Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Why Do Boring Stupid Combats Happen

April 14, 2017

I have two specific situations where boring stupid combats happen, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make them not happen.

Imagine a scenario where the PCs encounter something and they fight it and they’re just the right power level for it. The fight lasts a normal amount of time, they get to use some special abilities on it, they have a chance of dying, random chance matters, they might have to make interesting decisions (use up more spells now and not have them later? Use up consumable magic?), and they get to see the monsters’ gnarly abilities, and they might consider fleeing or roleplaying instead of rolling for initiative. So I’d call that a fulfilling combat encounter.

What happens when the PCs are way too weak? 2nd level PCs fighting some Trolls. I’d say this encounter works just great; it’s clearly too tough, the players can choose to try to parley, flee, or almost certainly roll up new characters.

What happens when the PCs are way too powerful? 6th level PCs fighting 20 Kobolds. I’d call this encounter boring because there’s no risk, no real reward. But at least it’s over very quickly so we can move on to better things, and because the PCs know they outclass the monsters so much they’re more willing to try parleying for information.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too weak? 3rd level PCs fighting 20 1st level pirates. The encounter might be surmountable, or they might fail. But the PCs will probably use up consumables to survive, so they have a fine chance of victory. The outcome is shabby though because the fight takes a long time and they burn up more resources than they could gain from the spoils. I find these encounters to be very dissatisfying mostly because they take up a ton of table time. I hate when a game session boils down to a single combat encounter and limping away to lick your wounds. I’ve seen the big dragon fight take one session and the treasure take another, and players don’t seem to mind – but that’s a pretty epic encounter. Not just 20 dumb sailors or skeletons or whatever.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too strong? 4th level PCs fighting a big pack of wolves. They can’t get out of it by just Fireballing them, and the wolves do chip away at the PCs. The players are loathe to use consumables or even memorized spells because they feel the encounter is going to be easy enough. They may fail to take tactical advantages. So they end up wasting a lot of time and end up getting almost no reward for the investment of table time.

One could argue that skilled play is rewarded with more and better play opportunities. If the players decide to avoid a lengthy fight they can enjoy a better-balanced encounter that they choose later. And a DM carefully balancing fights reduces the incentive to learn those gameplay skills. But then again if you have three or four bad game sessions in a row it could seriously affect player enjoyment (and even attendance). It’s worth thinking about this.

But I don’t have many good answers.

One solution was present in BECMI, where extremely high THAC0 on the table that more than guaranteed a hit, would deal extra damage to that very vulnerable target. So there was still a benefit for a high-level Fighter vs. a low-AC monster. You could say this is like a 3E Power Attack, except automatically applied when it would have a benefit. Which I feel makes Power Attack a better rule because it involves interesting choices. The BECMI rule however could have a houseruled corollary where a very low chance to hit against a very high AC would deal reduced damage even if you hit. Or you could remove the “natural 20 is always a hit” or “nat 20 is counted as 30” that a lot of groups use. The high-AC rule makes it clearer when a fight is out of the PCs’ league, and means a really tough monster will not only deal more damage to weaker PCs but take less from them.

Another solution I’ve used is that subsequent low-level encounters in an area will have heard of the PCs and avoid them, or surrender, etc. These Kobolds found the bloody mess of the last Kobold band the PCs slaughtered. This helps prevent the fight that’s boring because it’s way too easy. Another option is saying the encounter is “played out” and the PCs actually only encountered an empty Kobold village that cleared out because the PCs were in the neighborhood.

You could also use that kind of logic to shift the encounter into a higher or lower level. 0D&D had an encounter table that said larger groups of PCs would draw correspondingly larger groups of monsters. I guess this meant the monsters would pay more attention to a big group of invaders and amass more of a resistance. It also might have been a way to discourage players bringing hordes of NPC hirelings along.

Maybe if you roll a third “Kobold band” encounter, and the PCs dealt with the last two handily, this last encounter is with the rest of the tribe trying desperately to defeat these powerful invaders. That way the encounter shifts into interesting territory, and if the PCs prevail there won’t be anymore Kobolds in the neighborhood to encounter. Either the area becomes more desolate with “empty” encounter results, or something else moves into that encounter space. Perhaps civilized people like merchants or hunters taking advantage of a safer area, which would slowly result in a civilized part of the frontier (and if you roll a multiple encounter result you could end up with some Giant Lizards that encountered some Pilgrims – so what happens next?). Maybe some other monster moves in.

