Archive for the ‘Gaming Style’ Category

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.

Module Playlist as Campaign

May 7, 2015

I talked yesterday about the inputs the DM and players add to the game experience when running a module. I’m writing an adventure now, as we’re playing it, and my players’ antics are going to affect the module. I also come up with weird ideas and make connections I didn’t see before during gameplay. It’s a richer adventure than it would be if I were writing it alone. Is this what it feels like to be part of a writers’ salon? I should find a forum for gaming authors.

This process is exciting because once the module is printed and sent out, other people are going to experience it differently, but they aren’t going to have much impact on how other groups experience it.

That got me thinking about collaborative video games. People playing on a small server are like players in a single gaming group. Individuals might filter out into other groups part-time, some come and go, and others are reliable anchors. But in, for example, a Minecraft server, there is little going on in one server that affects other servers. There is some spread of culture throughout the community, but I believe most of the impact comes from mods. Some mods are minor, but others affect gameplay so much they become the identity of the server.

If you start a new campaign with a module, how much will that module’s themes, events, NPCs, loot, etc. impact the rest of the campaign? Are there really great “module playlists” that result in latter modules being experienced in a very different way than expected?

What if you could get the module author to run the adventure for you?

May 5, 2015

I always felt that book readings by the author are totally not worth it. I’ll read a book with margin notes, but what can the author add by reading his own words? What about watching a movie sitting next to the director? I’m probably wrong and missing out on some serene joy.

It feels like games are different, possibly because they’re so interactive. I could see how it could be fun to play a multiplayer game against or cooperating with the people who made it.

And it feels like D&D is absolutely the opposite. Maybe because I’m looking at things from inside the creative process, and I’m just not experienced in those other media and can’t see it.

But if I write an adventure and run it for my gaming group, and we have a great time, a huge part of that is found nowhere in the written text of the adventure. Let’s say there are some broad categories:

1: Things happen that are directly from the module, and go about how the author expected.
2: Things happen from the module but are dramatically different because of the players and the DM running it. Common in mysteries, most noticeably because the players solve it quickly or miss/ignore clues and get stuck.
3: Things are interjected by the DM that weren’t in the module. Running gags, favorite NPCs, the holy relic is now of the PC Cleric’s god instead of the setting-specific one in the module.
4: Things are interjected by the players. A player may become interested in starting a counterfeiting or cattle business, or build a home in town.
5: Random events mean every playthrough is different. Random table results, encounter outcomes, whether secrets are discovered.

Part of why tabletop gaming is so entertaining is its malleability and the ease of development. That’s why it’s really for the best that outcomes 2-5 are super common. The module author’s task is to write a framework for the adventure, giving enough structure so the DM isn’t constantly scrambling to create things during play, and giving enough interesting things that players can interact with to generate plenty of 2-5. D&D is a jam session.

I love this adventure I’m running. I’m writing it up in a way that’s most useful to me at the table, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t will hopefully make it useful for someone else. We’re essentially playtesting and enriching it as we go.

But what do people want from a module?

Do you want something that’s very complete with strongly interconnected ideas? For example, changing the dwarf temple from the deity I wrote it for wouldn’t work well because there’s history, motivation, treasure, puzzles, and loot all affected by that specific deity’s tenets.

Or do you want a very loose framework, a bland dish to which you will apply your favorite sauces?

Because the latter can be generated readily by computers, I think there’s more human-added value to the former. And maybe people enjoy a module with a strong, consistent identity followed by a few palette-cleansing randos and something written by the “home DM”. I’m certainly not making any judgments! I read a B/X game that was generally just random dungeons and it sounded like it was a lot of fun.

I am inside this. I have pierced my heart and what flows will stain my page, to be sent to the printers. I deeply feel that for me to create something worthwhile I have to create what I want – not what some audience wants. Hopefully there is an audience for whatever I make. I have to make it, regardless. And I think what I’m making is going to be the former of the two extreme types I suggested above.

Multiple Paths and Encounter Balance

May 4, 2015

I’m working on a sandbox adventure: lots of things in it, ways to deal with those things, and paths to travel between them. You could spend a lot of time ignoring the main dungeon or you could go straight to it.

How do you make the game interesting for players whether they encounter the Troll Bridge at level 1 or level 5? Another way someone might phrase that is, how do you balance the encounter and the loot? Here’s my take on this.

1: Not everything will be a combat encounter. If the creature is too tough or weak compared to the PCs it may turn into a chase or parley instead.

