Archive for October, 2012

How important are the Tolkien races?

October 31, 2012

If I offer Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit as PC race options, it sounds like I’m basically running Lord of the Rings. If we switch it to *wink nudge* Halfling instead of Hobbit we’re suddenly in D&D territory. This is where a lot of players seem comfortable and if you have weird races it feels more like someone’s Star Wars fanfic and people get less interested. But DMs are supposed to develop their own campaign settings, right? Different character options should be part of that.

You could remove the standard Tolkien races and replace them with other options, or just add new options without removing the old. Some players may find one or the other more palatable, but completely changing up the setting by removing the old ones feels more effective in setting design.

I’ve come across some problems though. If you give new races abilities that break old challenges, you need to make up new challenges otherwise the game becomes Easy Mode D&D. For example, in Morrowind, you can play an Argonian (lizardman) who can breathe water. That removes the challenge of swimming through underwater caves and diving shipwrecks. You could similarly create a winged race but that eliminates the challenge of scaling walls, crossing pits, and navigating overland. Morrowind is a single-player game, so in multi-player D&D everyone can pick a different race and the group as a whole can evade multiple challenges.

In general that’s a good thing. The PCs are a team of specialists, so if the Dwarf is good at finding traps and secret doors and the Elf is stealthy, they’re more effective working together than apart.

Besides the game design issue, you need to get past the Star Wars Cantina style that appears when you have 100 races to choose from and everyone’s a Half-Halfling Doublehobbit Dung Elf Dragonkin Mummywrapped Salvaged Clone Skunkghost. Because of their template system 3E and 4E D&D are particularly bad about this, but Cantina play appears using 2E’s Humanoids Handbook, Planescape, or Spelljammer. It actually exists with any of the “Complete” handbooks but you can’t really tell if someone is a Mountain Dwarf or a Sundered Dwarf so who cares? The player just says “I’m a Dwarf” and records the bonuses on his character sheet.

Tekumel manages to give some interesting options in a narrow range. I don’t know about bug-men though. If the creature isn’t a mammal its thought processes are going to be a bit weird for people to understand. And if it’s a bug that thinks like a mammal, it’s just a palette-swapped Elf or whatever.

I don’t know if my players could get past the non-Tolkien flavor for their PCs. They can deal with weird NPCs, sure. Maybe travel to another place where the NPCs are different but the standard PC choices apply because they brew out of a colony / embassy / Chinatown sorta thing.

Creative Illusionists vs. Destructive M-Us

October 28, 2012

In 1E AD&D there are two Wizard classes: Magic-User (original recipe) and Illusionist (extra crispy). This paved the way for multitudes of M-U subclasses modelled after the Illuionist. But what if there were some reasoning behind having just the pair?

Illusionists do illusion spells, but they don’t really do big destructive spells. This was held over in 2E when Illusionists were just one type of school-specialized Wizard: Illusionists couldn’t do Evocation spells (Fireball, Lightning Bolt, etc.). That’s pretty much the split, similar to Cleric v. M-U (Cleric does healing but not big damage, M-U vice versa). But for now we’re going to ignore Cleric and focus on the Wizard classes.

Illusionists have to be creative. I say this because an illusionist has the job of an artist in our world: create images and sounds that sound believable, even if you’ve never actually heard those things before in your life. A video game 3D modeller needs to make a dragon that moves around, so he takes inspiration from things he HAS seen: birds, snakes, lizards, his imagination, and other artists’ fantasy work. M-Us don’t need imagination, just knowledge of the rules of magic and experience applying them in various ways, in different environments. They’re like the programmers of magic in D&D. Illusionists are like the artists of our world.

So why wouldn’t their spells be more creative in function? How about spells that do sculpting, coloration, scent, texture? Not just illusions, but physical-effect spells that an artist would be interested in. Because we need to make the split, M-Us would not have access to most of these and would instead focus on their destructive spells. Both would share general utility spells.

Illusionists should be able to make plenty of different magic items, too, except those which are just destructive (Horn of Blasting, Wand of Fire) because it’s opposite their chosen type of magic. Similarly M-Us should be unable to make magic items that fall outside their spell abilities (Wand of Illusion, Deck of Illusion).

This scheme doesn’t leave room for other Wizard types. Maybe one culture or world or plane has this system in place, while another uses another division (such that the basic M-U doesn’t exist) like Shadow vs Material, or Elemental, or Law vs. Chaos.

Make Your Own Magic Items

October 26, 2012

Here’s a thing that’s been banging around my head lately, based on the following concepts:

1: Players like interesting choices
2: A list of magic item powers that you recombine can result in more magic items than a simple list of magic items
3: Players like to carve up monsters and discover new ingredients in foul holes in the ground and in sweltering jungles
4: Players want certain magic items and will try to acquire them if you let them (magic shop, enchanting, etc)

How about a list of magic ingredients that have powers on their own but have vague, DM-determined effects when used on various materials or other magic ingredients?


