Archive for May, 2012

Magical Healing Alternatives

May 21, 2012

The purpose of this post is to offer an alternative healing scheme for one type of gaming style: where resource management is a part of the game and players shouldn’t blow everything they have on the first round of every combat. It’s intended to remove reliance on a healer class without removing that class. I’m sure there are lots of other alternatives I didn’t think of!

Alt 1: Healing = Mutation
Any magical healing you receive is a % chance of mutation, checked immediately after getting the HP back (use the whole healing amount, not just the HP you recovered). If you fail the mutation roll, you lose 1 HP permanently from your maximum because the wound didn’t heal right (bones in the wrong places, organs mangled and not fixed correctly, scar tissue everywhere, tendons shifted over, etc). Attempts to fix these problems with magic only make things worse, and nonmagical medicine is just terrible and has zero chance of success.
Consequences: People spend a lot of time resting up and don’t want healing except in true emergency. Maybe this just exacerbates the 15-minute adventuring day since they run away and sleep for a week between fights. 15-minute adventuring month?
Who does this: Nobody?

Alt 2: You Can Be Healed Only Once Daily
Any person can receive magical healing only once per day. Further magical healing has no effect.
Consequences: Doesn’t affect the 15-min adventuring day and might exacerbate it as above.
Who does this: Nobody?

Alt 3: You Recover Fast Nonmagically
Hit Points represent luck and skill, and you get them back after a 2 turn rest or something. This makes each combat a separate challenge and you must manage resources within a fight, but after the fight you get your resources back.
Consequences: Removes expedition-level resource management, encourages LONG dungeon stays across multiple sessions.
Who does this: Some D&D bloggers I’ve heard talking about it.

Alt 4: Healing Surge / Liquid Courage
Some number of times per day, everyone can heal himself for a lot of damage.
Consequences: Doesn’t make sense (you can’t shit GP using an Income Surge just because you REALLY WANT money), doesn’t affect 15-min adventuring day because players will just burn through surges like any resource.
Who does this: 4E, some CRPGs

Alt 5: You Can Buy Healing Potions
You can always buy healing potions but you’re spending money to heal yourself.
Consequences: Money becomes exchangeable for time (if you rested). Unless there are big penalties for resting for long periods (wandering monsters, lack of food / water / fuel, etc) some parties might prefer to do the 15-min adv day rather than use their potions between fights.
Who does this: Diablo, most CRPGs and JRPGs, some D&D bloggers talk about it, some adventures with pregen PCs.

Alt 6: Checkpoint Healing
At specific times you heal up automatically. Maybe at level up, or going down a dungeon level, or between “scenes”. This is a little like Alt 3 but the player has much less control over when it happens (you have to fulfill some condition, not just “we rest for 2 turns”). Maybe the party hse a big skull lantern and when they kill 10 HD worth of monsters it heals the PCs for 1d6 HP or something.
Consequences: Might encourage exploration / “pushing”, whether physically in a dungeon or situationally in getting to the next scene / objective. Feels pretty artificial.
Who does this: Several CRPGs. I’ve heard the inverse done in some D&D games for leveling up: you have to rest and heal first.

I think the question to ask is “why are you getting injured all the time?” Why do you blow all your spells immediately? Why are you spending all your resources frivolously? The 15-minute adventuring day is a symptom of poor playing, poor DMing, or both. The game isn’t structured for players to Alpha-Strike every round (no, not even 4E is like that). If the players want to play like that, I’m sure there are plenty of game systems where you get all your resources back every combat round. If that’s the game you want, the above healing alternates address a problem you would rather just ignore.

Healing essentially performs two tasks: it’s a resource to manage to extend the expedition, and it draws out fights. The more healing is available, the less you need to rest and recover resources. If the healing is usable in a fight, it will draw the fights out really long. If the healing is not usable in a fight, it won’t affect individual fights but it will affect the length of the expedition.

Remember that what’s good for the PCs is good for the monsters!

I would like to see short fights, expeditions lasting about one game session each, and recovery of resources between expeditions. If I knew how to achieve that flawlessly I’d be doing it :/

D&D as Text Adventure Game

May 17, 2012

I thought of this earlier but Brendan’s comment to my Identify post brought it back to mind. If you run D&D as a descriptive game rather than dice-roll-heavy, it might help to take inspiration from text adventure games (many of which themselves are modeled after D&D, so beware idea stagnation).

For those not in the know, text adventure games look like this. Simply, you are a person in a place. You have an inventory. Your current location is a place with exits, and you can go somewhere by giving a command like “go north”. When you enter a place, or you “look”, the game gives you a description of your place and lists any loose objects in it.