2a: If there is a fight: If the PCs are underleveled for the encounter, they will have a hard time with it. It might feel like a boss fight. They may turn away from the area, considering it too difficult right now, or may press ahead and use consumable, nonrenewable resources to overcome the encounter. When they eventually deal with it, they’ll get good XP and loot, perhaps beyond their normal expectations, and that will help boost them up to the level they should be in that area.

2b: If the PCs are overleveled for the fight, they’ll blow through the monsters quickly, get bad XP and loot which won’t change their power level much, and move on through to a higher-level area.

What if the higher level party doesn’t experience the area the same way because it’s too easy? But what if the underleveled party experiences a high level area as more harrowing and exciting than it would be at-level? I think the potential for the latter is worth the risk of the former.

Multiple paths.

Let’s say there’s a main dungeon, and to reach it you can go through a big nasty front door leading to Level 3, or go through an unguarded air vent to Level 1, or a very deadly pit leading all the way down to Level 6. Novice PCs will want to head in through the air vent because Level 3 is too tough for them. But once they’re higher level, even if they haven’t cleared out levels 1 and 2, they might just take the shortcut at the front door to save time and wandering monster rolls.

Now let’s say instead of just a different entrance, you have a pre-dungeon that leads into Level 3 and another that leads into Level 6. The PCs may not realize they lead to the main dungeon yet. When you enter the first pre-dungeon you find Level 1 difficulty, ramping up to Level 3 difficulty by the time you reach the main dungeon and pop into it at Level 3. Seamless! Same with the other pre-dungeon, where you enter at Level 2 difficulty and it ramps up to Level 6 difficulty just before it spills into the main dungeon. A faster increase, and more dangerous because player won’t as easily spot the higher level stuff in the pre-dungeon.

I love this method, and have used it in two adventures now.

In one, I had four 3-level pre-dungeons with a portal in the bottom of each, leading to the main dungeon, which started at difficulty Level 4 and didn’t have any direct connection to the surface. The idea was you could go through any of the four and get to the bottom, and then if you wanted to explore the other three, you could go in from the exterior top entrance as usual, or head across the portal room and enter another dungeon’s Level 3 portal room to get to the hardest part of it immediately. Each pre-dungeon was ruled by a high-level villain, and to protect himself from other villains each would fortify his portal room, making the fight very entertaining for the PCs. The players in my game explored two of the pre-dungeons but never took advantage of the portals to skip the upper levels of the second one, and never set foot into pre-dungeons 3 and 4. They just decided eventually to follow the clues back to the overworld where they gathered things they needed to banish and/or control the boss and reached the end of the adventure.

It worked well, but a party at level 7 or 8 entering a new dungeon and working their way down would have been tedious. Much quicker than a Level 3 party doing it, but it still takes time.

My second adventure using this method is the one I’m working on now. In it, there is a super dangerous and obvious entrance, a secret side entrance that’s actually pretty dangerous too, a pair of side entrances leading to a lower level that nobody will likely find except from the inside (meaning you probably have to reach the level and leave by the side exit to find the entrance), and – this is the important part – two pre-dungeon paths that don’t seem connected to the main dungeon.

I decided it might be cool to have the local awful human racist bandit/adventurer band discover the other pre-dungeon that the PCs don’t find, and explore it at roughly the same rate the players explore theirs. This gives me a reason to have these antagonists present themselves in the main dungeon rather than just being a camp in the woods and an entry on the random wilderness encounter lists.

Will the PCs fight them, considering them claimjumpers and unwilling to share loot that might be found in the dungeon? Will the PCs (some non-human in this case) overcome their revusion at the bandits’ attitudes and work together? Will they partition the dungeon somehow and try to avoid each other? And regardless of their political decision, what happens when they encounter each other in the dark, desperate corridors when one party of another may be injured or loaded with loot?

But you all may have an opinion on whether this is just annoying. Does it feel like having the NPCs explore the dungeon too is just taking away adventure opportunities from the players? Nobody wants to feel like someone else is eating his sandwich. But maybe this is a good spur to get them excited to get into the dungeon?

What do you think?

It’s not sandbox vs. railroad, really. New terminology for the middle ground.

March 3, 2013

While I think the terms Railroad and Sandbox are descriptive, they are awfully value-laden. They’re also the extremes: frequently a campaign with a strict story will have divergent paths and relevant choices, and a campaign with few demands on the player to follow the story will still have overarching plot and boundaries.

I suggest the following for campaigns more aligned toward the middle rather than an extreme on the player-choice axis, but still leaning toward one side or the other.

