Archive for July, 2015

The Yin and Yang of Treasure Division

July 21, 2015

Had a party argument last game session over loot. I had been hearing grumblecakes from every player about how all the other players were getting more loot – which is kind of absurd. I instituted a different method of treasure division which would take more effort but would result in transparently equal shares – which everyone hated. They realized they cared more about sharing and keeping things easy, and fixing imbalances later when people spoke up about them. It’s almost as if their DM had that planned all along …

Except nah, I’m not that good. But it did make me think about some things that make sense to blog about.

My premise is that treasure division schemes tend to fall somewhere along two axes: how easy it is to implement, and how fair it is. First, some extreme schemes:

#1: The King. High ease, lowest fairness. Everything the party gets goes to one player. Haven’t seen this one in practice.

#1A: The Regent. High ease, low fairness. Each game session one player is The King and gets all the loot. Again, theoretical.

#2: The Fire Sale. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets sold and the money gets split up. But what if the players want to keep some of the magic items? Then we get more complicated. I’ve seen this used when the players are frustrated with their old treasure division strategy and just want to get back to the fun part of the game.

#2A: The Bonfire. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets thrown in a pile and lit on fire. I’ve seen it proposed but never carried out.

#3: High Roll. High ease, low-mid fairness. Split up the cash equally, everyone rolls percent dice, highest roller chooses first from the magic item list, then next highest, and so forth. It’s in the high roller’s interest to grab the most valuable item, and then sell or make trades to whoever in the party actually wants the thing. If he picks the sword +1 because he’s a Fighter and skips the Staff of Doom which is a lot more expensive, he basically just handed his high roll to the M-U.

#3A: High Roll With List. Moderate ease, moderate fairness. Works like High Roll, but you have a list of players and the roll list is kept until everyone has gotten something. For example, if you roll and players 1 to 3 get an item, but 4 through 7 don’t get anything, it’s fine: next loot that comes along is picked by 4 through 7. Only after everyone has gotten a pick do you reroll. This helps fairness because it makes it impossible for someone to consistently roll lowest and miss out on treasure picks because the hoards are never large numbers of items.

#3B: High Roll With Equal Shares. Low ease, moderate fairness. This variant on High Roll (or High Roll With List) packages up magic items with money to create more-equal shares before a split happens. Say a hoard contains a magic item worth 5k, one worth 3k, and money worth 7k. Rather than splitting the money and then dealing with magic items, you create three shares: the 5k item alone, the 3k item plus 2k in coin, and 5k in coin. These three shares are then diced for. You still have an issue when players 1-3 get a 5k share each, and players 4-7 get nothing, but the next hoard has 10k shares because of the power of the magic items. Generally, it helps prevent people from picking the most valuable share regardless of whether they want to use the item, but leaves some members of the party receiving zero loot from any given hoard.

#3C: Per-Item High Roll. Moderate ease, low fairness. A less-worthwhile variant on High Roll, this puts every item up for roll. It’s possible for one player to get literally every magic item in a hoard, and while in the long run it might even out, the experience is pretty negative for everyone when it happens. Because there are more rolls, it takes longer. A proposed variant rarely seen in the wild would be for players to claim an item only if they really needed it, and a roll-off only when more than one player wanted the item. Because magic items can be sold and traded, there is always the temptation to grab some loot that you won’t use. Because of that, the Per-Item High Roll generally feels better when everyone rolls for everything.

#4: Buyout. Low ease, high fairness. Split up the money. Price out the magic items. Anyone who wants to put in their 5000 GP into the pot in exchange for the item worth 5000 can do so. After all the magic items have been bought, split up the money in the pot equally. This takes a long time, and only works if the PCs have enough money to do it. If they’re money-poor, such as when they’re just starting out or the item is especially high-value, you need a kludge like a debt to the other players to make it equal. If two people want to buy out the same magic item, roll off to see who gets the option. Some players may also have a problem with the idea of “paying” for a magic item the party already found (which doesn’t make mathematical sense, but I’m realizing that the feel of a rule has a lot more to do with its success than its precision or odds).

#5: Common Sense. Moderate ease, moderate fairness (at best). There’s one dwarf who uses hammers, if we get a magic hammer it goes to him. This works if the treasure coming in is pretty evenly spread among classes. It’s easiest to apply when the item is restricted (M-U only, or works far better for a Dwarf). It’s hardest to apply when the item is something everyone can use – and in those cases you’re left to fall back on another treasure division strategy. Common Sense is used a lot at low level when hardly anybody has any magic items, but gets switched out for a different strategy when inequalities emerge. As my group decided, it’s possible to continue with Common Sense and adjust later if it looks like the Cleric is getting shafted, for example by getting everyone else to pitch in to get him a magic item, or someone else giving up a magic item that could go to either player (but giving it to the Cleric reduces inequality), or a general-use item everyone could use going to the Cleric instead. This strategy definitely awards player negotiating skills, and less-confrontational players may get shafted.

