Archive for November, 2011

Families and Heirlooms

November 26, 2011

Each player in the party controls a character, and also the family of that character. Another player can’t have a character from your family.

When you create your character, you roll for what heirloom you get. This is typically a permanent minor magic item, like a magic sword or horn or ring. Whatever you do, your family’s reputation is affected. If you’re a charlatan, your family loses Honesty. If you’re a coward your family loses Valor.

You can stop playing your first character and play a different one from your family – of course he starts at level 1 like any other PC. This probably happens when your main character dies. The new character doesn’t necessarily get another heirloom. He would come in and introduce himself as So And So’s brother, and expect that they hand over any family heirlooms the old PC had. Smart parties will make a mutual agreement to safeguard any heirlooms for other family members, since nobody wants to lose his family stuff. Failing that, they will just end up taking heirlooms from each other and they will eventually make their way into the right hands or else get sold. Not a problem!

A PC can declare a magic item to be an heirloom. That gains his family some reputation points. He can keep the heirloom, which means there’s a chance it can be destroyed or lost, in which case the family LOSES MORE than it gained by making it an heirloom in the first place.

Heirlooms are a way to improve family reputation, but they are dangerous because they’re vulnerable.

Also, if you send heirlooms back home, not only are they safe but you can equip new PCs with them when you roll them up.

If a family member dies, the family loses points, but if there is a proper burial back home the family gets most of those points back. Low level PCs result in almost no loss if they’re buried, but high level PCs result in a high point loss even if buried.

High family points means newly rolled PCs from the family get bonuses: some starting EXP, better starting gold, the choice of family heirlooms available, retainers, etc.

So you can see how this would play out. The player whose character dies retains some benefit for his new character because his old one beefed up the family. You encourage behaviors like family ownership of heirlooms (not, “we loot everything on his body and sell it”) and funeral ceremonies. There is some automatic development of the world by the players and on their behalf. Stronghold and business development is encouraged. There are interactions between families, both NPC and PC families.
Maybe they retire a developed PC to avoid losing family points if he dies, and begin playing a different PC, trotting out the high level one for special adventures.

This doesn’t mean the PCs start out as nobles. They can be, depending on how the referee wants to run the game. But it’s fun too if everyone starts out as nobodies and they work their families upward. It also prevents the “I start as a prince and drain the family coffers and armories so I can adventure properly!” which some players try to pull. The answer is yes, you get some cool things if your family has them, but you get what the family is willing to offer. Does the Godfather let a low-level flunkie joyride around Cuba in a gold-plated sports car? Nope!

Anyway, this is just a little thing that encourages certain behaviors. If you don’t care about those behaviors, you might not see a benefit to all this family stuff.

Simple Equipment

November 24, 2011

Per comments on my previous post, I remembered some things I was working on a while back.

What do you need in terms of equipment? If each piece of equipment is a key that fits in the lock of an obstacle, we can tabulate a list of obstacles and create a necessary equipment list based on that. Anything outside that list is ad hoc equipment.

My list might go something like this:

Obstacle — Equipment
Hunger and Thirst — Rations and Wineskin
Darkness — Torches OR Lantern and Oil, PLUS Tinderbox
Climbing — Rope, Grappling Hook, Pitons, Hammer-Pick
Cold Weather — Furs, Crampons, Ice Axe, Snow Goggles
Hot Weather — Desert Clothes, Parasol, Sun Sheet
Shelter — Tent, Rain-Tarp, Tent Stakes
Camping — Fire Grate, Skillet, Pot, Ladle, Hatchet, Shovel
Monster Hunting — Garlic, Holy Water, Holy Symbol, Wooden Stakes and Mallet, Wolvesbane
Locks and Traps — Lockpicks, Crowbar, Oil Can, Eartrumpet
Ammunition — Quiver and 40 Arrows OR Quiver and 40 Quarrels OR Pouch with 40 Bullets
Spell Components — Owl Feathers and Mouse Testicles or whatever

This way, on your character sheet you would have the equipment kits you needed. Each character might have Rations plus two or three others.