You can do actions to anything in your area or inventory. For example, in the game I linked, you can “open mailbox” because the mailbox is listed as an item nearby when you “look”. You can also “look at the house” to examine the house more carefully. Note that the house isn’t an item exactly, it’s scenery, but you can still do things with it. The player is the D&D player, and the computer is the DM.

Here’s where our descriptive D&D comes into play. I could say “I want to open the door” and the DM will say “the door is boarded up, you can’t open it”. I might think there’s something under the welcome mat, but the game doesn’t recognize the verb for “flip over the mat” so the next best thing is to “look under the mat” or “take mat”. You can see how having a living DM can really help! One big problem with text adventure games is figuring out the right words to use so it understands.

Anyway, there is a natural back-and-forth in information. The player looks at the house, so the DM explains it’s a white colonial house that’s all boarded up. Really the DM should have said that in the first place, but oh well. The point is that the player doesn’t get anything for free: if he wants to explore the building, it’s not enough to just say “I go in and explore the place”. He has to figure out how to get in, and then explore by going from one room to the next poking and prodding.

In some text games, if you revisit a place, it will just give you a basic description of the room, possibly just the room’s name. A DM can do this too, bringing up the verbose description if someone says they’re looking around in general or if it’s been a while since anyone’s been there.

If you get into the house, you’re probably in the kitchen. Here the game gets downright pedantic, and you can’t “look in the sack” until you first “open the sack”. That’s just petty. I take everything and ask about “exits”. The game gives me a list, and I go somewhere. By the way, mapping is worthwhile but some text adventure games are a little loose with distances and a big piece of white paper can be more helpful than a grid.

If you go west into the front room of the house there’s a big sword and a lamp, and a rug. If you don’t think to move the rug, there’s no way to notice the trapdoor hidden underneath. How is the player supposed to know to move the rug? Because there are only so many interesting things to poke at, and after you develop player skill you start to notice which ones look suspicious right away. I tried looking behind the trophy case, but it didn’t understand what I wanted to do.

There are plenty of ways in which we can improve the text adventure experience in tabletop D&D. For one, we can dispense with silly intermediary steps like having to open the bag before looking in it. We can use complex verbs like “I’ll swap the chainmail with my leather and just leave the leather on the floor” which a text interpreter might have trouble with. We can skip over things like making your way through the forest (unless something interesting is going on).

But the basis is the same for both games: here is a world, there is your character, DM describes the world and you describe what you want your character to try to do.

To create rich descriptions you’ll need to spend lots of time on it beforehand and write up tables of stuff you can pick from on the fly. Like a list of secret door triggers, various trap types with triggers, where hidden treasure might be located.

Katamari Villainy

May 16, 2012

I’m sure you’ve played Katamari Damacy, a game about a sticky ball your little Prince rolls around and as things adhere to the ball it gets bigger. A bigger ball can pick up bigger things. Then the timer runs out and the King of All Cosmos hurls the Katamari ball into the sky as a star.

You’ll notice that a Katamari interacts with things in one of six ways.

1: The Katamari is big enough to pick the thing up.
2: Not quite big enough to pick it up, but when you run into it the item rocks (you only need to be a little bigger).
3: The thing is too big to bump, but short enough for you to “climb” up it – using it as a step.
4: The thing is way too big, and it’s solid, so it acts like a wall or floor to you.

5: The thing is mobile and bigger than you, and aware, and runs after you to bump you.
6: The thing is mobile and small enough to pick up, and aware, and freaks out running away.

The second thing you’ll notice is that as you get bigger, your perception changes. At first the flower planters act like walls you can’t even scale, but eventually you’re rolling over them and picking them up. A cat might chase you when you’re small but flee when you’re bigger. Eventually you’re picking up what you previously considered terrain like buildings and whole islands! By the time you can pick up people you stop seeing erasers and coins on the ground.

Here’s where I draw the connection between Katamari and a D&D campaign. At low level you’re like a small Katamari: you notice things nearby, you’re looking for small things to deal with, and really big stuff just passes you by way above. At middle level you can take on bigger challenges. At Name level you burst upon the political scene and stop noticing smaller challenges. Eventually the detail of which Orc tribes are doing what vanishes because you’re interacting on a larger scale.

Take a Thief. He might pickpocket at a low level. The buildings are scenery really. At middle levels he might do some highway robbery or burglary, interacting with buildings that were too well-guarded for him to handle at 1st level. By Name level he views the town less as a place with people he can victimize and more as the place where his own resources are kept (legit businesses, protection rackets, fencing).

