Thursday, December 10, 2015

Preparing Spells: Numismamancy

Money makes the world go 'round, because you can't do magic without money.

You live in a world where magic is powered by absorbing the innate power of precious metals like gold, silver, copper, etc. If you want to prepare a spell, you have to hold a coin in your hand and say the magic words in old Draconic.

What the words mean, no one knows anymore. But everyone knows what they do.

The coin in your hand disappears, and suddenly your body is filled with a jolt of magical energy ready to be released as a spell at your earliest request.

Buuuuut, this isn't an exact science. The charge of energy you get varies, and depends on the quality of metal.

When you absorb a copper coin, you get the energy required to cast a single spell (randomly) between levels 1-4 (roll 1d4) that you know (you choose). If you can't cast spells of the rolled level, you get a spell of the next highest level you can cast, but when you cast it, it takes effect as though you were a level higher. A silver coin will grant you a single spell of level 1d6, and a gold coin will get you a spell of level 1d8. If you are lucky enough to get your hand around a platinum coin (or equivalent), you'll get a spell of level 1d10, where a roll of 0 means that the metal is so pure that you get a spell of any level you want.

Effectively, you are transmuting the magical energy in the metal into the magical energy needed to prepare a spell. The reason the level of magical energy you get varies is because the level of precious metal in any given coin fluctuates wildly, and non-precious metals and minerals within the coin will interfere with the absorption.

Most spellcasters grab a handful of coins when they are running low on magical energy and absorb their essence all at once. Other magic-users will make a more deliberate show of things, going one coin at a time so that they can work as efficiently as possible.

It's no wonder Evil Wizards lock themselves in towers with chests of gold and gems. Of course dragons would hoard gold and treasure in their lairs, they are the most powerful sorcerers known to exist! All that magic needs some fuel.

Look at all those spells! So many spells!

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Magic systems have what software engineers call a "user interface" (UI) and "system interface" or "back end".

Here's a computer example to help you understand UI vs. back end:

  • The ATM at your local bank is a machine in the wall that has slots for money, slots for debit cards, some buttons, a screen, and some other stuff. When you go get money from the ATM, you are interacting with the UI.
  • While you are blissfully pushing buttons and getting cash, there is other software running in the background that checks your pin number against the account it read off of your debit card. It then checks the withdrawal you are making against the balance in said account. These processes comprise the back end.
Now, here is an example using the magic system everyone loves to hate, Vancian magic:
  • The wizard wakes up early in the morning and prepares spells from his spellbook. These spells each require some amount of (non-fungible) mental space and magical aptitude to prepare, therefore limiting him to a certain number of each level of spell. Once the spell is cast, it is gone from memory and cannot be used until it is prepared again. This is Vancian's UI.
  • The player, meanwhile, reads a spell list on her character sheet and chooses which spells to prepare for the day by assigning them to the appropriate spell slots. If her character gets to learn new spells at this juncture, she reads those spells off of a larger spell list in some rulebook and chooses which ones are recorded onto her character sheet, and therefore her character's spellbook. This is Vancian's back end.
Critiques of D&D-style magic always seem to rail against one of these two halves of the system, either the UI or the back end. 

"Ewwwww," they say. "My wizard sucks so much when he doesn't have time to prepare spells. That's sooooo lame." This is a UI complaint.

"Uuuuuuugh," they spout. "Knowing all the spells available to me from the list is so banal. Where's the mystery?" This is a backend complaint.

The first claim is something I think everyone agrees on: vancian magic/spell slot magic/casting-overused-spells is boring as written. It's predictable in combat, and sitting at the table deciding what you will prepare for the day is always a drain on time and immersion.

Yeehaw! That UI can't have a spell-list back end...can it?
But you can add interesting spell components to solve the first problem, and crazy-awesome familiars or wacky spell-dream preparation mini-games to solve the second one.

That still leaves us with the list, however. A big list of everything a wizard can ever do. What usually follows in these critiques is some half-functional attempt at a magic-words system or a rune-magic system or something even more convoluted to increase "fun" and "spontaneity."

If you play D&D in any way even remotely resembling the way I play it, however, then you know these systems will either be trivially different from spell lists and have no impact on the feel of the game, or they will be so imbalanced or time-consuming that you'd be better served just shooting yourself in the foot.

This is not an opinion, this is a law of design: the more subsystems each individual piece of a game must fit into, the more confined you are to the design of those features.

Here's your damn spontaneous wizard!
For a case in point, see D&D 4E. Everything had to be a power, and therefore had to be used in combat, and therefore had to do damage and be useable a very specific number of times per unit-time. It's the Cocktail Weenie Approach. It has to stay on a toothpick. You can do a lot of things with that, but you also can't do a lot of things with that.

What is the single subsystem required to use a spell-list back end? Spell levels.

That's it. You can make anything you want into a spell in a spell-list system, and it will work so long as you assign it the correct level for your play style. Low magic games can move spells up a level or two, high magic games can move spells down a level or two.

Don't want PCs to be able to heal with magic? Take healing spells out.

Want cool blood magic stuff? Add spells with special blood-magic effects, no need for a new class or subsystem of magic.

Take a page out of the 5e book and let some spells be cast at higher levels than they are first listed to make them more powerful and useful in later play.

Make something a ritual by lowering the level and having it take 4 hours to do.

Make one spell a permanent and at-will invocation for a warlock-type character by forcing them to take a graft, or make a pact with a demon, or lose some max-HP, or lose some CON or STR to learn it. Allow wizards to become their spellbooks with magical give-and-take.
Okay okay okay...wait...I've got a knock... two comprehend languages, and... a ray of enfeeblement left.
You can't beat spell-lists and individual spell modules as the most open and creative magic system back end out there. You just can't. Every other kind of "build-it-as-you-go" back end for spellcasting has a mathematically provable limit to the number of spells you can make, and will always have entire "dead zones" of magic effects that just aren't doable with the given selection of runes, power words, range-damage-shape point allocations, etc.

So if you want a more interesting magic system than D&D Vancian as written, here's what you do:
  1. First and foremost, scrap all the over-used spells that bore you or (in your opinion) ruin the game. You don't owe your players any access to particular spells SO LONG AS you tell them ahead of time that you will be changing the spell selection.
  2. Now, put in a bunch of awesome spells and spell-features (like casting at higher levels or using blood to amplify their effect). Boom. Bad ass.
  3. For the love of god, don't just have your wizard pour over their imaginary spellbook for 20 minutes of out-of-game time to prepare spells. Make it interesting! Use familiars instead of spellbooks. Use dice rolls to randomly dole out spells for each level. Something! I'll post other ways to do this in the future.
  4. Give your magic-user players something to shake up their usual spells during the game. My vote is for letting them use any crazy component they find as part of a spell if it sounds like it might make sense. Nightmare ashes in a fireball? Hell yeah. Bat guano in your consecrate spell? Um... no, I don't think that does anything.
  5. Be generous. Magic is awesome and scary, whether you are in a low magic or high magic system/setting. Let fireballs ignite clothing and blow up buildings. Let magical flying be fast and acrobatic. If you want magic to be cool, you need to let it be dangerous and unpredictable in a narrative way, not a bunch of mechanical ways.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Boring RPG Races

I've talked about fantasy races before. I mostly enjoy the classics, especially when they are done well. If playing a dwarf in your game feels very different from playing a human, even though it's the same ol' Tolkien-esque style of dwarf, that's a good fantasy race in my book.

And just like a good bartender, if you can put your own spin on a classic while keeping it recognizable, even better.

But what really makes me wince are the plethora of half-ass'd "other" races that show up in RPGs. These are generally based on a handful of over-used or copied ideas that are good once, or have had all their awesomeness sucked out of them in the process of making a facsimile.

Let's talk about these handful of dreadful ideas so we can all avoid them like the plague.

The Anthropomorphic Animal
You know what are badass? Lizardmen. And you know what else are badass? Lionfolk. And so are Tiger People. But you know what's lame? A game where all three of those races exist. This is one of those "one-and-done" situations. If you put one animal-human race in your game, it will be the cool, feral, bestial race that fills in a niche quite nicely. If you put in more than one, it will be a bad anime on steroids.