A Managed Play campaign is one where there is a significant predestined plot but players can make choices along the way that can affect the outcome. The DM probably writes an appendix to each adventure with plans for when players end up doing A, B, C, or D. There are several endgames, possibly with a point value from completed adventures or just eyeballing the result of the adventures up to that point. Or maybe it’s not that strictly pre-written, and the DM wants a result to happen for a major event, but the status of small events are entirely up in the air.

Managed Play is like a Disney amusement park. Everyone who comes thinks they can wander as they choose and experience the park however they want. But the park’s designers know how to build to regulate traffic flow and attract attention. You probably end up riding almost everything once and then grabbing dinner.

In a Managed Play campaign you draw all the dots (adventures, scenes, locations, whatever) and then connect them to form the plot. You flesh out the connected dots, but the ones outside the path you either don’t bother describing or give just a brief outline – because nobody will end up there.

A Distributed Play campaign changes things up by not connecting the dots ahead of time. The DM prepares a campaign without knowing what the players will do. His job is not to direct them to certain dots, but to make the dots known to the players so they can decide what to do. They may choose dots poorly (the adventure was to difficult for their level, or too easy and boring, or required some relic to complete that they don’t have yet). But the choice is theirs, and they may experience satisfaction at knowing their successes and failures are their responsibility.

A Distributed Play campaign can be played several times by different groups (or even the same group!) with dramatically different “story” results. This isn’t really possible with a Managed Play campaign. The players will be able to say “this is what we did during the Locust Wars” rather than “we did the Locust Wars campaign and ended up siding with A instead of B”.

Because it might not be obvious, it’s called Distributed Play because the adventures in the campaign are distributed around the map / timeline instead of just pre-planned, and also because the burden of decision-making for the story is distributed to the players more than in Managed Play.

This is just how I see the middle ground for the railroad vs. sandbox axis. I’m sure you all can come up with different possibilities. Personally, I suspect pure railroad or pure sandbox games are pretty uncommon, and most hover somewhere around these two. Also, the terminology is intentionally bland. If you can think of spicy terminology that’s not unduly positive or negative, you did my job better than I did. Or you could just use two positive terms, or two negative terms, but people will end up using the positive term for the one they like and the negative for the one they don’t.

Land grants from the king to his soldiers

February 11, 2013

Something just popped into my head and it might be useful to someone.

You know how if you hit level 9 or whatever you can establish a stronghold, right? We assume you’re under the aegis of some king, because otherwise anybody can just go out and establish a tree fort or whatever in the empty howling wilderness.

Second, and here I’m mostly drawing on a vague understanding of how the Vikings handled it when they conquered England and how the Romans handled it in general (so it might be horribly off-base): if you serve the king as a soldier, eventually he grants you citizenship (if you need it) and a plot of land. A regular old soldier would go to war and come back to a cottage or something. But big heroes / warlords / generals would come back and get control over a big area, maybe even become the new king / emperor / topbigman.

Using 9th level Baron controlling a keep and village plus surrounding countryside and 1st level as a Veteran with a cottage, here’s what I came up with.

1st: Cottage and small plot. You can retire and feed your family plus pay your taxes and sell a little surplus. You get a vote.
3rd: Larger farm with a house, requiring lots of your children or else hired hands to manage fully.
5th: Townhouse or large farm as above, plus some special right – maybe you hold a license to be a miller, or a village mayor. You’re one of the dozen important people in the village.
7th: Townhouse and large farm, plus an exceptional right – a guild head, tax collector, command of a few hundred soldiers, or some office at court. You’re the most important person in the village, or one of the dozen important ones in a town.
9th: Right to build a keep and maintain a village, plus a townhouse, plus some great office like warden of a forest, command of a thousand soldiers.
12th: As 9th but you might get a special office like ambassador, general, or admiral.
15th: As 12th but also supervision over a dozen Lords (9th) as a Duke-equivalent, and you’re counted as not much less important than a Prince – one of the dozen important people in the kingdom.
20th: Just go out and crush some jeweled thrones under your sandaled feet, because you’re only less important than the king because he’s the king. If you found or conquer a neighboring kingdom, maybe your old king would like to style himself an emperor – or maybe you’ll beat him to it.

I haven’t read ACKS but maybe this is how they handle it? I think it makes sense for the first generation after conquest, but the Emperor’s kid is probably gonna be a snotnosed little 1st level punk. At least, unless there is continual warfare, the 20th level king’s kid will end up being 12th or something, and his kid will be 6th, and his 1st (if not degrading faster). This assumes the king refuses to let his kid be a worthless shit and forces him into combat training.