You’ll also notice that in the Katamari video I linked, the player travels around on an island until he gets big enough to go to another island, which seems populated only by tree-sized and larger things. A mystery: if you went there when you were small, would it have been populated by small things too? Or does the game assume you won’t go there early and not bother putting small things in? I assume the latter.

This means just because you put a lot of detail into a starting game setting, you don’t need to put the same level of detail into a game setting the players travel to. You need the level of detail they’re probably going to experience at their level.

It would probably be good to flesh out some things at every detail level. High level details can sometimes lead to interesting low level reprecussions. And these things should be visible, like a human walking by in Katamari, even if you’re not big enough to interact with them.

As it pertains to villains, the DM doesn’t need to lay out an adventure or game setting for a town the villain burns down, if the villain does it when the PCs are such low level they wouldn’t interact with the attack. It can be summed up with a simple rumor from concerned travelers or refugees. The PCs might fight the low-level minions of a villain because they’re focused on the same things; low level minions do low level stuff like low level PCs do. The PCs don’t need to clear out all the low level minions to start dealing with the mid-level ones. By the time they want to interact with those mid-level minions and have the capability to do it, the low-level adventure stuff will be left behind even if unfinished. The villain might not even notice the PCs until they’re already a threat.

I offer this as an alternate to the cliche villain patterns of “minions get tougher as you get closer to my evil lair” and “I will throw weak minions at you because I don’t think you’re worth the trouble, and then slowly ramp up the difficulty to equal your abilities” as very often neither makes sense.

Down With Identify!

May 14, 2012

In Rogue and similar games (Roguelikes) your character would have to use items to identify them. There might have also been identify scrolls or pools or whatever, but the gist of it is that once you encounter and figure out that this is a Potion of Healing, any other Potion of Healing you come across is already ID’d for you. When your character inevitably dies, your next play-through loses all your previous knowledge (though as a player you might know things).

Here’s how it could work in D&D:

Player A: Okay, I pull Black Dougal’s body off the chest and look inside.
DM: You see some loose iron spikes, a big heavy helmet, and several loose bottles of liquid.
Player A: Gah, glad we didn’t try to carry the chest out or smash it! I carefully pull out each thing and set them on the floor. Checking the helmet for decorations, what’s it made of?
DM: Thick bronze, no visor, red-dyed horsehair plume, old cloth padding inside. Like a Greek helmet.
Player A: Cool. What about the potions? Any labels?
DM: The labels are faded and peeling. In the bottles the liquid is: oily metallic red, luminous blue, and two syrupy clear with black flecks.
Player B: (Referring to handwritten notes) Looks like the luminous blue one is probably a Potion of Speed. We found a clear with gold flecks, which was Extra-Healing, so maybe the black flecks mean just plain Healing?
DM: *Shrugs and smiles*

Detect Magic would work normally, giving the presence of magic and (for M-Us) the type of magic. That clue is suddenly more valuable without an actual ID spell.

This would require good descriptions for all the magic items, including command words etc. It’s in the vein of description-based environmental interaction for things like secret doors, traps, monsters, oozing pools, green devil faces, etc.

(“Descriptive monster interactions? Huh? We roll dice for that!” you say. But what about the ecology of the monster which determines how it reacts to the PCs? What about Carrion Crawlers and Bulettes and Beholders with their variable AC by location? Players need to describe where they’re hitting or else you assume they’re just walking up and smacking it.)

I like this because once you get the ball rolling with descriptive traps and secret doors, special monsters just invent themselves and weird dungeon things pop into mind. Players become more immersed and feel like they’re gaining player skill instead of just system mastery. In general I think it’s worth the tradeoff of extra time spent at the table for description vs. dice roll because the description is enjoyable.

And when it’s not enjoyable, feel free to skip it! “When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.” is a quote from The Mule Abides on this issue. BUT I wonder just how many circumstances will be onerous not-fun but also complex. For example, the player dealing with the caltrops can just say “I brush them to the side with my shield” and the DM goes “alright two turns later, staircase cleared, what now?” It would take longer to pick up your dice, roll, interpret, add modifiers, say the result, DM compares to success chance, DM declares success or failure. In cases where it’s complex and there’s no easy answer, such as some puzzle, figuring out the puzzle is part of the game! If you don’t want to do it, there are lots of other things for your character to do. That’s part of why a puzzle or riddle shouldn’t be a roadblock in an adventure, but a side thing.