Generally I want the verisimilitude of the world being described by a good set of random tables. So adjusting the roll result after seeing what the dice said feels like I’m not letting the table do its work. But I shouldn’t feel constrained to stick with a basic table regardless of how lame it makes the game. Philosophy that encounters reality either creates a bunch of side rules to cover special cases, or it steadfastly ignores its own terrible outcomes in favor of the simplicity of its basic tenets. I’m happy to use encounter tables and the oracular power of dice to guide the game, and apply reasonable adjustments later. And I feel that adjusting an encounter on the fly in the way I was describing is fine, specifically:

1: To shift encounters out of the “long, drawn-out, boring hell of a game session” either up or down to make the outcome resolve faster.

2: Avoid “waste a ton of time on an encounter without reward” as long as the players had a chance to experience that at least once or twice.

However, I still feel that beefing things up just because the PCs are too effective is outside what I’m comfortable with. Justifying it doesn’t take a lot of effort. “The Orcs were desperate because of your victories and made a pact with an itinerant Necromancer who raises their dead but keeps their souls in his amulet, to their dismay.” Bam, made the area tougher, added some interesting roleplaying opportunities, did good work. Tacking on a couple extra hit dice on those Orcs instead feels like lazy and churlish DMing antagonistic to the players sitting around the table.

As with a lot of things about this game, I bet a lot of people won’t see a big difference between those two. And after a couple years or a couple drinks I could persuade myself there isn’t.

It’s occasionally dismaying to realize I spend a lot of time thinking about D&D and come up with few concrete answers. Everything changes. There are always new things to try. I still love the game, on both sides of the DM screen. But I tell you, if you enjoy sausages, don’t learn to make them.

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.

How to Use a Module

June 28, 2016

This is going to be elementary for a lot of you, and a lot of modules say this stuff in the intro. But maybe someone out there missed the memo? You can’t just tear the shrinkwrap off a module and throw down some dice. Here’s my advice. Please do not consider me an authority on this; it’s just how I do it. I’m interested to learn how everyone else does.

1: Make sure everything’s there. This is more important with boxed sets and used material. You need all the maps, handouts, notes, etc.

2: Read through the module gently, as if reading a novel for enjoyment. Get a feel for what the module has in store and make some notes in pencil in the margins for things that don’t make sense or that are really damn cool. This is your book now, and it’s a workbook. You write in modules. You can try to keep your module pristine by using post-its or a separate notebook but it’s a huge pain. Also, it’s amazing to find a module in a used bookstore and find someone’s old campaign notes in it. You’re not only using the easiest note-taking method but enriching the future a little.

3: Read through again and pick out the actual challenges. Monsters, traps, obstacles, secret doors, puzzles. You can underline or put a symbol to the side in the margin. Make sure there are the right pegs and holes for your game system. Roll and write down HP for monsters if it wasn’t already done for you. For example, if you use 3E D&D, everything is going to need a DC. This is the stage where you convert the module to your system if it isn’t there already; usually theme and fat doesn’t change, only the bones, so you don’t need a deep appreciation of the module to accomplish it. Also, if this is as far as you get, you’re prepared for play better than if you mix up the order.

4: Now look over all the tools given to the players. These can include magic items, NPC help, hints, or just normal equipment. How will those tools help the party overcome the challenges? Does it seem like some challenges require the party to find certain tools first? It’s better if finding a tool makes the challenge easier, because clues can be like needles in a haystack for some parties.

5: Pick out the treasure. Note it in the sides.

Now you’ve read through the book once, and skimmed it three times. This is about as prepared as most module writers expect you to be. But you’re going to destroy their expectations in an exultant orgy of preparation.

6: We’re analyzing the module now. Back to challenges. Look over the monsters.
* Does each group have a motivation? Why are the Orcs here anyway?
* Are there interesting motivations you can give any individuals in the group? What is the Orc guarding the well trying to do around here?
* What will happen if these monsters are alerted to the party? If a fight happens in the guardroom, who can hear it? Are there alarms?
* What happens if the party fights a bunch of them and leaves? Do they re-fortify and what resources do they have for that?
* What happens if the party steals their treasure? Do they hang around, do something desperate, or emigrate?
* What happens if the party destroys them and loots? What, if anything, fills the void?
* What happens if the monsters achieve their motivations?