Then you have armor, melee weapon, missile weapon. Done! A Ranger might be decked out as follows:

Studded Leather Armor
Arrows x2
Lantern and Oil
Arctic Gear

EDIT 11/28
Looks like Chimera Basic does the same thing, although with too many fiddly rules. I think the Savage Worlds “supplies” scheme works the same way and in afterthought I probably just picked up the idea there.

Magic Changes Resource Management: 1E AD&D

November 22, 2011

First, I assume Gygax included various spells in 1E AD&D because after playtesting he liked the effect they had on the game. There are a few spells that really change the way players experience the game.

At first level, you need to carry enough food and water to survive. You need to carry torches or lanterns and oil for light. To travel overland you need horses, and even then it will be a long slog filled with treasure-poor wilderness encounters.

At third level, the party Cleric gets Continual Light. Everyone in the party should be equipped with a couple coins and several iron spikes lit with the spell. Now nobody needs to keep torches for light: torches, lanterns, and oil are kept to set fires for other reasons which are less-important.

At fifth level, the party Cleric gets Create Food and Water. Now you don’t need to carry more provisions than a couple days’ worth in case the Cleric goes down. You can also travel through uncharted wilderness without worrying about supplies running out, or hunting / foraging.

Both of these give you more space on your PC for treasure or armor / weapons. At about the same level PCs should all have at least +1 armor, which improves movement and doesn’t weigh anything. Again, you can now carry more treasure.

At seventh level, the party Magic-User might get Dimension Door. This allows bypassing dungeon levels you don’t want to deal with, so long as you’re familiar with the destination. So you can enter the dungeon, Dimension Door down a level or two, and get straight to business. If he has a second DD he can get everyone out instantly too.

He might also get Leomund’s Secure Shelter at seventh, which creates a safe shelter while adventuring and reduces the need to travel back home.

At ninth level, the party Magic-User might get Teleport. This allows immediate travel to anywhere, with low chances of catastrophic failure if you’re familiar with the destination. This means you can travel across a desert on foot, and once you get there you can Teleport back and forth with ease. But because of the small chance of death I don’t know how regular such travel would be. Certainly nobody would Teleport across town on a whim. Once you have Teleport, overland adventure becomes less frequent: the Magic-User gradually becomes familiar with destinations farther and farther from the home base, and generally the party can go from town to dungeon instantly. The Magic-User can even zap everyone down to a lower dungeon level.

All of these spells increase the treasure capacity (which reduces trips home) and adventuring range of the party. They typically also reduce reliance on NPCs in town (especially high level Cleric spells).

Several magic items also help. Flying Carpets allow fast overland travel with fewer encounters. Bags of Holding and Portable Holes allow carrying huge amounts of treasure.

All of this means the attention of the players gradually shifts away from counting food and water and illuminations, simplifying the Normal Equipment part of the character sheet just as the Magic Items inventory becomes more complex. The same applies to climbing equipment (rope, iron spikes, grappling hooks) eventually as people acquire flight magic. Often the magical replacement for normal equipment just does the job better and weighs nothing (Rope of Climbing, Figurine of Wondrous Power).

If we take the opening proposition as true, then the game designers intended this sort of thing to happen. Which means low-level play was intended to be more focused on nonmagical equipment to solve problems, and high level play focused on magical equipment to solve problems.

Looked at in that way, each piece of equipment exists to solve problems on the adventure. Likewise, each piece of magical equipment and spell exists to solve problems. A Ring of Feather Falling can be seen as an item that eliminates falling damage. Or you could look at it as a counter to Pit Traps. Both the Read Languages skill for Thieves and the Comprehend Languages spell for Magic-Users exist to decode treasure maps, and to a lesser extent understand foreign writing. The Helm of Comprehending Languages and Reading Magic does the same thing for other classes. Note that the Thief gets the skill for free, the Magic-User must find the spell and memorize it, and everyone else needs an expensive magic item on their head.

This goes back to my post on underwater adventure as well.