So what kinds of experimentation could a player do to figure out what a magic item does? Potions can be sipped, which is dangerous. Magic rings and other articles can be tried on. If you put on the ring and you vanish from sight, we can be pretty sure it’s a Ring of Invisibility. Maybe a magic item has a command word, like wands and such. You can try all kinds of magic words, but you probably won’t guess. The command word might be inscribed on the item or found somewhere in the dungeon. Adventurers’ journals found in a dungeon can be a great source of info on the magic items those adventurers owned but are up for grabs by the PCs. Intelligent swords will try to communicate when picked up.

Again, loads of description is needed. Imagine a Fighter putting on a magic belt, and suddenly he feels light on his feet as if his equiment doesn’t weigh a thing! The player might be excited to think he has a Girdle of Giant Strength, but maybe it’s a Girdle of Levitation instead. Experimentation can easily reveal this: the player needs to try snapping some tree branches or something to see if his arm strength is greater. Maybe concentrate on floating to see if it’s levitation. Pick up lots of stuff to see if it’s just encumbrance-reducing magic instead of general strength-enhancing.

Why not just make it a WIS check and bypass all the roleplaying? I’d ask similarly why not just hand the DM a list of procedures that your PC “always does” when entering a room? Because you enjoy the roleplaying part, the immersion.

If you don’t want to deal with all this hassle and fuss, and you want the convenience of the ID spell, I suggest just getting rid of the spell anyway and telling players what their stuff is as long as they have an M-U in the party. No M-U means no identifying. Having a Thief means you don’t have to deal with traps and locks, and having a Dwarf or Elf means you notice the secret doors. Much easier and more streamlined.

Here’s Your Spellbook, Apprentice

May 12, 2012

The way we always played D&D M-Us was something like this:

The M-U has “a spellbook” or at high level “some spellbooks”. He carries them around all the time. He starts with a couple spells and if he finds more he can write them into his books. There’s no reason why you can’t have all the spells (we ignored chance to learn spells).

In Game XYZ I wrote rules that were effectively the above, except you could fit any ten spells in a spellbook and that spellbook had a weight. Suddenly you couldn’t just carry all your spells with you, or else you kept a couple “traveling spell books” which had your most commonly used spells in them, but that’s all up to the individual caster. If you had some magically compact spellbook or a Bag of Holding you could just carry all your spells, no problem. Finding spells was still like finding treasure. No chance to learn spell.

What if there were a basic set of spells that every M-U has access to? They’re so commonly passed around that everyone who reaches the right level can get ahold of a copy. Then finding new spells that aren’t on the common list is really hard. This way, you can have a chance to learn spells for the non-common ones and they can be pretty rare, and the M-U who gains the next spell level isn’t stuck with nothing since he has the common ones.

In this scheme, you might have a guaranteed spell list that looks like this:

L1: Read Magic, Detect Magic, Light, Armor, Shield, Magic Missile
L2: Knock, Levitate, Invisibility, Pyrotechnics, Stinking Cloud, Wizard Lock

Your other spells from the standard list are now rare, plus anything the DM makes up or finds in other supplements.

Because they’re so rare, the M-Us who have them enjoy special powers and prestige that others don’t. If you see someone throw Web you know he’s got something special, which you might never find except through him.

It requires that M-Us are jealous and guarded about their spells, and finally the description in the DMG 1E of buying spells from an NPC makes sense. If the NPC is neutral to you, he requires two of your spells and some minor magic item of yours just to trade for one of his spells. If he likes you, he will still require some favorable trade, perhaps just one of your spells and a minor magic item like a potion. If he doesn’t like you, he just refuses or demands a huge payment including a great magic item or several regular ones.

So how to discourage PCs from trading spells? The players trust each other so they’re willing to just say “yeah here make a copy of my spellbook, I’ll be back tomorrow” which is just crazy if you think about it. He’d never do that for an NPC. Which is why I’m comfortable making the double standard above with NPCs charging a lot for spells. But unless there’s some extreme cost involved in giving up a spell from your spellbook, there’s no reason why PCs wouldn’t all trade spells freely. Maybe if a PC is known to be the kind of M-U who trades spells onward, nobody will ever sell spells to him again.

For example, if Nutbag the Hizzlemancer trades the Simulacrum spell to Zippy the PC M-U, Nutbag expects that Zippy will keep it to himself. If Nutbag wanted every M-U on the block to have Simulacrum he would sell it to them himself! So when Sacre Bleu the Merdemancer starts showing off his new Simulacrums at the Tri-County Wizard Faire, and Sacre Bleu is a known associate of Zippy, Nutbag will become suspicious. When Zippy and Sacre Bleu inevitably sell Simulacrum to several of Nutbag’s rivals who have been pestering him for Simulacrum for years, Nutbag will be furious. Zippy and Sacre Bleu immediately gain a reputation as gadflies who have no Wizardly decorum, bereft of confidentiality, and no M-U will trust them. Enjoy that Simulacrum, chums, because you just shot yourself in the foot.