Cheap Magic Items

December 5, 2012

Generally in D&D you get normal equipment, then the first magic item is like “OMG this thing is worth how many thousand gold?!” It’s always cool to get magic items, even at first level, but they’re so powerful! And if you get a +1 Sword by 2nd level, and a +2 Sword by 4th, you’re quickly going to run out of swords to get. I like stretching out the growing collection of magic items a little. One way to handle it is to just put the lowest-power magic items in and hope for the best. But some item types don’t have low-value examples (such as rings, weapons).

Let’s use 1E AD&D as the example. It works because it actually has magic items values, unlike 2E’s DMG, a paucity they quickly realized was a terrible idea and fixed in the Magic Item Encyclopedias. Another reason is that 3E, the other system for which I would have input, has valuation tables for magic items but they’re easy to break and they’re really more of a set of guidelines.

1: Use existing magic items, possibly with few charges.
Here is where you get to make a potion, a few magic arrows, or a Wand of Magic Missiles (5 charges) a worthwhile treasure.

2: Permanent items can have charges.
Found this in a Dragon article. Maybe take a +1 Sword that has 30 charges, and each charge gives you 1 turn (10 rounds) of magic. Otherwise it gives no bonuses. Generally making a +1 Sword that only works 1 day per week or 1 hour per day will cause players to waste time waiting for their stuff to pop back up. But if it’s a finite resource like charges, they gain nothing by waiting.

3: New weak magic items.
Think about stuff that doesn’t have as big of an impact as a 1st level spell or +1 Sword. But who can come up with enough of these things?

Here ya go, this should get you started.

Detect Disturbance: Keep the ring in a container for 1 week. Thereafter the ring will vibrate if the container is touched, moved, picked open, etc. or if magic affects it. Resets to new container if kept in it 1 wk.

Detect Spellcaster: Throbs if you point it toward a spellcaster, monster with spell-like abilities, or someone who has the potential for magic within 60′. But the target also notices you! Requires line-of-sight and is blocked by a wall or even a curtain. WIll detect invisibles if they qualify, but won’t give distance – only direction. Takes 1 round to check a cmopass direction (of eight).

Protection from Charms: Ring has six little gems, and if you would get charmed by spell or spell-like ability one of the gems shatters instead. Even affects higher-level charms like domination, geas, etc. but it’s up to you if it works against psionics or mutations (I’d say no).

Gambler’s Telekinesis: Low-range low-power TK ability, not enough to use in combat or untie your ropes but enough to subtly alter a die roll. Only works for times when your PC is rolling dice in the game, not for you rolling dice in Kristy’s basement. Lets you change the die facing one place from where it will fall. Experienced gamblers may notice that something funny is going on and a Detect Magic will reveal your deceit.

Rod / Staff / Wand
Magic Detection: One charge determines whether or not the touched item is magical, because the rod glows if it is.

Beeping: Wand will beep or glow on silent command by the person who has carried it the most in the past week. It’s great for “detecting evil” and the like.

Ugly Stick: When you hit someone it makes them really ugly for one hour per CHA point, using 1 charge.

Shutup: Whomp on someone and he can’t talk (or cast spells with verbal component, or use magic items with a command word) for 1d6+1 rounds. Takes 1 charge.

Misc Magic
Hood of Veiled Sight: Can’t see while you wear it except basic outlines. You can’t tell friend from foe unless their shapes are extremely different (such as your human buddies vs. some sprites or a basilisk) (in 3E terms, call it “Medium Humanoid” vs. “Large Magical Beast” if you wanna get technical). Immune to gaze attacks, but you do not reflect them as a mirror would.

Liquid Mirror: If it breaks, the pieces melt and reform in the frame in 1 hour. Separated pieces evaporate and the frame heals the gap. If broken over a creature it takes 1 HP damage and has -1 to all rolls for 7 days.

Gas Bag: On command it sucks up a 10′ cube of nearby gasses (which might be just air) and seals shut. If commanded again it exhales the 10′ cube of gas. It can knock things over like a Gust of Wind in its 10′ cube area. Corrosive gasses don’t affect it. It can’t hold anything denser than gasses. What it holds will come out at the same temperature it went in. With practice, you can control the exhalation to sustain a person underwater for 1 hour.

Skeleton Bone: It can turn into a Skeleton monster on command, and turns back again if it’s killed. It can be transformed 1/day. But if it takes 10 HP or more damage at once there is a 1 in 6 chance the bone shatters.

Busker’s Case: Case for an instrument; will change shape to fit any instrument you try to put in it as long as such an instrument usually gets a case (no pianos). If set out while you play for tips on the street, you get +10% money. If some mishap would damage an instrument carried in the case it affects the case instead. Three such mishaps destroy the case’s magic.