You kill some giant spiders and the DM says the webbing, which you got stuck in during the fight, is a tough fiber that’s really sticky. A player says ok, I try collecting some strands and weaving it into a rope. DM says it’s too sticky. Player says ok, I coat the strands with dust so they aren’t SO sticky, can I weave a rope? DM says sure. Yay, we have a “silk rope” which is like hemp rope but lighter because you can make it thinner and carry the same weight.

Another player says wait a minute, what if we use this Animation Dust we found earlier on the fibers to de-stickify them? We end up with an Animated Rope right? Sounds great, you end up with a permanent Rope of Entanglement – note that this wouldn’t work on a hemp rope because the dust will eventually wear off because it’s not sticky.

What if I want to control the rope without giving it verbal commands? Well, you’d need some kind of gloves enchanted with telepathic connectivity. A side effect would be that whatever the rope touched you would get telepathic feedback from, so you could entangle something in the darkness and know generally what shape it was. If you could somehow give sensory abilities to the rope, you could sense that it was a breathing, heartbeating Kobold!

As you can see, the rope quickly gains powers depending on the creativity of the players and what they’re interested in having, and also what ingredients you give them.

Let’s say you have a device that has two chambers: in one you place some gold (a valuable, dense material) and in the other you place some material or object you want to make heavier. Pull the lever, the gold vanishes, the item becomes heavier. Sure it doesn’t make scientific sense! What if we use lead (a cheap, dense material)? Chance of failure and destruction of the item! What if we somehow condense a light, especially valuable material like a mineral vapor? It could make the item lighter! But how will we get such stuff …

Of course the basics should emerge: if a sword is lighter, it does -1 damage but +1 initiative. If you make it very hard, you can make it hold a keen edge for +1 damage, or if you make it flexible it’s unpredictable for the enemy and gives you +1 to hit. You can have a heavy, hard sword (+2 damage, -1 init) but you couldn’t have a hard, flexible (because the two cancel each other out). Now we have our +1 weapons taken care of in an interesting way.

What about better magic arms and armor? Introduce rare metals. Mithril is +1 naturally and weighs half normal. Adamantite is +2 but weighs normal. People need to decide whether the extra +1 is important or the reduced weight … I suspect Mithril to be more common in armor. Metals can have various special effects too. For example, in my campaign Mithril is a silver-type metal (silver is effective against werewolves and certain others) while Adamantite is a form of iron (iron is effective against certain demons and undead, and all fairies and elves). There’s room for a +3 that’s especially heavy or a material that blocks magic or psionics (or aids them!) etc.

The thing to consider when setting up this system is, do you want players to be able to reproduce any of the magic items in D&D, or do you want a new set of items to emerge and you don’t care about old items? The difference is in one extra step for backwards compatibility: take all the magic items in the DMG and come up with one or four possible ways to make that item. If you don’t have enough ingredients, make up more. In any case, you will have MANY more possible magic items than are present in the DMG.

Ingredients can be monster organs (dragon scales, flumph tentacles, beholder eyeballs), plant extracts (especially from monster or dangerous type plants and various Underworld molds, spores, fungi), minerals (incl. flawless large gems, pearls from special oysters), and strange extracts like the shadow of a cat or a child’s laugh (better hope you don’t get a reputation as the Thief of Voices!). The important things are:

1: The ingredients must be hard to get and in short supply (killing a dragon should give enough ingredients for several things but not enough to outfit a barony’s soldiers)
2: Other people trade with PCs only if they get a pretty good deal IN MAGIC, though money can sweeten a deal
3: Most recipes should be commonsense and PCs invent them on the fly
4: Some recipes can be obscure but should still be logical, and discovering them is a form of treasure
5: If PCs come up with recipes you hadn’t thought of, keep an open mind
6: But also keep game balance in mind. If the ingredient is inferior, the resulting item can be of inferior effect / limited uses / degrade with time
7: Assembly lines result in catastrophe (theft, taxation, explosions, angry villagers, jealous wizards, angry gods)

Consider too that maybe you need spells cast upon the ingredients to activate them properly. For this reason, most spells should have utility purposes. Imagine the usefulness of a spell that can change something’s color permanently. Or the ability to create a sphere of impenetrable darkness. How do you capture the light of the full moon? Will anybody notice and/or get upset even if it comes right back on? Maybe moonlight filtered through a dust storm has a different quality …

Look at the existing potions. There are some great things here … Essence of Darkness, Philter of Love, Potion of Rainbow Hues … clearly you can imagine some cool ways to gather the ingredients required for these potions, and cool things you can do with the potions once you have them. What happens if you water a peach-tree with a Potion of Animal Control? The results could be hilarious, profitable, disastrous, but at least they’re interesting.