Anyway, that’s just what I see as necessary to create a specific spellbook ideal: finding a spell is a rare treasure and M-Us are unique. You could just as easily say it costs 1,000 XP x Spell Level Squared to copy a spell, and using someone else’s spellbook is too disruptive to the magical energies mya mya mya. Or toss out the idea and say M-Us can share spells and they aren’t particularly rare.

The Moon Moth (Jack Vance)

May 10, 2012

Jack Vance wrote this story “The Moon Moth” about a culture of people who always wore masks and accompanied their singing language with various instruments always carried. It was also about the protagonist’s search for a dangerous assassin whose identity was impossible to determine because everyone wore masks. Right now I’m more interested in the masks.

The masks were part of the culture’s honor system, called strakh. If you had high strakh you could walk into a shop and receive a nice mask or a nice houseboat, no money required, since it increased the strakh of the craftsman to give it to you. A person with low strakh wouldn’t be able to get much at all. Your deeds could affect your strakh, for example a fine craftsman would have greater strakh than an unskilled one.

Slaves always wore black cloth masks.

Other masks had names, like Forest Goblin or Moon Moth or Sea Dragon Conqueror. The mask you wore showed what kind of personality you were trying to project. If you wore a mask with physical pretentions you would be constantly challenged to duels by Forest Goblins and so forth. A Tarn Bird mask showed that you made no claims whatsoever. A Moon Moth was a scummy stupid mask and it’s what the protagonist wore. People often had multiple mask types for various moods and occupations and settings.

You could affect your strakh a little by your persuasion: your skill at singing and choice of words, and skill at playing the instrument and choice of instrument.

The masks seem to have been organized into cycles. It was never explained well and I imagine a mask cycle is either a series of levels within a pretention type (such as various types of big bad tough guy mask) or a range of pretentions at a given level (explorer, wanderer, crusader, settler, etc).

The masks were interestingly named and could easily be the springboard for some cool magic items. We don’t really have enough magic masks. Especially since a magic mask has an opportunity cost: if you wear the mask and get a magical effect, you can’t also wear a helmet and get an armor bonus (especially a magic helmet giving a great armor bonus!).

I scoured the Internet using Google for several minutes until I gave up on finding anyone who had a complete list of the mask names. Here you are, in no particular order but arranged in generally the groups that I think fit together (the last block is weird ones that I couldn’t fit in another group). Enjoy!

Moon Moth
Tarn Bird (no pretentions)
Cave Owl (has some association with wisdom / scholarship, maybe not meant to be a bird-type at all)
Triple Phoenix

Red Bird
Green Bird
Bright Sky Bird
(these three were only ever described as worn by women, though I don’t know if that’s a requirement)

Tavern Bravo (apparently a mask for getting your drunk on)
Fire Snake
Thunder Goblin
Forest Goblin (the big bad tough guy mask)
Shark God
Sand Tiger
Dragon Tamer
Equatorial Serpent
Sea Dragon Conquerer (apparently the best mask)
Red Demiurge
Sun Sprite
Magic Hornet

Sophist Abstraction
Black Intricate
Wise Arbiter

Gay Companion
Star Wanderer
South Wind

Master Craftsman
Ideal of Perfection
Universal Expert (conflicted over whether this or ideal of perfection is the higher level craftsman mask)

Prince Intrepid
(All three apparently in the Kan Dachan Hero cycle)

Alk Islander (described as worn by a boy-child)
Pirate Captain
Emerald Mountain

Some masks had descriptions in the book. They’re not realistic masks, they’re highly stylized. Some are incredibly intricate (thousands of articulated wooden pieces) or just a bunch of scales and feather (Moon Moth … although the disparaging description may have been because the protagonist felt he should wear a greater mask and couldn’t).

Axe Beak = Chocobo

May 10, 2012


Axe Beak


Axe Beaks are Chocobos, pass it on.

Strangely, it looks like FF9 has a monster called “Axe Beak” with a beak that is anything but axe-like.

This came up because I just had a Druid player grab one with Animal Friendship and he wanted to ride around on it. I said heck yeah even though the MM had no mount stats for it. Ended up being kind of a souped-up Medium Warhorse.