Water Barrier: Prevents water from seeping in or sweat from evaporating out. Won’t let you breathe underwater unless you supply air somehow.

Heat Barrier: Your body heat won’t go out and the armor won’t overheat from outside. Armor has minor effect in making you warmer if it’s cold or cooler if it’s hot (as in Wilderness Survival Guide, but a minor change, such as -/+ 20 degrees toward comfort). Mainly it makes you invisible to Infravision.

Oily: It’s hard to grapple you (-4 to hit or something) but if struck by fire you burn for an extra 1d3 HP for 1d3 rounds. Then you need to pour 1 flask of oil on to re-oil it. You can’t get oil out of it. If struck by a rusting attack while oiled, it de-oils instead.

Reflected Brilliance: If there is a light source that touches you (as in, it’s bright radius, such as the 20′ for a torch or whatever) then you also glow in all directions for 10′. You cast no shadow, even if the light isn’t bright enough to activate the armor.

Protection From Magic Missiles: MM against you have a 1 in 6 chance to hit the shield and bounce away harmlessly. These bounced MMs become mopey little light motes that you could capture if you cared; they eat aphids and crumbs.

Floating Disc Shield: Can carry stuff like a Floating Disc spell as a 1st level M-U. It has all these coin-shaped depressions in the front and it requires 10 GP to fuel one hour of operation. The coins get consumed by the shield but you can pry them back out if you haven’t activated it yet.

Campfire Shield: On command the front surface heats up and small flames come out. In combat if you shield-bash you deal +1 fire damage. But every turn you carry it lit you take 1 HP because it’s so hot, and it takes 3 rounds to heat up or cool off. Mainly it’s a nice guaranteed campfire (you can always light it, you don’t need fuel, it won’t blow out).

Sled: Enlarges into a one-man + cargo sled (with all the normal harness) on command, though to go cross-country you’ll need dogs or something to pull it. The enlarging / shrinking won’t cause damage but can scoot small objects out of the way.

Sword-Friend: When it hits a swordsman (or a swordsman hits you) the two swords bind together and fall to the floor. They come apart again in 1 turn. Until then neither can be used in combat. Usable 1/day.

Sacrificial Sword: When you kill something there is a (HD %) chance that you get an immediate 1st level spell effect on you or a nearby target. You can’t save it up. The effect is based on the religion of the sword, and you might get to pick from a couple choices. Only works if the thing you killed wasn’t a worshipper of the sword’s religion. Each time it happens you have a 1 in 10 chance of switching religions (and possibly alignments) as you begin to see the truth.

Sword of Courage: Followers of your party or men in your unit gain +1 Morale (and/or Save vs. Fear). DM decides whether it works for full party members (PC or NPC) or wielder. You get +1 or +5% to recruiting new hirelings.

Willow-Sword: Very flexible, bends to get that hit when it would otherwise miss. If you miss by 3 or less, the sword hits anyway for just 1 HP of damage.

Misc Weapon
Axe of Wood-Chopping: +1 vs. wood. Succeed at Open Door 2/day vs. wooden enclosures.

Bitespear: Wounds caused by it look like they came from whatever animal you choose (has to be something you have experience with). The wounds still look / feel just as serious, so if you choose hornets it’ll be a whole lot of hornet stings per stab. Spear makes a medium-volume sound like the animal when you attack.

Digger-Dagger: +1 vs. earth and stone creatures. Acts as a full-size shovel for digging purposes.

Hammer of the Heavy Drop: After you attack it takes 2 rounds to recover from the swing. If you drop the hammer and pick it up, or someone else does, it still can’t attack faster than once per three rounds. It deals triple normal hammer damage. If used to Open Doors you get three chances in one swing. It’s throw distance is 10′ maximum.

Iron Spike Hammer: When it hits it drives in an iron spike automatically. It holds 20 spikes, and you refill it by inserting the spikes into the little hole on the hammer’s face. It causes +1 damage (and all damage is piercing type) if a spike is driven in, or normal hammer damage if there are none. You can’t fire the spikes as missiles. If a rope or chain is threaded through the hole also, it will be attached to the spike when it’s driven in. You can use wooden stakes instead, but these have a special effect on Vampires only if the DM allows (he should read his description of vampires’ weaknesses carefully, and consider how he handles “called shots” already). Special spikes could be made, but must be durable (not ceramic or glass) or else they shatter with no effect.

Liquid Tool: Can change form so the head is shaped like an axe, pick, shovel, hammer, blade, skillet, saw, drill, or crowbar. It’s always Medium-sized. The haft is nonmagical and can be replaced. If the head chips or breaks you can press iron scraps into the break and it will heal over. It automatically sharpens / straightens when it changes shape.