Next look over the other challenges with the same mindset. What if the secret door is left open? What if nobody can figure out the puzzle? What if the party burns down the palisade?

Now go over the tools. Are there obvious scams that can be pulled that will invalidate large sections of the module? Is that ok? Is it possible to use up a tool elsewhere and no longer have it for a challenge that requires it?

Don’t feel like you have to plan out everything, and definitely don’t try to create storylines that the players will follow, because it tends to reduce the game to a few IF->THEN branches. But thinking it through now might give you some really weird ideas that would be great in the game. For example, you might see a connection between the Kobolds and the Orcs where if they’re both kind of devastated they will join forces. Or maybe a band of thieves will call in mercenaries. But if your plan would be pretty obvious at the table, you don’t need to write anything down.

Now you’ve picked the module apart and figured out how it ticks. The next step is adding your own touch to the module.

7: Is the treasure appropriate for the challenges? Maybe you can hide extra treasure in places where players can find it if they play very well and creatively. What is the future impact of this treasure if the players use these characters in another adventure? It might be better to replace a permanent magic item with a charged one to limit its use to this adventure plus a few more times.

8: Are there any ways you can tie in your previous campaign events into the module? Can an informant, spy, assassin, or humble townsperson participate? Can you replace a flavorless flat NPC in the module with a cameo from a prior adventure? Try to  figure out how the adventure outcomes will affect future adventures in the area. Mostly this will need to wait until after the adventure because you don’t know if the party will slay or join the bandits or miss them completely.

9: Read through again and find the places where there is very little detail. Maybe there’s a thief hiding in the storeroom. If there are a few traps that are identical, change some of them up a little – but try to keep the trigger methods and the general theme the same so the party can learn from their experiences.

10: Replace magic items that don’t have an explicit purpose in the module with more interesting or exciting ones, especially ones that will have an impact on this – or the next! – adventure. Same with very basic monsters, changing “goblins” to “blue goblins who are pottery experts and can squeeze through tight spaces like an ooze and take half damage from blunt weapons because they have cartilage instead of bones”. If there are bandits, give each band a name and a gimmick – the Merry Men give to the poor, the Compassionates never slay prisoners and use nonlethal weapons, the Rivals are always trying to one-up the other bandits.

At this point your module is coked up with some weird shit and you know it inside and out. Now is the time to trim it down.

11: Replace special rules with things that are already in the books, but only if it’s an exact match. If there’s a special table with % chances for escaping the pursuer, but your game already has it, just write the simpler rule in the margin so you don’t have to look it up. If the monster has a funky method for determining if it will flee, use a morale roll instead. This is definitely a place where you can make the game run smoother, but it’s also a place where you can accidentally lose some quirky charm in the module.

12: Can you find places where you need to roll all the time and replace it with some other method? Can you come up with a simple rule instead of a big chart to track things? You’re trying to reduce your overhead at the table. But this is also a place where you could lose something cool in the module.

By this point you’ve altered the module so much it’s possible a player wouldn’t recognize it. There is something to be said for running a module straight, unaltered, so that players across generations have a shared experience. But sometimes that experience is not so great, and sometimes the module is little-known so there isn’t much historical value. Make sure as you change things that you’re learning why the designer did it in the first place. Frequently something inexplicable is just misunderstood. You’re now deep enough in the module to figure that stuff out.

While running the module, continue to make notes. You should be able to start a game session knowing where you ended last, what timers are ticking down, and what the party was planning to do next. Keep track of player HP and such if they end in mid-dungeon just in case they lost their notes.

When you complete the module, look through to find any loose threads you can weave into the next adventure.

In summary, we have three phases of module preparation. First you read it and make margin notes to improve flow. Second you analyze it and look for connections and weak spots. Third you “improve” it by adding and removing as necessary. Each step is dependent on the previous and you can stop anytime and just play. For new DMs I would definitely suggest just going through the first phase and see what happens.

Tavern Tales, Code Wheels

March 26, 2016

The old SSI video games in the Gold Box series (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc.) featured some “feelies” which were physical objects that came with the game. Among them were a rulebook (which was kind of a D&D Lite for planning your character even though the game handled all adjudications – which is an interesting take on a Players’ Handbook) and a code wheel (two paper circles with a grommet connecting in the middle, and tiny holes so you could see through the top to view word strings underneath when the symbols on the edges aligned properly). These are some interesting ideas.