The Anthropomorphic Plant
These just have to go. Period. Ents are the coolest thing ever. But you shouldn't be able to play one. No, not even a little human-sized one. What did you say? Yours are made of leaves and twigs, not solid wood? I don't care. Call them what you will, twig people are always lame and not at all inspired by the actual lifecycle of plants. Does your entire race go dormant in the winter? Do you make fruit? Do you bloom? Could you become pregnant from pollen wafting through the air? No? Then you aren't really a plant, are you? You're a person in plant cosplay. Boring.

The Lycanthrope Wanna-be
Werewolves, man. Werewolves. I still can't decide whether they are better than vampires, or vise-verse. Either way, they are awesome. You know what's not awesome? Stupid werewolf wanna-be's. These include two kinds of things: first, monsters that also have some kind of "change into an animal at the full moon" kinda thing. You know, were-boars, were-bears, were-slugs, etc. Lame. It was cool once. You suddenly let every animal under the sun have some special disease that will turn humans into them once a month, and now you've gone and ruined it. Second is the half-were-people. Those human people who can turn fuzzy at the first sign of trouble and get some kinda power boost because of it. Most often called "shifters" or, heaven preserve us, "Animorphes." These are everything lame about half-orcs and half-elves, mixed with everything lame about the anthropomorphic animals. Not good.

The Tiny Race
Okay, what is going through peoples' minds when they decide to put pixies and fairies and chipmunks and whatnot into their games? The only cool thing about these races is that they are small. But most games already have a race much smaller than human, namely halflings, and that is their domain! What will the halflings have now? Hairy feet? Obsession with food? Come on. Three foot tall adventurers is already stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits here. No need to bring in an insect sized thing to help me fight the dragon, thank you.

How exactly is a person made entirely of fire a suitable adventurer? If you can survive getting wet, or losing oxygen, then what about you is fire? Oh, I'm just a dwarf with a beard made of fire. Really? That is the basis for an entirely different race and culture? Flaming beards? You know what would be way more interesting? Regular dwarves who set their real beards on fire for some reason. I'd play to see that.

Perhaps the single worst idea for a playable race ever made. This race's role and identity is that they have none. It's like opposite day in the roleplaying world. When it's a super-assassin, made by an evil wizard to kill the PCs, and can look like anyone at anytime. THAT'S Terminator 2 levels of awesome and scary. When it's a player character trying to make a buck in a dungeon crawl, that's lame and might as well be a human who likes to wear disguises. Aliases are cool, not having an identity is not.

The half-giant
I refuse to accept that these creatures could ever exist. Also, being smaller than humans makes for an interesting underdog story. Being much larger is either a TREMENDOUS advantage, or you have nerfed it's mechanical advantage so badly that it isn't even worth it anymore. Just leave these out, please. Being gigantic is the realm of monsters. Keep it that way.

The Three-armed Thing
Ugh. [Insert rules for multi-weapon fighting style BS here.]

To be honest, I love the idea of a robot-type race. (Note: ROBOT, not half-human cyborg thing. That should not be a race.) Not only do I like it, but I have never found a game world with more than one of these robot races in it. So kudos there. BUT, how about we shy away from the "built for war, now the war's over" thing, yeah? There must be cooler origin stories out there for sentient robots. First thought, screw angels, the gods left these robots behind on earth to do their will. Or maybe there isn't a spirit world, but a clockwork realm that people go when they die, and these robots are those that have managed to come back, like ghosts. You get the picture. Just get those mental gears turning and you'll figure something out.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to Make D&D Combat More Fun

Many a person has put their two cents in on this subject. Some of those pennies have been good, some are one-trick-pennies (see what I did there?)

For example: "Have another monster/group enter the fray halfway through the battle!"

That's good once. Exactly once. Do it a second time, and your players will never again assume that the monsters they see when initiative is rolled (if you use initiative, see below) are all there is to the fight. Just like how if the DM makes use of explosive runes during session one, no PC will ever read any writing during that campaign ever again. Not that I'm bitter, or anything...

So without further to do, here are my tips for making D&D (etc. etc.) combat more fun.

  1. Get rid of Opportunity Attacks. There are many reasons for doing this. But the most important is that OAs penalize PCs for moving. Moving makes combat interesting. OAs = no movement = boring combat. You learned to put difficult and fancy terrain in your combats from some other list? Great! Now watch the PCs not use it at all for fear of getting hit with a sword on the way there...
  2. Make initiative better. Look, in-line initiative is the easiest way to arbitrate combat for beginners, but after a few years of experience, it becomes a hinderance. When everyone knows they are free for 5 minutes or more after their turn is done, people start leaving the table for beer and chips and phone calls and Starcraft II, etc. Don't let that happen. Your initiative system (or your ability to narrate and move combat without initiative at all) needs to keep everyone glued to their seats. I think popcorn initiative may be the best middle ground. If you reeeeeaaaaally love in-line initiative, allow combatants to knock other people down the order with stunning effects, etc. Keep the order dynamic.
  3. A miss should only be "plain ol' miss" about a third of the time. There is a whole world between fumbles and hits that few DMs and players every explore. I have my own fumble rules, but when it comes to interpreting a miss, I like to fly by the seat of my pants. For example, your longsword-wielding paladin player has just rolled a 2 against his dark knight nemesis. Are you just gonna let this be another miss? No! What if that dark knight caught the paly's sword blade between his armor and shield? Cool. And a free pseudo-grapple by the opponent isn't so harsh as to be fumble territory. Just let PCs do this to enemies too.
  4. Escape plans. Any moderately intelligent enemy should have one. If they are hurt or outnumbered, they flee. And this is a win-win, because either they can become a reoccurring villain if they get away, or it starts a chase (which your combat should have more of too).
  5. Don't roll that initiative die just yet. In games with an initiative system, there is this strange moment where non-combat becomes combat. The DM says "roll initiative" and...

It is impossible to roll initiative and then try and think of a way to succeed in the current situation without combat. The fighter will instantly go into attack mode. There is, of course, a lot to be said for being a good player and having a good DM. But I swear those two words create a pavlovian response and the itch for violence, even when it is not the most fun thing the PCs could do. So instead, wait to roll until a real combat situation has dawned. If the PCs are up on a ledge above a basilisk, even if the basilisk sees them, let them act outside of any initiative order until someone gets into a melee with the thing.

6. Destroy the environment. A lot of people will tell you to describe, in gross detail, every attack and wound during combat. However, there is an issue here, and that is abstract Hit Points. Unless you use one of those god-awful wound/blood/fatigue/guts/vitality/blah systems, not every hit means drawing blood, and saying a PC got stabbed in the kidney when they aren't even below half HP yet gets confusing. The other problem is that no matter how many organs pop out of someone, it doesn't make combat more interesting. No one is going to pick up a liver and try beating their opponent to death with it. BUT, furniture and such is easy to break. Everyone knows the parts of a chair, table, chest, etc. If you break those things, PCs will immediately recognize that new, makeshift weapons and tools are available to them in the fight. Also, if your large monsters are not pile-driving your PCs into furniture on the regular, I don't know what you are doing with your life...

7. Meanwhile, back at the ranch. At the end of every round, however you define that in combat, change the stakes. If it is a castle defense combat, have a hail of arrows, or a catapulted boulder, or a battering ram, or a bunch of ladders suddenly become relevant. If you are just in a dungeon with a single monster, have spells light the fungi on fire, have bats fly through the area because of the noise, have the monster's stomping cause loose rock or dirt to fall from the ceiling. Give every round its own little special event so the pace stays engaging.

8. Let the smaller/sneakier enemies hide mid-fight. This is a good escape plan, but also a great way to change the tempo of the fight. A cluttered or multi-walled area lends itself to suddenly disappearing and then stabbing people in the back.