Equipment Durability

October 3, 2012

I’ve seen some people blogging about it so here’s my take on equipment damage and repair: I wouldn’t do it normally, but if I really wanted to I’d make it as simple as possible.

If the equipment is in a situation where it took a lot of stress, roll 2d6. On 2 it’s destroyed, on 3-4 it’s damaged. If the whole PC took a lot of stress, pick 1d6 things off his sheet that would be most vulnerable to the hit. In general, if the PC originally saved, nothing gets damaged.
Damaged equipment gets a D next to it, and if damaged again it’s destroyed.


PC has the following: chainmail, shield, spear, belt, tunic, elven cloak, sandals, backpack, lantern, 50′ rope, dungeon map, potion of healing.

PC gets blasted by a red dragon’s breath. He fails his save so I make him roll for his stuff. He rolls 5 on the d6, so he has to roll for 5 things. Perusing his sheet, I rattle off the shield, tunic, map, rope, cloak. I picked the shield figuring it would take the brunt of the attack, and the rest because they’re the most vulnerable to fire. There’s a good mix of throwaway stuff (tunic), utility (rope, map), and important (elven cloak).

PC falls down a pit. No save for falls, so he just rolls his d6 and gets 3. I pick the most fragile stuff, so lantern, spear, potion of healing. Again, a good mix of stuff.

PC gets slobbered on by an ooze that dissolves organic material. The ooze’s attack roll is the initial roll that caused all this, analogous to a PC save against dragon breath. He rolls d6 for number of items, gets 6. Belt, tunic, elven cloak, sandals, backpack, spear. If his spear gets destroyed I’ll say he still has a usable dagger from the spearhead.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and DM fiat here, which is why the DM needs to be impartial and pick an appropriate array of stuff. Generally only number rolls of 2+ items should include something worthwhile, otherwise it’s RP (you lost your last pair of pants!). Likewise, just because a player loads up on 300 rat pelts in a sack doesn’t mean the DM should call out those as damaged items, or possibly could count the whole sack as one item. Because there’s an arbiter you shouldn’t have stupid results. A DM could easily tell the PC to roll for his best magic items every single time. This system won’t work for either the “rat-pelt” player or the “I’m gonna get your holy avenger” DM.

Finally, only really big hits should cause item degradation. If the PC wedges his sword into the pit trap doors to pry them open, go ahead and roll the 2d6 on it for damage. If the lich dies and drops the vial holding the PC’s soul you might wanna roll for that vial. It’s all subjective. I personally would do it only for something at the level of a Fireball, dragon, 50′ fall, giant mashing you with max damage two-handed hammer, etc.

Oh, magic items. Fire items won’t be affected by fire, electric by lightning, etc. That means if you have a Potion of Fire Resistance it won’t boil off in a Fireball. If the magic item is a permanent sturdy type like +1 Armor or something, then it can be damaged 3 times before being destroyed on the 4th. Or roll 3d6 and it’s destroyed on 3, damaged on 4-5. In general, magic textiles, papers, wood, glass, crystal, etc. won’t be any more durable than a normal item.

Repairs should take some time and maybe 1 GP (100 GP for magic items). Whatever.

What does the fourth class fight?

October 2, 2012

Here’s a thing I came across recently: Sham wrote about a forum post by a guy named Old Geezer (Mike Mornard apparently) who claimed (reprinted in case the forum flakes out):

Ahem. I was there.

In CHAINMAIL there were wizards that functioned as artillery.

Then there was Dave Arneson’s first miniatures/roleplaying campaign. Some players were ‘good guys’ and some players were ‘bad guys’ and Dave was the referee.

One of the ‘bad guys’ wanted to play a Vampire. He was extremely smart and capable, and as he got more and more experience he got tougher and tougher.

This was the early 70s, so the model for ‘vampire’ was Christopher Lee in Hammer films. No deep folklore shit.

Well, after a time, nobody could touch Sir Fang. Yes, that was his name.

To fix the threatened end of the game they came up with a character that was, at first, a ‘vampire hunter’. Peter Cushing in the same films.

As the rough specs were drawn up, comments about the need for healing and for curing disease came up.

Ta da, the “priest” was born. Changed later to ‘cleric’.

The bit about edged weapons was from Gary’s reading the old stories about Archbishop Turpin, who wielded a mace because he didn’t want to shed blood (“who lives by the sword dies by the sword”).

In other words, it came about the same way that 90% of the D&D rules came about :


Here’s my take on this for a campaign setting.

You’ve got Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. If Clerics came about to fight Undead, maybe the other classes came about to fight specific anti-human (Chaotic) forces. Magic-Users seem to have a lot of planar spells and demon-related stuff, so let’s say humanity created Magic-Users to fight demons. Let’s take a step further and say that Magic-Users actually use demon-magic against them, which is why we never had M-Us before we came across demons.