After working with Common Sense but without addressing inequalities, I tried Buyout with my group and it flopped. But the ensuing conversation made them want to stick with Common Sense with an emphasis on keeping their ears open and addressing concerns that any PC is falling behind.

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Refurbish Old Loot

July 19, 2015

My gaming groups tend to handle old loot thusly: the Fighter might get the first magic armor, and then when he gets an upgrade his hand-me-down goes to the Cleric or whoever, or possibly straight to a henchman. They rarely sell something purely because it’s surplus for which they can find no use – but it’s possible they’d rather have the cash than a beefier (and happier) hireling.

Also, some types of loot are uncommon. Where do you find magic ballista bolts or magic horse barding?

I just thought about solving both problems by letting players hammer out their old swords, rip up the stitching in their old leather armor, and have an armorer fix up something new. With the same magic as the old item.

A magic sword might be put into service as the head of a ballista bolt. If you get 3 suits of Chainmail +1 you could get someone to make Chainmail Barding +1. Yeah, I know you probably need a lot more chainmail than that, but I’m concerned more about the value of the starting item(s) and the value of the end item being reasonable.

The germ of this idea was in a game I ran where all magic arms and armor were typically 1 or 2 points weaker for the magic portion, but were frequently made of Mithril (+1 higher and low weight) or Adamantine (+2 higher but normal weight). That meant two things: (1) I could drop a magic weapon in a loot pile that wasn’t as powerful (like a steel Frostbrand +1), and (2) non-magical equipment made of Mithril or Adamantine was possible (which let me have boring +1 and +2 gear without special weird magical stuff, which I had determined that every single magic item would have).

One outcome of (2) was that players would be able to melt and reforge Mithril and Adamantine gear into whatever they wanted, allowing them to trade several Mithril (+1) daggers for a Mithril Chainmail (+1), or in one case melting down some Admantine shields they found to armor-plate their wagon with +2 sheet metal.

There was also a nice choice for the players who had enough metal to make it, between light equipment that was +1 or normal weight equipment that was +2. Because I was tracking encumbrance pretty regularly with Delta’s stone-weight system, I had a few players choose to wear the weaker but lighter Mithril armor because it meant being able to haul around a couple extra sacks of treasure or gear.

Layers of Placing Magic Items

July 17, 2015

I’ve said before that I prefer to place a magic item instead of money. Because I don’t like magic shops, opportunities to buy magic items are limited, so players can always choose to trade out a magic item for money but can’t really do the reverse to get whatever item they want (typically they’ll have a couple purchase options every game session but not necessarily the exact item they were hoping for).

But how to place those items? I go about it in several passes.

Layer 1: Total value. I want enough value worth of magic items so the players get enough treasure to level up. This is more important in games where you get XP for GP. In the game I’m running, for example, you get 1 XP per GP, and 1 XP per GP value of magic items you decide to sell without using, but generally about 10% of the XP value for the magic item if you decide to keep it. If the players sell the magic items they get more XP and are higher level, but if they keep them all they are lower level but more powerful because they have the items. It tends to work out regardless of what they choose.

Layer 2: Theme. If they’re exploring a dwarven temple, I want some appropriate magic items. If a monster hoards items the loot can be anything someone might have carried into its lair or that it found nearby. I like each treasure cache to be a little story. One time I had a secret room that connected two hallways, and far in the past some annoyed adventurer had hurled his pile of cursed items in there.

Layer 3: Usefulness. I don’t want a cache to be just a bunch of Fighter items because everyone else at the table is bummed. Items anyone can use are cool. At the same time, I want a balance of usefulness. Not everything has to be combat-related. Especially at low level an item that weighs nothing but replaces a bulky piece of equipment can be worthwhile (like a magical dome that works as well as a 10-man pavilion). This frequently runs counter to Layer 2 because at that point I might have a wizard tower and think that it needs a lot of wizard items in it. But maybe the wizard has a bodyguard, or a magical trap has a thief imprisoned and starved to death, he has some unidentified items, or he just has some goodies he can’t use and might trade away.