9. Weather, baby. A downpour goes a loooooong way to setting the mood and making cool description easier. Also, wind, snow, hail, sleet, lightning, debris flying through the air. Stop having so many temperate, sunny encounters. In a dungeon? Well, the ground absorbs water, you could potentially have a wet season in a dungeon. Volcanic shafts could break through in certain places. And when all else seems too contrived, magic is the answer for why there is SO MUCH DAMN SNOW IN THIS UNDERGROUND CAVERN!

0. Combat is a drug. And the more you have of it in your game, the less it will impact the players. I recently played in a game where the first session consisted of saving a town from an invasion of kobolds under the leadership of a blue dragon. We had no less than six encounters with kobolds back-to-back-to-back, which I'm sure made sense to the DM, since it was a large town being invaded by an army of kobolds. But I can tell you that I, and essentially every player at the table, was bored by the end of encounter #2. I would have given anything to go help some people escape burning buildings instead. (In fact, I did. I had my character literally jump through a window and into a burning building to help a family, entirely skipping the group of kobolds outside that we were supposed to fight first). Two rules of thumb here. First, build up to your combats, like how the drums build up to the Mines of Moria encounter in LotR. Second, make it big, hectic, and deadly.

A quick aside on deadliness. Pitting a group of level 1 PCs against an ancient red dragon is not deadly, it's a joke. BUT! Pitting them against a group of orcs twice their number in the middle of a gladiatorial arena that has tigers and lions chained to posts at various locations is do-able. The PCs will need brains and brawn and luck, but if it required anything less, it wouldn't be worth including in your fantasy D&D game. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Expanding Attacks

So, not long ago, I posted about how we don't need attack rolls.

And it's still true. We don't need attack rolls to play D&D, or any other version of a tabletop RPG. Attack rolls often just slow down the inevitable. The number of sides on that d20 often lead to many misses that are not due to the enemy's skill or evasiveness, but due to plain crappy luck.

Take that luck partially out by rolling only damage, and you have a combat scenario where at least something happens every turn. Maybe just a scratch, but at least a character getting scratched by a near miss is WAY more interesting than a character getting plain ol' missed.

However, you can also play with attack rolls, and still have great combat. The difference comes from how you conceptualize and abstract what an "attack roll" means in your game, and what you encourage and expect from your players during a fight.

For my money, having a high bonus to attacking should translate into a high bonus for grappling, tripping, punching, kicking, disarming, bull rushing, and so on and so forth. The players are adventurers, after all. They are not walking into that dungeon with a bow and arrow, and knowing that if they lose it they are useless. (Or at least, they shouldn't be, and if your system makes it so they are useless without their weapon of choice, your system sucks. Sorry, but it's true.)

So first things first, you've got to get rid of all this combat maneuver/ grapple check/ special attack action nonsense. Combat is combat, whether you have a sword in your hand, or a banana. If your character has the cojones (or whatever the female equivalent should be, which unfortunately seems not to exist) to call him- or herself an adventurer, then they better be able to handle themselves in a fight. Streetfight, magic-fight, sword-fight, tentacle-monster fight, whatever. No need to micromanage your character's specific ability is in every facet of battle.

Now don't get me wrong, if you want your character to have a bonus to a particular fighting style, that is super awesome. But outside of that, isn't it just easier if we assume that a fighter is equally good at all kids of fighting until they become really good at one or two they prefer? Why bother making all these calculations about particular choices in combat? Just use the same bonus for everything! Make everything a regular attack roll.

Mounted archery roll? Ha! I scoff at thee!
You want to hit your opponent with your sword? Make an attack roll.
You want to tackle your opponent to the ground? Make an attack roll.
You want to grab your opponent and fling them over the castle wall? Attack roll, baby!
You want to shoot your arrow into an opponent's knee and knock them prone? Aaaaaaattack roll!
You want to feint one way and cause one of the enemies currently flanking you to accidentally hit the other guy current flanking you? That's an easy one, just roll me an attack roll!

And here is the great thing: not only can all of these rolls just be regular attack rolls, but all of these rolls can also be rolled against regular ol' Armor Class.

Consider: that base of 10 that every character gets for an AC in most d20 games, what is it? I'll tell you: it is the assumed ability of any combatant to avoid bodily harm during a fight. Everybody gets it. A straight 45% boost in your ability to not get stabbed. Then, most games also add some kind of evasive bonus from a high Dexterity. That is rather self-explanatory. Only once both of those things are said and done is armor factored in. Armor isn't even that big a part of your Armor Class. Most of your AC is simply your finely tuned sense of when to get the hell out of the way.

So yeah, the guy in plate armor is more likely to avoid a bullrush than a guy in leather armor. Does that make perfect sense? No. But is it totally baseless when it comes to the assumptions of your game? Absolutely not! It's harder to knock someone in armor down, because they are heavier and not as easily unbalanced with pressure to their soft parts and such. Armored opponents are not as easy to disarm, since their hands are frequently protected with something. Armored opponents are harder to grab and fling because armor doesn't bunch up nicely in your hand and give you good leverage over someone like a regular shirt does.

I mean, whatever logic I throw out there, someone will be able to find counter-logic that makes this system of doing things seem unreasonable. But hey, at least my unreasonable system makes combat go fast, and isn't as hard to learn.

Good luck doing that in a more complex system...
And as a last note: for the final example I gave above about feinting and causing friendly fire on two flanking enemies, I would rule that as such: the bad-ass bravo PC who wants to try such a technique would make an attack roll that must meet or exceed the Armor Class of both the combatants he is involving in the attempt. This may change nothing about his chances to succeed, or it may significantly reduce them, but seeing as he is involving two opponents in his little escapade instead of the usual one, I think that is more than fair.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What "Say Yes" Really Means, Part 2

If you haven't caught up with part 1, please do.

So, we were talking about Saying Yes, and then after hundreds of words, we got to an example where I said a human fighter and dwarven cleric ought to be able to jump a chasm without a check, even though the elven wizard spent a fly spell to cross it while carrying the halfling rogue.

The catch was that the DM told the burlier, armored player characters they could jump the chasm if they ditched their backpacks and weapons, where normally, a DM playing D&D 5 or the equivalent might just ask for a skill/ability check.

And the question I left you with was, "Why?"

Why not use that rule that the game has put there specifically for this case instead of making up some gamble you want the players to take instead?

The answer is complicated, but I will try and express it as best I can.

Essentially, your players should NOT be lame. They should be the stars of the story, and the stars of the story don't just miss a jump and die for no reason.

When the fellowship was fleeing the Mines of Moria, they weren't constantly falling off the very thin and precariously angled stairs, even though they totally should have been in real life. Why?

The reason is two-fold.

Firstly, the Lord of the Rings is a story, and stories are different from real life in a few very important ways, not least of which is that if slips, falls, and deaths are not built up to and satisfying on a narrative level, then they are cheap and lame and shouldn't happen.

Aragorn falls off of a cliff while tied to a warg because it builds up narratively to a sweet comeback moment at Helms Deep. And the plot reason for his fall isn't because he misses his footing. He's dragged off the edge by a leather buckle caught on his bracer. Nothing he could do about it.

Secondly, adventurers are awesome. Not immortal, or invincible, or the most powerful beings in the world, but they are awesome. Gandalf is awesome, that's why the only plot reason that would work for his falling into Khazad-dum is that the Balrog is pulling him with his fiery whip. And the narrative reason for Gandalf falling into Khazad-dum is so he can have an epic fight with a demon while hurdling toward the center of the earth and then die and come back even stronger.

They did NOT fall anywhere because they failed a regular ol' jump check at some random moment during the game when the d20 decided to roll a 1.

And guess what!?

That hypothetical D&D situation with the chasm and the extra weight in nearly identical to Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. He had a grip on the ledge, and the rest of the fellowship was there. They might have been able to pull him up to safety, but if they had tried to, they may very well have been turned into pin-cushions by goblin arrows. That would have been exactly what the DM told them at the table.