So we have a campaign history where humanity, whose great strength is in adaptability, brings forth specialized heroes to combat each new menace as it appears. Let’s say Fighting-Men existed to fight the evils of this world or maybe specifically dragons (good save vs. breath weapon!). Then demons came along and we bootstrapped ourselves some M-U demon-slayers. Undead make an appearance and we get Clerics.

Demihumans like Dwarves and Elves and Hobbits can’t be all these classes. Dwarves and Hobbits can be only Fighting-Men, while Elves can be F-Ms and M-Us. Let’s say Elves can be M-U because of some connection with the demons: maybe they fought the demons long ago and actually helped the Humans develop their skills when demons resurfaced. This is also why Elves are limited in how far they can advance as M-Us, and why other races can’t be very high level F-Ms. Classes are for humanity, to represent our adaptability, and demihumans can do it too (which is what defines them as demihuman) but to a limit. Elves don’t get bored with wizardry; it’s just not in their nature to be able to advance further.

Now a new threat has emerged, parting the veil between the Planes and insinuating itself into the world of humanity. How will we fight them? Our old tactics don’t work, our old magics aren’t effective. Hints and rumors of the existence of these creatures lies in the oldest ruins and catacombs, and artifacts once ignored as useless may have some impact. This is where we begin the campaign.

Here’s how I would approach this. Either threat first, or class first. If you create the threat, you need to create a class that will have skills to combat it. Use the existing classes as a guide. A Cleric for example can Turn Undead. He has other spells but the turning is why he exists. M-Us can Teleport, Banish, Dispel Magic, Lower Magic Resistance, etc.

This means there isn’t much reason for a Thief, Ranger, Barbarian, etc. to exist. We’re not talking about a class filling some task-related role (else we would have a Chamberpot Emptier and a Mink Coat Maker class). Nor a specialist M-U, since M-Us are already here. An Alchemist should already exist and there’s hardly any reason for some external threat to cause them to emerge. A Paladin is basically a Cleric/Fighter. Almost all Fighter variants are excessively situational, dumb, and unnecessary because Fighter still exists OR they render Fighter useless because they’re better.

This requires actual creativity. It isn’t the opportunity you’ve always waited for to trot out your Jedi clone.

I could see an argument for a Psionicist class since that’s always been pretty alien and if it’s based on Psi Strength Points instead of Vancian memorization the class operates differently from the existing ones. It’s also a nice choice because there is a lot of existing Psionic material out there and hardly anybody uses it because almost without exception you need to rework it for game balance. The new threat can include psionic monsters in D&D that nobody uses because Psionics is a pain in the butt to manage and it’s too powerful to hit non-Psionic PCs with unless they’re well over its HD.

There’s another caveat. Let’s say you start with a class like Bard because you like Bards and you want them to finally be useful and not completely stupid. The threat you create is going to be one that you can harm by singing at it, which is just as ridiculous as the Bard is anyway and it’s a thinly-veiled attempt to validate the Bard’s existence.

The new threat has to be level-appropriate too. Don’t just make the new threat +10HD and 100% MR. I’ve seen that happen and it’s loathsome. I loathed that campaign. Note that there are 1 HD demons, 1 HD undead, so your new threat should have degrees of opposition from 1 to 13 or so. Another problem is that this process can easily make the other classes feel useless. It’s important that the threat be hittable by other classes but it’s just too dangerous and/or ineffective to do it regularly. Maybe a F-M hitting the new threat feels like he’s as effective as he would be at half his level.

I think a more fertile way to develop this is to start with the threat. Really go nuts, look for inspiration anywhere, and then start beefing it up to get the full scale of 1 HD – 10 HD. Give them special abilities and defenses, ecology and maybe society. Then think about what parts of this threat are really irritating for a PC group and the counters to those. These are the abilities a PC will want when fighting them.

And don’t be afraid of being too tough! Remember, in 0D&D Undead who drain levels drain them permanently. There is no Restoration. By the next edition we had developed our Clerics’ abilities to the point where the most fearsome Undead ability can be mitigated. That might not happen until well into the Fourth Class campaign, or even after it!

Don’t stop using other monsters. Remember these other classes are useful still! There will still be demons and undead all over the place and the new threat might employ them or just happen to coincide with them.

Star Trek did this already. First you have Klingons which only a couple Starfleet officers can take on in hand-to-hand. They’re tough badasses. By Second Generation we have a Klingon officer on board and basically anybody can fight one. Then we encounter the Borg, which are a huge threat. By Voyager we have a Borg officer and kinda anybody can take one on. They turn into sad little zombies. Plus we have all the shift-phaser stuff to get past their special shield tech. Villain Decay is what the cool kids are calling it.