Muleskinner’s Whip: Unskilled user counts as a skilled drover / teamster. Skilled user gets extra 10% distance per day OR ignores one animal / wagon mishap. Wielder tends to swear more often.

Player Maps Will Look Pretty Bad

December 3, 2012

I like having a good map of whatever thing I’m DMing, and describing to the players what they see, and if they want to map it then they can.

There are problems: what about players who feel the need to map every alcove with precision? What if it’s hard to describe a complex room?

There are things that could be problems or benefits: what if the players screw up their map and get confused? What if nobody wants to map and they keep getting lost?

And there are benefits: will they be more connected to the game world? Will they feel mystery at not seeing the whole map? Will they feel accomplishment at mapping on their own? Will the player map as a shared-creation artifact be a cool thing?

I like to consider the game-ability of any place I map. Is this going to just be a pain in the butt to describe? Maybe I simpify it. Or maybe I think of ways to describe it in terms of structural shapes instead of map squares.

What’s important to me is to implant what the thing looks like to players. It’s fine if the specifics aren’t quite right. When you get into a fight you draw stuff out quickly on the grid mat or arrange your building blocks or whatever, and that has to be a good map.

Not showing the map to the players means I can make my DM map quickly and it doesn’t need to look nice. I can mark all kinds of DM information on it that they shouldn’t see. It can be a map that’s maximally useful to me and drawn quickly.

The players have to make their own map based on what I describe. It doesn’t need to match my map. It just needs to give the players perspective and show the relationships of different features. If the player map shows that the players have to head south to get to the pass, that’s cool. If they arrive a day early and the distance was not what they expected, that’s fine.

Some blogger recently mentioned using tracing paper or a light table to make edited copies of a DM map for players, maintaining accuracy but leaving out the grid, secrets, and DM notes – and probably mapping only a small section. I like this, but its utility is limited to times when you want to give an accurate map. I’d rather scrawl something on unlined paper that’s kinda like the dungeon outline.

I like making a poor quality DM map and adding notes. I can make a good game-able map in a very short time. All I need is room size, hallway length, and I’m good. For wilderness maps it’s easy to just draw stuff, and I think drawing on ungridded paper is more common for wilderness than dungeon maps. Maybe it’s because there’s more wiggle room: it’s ok for your wilderness map to be off by 1/4″ but not your dungeon map, because the former adds an hour of travel but the latter changes spell range and area of effect.

You might not appreciate fast mapping but if your party heads off to a dungeon you haven’t detailed beyond a line in your notes that says “abandoned dwarf mine – center hole – spiral walk down – side passages connect – plants in bottom and level below has lava” you’ll be glad you can whip it up while the players are settling in and picking their spells.

Curves vs. Linear Rolls

November 30, 2012

TL;DR: You can just do d6 x 5 instead of 5d6 for damage and get the same kind of game results, but you have to do it that way for both damage and HP for it to work well. See last two paragraphs for ideas about linear HP if that matters to you.

Anybody who has access to a 1E AD&D DMG and hasn’t checked out the part in the front where it talks about probability tables, please do so now. If you don’t have the book, or if that section never made sense, check out Anydice, which does a good job of explaining visually how any combination of dice gives a pattern of results on average.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, and I don’t understand why I never thought about it before.

1: M-Us cast spells that require lots of dice to roll. Stars Without Number has weapons that deal 5d12 etc.
2: You might have that many dice to roll at once, but you might have to roll over and over and sum as you go.
3: It takes a while and it’s boring except when you get a really high or low result.
4: You generally get an average result because of the curve of the roll probability table.
5: As you add more dice, the result becomes more predictably average.
Conclusion: This doesn’t work as well as it should.

We can try to fix this problem by addressing any of these five points. There are probably more but I didn’t think of them.

Mainly, let’s talk about shifting the roll from “sum many dice” to “one die times multiplier”.

For example, instead of rolling 5d12, which generally gives us something near 32 (and almost always 18-47) we can roll d12 x 5, which is equally likely to give us 5-60 in 5-digit increments. The min, max, and avg are the same.

This is faster and easier, more accurate, requires fewer dice, and changes the kind of result. The first few are simply advantages, but the last is a sticky point because some people might like the curve instead of the linear 5-60 result.

Let’s assume Gygax knew about these methods (since he did write about it) and intentionally used XdY throughout his game instead of dY*Z. Let’s look at a 5th level M-U from 1E AD&D.