If you write an adventure for low-level characters, create problems they need nonmagical equipment to solve. High level adventures need problems requiring magical equipment. You might also come across the hilarious situation where none of the high level PCs has a piece of common equipment because they gradually ditch that stuff as they acquire sweet sparkly toys.

This is why high-level adventurers aren’t depicted with lots of equipment: they have skills or magic items that let them bypass the simple environmental problems that plague low-level characters.

It also means the DM can throw intense environmental problems at the party, such as howling storms on fracturing glaciers where without magic it’s impossible to see, climb, eat, drink, and stay warm. A low-level mystery adventure might involve tracking down physical clues and questioning unreliable witnesses, whereas a high-level mystery adventure requires use of ESP, Detect Lies, and True Seeing to get anywhere at all because simple clues and testimony are absent.

Mapping: From the DM’s Brain to Yours

November 21, 2011

The DM has a map with secret information on it: secret doors, locations of treasure, monsters’ guard-posts and lairs and favorite ambush-sites, on-map text notes, and escape routes. It isn’t very fun to just hand the players this map. Somehow the DM needs to describe the area so the players understand it.

Players also want to keep a record of the area so they can get out easily and so they know which areas have been explored. But the terms you use to describe the area to the mapper are different from the terms easiest for other players to visualize as a physical space.

Here’s how I do it these days:

I have a wet-erase mat with squares printed on. I use wet-erase markers to draw the map of the dungeon level as the players explore it. The party mapper can copy it if he likes. We have already had game sessions where the map was never written down so the players were left guessing.

The party has a marching order established on the wet-erase mat to the side, and the whole group is represented on the area map using the lead PC figure. The PCs are actually strung out behind the lead sometimes as much as three more squares.

If we get to a situation where placement of figures matters, usually a fight, I bring out 2″ x 2″ Hirst Arts dungeon floor tiles. They’re made from four 1″ squares of flagstone floor tile, glued to cardstock, painted, and sealed. These are arranged on the table to show the local area within about 60′ at a scale of 5′ per inch, upon which we place everyone’s figures according to marching order. Once the fight ends, we sweep the tiles away and go back to the leader’s figure on the wet-erase mat at 1 inch = 10′.

The earlier method was for me to describe the room to the whole group, which got them to thinking about how they would tackle it. Then I would describe it to the mapper again because he needed more information about exactly where things were. I tried to make them realize they didn’t exactly need that much detail, all you need is a line-drawing with squares for rooms, but oh well. This way is faster because you don’t need to go back and forth to fix mistakes the party mapper is making, and the players have a better idea of the area they’re adventuring in. Alternately, it does destroy some of the sense of helplessness and being lost when only the mapper really knows what’s going on. I don’t know which is more valuable, or to what extent each is lost with the two mapping methods.

Class/Alignment/Stats Quiz

November 18, 2011

Decided to take the quiz that’s been going around like a wet cough these days.

True Neutral Human Bard/Wizard (2nd/1st Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength- 15
Dexterity- 16
Constitution- 15
Intelligence- 14
Wisdom- 14
Charisma- 15

I think it’s pretty close on the class, and I guess the alignment. It’s one of those instances where real people are difficult to describe using 9 alignment options. The stats seem inflated. I’d suggest dropping all of them by 1 or 2 each at least.

As the stats go, if you check the results graphs, here are the averages:

STR 13
DEX 14
CON 13.5
INT 15
WIS 14.5
CHA 14

I think either everyone rolled 4d6-drop-lowest at birth, or tabletop gaming is a crucible from which emerge powerful, clean-limbed, Howardesque Men and Women, or the test is a bit skewed. Gotta love how everyone’s 4-6 points above average 😉

Read Languages / Decipher Script : Lankhmar

November 18, 2011

Reading Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, the story “The Seven Black Priests”, I come upon a familar scene:

“The runes of tropic Klesh!” the Northerner muttered. “What should such heiroglyphics be doing so far from their jungle?” … Together they pored over the deep-chopped letters, bringing to bear knowledge gained from the perusing of ancient treasure-maps and the deciphering of code-messages carried by intercepted spies.