DM: You can leave him, or you can try to save him, but if you do, each of you is very likely to be targeted by at least two goblin archers a piece.
Frodo's player: "We have to save him! I go grab him and help pull him up!"
Aragorn's player: "I stop him from moving forward. We'll never survive that many shots."
Gandalf's player: "Fly! You fools!"
Legolas's player: "Yup, that decides it. We're outta here."
Frodo's player: "I resist! Opposed strength checks."
DM: Nope.* Aragorn is much stronger than you and he's already got a hold. You're going with him whether you like it or not.
DM: Woh, dude, chill out.

*See there? That's another place where the dice would have gotten in the way. If the DM allows a halfling to try and escape from his strong human companion who's already grabbed him to pull him to safety, then all you are gonna have is inter-party conflict. And then one character is biting another character's nose off, and it is just a mess.

I guess if you are looking for a hard and fast rule concerning say yes, to make things more concrete, here it is:

Say "Yes" or "Yes, but..." as much as possible outside of battles. That is the part of the game where it is easiest to create excitement and drama with simple give and take/cause and effect. "I want to do this." "Okay, it will cost you this." "What if I did this." "Okay, it will only cost you this, but this might happen too."

When you get to a battle, there is an assumption that neither the DM nor the players are not in total narrative control. You can't adjudicate combat with a give and take method like you can exploration, because the goal of combat is to leave with as close to what you came in with as possible. Yes, there may be treasure at the end of combat, but the combat is not necessitated by the search for the treasure (unless it is dragon skin or nightmare ashes or something like that literally ATTACHED the thing you have to fight). At the end of a combat, someone is going to lose a lot, and the great thing about having rolls decide who loses and who wins is that it keeps the story interesting, for both the DM and the players.*

*Quick note: this requires that your combats be meaningfully setup in the story. If you just throw some monsters in for no reason but to be in the way, then whatever fair and randomized result the dice give you, no matter how heart-breaking or mind-blowing, is not going to be narratively interesting or earned.

So I say roll all the dice you like for combat. In that instance, they are like salt: mostly about taste, though way too many will definitely kill you. Outside of combat, try not to roll any unless you, as a DM, can honestly say, "I don't know how I would narrate this fairly or appropriately without some randomized result." Then sure, roll a die or two. But no more.

God I hate this...
What I think this implies for game design is this: skills/specialties/whatever you call them are actually worthless mechanics from a roleplaying perspective. If you give certain characters "skill" in something, it sends an immediate message to the players who don't play that kind of character that they cannot succeed at that particular thing unless they have that mechanical bonus.

If you think your character should be aided by their level of experience in a particular area, then make it known that your character is experienced in that area. Your DM should just allow you to do more things related to that experience without any issue. You were a renowned blacksmith back in your home city? Then you can smith a sword, no check necessary.

Ahh, so you want to smith a special kind of blade that you've never made before? Roll me intelligence! Let's see if you become even more renowned over night...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

What "Say Yes" Really Means, Part 1

I am an RPG player and rules tinkerer who came into the hobby in the 'new school' age. D&D 3/3.5 was my first tabletop, pen and paper RPG playground. From there I went to D&D 4, Pathfinder, every other OGL system under the sun, and now I am playing mainly D&D 5.

In the design diaspora that was D&D 4, its aftermath, and the announcement of D&D Next, I began wandering the internet in search of RPG wisdom. Little did I know just how vast the halls of the RPG internet realm were, and how much the players of 'old school' games had to say.

Let me tell you, the blog posts were titillating, and the house rules, desirable.

But coming from a new school background, and having no old school players nearby to join in with, I had to take all this information and decode it like some ancient codex. What was it that these old-schoolers were so crazy about, and how did their games appear to have such a laid back and easy-going feel to them, while simultaneously sounding deadly and challenging?

Well, you will have to ask them, not me. I'm sure I couldn't explain it half as well.

But! There was one old-school rule that has clanged around in my head for ages, which I have only recently come to understand. Sort of like how Buddhism has seven stages of enlightenment. Or maybe not like that at all. I don't know.

That rule is this: Say Yes.

So simple! And yet so complex!

At first I thought that Say Yes meant you should never shoot down a player's idea. If the player says they want to attempt something, don't tell them "No, you can't do that" or "No, your character wouldn't do that."

Weeeeeell, that's not really it. It is important to have an open mind, as a DM, and remember that the game is at least partially about entertainment. That doesn't have to mean silliness, but it does have to mean engaging your player characters in events and challenges that they find interesting. So, if you prepared a dungeon crawl based around helping the bartender get rats out of her basement, but your players want to accompany some randomly generated NPC, who they met in the bar, on his trip to some randomly generated town because it sounds like fun, weeeeeeeell.... you better start thinking up possible road encounters.

But the Say Yes rule goes even deeper than that. Say Yes is a rock-bottom credo about where the drama and action are in your game. The more you Say Yes, the more you focus the challenge and drama onto the most important parts of the game, and onto player skill.

Here is a little hypothetical D&D type situation: the party (a human fighter, halfling rogue, dwarven cleric, and elven wizard) is fleeing the underground goblin city, and they are being chased by a half-a'gabillion goblins. They come to a chasm that is juuuuust slightly wider than is comfortable. The wizard has cast fly on himself, picked up the rogue, and safely made it to the other side. The fighter and the cleric remain.

In a world without Say Yes, they ask the DM "Can we jump it?" and the DM says: "roll jump checks." The fighter probably has a 50% chance to clear the chasm. The cleric will almost certainly fall to his doom like a stubby-legged anchor.

What if they asked the DM about their odds of clearing it? He/she might say "eh, not great." But then what? Grappling hooks? Magic? Pitons and rope for godssake? If the DM wants to keep the adrenaline pumping, there is no time for that, in-game or out of game.

And you can't toss a dwarf, obviously.

So what is the solution? Not put any chasms in the game? Oops, we have a heavily armored dwarven cleric, I guess we can't ask the party to jump anywhere this campaign.

In a world with Say Yes, the DM assumes that the characters can accomplish the task before them, though a sacrifice may be necessary. Does the jump have a DC? Some target number that they have to roll a check against? I don't know, maybe.

But should it be relevant? No!

When the players for the fighter and cleric say "Can we jump it?" the DM should say something like "YES, but you think you'll need to ditch the backpacks and weapons to clear the distance."

See what this does? It gives the players a whole scope of options to fiddle around with. It says "Here is the situation, and here are all the variables. Figure out a solution, if you can, and preferably one that doesn't get everyone killed."

Now, those two players are practically running around the table figuring out a plan, "Quick! Toss your backpack over the chasm. You guys on the other side will catch them, right? Can we toss our weapons? What if we tie rope to our belts and then to the ends of our weapons? Could we jump the gap and then pull our weapons over from the other side? Let's try it."

Now you've got compounding variables too, because you have allowed your players to do something other than succeed perfectly or fail perfectly. The DM makes a roll, and the goblins show up just before the party can pull their warriors' weapons over. The goblins grab the weapons and begin pulling the opposite way! Now what? Does the party cut their losses, literally, and lose their weapons? Do they get into a tug-o-war with a whole cadre of goblins? Will one of them be pulled back to the other side?

"But wait!" Some of you may say, "How can they jump the chasm without a jump/athletics/acrobatics check?" Isn't that what those skills are for?

Well, I'll have an answer for you in part 2.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Difficulty of Tasks and Leveling Up

I've posted before about a different way of handling leveling up, so that there isn't so much number crunching to be done. I've come across a new one since then which involves slightly more math, but is quite slim and efficient.

The idea comes from Basic Fantasy RPG's optional rules section. It uses a simple table for ability check DC's that applies over all levels. The specific math doesn't matter for the sake of discussion, but if you want to know, it looks like this:

Character Level               Ability Check DC
1                                        17
2-3                                      16  
4-5                                      15  
6-7                                      14 
...                                        ... 
20                                        7 

The assumption here is that a DC's static value doesn't change with the task being attempted, but rather with character level. Characters will get better at doing things as they level up. Much better in the long run, but that covers all twenty levels, so it isn't very dramatic from one level to the next. BFRPG only suggests it for ability checks. I would add skill checks to this as well, just to make things as cohesive and simple as possible.