He gets a single Fireball, his best damage-dealing spell, which does 5d6 and the victim(s) save for half damage. The average damage is (take one die’s maximum, halve it, add 0.5, multiply by the number of dice) 17.5. More important is what I’ll call a “reasonable range” which I threw in above with the 5d12. It’s the range where 95% of the results will come out. The RR of 5d6 is 10-25.

But let’s look at this from the perspective of a monster of various Hit Dice, using d8 per HD, using the RR of their average HP rolls:

1 HD: 1-8
2 HD: 3-15
3 HD: 6-21
4 HD: 10-26
5 HD: 13-32

Again, remember this is the range that you could generally expect to have happen: a higher or lower result is possible but highly unlikely, effectively half the chance of a natural 1 or 20 on d20.

What we see is that, even if the 1 HD monster saves, he will definitely die. The 2-4 HD monster will generally die unless he saves. But the 5 HD monster will generally survive even if he fails his save.

The saving throw for these monsters is 20% chance for 1-2 HD, 25% for 3-4 HD, 35% for 5-6 HD. If it saves, it takes half damage.

So imagine a 5d6 Fireball hitting a group of 100 (tightly-packed) monsters. Here are how many remain after the blast and saves are rolled:

1 HD: None
2 HD: 20
3-4 HD: 25
5 HD: All 100

Now let’s look at a d6x5 Fireball against creatures with d8xHD HP.

We have a problem. Our old “exclude the 5% outliers” doesn’t work so well because we eliminated those outliers. Let’s just use the straight result pattern possible. This means the Fireball is 5-30 and the monsters’ HPs are as follows:

1 HD: 1-8
2 HD: 2-16
3 HD: 3-24
4 HD: 4-32
5 HD: 5-40

Here it looks like the Fireball is still generally going to fry the 1 HD regardless of save. The 2-4 HD need to save to survive. The 5 HD will probably make it even if the save is failed.

The saving throw chances and results are the same as above.

And of course, remember that the average damage and HP are the same between the two methods, so laying out the numbers and running a comparison of XdY vs. dY*Z using avg is pointless.

Obviously it’s not going to be exactly the same game. When you gain a level, for example, you can’t just roll your hit die and add to your total. That’s going to result in a curved graph for your HP; that is, you are unlikely to get all 1s or all 6s if your hit die is d6. Instead, you will need to roll HP all over again at each level, simply d6 x Level if your HP are d6s.

This may result in grumblecakes from a player who went from L1 (and rolled 6×1=6 HP) to L2 (and rolled 1×2=2 HP). You could let the player take the better of the two HP totals, but that will skew toward higher HP. It’s not a game balance problem if you also give the same benefit to monsters, but it will result in longer fights since damage is relatively lower than HP and will make damage effects less valuable compared to save-or-X effects. That’s not something you’d be worried about if you usually give max HP at 1st level or let people reroll 1s for HP.

1st level M-U is actually pretty awesome

November 19, 2012

This blogger posted about how weak 1st level M-Us are and how most would probably stay in academia until 5th level or so, which he calls a journeyman status.

First, on the combat abilities of an M-U. I don’t know what game system each of you are looking at, but what I find is that many numbers were taken from earlier editions of D&D even though the assumptions behind those numbers changed. Delta talks about this related to archery.

In 1E AD&D a 1st level Fighter (who is a “Veteran” which is a person not only well trained but experienced on a campaign) has a to-hit number of 20, the same as everyone else. It only starts getting better at higher levels. His saving throws are terrible compared to all other classes. I’m using the Fighter as a comparison because Normal Men act as 0-level Fighters.

So take this Normal Man. If he’s sedentary he’ll have d4 HP and -2 to hit, if he’s a laborer d6+1 and normal 0-level fighting. From that we can see the M-U isn’t weaker than a sedentary human; in fact he has the same HP as any sedentary man and a better attack chance than even a miner or woodcutter.

Furthermore this M-U has the ability to cast one spell per day from a short list that incudes:

Charm Person: mind-slavery
Sleep: drop 2d4 first-level enemies with no save
Magic Missile: auto-hit with an arrow’s damage, good chance to kill a normal man
Comprehend Languages: read any language and equivalent to 100% Read Languages skill as Thief
Armor: invisible, silent, weightless Scale Mail

These are all pretty miraculous, and worth using weapons that do -1 damage and having -3 HP on average compared to a Fighter.

There’s the question of why anybody would go out and adventure at 1st level? Because you need experience and money. I’ll give a few examples:

In 1E AD&D, you have to get XP by killing monsters and seizing treasure. You don’t get XP for sitting around in town. Also, you need such large amounts of money to train that even if you killed pigeons all day you still couldn’t train.