Here is a fine example of the use of the Thief’s Read Languages ability (or a Rogue’s Decipher Script skill).

(If Wikipedia can be believed) Leiber’s book Swords Against Death was published in 1970, but the story “The Seven Black Priests” was published in 1953. The Lankhmar board game was written in 1937 and published by TSR in 1976, and the Greyhawk Supplement in 1975. Clearly Leiber’s work predated Gygax’s and so it’s possible that Gygax was inspired by Leiber, but not the other way around.

On a side note: it seems like Fafhrd is a Fighter/Thief with the Sailor secondary skill, and the Grey Mouser is a (Lankhmar-style) Magic-User dual-classed into Thief before hitting a significant level. For all the magic he uses after his intro story, you could just call him a Thief.

I think this is a result of D&D being written to try to let people play certain fictional characters rather than some special quality of D&D that allows it to depict existing characters.

Red Day at Redberry

November 9, 2011

From here.

Redberry is the river-port for upland cranberry and rice farmers. These farmers must give 50% of the produce of their land to their liege, but nothing is said about the produce of the river. That’s taken care of by ancient laws giving the liege the right to tax passage on waterways and ancient monopolies on fishing. But the clever farmers realized there was no tax on crops grown on the water itself. So every year they build wooden frames filled with moss and dirt and plant cranberries and rice and let them drift in the river alongside their huts. When the raft slowly disintegrates over the year, the roots of the plants hold the raft together. When the crop is ready, the raft is cut loose and the eldest child floats it downriver to Redberry.

Redberry is so named because of the profitable cranberries, and the day of the first cranberry raft drifting downriver is celebrated with a big festival called Red Day. There’s also a Green Day for rice but town people don’t get so excited about it.

Red Day is also a day for trying new things. People trade old clothes for new (or different old clothes). Youths quit their jobs and start new ones. There are repaintings, and even tearing-down of old structures to build new ones. It’s an auspicious day to begin or end anything. Since almost all divorces and marriages happen on Red Day, the week or two before is very stressful.

Because of this between-time festival, it’s also a lure for otherworldly fairy creatures and dwellers of the shadow-realms. Folk stay indoors at sunrise or sunset, moonrise or moonset, and otherwise band together in celebratory groups. Mirrors remain covered and people refrain from leaning out windows or loitering in doorways or against fences. Beaches are desolate. Today, of all days, it’s unlucky to leave work unfinished or to cut conversations short.

Things Bloggers Don’t Post About Until Lately (Lately They Have Been)

November 8, 2011

I’ll bite.

Book binding: RPG rulebooks are used as reference materials frequently. They’re left propped open. Things spill on them. They should all be 3-ring-bound with laminated pages for all the damage we gamers do.

“Doing a voice”: I like to do voices. I don’t do them very well. I especially like to do voices for animals and plants and rocks and stuff that people talk to with Speak With X spells. It helps a lot if I imagine myself looking like the speaker, and assuming a posture.

Breaks. How often do you have breaks within sessions?: We don’t really. If you need to get up and pee you just go do it, or nuke some food, or whatever. We play for 5 hours once a week. Now that I think about it I guess we have marvelous constitutions (in one sense).

Description. I like to get descriptive, but I don’t go into precise detail unless someone asks about something specific. I want to give enough so everyone can envision, but if you give too much they get lost. In King’s “The Gunslinger” the titular character was described at one point as “the kind of man who straightens crooked picture frames in hotel rooms” which I think is just peachy.