So, climbing that sheer cliff becomes easier and easier as you level up. And the same goes for smithing that cool sword, or tracking those goblins through the woods.

I've come to love the advantage/disadvantage rule from D&D 5th as a way of quickly and easily adjudicating whether something is easier or harder than usual. That combined with this DC list is actually a very nice way of determining the target number for anything outside of combat.

I guess what I'm getting at in this post and that other post from a while ago is that if you have numbers simultaneously going up on BOTH sides of the equation, then you are doing yourself and your system a disservice.

Think about it: A level 1 rogue in D&D 3.5 has roughly a +5 to lock-picking, and comes across DC 20 locks in all his dungeon exploits. That's a target number of 15 on the d20, or 30% chance of success. Then that rogue levels up and up and up and gets to level 10. Since he's been putting ranks in lock-picking a bunch, his bonus to that is now +15. But all the locks he comes across are now DC 30. So what is the target number on the d20? Still 15! That means this rogue still only has a 30% chance of picking the locks he comes across.

In fact, this was even more egregious in the DMG for 3.5 and 4th edition D&D, where the authors gave you a table for appropriate DCs for things as the characters leveled up, which got harder instead of easier for the same tasks and checks. So climbing a rock wall for level 1 characters was a DC 15 climb check, and THE SAME ROCK WALL for level 20 characters was a DC 25 climb check.

I'd go so far as to say that this encourages bad DMing habits. After all, if locks keep getting harder and harder to pick, then simple locked doors are as appropriate a challenge for level 10 characters as they are for level 1 characters, right?

WRONG! If your level 10 characters are still sneaking up to doors in dungeons and banking on a good roll to pick a lock without alerting wandering monsters, then you haven't delved into the true potential that is high level RPG play.

That level 10 rogue should be able to pick that lock no problem (or at least with much LESS problem than his level 1 self). But that shouldn't be all he has to do. This time around, there is an encounter going on in the room that the rest of the party is trying to shield him from, and the walls are slowly closing in so time is an issue, and there's contact poison on the doorknob so a failed check results in paralysis.

THAT'S the difference between the locked doors in front of a level 1 rogue and a level 10 rogue. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Simple Fumbles, Ammo Tracking, and Weapon Breakage

Here is a table to simplify and get some milage out of three things that are often made way too complex in retroclones and homebrew systems: fumbles, ammo, and weapons breaking.

"If you roll a natural 1 while attacking with a melee, thrown, or missile (ranged) weapon, roll (or flip a coin) on the table below."

                                       MELEE/THROWN                                       MISSILE
EVENS/HEADS     Weapon is dropped or gets stuck            Out of arrows/bolts/bullets
ODDS/TAILS                   Weapon breaks                         Bow string snaps, sling rips, etc.

There. Now you don't have to track arrows, or arrow tokens, or say that you get back half your arrows at the end of combat, or keep track of notches on your weapon, or calculate hardness, etc. Now you just have a 1 in 40 chance of breaking your shit, dropping your shit, or being out of arrows.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

No More Attack Rolls

I ran a one-shot of 5e the other day. It ended in quite the unpredictable fiasco, but that had everything to do with the plot and nothing to do with the rules.

The one rules hurdle that I did encounter was a situation in which needing to roll attacks slowed down combat.

I've posted about not using attack rolls before. And since that post, I even found a post on B/X BLACKRAZOR from five years ago that talks about the same exact thing. I would recommend both posts. Though this post will be the only of the three that deals with a specific case in point.

So in this 5e session, I had the PCs exploring a small dungeon. They came to a hallway, one side of which was blocked (for the sake of combat), but the entrance was open. The players walked past three puddles of gooey salt, which began to rise up and form a disgusting kind of undead, which then attacked. These undead were based entirely on the standard 5e zombie monster, except their attacks dealt +2 damage against opponents they had already struck once, due to their slightly acidic bodies.

Which is all to say, they had an attack bonus of +3 and an AC of 8....

The combat was relatively interesting, but just before it finished (and two PCs had hit 0 HP thanks to the difficulty fighting in a tight hallway), there came three rounds in which the paladin and the zombie thing he was fighting missed each other with every attack.

On the first round that this happened, I did my DMly duty and described what had caused the misses as appropriately as I could.

Zombie misses: "The zombie creature is slow, and now that the other ones are dead, you can focus on this one's attacks and you dodge the slam easily."

Paladin misses: "You are trying to end this fight as soon as possible to help your friends, and for a moment, you get ahead of yourself and swing your greatsword above your head for a heavy strike. However, the low, stone ceiling of this dungeon hallway catches your blade and stops your attack."

...but then they both missed again. AND AGAIN! WHAT?

How can I describe that? Does the zombie slug monster dodge the attack? The thing with an 8 AC... evades? No. That makes no sense.

If this were a one-in-a-million thing, it would be negligible. But it isn't one-in-a-million. The average AC of the PCs was about 15. That meant the zombies needed to roll a 12 or higher to even touch the PCs. That's a 55% miss chance. Meanwhile, the Paladin had a +3 to attack rolls. That meant he should have hit a lot. On any roll but 4 or less. But in those three rounds, he rolled a 2, a 3, and another 3.

This is not a lone case. I have experienced many combats which had rounds where almost NOTHING happened thanks to the to-hit rolls being low.


So, let's speak on the game implications of not having attack rolls. In bulleted list form, for your ease of use:

  • No attack rolls means the only way to distinguish who is accurate from who is not is through narration and description, i.e., if your character deals no damage with a few of their attacks (say, from armor or shield damage reduction, or some such mechanic), then the GM may choose to narrate those attacks as misses rather than hits that were deflected or not hard enough.
  • Spells which have particularly meta-game effects, such as true strike and blur, which modulate chance to hit, either have to be changed to modulate damage instead, or removed completely.
  • Time at the table will be saved. That's just a given, since only about half as many rolls are being made during each encounter. The B/X BLACKRAZOR post speaks largely to that point.
  • No attack rolls or bonuses makes it harder to distinguish between different types of monsters, as there can effectively be no mechanical difference (as far as singular attacks go) between the inaccurate but strong brute and the precise but only moderately strong skirmisher.
  • The relationship of level to combat accuracy/power has to change a lot. Of course, if you use Relative Level instead of Objective Level, that problem goes away. *poof*
  • Monsters with multiple attacks will need to be scrutinized so they are not too hard to defeat.
  • Magic weapons cannot be relied on for their mechanical bonuses to accuracy to scale encounters. Instead, stronger/tougher monsters would have to resist or be immune to non-magical weapons.
  • It makes the fighter's job less important, in that it no longer gives them a complete monopoly on combat. They may still have the highest damage with weapon attacks, but other classes are just as capable of attacking.
  • Armor and other protection now become much more valuable to players, because they are the only things standing between them and a toothy demise once that 50% get-out-of-jail-free-card is no longer in the game. If a goblin with a knife runs up to you and you are unarmored, you are in trouble, no matter who you are. Of course, if you survive the attack, then the goblin is certainly in trouble.
  • Which is to say, combat is decidedly more deadly, but still within the control of the players. Random spikes of damage should not be as big a factor in character death as simply choosing to continue or initiate fighting when you are not up to the challenge.
  • And perhaps most importantly, it brings combat into a certain philosophy about dice rolls: if the two options when rolling a die are either success, or maintain the status quo, you have created a false sense of conflict. Dice should be rolled ONLY when someone is going to win or lose. If a possible outcome is "nothing changes," then why were those dice even rolled?
I'll do saves tomorrow, I think.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Do 5e Backgrounds Really Help Role-playing?

The answer, of course, is all in how you use them, and what your goals are.

For me, playing an RPG is about two things (having fun/being with friends needing no restatement):

  1. exploring a world/scenario by making choices for the character I have created
  2. feeling that those choices have led to progress in my character and the world being explored
But to know what these mean in game terms, we have to be specific about the definition of 'exploration'. 

From an old-school perspective, that's easy. Exploration is literally physical exploration. Dungeons, caverns, sprawling necropolises, etc. Enter the dungeon, beat the monsters, find gold and treasure, sell the excess for better equipment, level up your monster killing abilities, repeat. That's the exploration-progress cycle in a nutshell.