It’s tough to predict, like trying to make a viral video, but it’s great when a player really latches onto the idea of a magic item and it begins to make the character really stand out. Imagine if Thor’s player finds a kickass magic hammer at level 2, it becomes a thing with him, and he goes for the whole fur coat and horned helmet ensemble. Later he gloms on additional magic items like gauntlets, belt, and a better hammer. If not for the fortuitous attachment the player had to that first magic hammer, Thor might become just another Fighter. This can happen through the magic of a player being really in the groove and pleased to find a +1 thing behind a secret panel. It can also happen because the magic item isn’t just a bonus and instead gives him a different option to choose from.

Layer 4: Interactions with the other adventure elements. At this point it’s usually just a switch from one item to another so the players can use it in specific areas. Magic items as problem-solving tools. Sometimes I’ll start the process with Layer 4, with an item and a problem that it can solve, and then build the theme (Layer 2) and adventure difficulty (Layer 1) around that. Maybe it means I shelf this adventure idea for later. But when I come around at the end to do Layer 4 it’s typically stuff like “change the Potion of Heroism to Plant Control instead so they can part the razorvine if they found the potion and they think of it”.

You can do just fine without going through all this trouble. You really can say it’s a 5th level dungeon so you should put in a few +1 items, a few scrolls and potions, a +2 item, and a low-end ring or low-charge wand. I think in the published classic modules that’s what you see. But you also sometimes see a strange connection that shows some extra effort has been made to put extra depth in the treasure placement. It’s like the difference between one layer of glaze on a pot and multiple transparent layers of glaze: both pots hold the water.

Everyone is a Cleric

July 8, 2015

The thought I had the other day was also partly a reaction to DMs eliminating Clerics from their games. Is there another way to do it that’s interesting and just as extreme? Sure – everyone is a Cleric.

Earthdawn gave everyone magic because the setting is magic-rich (in a way) so there’s no such thing as “just a Fighter” for a PC. There are always going to be non-magical scrubs out there.

You’d say that the typical healer-Cleric worships a god of peace or health, so those are the abilities he gets. If your character worships a god of burglary he’d have Climb Walls, Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, etc. A Cleric of the wilderness might be more like a Druid or more like a Ranger depending on which god it is. M-U and Cleric spell lists would need to get chopped up like the 2E Cleric spheres. Actually, you could probably get by without doing any work by just forcing everyone to play a Specialist Priest out of the Faiths & Avatars and similar books (I recall at least two others).

Even Conan swore to Crom. Fighters get their supernatural toughness and slaying prowess from a god of war, not just because they’re “experienced” mortals. A demigod like Hercules would benefit directly from his immortal bloodline but would also be able to gain levels. No more complaining that a 10th level Fighter has more HP than a dragon.

A 0-level human could start earning XP if he proved himself worthy through great deeds – like how Philotomy’s play report of the module I4 (which is down at the moment) had a caravan guard who rolled nice in combat for a while got promoted to Level 1 Fighter. Which brings up a great starting question for a 1st level PC’s player: what did you do that was so cool you were able to hit 1st level?

Not everyone has to get spells – but why not? Give Thieves some low-level illusions, Invisibility, Silence 15′ radius, etc. But give it to them at higher level like Rangers and Paladins do, and lower caster level and spell capacity. That way he defaults to his skills but he can bust out something special for the really difficult parts.

Why would an adventuring party of holy men and women of different faiths band together?

1: The gods aren’t so shitty to each other as we might expect, and gods of similar alignment are fine hanging out, havin’ a brew, watchin’ the game.
2: Clerics don’t antagonize each other trying to get conversions (a negative method) but try to outdo each other in great works and achievements (a positive method).
3: All the human/demihuman gods, even if their alignments differ, are still opposed by alien and especially nasty gods like those of the humanoids. Moradin might want the best of everything for his Dwarven people, but he’s going to be happy to work with an Elf god to fight against Orc gods – and especially against a god worshipped by Underdark slimes, Githyanki, Mind Flayers, etc. There’s a greater threat out there, so it makes sense for the PCs to work together.

Carousing can be handled as usual or maybe just for donations.

Motivation to adventure is a little easier.

Given enough deities, you could get a mix of abilities without alignment problems. For example, a 1st edition Monk is able to do a lot of what a Thief can, so a party could do without the Cleric of Burglary. If you want a scout, you could get a Cleric of Woodcraft (Ranger abilities) or a Cleric of Secrets (divination, invisibility), or of Illusions, or Psionics.

Not sure whether this changes much besides giving a justification for superhuman abilities in high-level characters. It is nice to have secular character options. But you know how this works; it might be cool for someone’s game.