For the first one, the rulebook always had a section of text you would read during the gameplay because the game interface couldn’t easily handle large paragraphs. The sections were out of order, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and lacked context which made it difficult to read ahead for hints. But what hints you found were tantalizing! Among those were “Tavern Tales”, or rumors you’d hear in taverns. Some were true, others vague half-truths, others outright false.

I always wanted to implement tavern tales into my tabletop games, as a table of rumors you could roll on. But you only have so much development time between game sessions, which is better spent elsewhere. BUT! You can just roll on your Table of Contents for your module to generate a tavern tale topic. Even rolls are true, odd rolls are untrue (which means some topics may always have true or false rumors). Feel free to pepper occasionally with red herrings and misinformation if the two dice fall farther than a hand-span apart, giving exceptionally good info if they land touching each other, and a key, map, or some other aid if one lands on top of the other.

You may need to be clever with the die roll to prevent a result curve weighting heavily the middle of the module. If your book has 30 pages, maybe roll 1d10 x 1d3. Or if the material in the middle is the meat of the adventure, and you want fewer rumors about the introduction / town at the beginning or the deeper levels / boss fight at the end, 3d10 could be your friend.

You can also use the dice drop on the page to decide what exactly you’ll give information about. Or just use your knowledge of the topic on the page and come up with something related.

If you wrote your adventure and you don’t have a table of contents, you can number the pages in your notebook and roll for that number. Or if your notes are very scattered, write up a topic list of areas or phases of the adventure, special weird stuff, important monsters and treasures, and assume each has equal weight. If you write adventures like me, you’ll have an outline with a few dozen phrases lying around from your preliminary draft which you expanded later in your notes. Some of those ended up being very minor points in the adventure, others became central, and others changed or were left out. Perfect for a tavern tales roll.

What should be in a tavern tale? You don’t need to actually read from the page and give info from your adventure. Here are some examples I’d use:

Reality: Lizardmen in a ruined swamp castle just want to be left alone. Their god is a (long gone) dragon and the shamans brew weird potions that have unpredictable effects on mammals.
True tale: Explorers in the swamps regularly find weird totems made from bones and stretched skins.
True tale: Some plants in the swamp seem alien and rare, confounding even druids as to their uses.
Half-truth: A priest doing auguries about the wilderness, in his hallucinations and tremors, mentioned terrible reptiles stalking the swamps. He spoke in tongues which a wizard identified as Draconic.
Half-truth: Last year an adventuring party tried to explore the swamps and were driven out by scaled demons that hurled tree roots for javelins.
Falsehood: Merchants passing the swamp have described a city where savages traded gems away for iron tools.
Falsehood: At the center of the swamp is a fallen log that crushed a prince; his golden regalia remains under it where he was suddenly buried.
Dice land stacked: A Fighter Lord scouting for a wilderness territory to clear and claim gave up on the swamp as too filled with lizardmen to ever conquer – and to what end? Who can farm or mine, or harvest good straight trees, in a swamp? He has left for other conquests but a hireling of his can be persuaded to sell copies of his maps showing solid islands and the castle’s location.

Code wheels could be used for deciphering a language. That was the original theme: you’d line up two runes and the revealed word was the “answer” to the copy-protection question on startup. You could probably develop a lockpicking minigame for the Thief player to do. I haven’t thought about code wheels in a long time and the memory popped up when talking about the tavern tale thing. But if you had the code wheel drawn up in software that allowed you to write text along a vector (like Illustrator, probably Photoshop, maybe Gimp or Paint.Net) you could very quickly and easily change up the text for a new set of codes.

What’s Up With This Thug?

January 19, 2016

Been a while since I posted, but we’ve been gaming pretty regularly. Just completed an adventure I wrote for a campaign phase for level 1-7, so the next phase is for levels 7-14. After that I’m going to shove them into either Spelljammer or Planescape, whichever they prefer. I’d like to do the former but some people don’t like the aesthetic.

I need to type and print up the adventure and have a couple other groups play it and give some advice. After some revision and art I’d like to put it out as a module. But this stage takes a while and I want to strive for quality.