But there are many people who play fantasy RPGs who do not focus entirely on dungeon delving. (Like me, and my groups.) Some people like politicking, some like family drama, some are big on war-stories, others enjoy gaining power through magic or fame.

The thing that all of these (including the regular delving) have in common? Your character learns something. They learn how to kill a basilisk, where the wizard keeps his lab, how to cast a spell, who murdered their uncle, etc. Exploration means nothing if a character isn't changed by it, and character change is universally driven by learning.

So for my tastes, the REAL cycle is: learn about the world or yourself, make a choice, repeat. 

Enter 5e D&D. When I first took a look at those backgrounds, I thought "Thank god! A little something for the storytellers. Love it."

But now, I feel differently. It seems to me that these backgrounds are once again only a good way to increase storytelling and reward role-playing if you use them to learn more about the world and yourself. Otherwise, they are just another few pluses and minuses on your character sheet. In fact, they are almost worse than just a few pluses and minuses, because it implies a kind of en media res about the whole thing.

You were a soldier. All the development and learning from those days is said and done. Now you're a treasure hunter. Yeah, you might use that military past to help you become a better treasure hunter, but your struggles and experiences as someone who was in the military are done. All of that exploration and learning was done before the game, and now cannot be done again. The story is half over before the first session of the game....

This even goes beyond backgrounds. Consider the wizard class in any edition of D&D you desire. It is always implied that the wizard isn't just some guy who picked up a spell book yesterday. The fighter and the rogue can just be "some guys" before session one. But the wizard always has a backstory that could be the premise to several young-adult fantasy novels.

D&D isn't designed to tell the story of a normal guy becoming a great wizard. D&D is designed to tell the story of an okay wizard becoming a great wizard. There is no inherent problem with that, but it will frustrate you if that first kind of story is the one you want to tell.

Or, you could just play the sorcerer. In my years playing 3e, I loved the sorcerer class far more than it deserved. Mechanically, it was near identical to the wizard (just much worse), so it isn't very inspiring on that front. But the sorcerer is arguably one of the best storytelling setups in 3e. The main points were roughly this:
  • Nearly all sorcerers start gaining their weird powers around puberty.
  • They are shunned and kicked out of their homes/villages/cities because of their weirdness.
  • Therefore, the "average starting age table" in the 3e book made sorcerers the youngest. Seriously, it was like 13 + 2d4 years. Like 15-21 years old.
  • And lastly, most sorcerers, since even their parents shun them, clearly have no idea where their powers came from. Unsurprisingly, most are motivated to find out.
That setup is all forward momentum. The backstory is perfect, because it is a mystery. It is something that creates a goal for the character, rather than just giving bonuses or letting your character say "oh yeah, I know that" during some random GM monologues about the lore of the world.

The sorcerer agrees with my tastes even further, however, because it most clearly follows the "exploration = learn something" rule. By delving deeper into the origin of your powers, you will inevitably learn more about them and become more powerful. The story and mechanical goals of the game intertwine.

For my money, I'd love it if every character had as much built-in interest in their immediate future as the sorcerer class in 3e. I feel 5e backgrounds got close, but where there should have been more "and here is what an ex-soldier might be looking to achieve in the future..." there were bonds and flaws and personality traits instead.

Those help define how your character might do something, but they don't help you with what your character wants to do. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

d8 Instruments for Fantasy Settings

No explanation necessary, just roll baby!

  1. This wind instrument is the semi-dissected, semi-cured carcass of a trout or other good size fish, which has been prepared so as to allow air to be blown into a mouthpiece near the tail, and through the fish's digestive tract to the gills. A bladder just before the gills is grasped by inserting a hand into the fish's mouth, and is squeezed to control air flow. Sounds like bagpipes mixed with a saxophone.
  2. This simple instrument sounds like a kazoo, but is made of a shed snake skin that has been flattened and filled with a sticky, greasy substance. The tail of the skin is blown into, and the air comes out the other end raspy sounding, and the skin itself whips around like a broken party blower while in use.
  3. A jaw harp/mouth harp/jews harp.
  4. A belt of various skulls, appropriately sized for easy carrying by the wearer, which are hit with soft mallets to produce a sound like a wooden block. Bigger skull = lower sound.
  5. A didgeridoo with multiple mouth holes and only one horn, for multiple people.
  6.  This is a set of brass pipes that stand on its own. It has one mouthpiece at the center, which the player blows into, that immediately splits into two separate pipes leading to separate horns. Attached to each horn are pumps that resemble bellows, which are both operated by the blower, one in each hand. The sonic effect is that of two trombones played at once.
  7. This instrument is a wheel of small drums set up to resemble a windmill, though much shorter. The player sits in front of it and pumps two pedals with his or her feet to spin the wheel, and then hits the drums with wooden mallets.
  8. An air tight brass box is placed under a large pool of water. Outside the water are hoses which are attached to bellows operated by helpers. The musician, highly praised for their skill, holds their breath and lowers themselves into the water. They then twist knobs attached to the box which release air at varying rates through variously sized holes. The bubbles created on the water's surface make a each note of the music, though the musician can never hear the music they are currently performing.

Monday, September 7, 2015

d20 NPC Hats

Hey! It's been a long time, so let's get into it.

You can tell a lot about a person based on the hat they wear.

Like whether they are a little fancy...

Or really REALLY old....

Or dangerous...

Or intelligent....

Or mischievous...

So, here is a 1d20 table of interesting hats, helmets, cowls, and other headgear for your NPCs:
  1. A black bowler hat with a row of rainbow feathers like a mohawk down the middle.
  2. A steel set of shoulder pads which connect to a cross frame that wraps around the sides and top of the head, ending at a polished metal beak which covers wearer's nose and has some holes for breathing.
  3. A headband of animal claws strung together, all pointed up and inward, like a crown. In between the claws are shed snake skins which hang down around the wearer's face like a veil.
  4. A leather headband with two arrows that sit above the ears, pointing forward and slightly up.
  5. A stone bowl that goes down to the cheekbones, with two rough arches carved into it for the eyes to look through. On the front is a deep blue gem the size of a tangerine.
  6. Either of these bad boys:
  7. A dark silk hood that attaches at the front of the collar instead of the back, and is pulled over the face, having two (or more, or fewer) holes for the eyes of the wearer. There is a lot of extra material that hangs down the back to keep the hood on during activity.
  8. This guy just has chains wrapped around his neck and head, held in place by a couple of steel locks that thread through them.
  9. A turtle shell, front and back, connected by leather straps. It fits over the head with one shell protecting the face and the other the back of the head and neck.
  10. A tough cloth hat that is folded to look like a paper crane without wings.
  11. A bronze helmet styled to look like several humanoid hands pulling at the wearer's face and hair.
  12. A set of cow udders that have been tanned and turned to leather. Pulled over the top of the head with the shriveled utters pointing up.
  13. A wooden cube, the size of a small apple, with a string running through it. The cube sits on the head, slightly to one side, and the string is tied below the chin.
  14. This hat resembles a sombrero, but instead of one wide brim, there are three brims: the bottom one is very wide, the middle one is about two thirds that size, and the one near the top is half that size again.
  15. The lower half of a large monster's jaw, which is attacked by a cord around the neck to the lower half of the wearer's jaw.
  16. A wide brass ring which pierces the septum (lower, central nose cartilage), and is rotated up and over the head to rest on the ears.
  17. A small skull cap, like a yarmulke, with a very thin metal sheet sitting flat-wise on top of it. The sheet bears the life story of the wearer, thus far, in a minuscule font.
  18. A small, fleshy creature which nests in the hair of the wearer, and can speak if spoken to, but usually sleeps. Supposedly it hunts at night and returns before the wearer ever wakes up. If anyone attempts to remove it against its will, it bites at them viciously.
  19. A woven net of some unknown fiber, equipped with dozens of treated horsetail hairs that stick straight out roughly two feet from the wearer's head. If any of the hairs touch something, the wearer becomes aware of it immediately.
  20. A cap made of the head pelt of a large predatory canine or feline. It covers the top of the head and back of the neck, and includes the animal's ears on both sides. The ears have had some of their original organs preserved, and connected to two enchanted pebbles, which dangle from the inside of the cap, and are inserted into the wearer's ears. Once on correctly, the wearer has heightened hearing, and anatomical control of the ears on the cap.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Minimalism in Pen & Paper RPG Design

Three days ago there was a great post about Super Simplified Swords & Wizardry, and minimalist, focused RPG design over at The Rusty Battle Axe.  It is a great post, and you should go read it. But be warned, because it is picking up a lot of equally excellent discussion from other blogs, like The Clash of Spear on Shield, Bat in the Attic, Gothridge Manor, and most recently the counter opinion (also excellent) on Tales of the Rambling Bumblers.