In 2E AD&D, it’s possible to get XP by performing class functions, but only in a useful way. You can’t go out into the woods and cast Magic Missile at a tree to get XP. The DM needs to exercise some common sense in preventing abuse. The DM might decide that someone in town casting Cure Light on farmers’ injuries counts as useful. Another DM might say you need to be on some adventure in danger, do something useful to furthering the adventure, and succeed (which is my criteria). Even if your DM’s rulings allow townie spellcaster advancement, where does their money come from? The supply of low-level spellcasting is going to be pretty high with the local adventurer Wizards traipsing through every week, so either fees will be low or demand is not enough to support many townie wizards. Training costs in 2E is an optional rule. Again, let’s say the DM is generous and requires no training cost or time. What about getting new spells? Wizards don’t get new ones for free; specialist wizards get one per level. With little money you can’t afford new spells, even if NPCs are pretty open about selling theirs.

To create new spells you need an expensive library and pay high fees, and even then you might fail. Someone can just waltz into the dungeon and pick up a scroll or maybe even a spellbook and come out with the equivalent of months or years of research and tens of thousands of GP in research costs. It’s not worth it to research spells unless you can’t find them “in the wild”. Because a 1st level M-U can research spells, I would call him a PhD in Magic. He’s already gone through the equivalent of a decade of college or private tutoring. Wouldn’t it take another decade to hit level 2? Who has that kind of time?

(Right. Elves.)

Similarly, XP advancement, even if possible in town, is faster in a dungeon. You could walk out of a dungeon after your first expedition, rest a couple days, go back in, and come out ready to train for level 2. The guy in town might not have had a customer yet.

Yes of course you could die. That’s the tradeoff. That’s why adventurers are all the crazy kind of folk who are willing to take big risks for a big payoff. Maybe your M-U has a feud going with another young academic wizard, and in order to best him you have to learn faster: by experiencing magic use in strange situations and against different monsters, and getting cool magic items. As long as he survives the ordeal, the adventuring M-U will definitely, absolutely outpace the academic.

I say that for two reasons. 1: it’s supported by the rules in 1E, 2E, 3E even assuming the most generous possible DM interpretation, short of very generous house-rules. 2: it supports the existing assumptions of the game. If it were possible to sit around in town and get more XP and treasure then literally nobody would go into the dungeon. We would be playing Papers & Paychecks.

If you want a game where NPCs sit in their ivory towers until they’re at least 5th level, you need to come up with a reason why PCs won’t do the same thing. Here’s how I envision the exchange:

DM: Ok guys you all have 1st level PCs, let’s hit the adventure!
Players: Uh, we’re ging to stay in town until we’re 5th.
DM: How will you pay for this education?
Players: However the NPCs do it.
DM: But you’re edgy, risky people!
Players: My character sheet says Lawful Neutral with cowardly, bookish tendencies.
DM: But the quest! You’ll run out of time!
Players: There’ll be some other quest in a few years when we graduate. It’s not like we’re the only ones who can save the world.
DM: (reading DMing advice) Ok I’ll level with you guys. Why don’t you want to go on the adventure?
Players: We like the adventure. We just want to take a good opportunity. It’s like anything: you can use a +1 sword or a normal one, which do you pick? You take the better opportunity. Why adventure at 1st level?
DM: Fine the town is burning down and you need to escape. Also there are no other towns and all the universities are full and there are no more grants and there’s a double standard for prices of goods and services between NPCs and PCs.
Players: Choo choo! *all circling the table completely twice in a conga-line*

Or avoid the rigmarole and say high level town NPCs used to be adventurers and now are at least semi-retired.

This crops up in almost every game I’m in, player or DM. Some player tries to do something that will bring some advantage because he’s acting like an NPC: being an armorer, making magic items, casting spells in town, picking pockets in town. The player says “oh, this NPC makes this much money, I’d be happy with a tenth of that!” But the DM brings him down to earth and explains that you need a storefront, you need a reputation, clientele, business connections, etc. Most importantly you need to spend so much time running the operation that you can’t go adventuring. So do you want to retire this character in town and roll up a new one?

Not to say that players shouldn’t do stuff outside the adventure. But the player’s goal is usually to get a big payoff with no risk or effort. If the player just wants to have a bookbinding shop, I’m fine with saying he gets some percentage of return on his investment every month. I’d go so far as to make a little table with investment risk levels, with riskier investments having a higher return rate but a higher chance of ruination. Hire an NPC goober to run the place and pay him his wages, and you’re good. What I don’t want is a player setting up a bookbinding shop and churning out spellbooks, expecting to sell as many as he can make, and get such a cashflow that he has to come up with a RP reason to leave town again.