Where do you strike the balance between “doing what your character would do” and “acting like a dickhead”?: Your PC has an alignment. If you violate your alignment enough you shift over to a different one and lose a level (as in 1E D&D DMG). You might lose access to class abilities or intelligent and aligned magic items because of your new alignment. Henchmen may desert. Your diety might not grant your 3rd level and higher Cleric spells.
But any alignment offers a justification for doing something lame. If the PC victimizes NPCs, he will eventually experience some backlash (for example, mugging folk in town naturally results in manhunts and magical investigation and bounties). If the PC victimizes PCs, the other players will get upset (see question below).
Example: Lawful Neutral PC finds out the other PCs are forging documents. He turns them in to the authorities. The other PCs go to jail (shenanigans ensue). The snitch is not likely to rejoin the group, so he gets his reward and then skedaddles. Player of the snitch needs to roll up a new character, probably with fewer magic items, wealth, and levels because it’s a new character instead of one developed through play. The player of the snitch needs to think about this: is it really worth losing your character over this bit of roleplaying? As a DM, I would not have the other players roll up new characters and have them form a group around the snitch, as that would effectively be an incentive for the snitch. The game focuses on the main group, not an individual attached by a filament. In the above case, I would focus on the escape or trial or offer of pardon for the imprisoned PCs.

PC-on-PC violence. Players tend to avoid it. I think they realize they’re special in that they are the only ones in the whole wide world who they can count on, that is, an NPC may have some nefarious motivation, and can steal or lie or whatever, but the player-scoundrel will end up losing his character (either because the other PCs kill him or drive him off or else he flees with the loot) and the game will continue to focus on the rest of the PCs. I have played in groups where players had little self-control or cooperation. We had one where a player insisted on leaping into any treasure and filling his pockets, party treasure agreements be damned. My cleric and another kept a full complement of Hold Person spells so when the group walked into a room with treasure we could Paralyze the punk and everyone could divide treasure fairly (including him, of course).

How do you explain what a role playing game is to a stranger who is also a non-player?:On one hand it’s like a board game where you roll dice and move your piece around. Imagine you have a board game where your piece is an action-adventure hero, like Indiana Jones. You can have your piece use his whip to swing across a hole in the floor, or shoot a dude, or solve some puzzle. D&D is a lot like that, except all the players get to play a hero like Indiana Jones. Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “wow, he’s doing something stupid, DON’T GO BEHIND THAT DOOR”? In D&D, because you choose what your guy does, you can decide for him.

Alchohol at the table?: Sometimes someone has a beer or a cup or two of sake. Nothing big. Tipsy-goofy is too much.

What’s acceptable to do to a PC whose player is absent from the session? Is whatever happens their fault for not being there, or are there some limits?: Absent players are just “not there”. I think not getting to play is enough of a downside for not attending. You don’t need the risk that the PC could die with some other player or the DM at the wheel.

Backstab, Assassination, Surprise, Stealth

November 7, 2011

This is in response to Lands of Ara, again, too long to comment there.

Just last night our Assassin PC got to use his mojo. I read the rules again and things finally started clicking regarding Move Silently / Hide in Shadows / Invisibility and a victim’s vulnerability to Backstab / Assassination.

Under the Assassin class, it says you can Backstab as a Thief can, or you can choose to Assassinate in surprise situations.

Under the Thief class, it describes Backstab as simply an attack “from behind” which seems problematic.

In a game with high Movement and no area-control like 3E’s Attacks of Opportunity, what prevents the Thief from just circling behind his opponent and Backstabbing every time? In my game I always figured everyone could turn around even when it’s not their turn. This means you would need four attackers on one defender for one of those attackers to get a back attack. Alternately, the Thief could attack from the shadows or Invisibly and attack the opponent’s rear. This was how we did it in the past: you need to susprise your opponent from some concealment like Invisibility.

Our Monk PC stunned a bandit sergeant by punching him REALLY WELL and I ruled that the bandit was vulnerable to backstab / assassination because he was at +4 to be hit from the stun effect. The only place worse for him to be would be paralyzed/sleeping/helpless and that would allow an automatic slay. So the Monk facepunched the dude and he reeled backward onto the Assassin’s two-handed sword.

Similarly, the Assassin snuck up behind some dudes and Backstabbed two. How? He knew they were there, they didn’t know he was there because he was stealthy, and so when he leapt out they had to roll surprise (2 in 6 normally, but here it was 4 in 6 because of his stealth) and they rolled a 4. That gave him 4 segments to beat their bongoes while they were surprised.

It makes sense, and gives the Thief and Assassin more opportunity to use their special abilities.