Here is the bulleted list of purposes being thrown around and responded to for this kind of minimalist take on an RPG:
  • Focus play on exploration, rather than tactical combat.
  • Focus the players to find different and creative solutions to challenges poised by having such limited options. [For those who haven't yet read the other posts, these limited options would include: approximately 2 classes (warrior-type, and thief-type), scroll-only magic use, etc.]
  • Highlight the sense of danger and weirdness with regard to the dungeon. [The above-ground world is entirely mundane.]
  • Magic items become highly prized. [Because they are super rare.]
With one exception, I think all of these goals are very worthwhile and, indeed, universally desired whether we are talking minimalist games or super-crunchy games. No one wants banal dungeons or boring magic items. Everyone wants some creativity involved in their game, though what tools are the focus of that creativity (e.g. game mechanics, or setting descriptions) is a matter of opinion.

I have a qualm with the first bullet point, because I feel it implies "all combat" within the phrase "tactical combat," and misses an opportunity to differentiate combat that is part of exploration, and combat that is simply there to meet some kind of quota. The best way to understand this is by reading this fantastic post about Bad Trap Syndrome over at Ars Ludi. Essentially everything stated in that post can be equated to your combats as well. Are the monsters in that dungeon room just floating HP and Spell taxes, or do they serve a purpose in the world at large, and in the story, that your players will discover by interacting with them, violently or otherwise?

That being said, I certainly believe that if a 4 page mini-RPG spends 3 pages describing rules for combat and 1/2 a page on exploration, it may give players the wrong idea. And even though their understanding of the game may change on the second and third and fourth session, you still have to get them to sit down and play after that first one. For a counterpoint to this, see here.

Now let's talk about the ways one could implement low magic and minimal class choices.

Minimal Classes:
  • Open-ended features. Yeah, +1 to attacks and damage is great for your warrior-type, but it is also entirely non-influential when it comes to that player's decisions in combat. Try something like: +1 to any roll related to tripping, grappling, disarming, or otherwise doing a maneuver in melee combat. This isn't a big bonus, but it has the potential to be a wide bonus, which is what players really want as far as entertainment is concerned. A +1 to attack is just as exciting as a +4 to attack, because even though the +4 is a deeper mechanic, it has the same width, which leads to stereotype characters and choices. Perhaps the thief gets one or two free rerolls during the day, which could equate to a sort of rogue's luck in or out of combat. I like the idea of giving warrior-types flat bonuses, and giving the rogue-types luck-based abilities.
  • You gotta have the right tools. This is along the same exact lines as the scrolls-only magic system. Thieves might be better at picking locks, but they still can't do squat without their lock-picking tools. And your warrior might not be great at lock-picking, but if he's just picked up a set of picks and jimmies, let him have a go. This can also apply to weapons. Make everything 1d6 damage, but give 2-handed weapons a +1 to attack rolls, since they are made for maximum destruction.
  • Encumbrance is important. If you don't have spells or daily features to make use of, you are removing a classic form of strategy from the game. Adventurers need supplies, but they also can't be bogged down too much. There is a very important balance mini-game that will take place as the party finds treasure and such. I suggest an item slot system based on strength, and an additional option of carrying a backpack to increase that number of slots. Perhaps backpacks can't be worn with heavy armor? Yet another way of asking the players to make interesting choices about their characters. Also, this creates the distinct possibility of a party leaving treasure somewhere, only to come back and get it later, which is an adventure that writes itself.
Low Magic:
  • Get rid of +1, 2, 3, 4, etc. magic. So this is more of an opinion, but I think what really sucks all the coolness out of a magic item is knowing that there is a different item out there that serves the same purpose, but with a higher bonus. If you want your magic items to be unique and rare and interesting to your characters, don't give them mechanical bonuses at all. Give them special abilities that cannot be replicated with any other mechanic or ability in the game/game-world.
  • Healing once a day. I'm all for no healing potions or healing spells. But I'm also for a sort of once per day second wind feature that can be used whenever the player chooses to regain 1/2 their character's HP. The purpose of this is two fold: it makes combat more dangerous, because there is an easily quantifiable amount of HP your character will have all day, and that is it. Also, it allows the GM a pretty solid way of gauging when an encounter will be taken head-on by the players, and when it will be circumvented. Think about it, healing exists in these games so that players can continue adventuring during the same day. When you give them full HP coming into each encounter, you give them license to treat each encounter the same. I say, your PCs should be exposed to potential combat at all different levels of HP. It isn't until the players know that their primary strategy of kicking-ass and taking-names is going to fail that they will seriously consider a different one.
  • Make your monsters cooler and weirder. In a world with fireballs going off every encounter, a group of goblins to fight is fine and dandy. However, in a world where magic is rare and probably less combat oriented, you need a lot more than goblins to give your adventure that epic feel. Terrain features were already mentioned in a previous response, and I second that wholeheartedly. But you also need to give your monsters a scary air of unpredictability. And for god sake take out the lame filler monsters. If the world above your dungeons is mundane, you can still have cults murdering people or bandits attacking caravans. So don't put little green people who have the same M.O. in your dungeons. 
And that's me done.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Force is Strong with this Villain...

Darth Vader was awesome because he was the Chosen One before Luke was the Chosen one.

Vader knew secrets and wisdom about the Force that Luke had barely scratched the surface of when they first fight. He was more highly skilled than Luke in all the areas that Luke had been training in. Not only that, but he had his own plans. Plans to overthrow the SAME GUY that the good guys wanted to overthrow. Vader's option was a kind of Option #3, where a different part of the dark side ruled the galaxy.

GMs should do this in their tabletop RPGs. Have villains be older, morally failed versions of the PCs. Have villains that are working against, or tangentially to, another villain. If you have a wizard in the party, have a villain that is a VERY OLD wizard who specializes in the same kind of magic. That way, the evil wizard isn't just an evil wizard, but a master of something close to the party's heart as well.

Evil monks? Evil monks are badass. How about Zaheer from Legend of Korra? He is a far more memorable villain than, say, Fire Lord Ozai, because his philosophy and point of view had merit. They were taken to extremes, and used to hurt people, thus making him a villain, but he could still teach the avatar a thing or two about air bending, and herself.

Your campaigns need villains like this. Villains that react to changes in the world, and make use of them for their own ends, rather than villains that spur on changes in the world.

Have a meteor that will destroy the world in 1 week? Well, there should probably be a group of cultists who use it's intergalactic presence to bolster their magic and try to take over. But once the PCs defeat them, it should be clear that the meteor wasn't summoned by them, they were just opportunists. Maybe now, the PCs need to work together with the cult's knowledge to stop the impact.

Make your PCs begrudgingly respect some of your villains. Not because they're so cool, or suave, or powerful, but because they are actually talented and intelligent in a way that even the PCs must acknowledge. Have the villain complement your PCs during the fight.

The end of that Star Wars clip is thematically perfect, because this first major interaction with Vader forever changes Luke, emotionally. He will never look at himself, or the Force, or his master Obi Wan the same. AND, he lost a freakin arm as a metaphor for that change.