Anyway, here’s a thing I was tinkering with for a while. It’s like the “what is this group of monsters doing” tables but specifically for a gang member. One of those tables you don’t really need but would be nice to see printed in tiny font in the sidebar of the city encounter table. I used terms like “police” and “gang” because they’re shorthand with a lot of baggage – you could substitute “city watch” and “thieves’ guild”.

What’s Up With This Thug?
1: Fresh face tattoo, just joined the gang and swaggers with extra bravado.
2: Has been hiding loot from his comrades and is paranoid and defensive.
3: Recently failed on a job and is desperate to make it up to the gang.
4: Pressure from family outside the gang life to go straight, seriously considering it.
5: Contacted by police recently, considering whether to cooperate with them.
6: Regularly sells gang info to another gang, will betray a friend to avoid attention.
7: Secretly in love with gang leader.
8: Secretly wants to take over the gang, has a few supporters.
9: Publicly wants to challenge gang leader at the next contests, all his supposed supporters are really spies for the leader.
10: Next in line of succession for gang, looking for opportunities to bump off leader.
11: Has some side work he’s keeping secret from the rest of the gang.
12: Has been squirelling away supplies in a secret hideout.
13: In love with someone outside the gang, cuts them slack when he shouldn’t.
14: Under pressure to perform well, erratic, makes mistakes.
15: Deep in debt to someone outside the gang.
16: Family member has been arrested by police, forced to give info on gang to them.
17: Sees gang as family, will give anything.
18: Tired of another member’s shit, will try to betray him.
19: Addicted to thrills, will take on challenges and risks.
20: Religious fanatic, views gang leader as messiah.

Their value is in their use.

October 26, 2015

In 1E D&D you get 1 XP per GP value of treasure you haul back to town – except magic items. With those, if you keep it, you get a small XP value (generally about 15% of the GP sale value, higher percentage for low-value items like potions and scrolls), but if you sell it and don’t use it you get the full value. I recall a quote something like “when retaining magic items, the full XP value is not awarded, as their value is in their use” but I can’t actually find that quote anywhere.

I’ve thought about that for a long time and it finally clicked.

Imagine a 2nd level Fighter who is lucky enough to locate a magic Sword +1 that will award him 2000 XP if he sells it, or 400 XP if he keeps it. He’s just hit Level 2, so he has 2000 XP and he needs another 2000 XP to level up to 3rd. His choice to keep the sword or sell it makes a huge impact on his next delve into the dungeons.

If he keeps the sword, he will have +1 to hit and damage, it’ll be slightly quicker in a close initiative match, it’ll cast some significant light so he doesn’t have to carry a torch, and some monsters need a +1 weapon to hit. He’ll also get 400 XP, but that’s not enough to change his level.

If he sells the sword, he gets the huge XP bonus and can train for a new level (in 1E, spending all the proceeds from the sword’s sale and then some to pay for training costs! In fact, he probably just hands over the sword to the master plus some coin). That’s 1d10 HP, +1 on his THAC0 (so effectively +1 to hit), his saving throws improve by +1, he can “sweep” three 0-HD monsters per round instead of two, and he’s less affected by Sleep spells (friendly fire or from the enemy).

There are tradeoffs here, but one could argue that whichever he chooses, he’s just as able to take on the greater challenges of the deeper dungeon levels.

There’s also an element of gambling. Let’s say he locates a +2 Sword in his next adventure. He will naturally want to trade up, keeping the +2 and selling the +1 if he kept it. But by keeping the +1 until he finds a better one, he loses 1600 XP. When considering that gamble, he hopes that any magic item he keeps will be one he uses a lot and for a long time, ideally in at least one situation where the magic item bonus makes a difference (such as dealing a monster’s last HP of damage and taking it down so it can’t deal damage next round, vs. leaving it at 1 HP and taking damage from it next round).

This is obscured in a non-perfect scenario where the magic item has limited uses, or you don’t get enough XP from the sale to level up until you’ve sold off several magic items. But I think the interesting decision and the gamble are both still there.

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.

Select All the Images With Ice Cream

June 18, 2015

I just found a captcha that wanted me to click all of the images that contained ice cream. Out of nine, one was clearly ice cream, but another was yogurt parfait. I figured the yogurt didn’t count – but I was wrong! All these years and I could have been eating ice cream for breakfast.