungeon layout puts a map on a page, with a sidebar for an encounter table, and the room key below. The map is typically 30×30 squares, which means the key can’t have too much detail. My version puts the key on the facing page and any map notes under the map instead. This way if you have the module open to a given page, you’ll have all the info you need for that area or dungeon level without page flipping. I find that I still need to be terse in room descriptions. Other tricks help this terseness!

I have minidungeons with their keys, and the tentpole dungeon has a map-and-key spread for each dungeon level. Outside that format I change it up as needed, again minimizing page flipping.

No In-Line Descriptions for Monsters or Treasure
You’ll see a monster listed in the key, but it has no stats. WTF? The monster list is on the inside cover of the module and you’re expected to (A) unstaple it and use the cover as a DM screen, (B) make a photocopy and use up some of your table real estate, or (C) flip to the cover to refer to monster stats – which is pretty easy to do because of the difference in paper textures. Monster stat blocks also suffer from repetition, wasting space in the key repeatedly. Magic items mostly don’t need in-line descriptions of their powers because those come into play generally when PCs use them, and you can flip to the magic item section to see that. I can see an argument for having in-line magic item descriptions though, especially for monsters who use them during the encounter.

Art is Strictly Kept in the Player Handouts
I believe that art in a module is there primarily to clarify and to direct the imagination. There are subtle areas where the art can conceal a clue or something, but that’s typically not the case. For example, in my copy of Temple of Elemental Evil, there’s a Trampier illustration of a rat on a shelf. It’s lovely, and I would hate to see it left out of the module. But if the DM is the only one who sees it then the art is working only upon a tiny fraction of the people at the table. If he has to cover up the rest of the page and awkwardly show the players, it takes a long time to get the art out there and the DM might make the decision to just not show it. If the players don’t see the art, the only way it affects them is indirectly, if the DM is inspired by it and puts more into his game as a result. So my criteria are (A) the art will be present only if it’s going to be viewed by everyone, and (B) the art should be easy to pass around. So there’s an art handout with numbered pages and the DM can pass the packet around and trust the players won’t go flipping through it to see the rest.