So you need to surprise your opponent to get Backstab or Assassination. How do you surprise? By leaping up normally, in which case the opponent might be surprised 1 or 2 segments. Or by stealth, which means he’s surprised 1 to 4 segments (4 in 6 roll). What qualifies as stealth? That the opponent can’t sense you.

Some ways you can achieve this:
A: Elf or Halfling in non-metal armor, 90′ from anyone non-stealthy (guaranteed unless you have to open a door, then only normal 2 in 6 surprise)
B: Successful Move Silently from a direction the opponent is not looking (because you can’t Hide in Shadows on the move).
C: Successful Move Silently while using Invisibility.
D: Boots & Cloak of Elvenkind, or similar (remember, the boots prevent sound of footfall, so you can’t wear armor other than leather)

So you see, it’s not about whether you attacked from concealment! Even if you attack with stealth you might not get a Backstab attempt! Note just how powerful the Elf / Halfling ability is. It amounts to 100% chance for Move Silently and Hide in Shadows. If the players can organize a whole party of strictly Elves and Halflings, in light or no armor, it could be super effective!

Also remember, lest you get too excited about how powerful stealth is, that you can lose a chance at surprise various ways. You might have someone too noisy in your party (anything heavier than Chainmail). A fight might have happened too near the enemy for them to be caught off-guard. A failed door-bashing attempt means anyone inside the room can’t be surprised. Some monsters are less likely to be surprised, or immune. Others have special senses that tell them the PCs are coming (vibrations in the ground, life-detection). A monster might be hidden and on watch and the PCs wander by, not engaging the monster until a whole round passes and any potential Surprise on his part would be a moot point.

Finally, Assassination and Backstab aren’t Weapons Without Answer. They won’t pierce Stoneskin, or a Magic Weapon Required monster (unless you have enough magic on your weapon). Against a Fire Shield type defense, I’d say an Assassination effectively caused the creature’s remaining HP plus 10 (to bring it to -10 HP). High AC is a good defense, as are Mirror Images and other such distractions. In the case of the bandits, it was unclear at first who the leader-types were, which might make an Assassination pointless since it slays a random goober instead of someone important. Assassination is a percentage based on the victim’s Level/HD and the Assassin’s Level. The chart makes it quite hard to slay anyone higher than you and not much easier than 50% for people lower than you.

Side note: the Assassin and the Monk teamed up Lankhmar style and went looking for a law-breaker to beat up in the slums before the rest of the players arrived. I was tickled.

Rob this tomb

November 1, 2011

You guys are all friends and you’ve been adventurers for a while. You’re in this tavern and there’s an old dude eyeing you from across the room. He shuffles over and gives you a cryptic riddle!

I think that can get old if you do it too many times. Like, twice.

I also noticed that NPCs are often used by a DM to provide information that helps the players know where to go next on the adventure. It’s like the NPC wants you to get going on the adventure. Would it feel different if everyone told you to stay away?

Say, instead of the old man telling you about rumors of treasure in the house on the old hill, he’s telling you about the foul murders that happened up there years ago and how it’s completely haunted and people disappear up there regularly.

Or maybe, instead of someone offering to sell you a treasure map, you got it while doing a little pickpocketing. Or some guys get into a fight and one runs off with the map, and if you want what he has you have to chase him down and take it?

At some point, players will have a map of the area with all these dangerous spots marked out. They can take the initiative to ask around about them or research in old records in town or maybe sneak out there and look around. They need to figure out, of these dangerous spots, where is there likely to be some treasure?

On the other hand, maybe they get put off by all the talk. But what adventurer worth his salt would say “nah, I don’t want to check out the Robber Woods of Tartary, all I keep hearing about is all the robbers” and instead sit around waiting for someone to tell him where to adventure?

As an adventurer, I would think, if everyone avoids this place, maybe there is stuff there nobody has picked clean. If there’s a reputably safe dungeon, there won’t be anything good lying around.

So? Should the dude in town say “rob this tomb” and hand you a map, or should he say “get the heck away from here before the terrors in that tomb belch forth and devour us all”?