Archive for July, 2016

Who Knows if the Gods are Real

July 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Want to Build a Module

July 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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