So I guess the moral of the story is have your villains chop off more of your PCs arms.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Grappling Post

Okay, this one has been a longtime coming. It's mostly about grappling, but also about other things as well. In particular, this post is about RPGs incorrectly "balancing" certain actions characters take in-game so as to make them un-usable.

Case-in-point: grappling.

Grappling has been maligned as a supermove by game designers for years. Why? Well, I just have no idea, because in all the incarnations of D&D that I've played, grappling sucks major balls. You get nowhere, fast, with grappling. Anything even remotely useful that can be attempted by/while grappling is a result of a half-dozen feats or very specific class features.

Let's take 5e D&D as an example. Grappling your opponent does two things in 5e: it reduces their speed to 0, and lets you move them around how you like. So, until the target escapes from you, which they probably will on their turn, they cannot move of their own volition.

Now, in a combat system with opportunity attacks, which already penalize combatants for trying to move around, not allowing someone to move is kinda lame.

Even more lame, is how difficult it is to do. You have to make a strength ability check, opposed by your targets strength check, in order to grapple them. No proficiency bonus, no advantage for True Strike, nada. Really, it's a 50/50 chance given that you and your opponent will likely have very similar strength bonuses. You may have a +7 to attack rolls, but you're shit outta luck when it comes to grabbing a guy.

You wanna pin a guy? Well, that requires a feat...

And the worst part is that this is by far the EASIEST (not including 4e) grappling system to date! In previous editions, you had to do a rain dance, then make seven athletics checks opposed by knowledge religion checks, followed by a sacrifice of your first born, after which you could see if you make contact with up to 1d4 fingers, then you rolled an attack roll per finger that touched, and if your total number of attached fingers after that was equal to or greater than the square root of your target's Hit Dice, you grappled.

And they still escaped next turn anyway....

Game designers need to calm down and just treat grappling like what it is: an attack. Maybe it isn't your best attack, since grabbing a guy's arm and snapping his elbow is much harder than swinging an axe at his head, but it is still an attack. Sure, picking a guy up and body-slamming him takes a little longer than shooting an arrow. Fine, make body-slams a two turn process. Grapple attack, then slam attack. The point is, you pay for attempting an attack by needing to roll a random number that determines your success. Grappling isn't any more or less effective as a means of beating your enemies than an attack, so why does it need special prerequisites to perform?

I use this Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers System in my game. And if you are saying, "Hey, isn't that broken because there is no reason to ever NOT try a combat maneuver on your turn, except maybe if you really want that critical hit damage?"

To which I say, no, and yes. No, it isn't broken, but yes, players are better off trying a maneuver than not, 19 times out of 20. And let me say, THAT'S GREAT!

Let me point your attention to this video of Aragorn again, where he grapples guys all the time, as well as disarms, trips, stuns, etc., as often as he has the opportunity to. The combat is cinematic, interesting, and non-repetitive because of that. You can only swing a sword so many ways...

And the even BETTER thing about this simple system is that it works for NPCs too. If your bugbear goes to grab your fighter, but rolls a measly 3 damage, the fighter will probably take the hit, no problem. But if the bugbear is about to deal 13 damage, the fighter may be inclined to let the bugbear get a grip. Now things get interesting. There is a micro give-and-take sort of gambling involved in combat now, because many damage numbers come with an "...OR you can suffer (insert maneuver here)."

10 damage, or drop your sword?

14 damage, or be stunned for 1 round?

8 damage, or fall prone?

You can even do it with spells, if your system uses magic attacks. Have the wizard attempt to knock enemies over with her fireball spell. "They can either take 12 fire damage, or be knocked prone by the concussive blast."

As far as I'm concerned, if your characters aren't rolling around on the ground, flailing for dropped weapons, and toppling over like Humpty Dumpty all the time, you aren't doing combat right.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How to Ruin Your Indie RPG: Part 3 - Questions

When you are designing your RPG, you need to ask some hard hitting question. No, not "should rogues have a d6 Hit die, or a d8?" And no, not "Improved grapple, should it still exist?"

I'm talking about the real philosophical questions. You need to doubt to the very core, the meat and potatoes. There is no spoon. Catch my drift?

Like this one: why do we roll to hit in combat?

Seriously, why do tabletop RPGs assume you miss, when literally every other medium of fantasy (video games, movies, novels, etc.) assumes people hit?

Think about it this way: how many attacks does Aragorn miss in the LOTR movies? Well, as it just so happens you can watch pretty much every sword swing he makes in this nifty little montage here.

Pretty sure I counted four misses? One whiff, and three that were blocked. Two of those blocks came from Lurtz, the movie-ending mega-uruk-hai boss.

The only example of media I can think of that allows for as many misses in their combat as a tabletop RPG is Star Wars. And for that, YouTube comes to the rescue again. Here is an hour long montage of every lightsaber fight scene from the first six movies....

To calculate the misses, count every swing, then subtract the number of people that lost/died. The remainder is the number of misses.

Obviously, your typical pen and paper RPG is somewhere in the middle of these two. Misses account for a little less than half of the attacks in a session, generally.

To which some might remark: "CODSWALLOP! Half the time you are in a fight you miss your target? That's terrible! You aren't some blind farmer from Bumnuts, you're an adventurer for god's sake!"

I'm a firm believer in the idea that the mechanics of a game system, e.g. the dice rules, the probability distributions, etc., have a huge impact on the flavor of game you get out of them. Yeah, different playstyles account for something, but no playstyle can account for a 50% miss chance on every swing.

The fact is, that when a player misses on an attack roll, just regular misses, the cameras turn off. That player's character is off screen doing something no one cares about, because it is almost always inconsequential. Yeah, if he fumbled and tripped, or lost his weapon, that would be worth taking a turn to play out and describe, but a blade moving harmlessly through the air is hardly ever shown in the movies, or described in books, because it's BORING.

What is crazy is that we chose this. We the tabletop gaming community chose to play games where our characters fail to make a tactical difference during half of our turns. We chose to make half of our arrows soar through the air only to stick into a log, or wall, or dirt.

Now, I love when characters fail bad enough to really get themselves in danger. Like how Aragorn nearly gets his noggin lobbed off when Lurtz pins him to a tree with his shield. Or when he gets stepped on by a battle troll and his little elvish dagger barely does anything to help the situation. Those were interesting, dramatic, and unique to the fights. Rolling below 6 on your d20 for the third time in a row is not any of those good things. All it does is take the wind out of your sails.

We could fix this by having the attack action automatically hit. You just roll damage, but you roll with a d10, or maybe two d10s, or a d10 and a die determined by your class. Either way, if you roll 0, or double 0, or something like that, you fumble, dealing no damage (e.g. missing) and then something bad happens to you like falling prone or losing your weapon, etc.

You can make this more nuanced with things like damage reduction for super tough guys or evil fighters that are highly skilled and parry your weaker blows. You could also finally remove the movement speed stuff from your games and just make a rule that says you can take a few steps on your turn, but if you want to cover any serious ground you spend your whole action just moving.

Really, it's the fact that everyone can attack once a round and move or do whatever that calls for that 50% miss chance. Otherwise the combats would end before they even started. When you have to choose between attacking, moving, actively defending, etc., things get a lot more interesting.

That's enough for today. Really dig into those deep questions. Doubt every single rule you just take for granted. That's how we invent the games of the future.

UPDATE: I found this post on B/X BLACKRAZOR from way back in 2010 a while after writing this. Gotta give him props for doing it first, and also worth a read. (The whole blog is worth a read, if you have the time).

Monday, June 22, 2015

How to Ruin your Indie RPG: Part 2 - Dice

If you are like me, then in building your RPGs, you have thought "I bet I could invent the perfect dice resolution mechanic."

Well, you are wrong. Not only by definition (no mechanic can be perfect), but also pragmatically. Until the next Pythagoras of dice comes along and figures out how to resolve RPG events in some enlightened way, we are pretty much stuck with our choice of the existing systems. There are a lot, and they yield unique, but also fundamentally similar probability distributions.

So, barring the search for a perfect dice system, why don't we try and layout everything the d20 can do (other than be rolled and have static modifiers added to it)? So next time, when you are making a system, you can explore your options within one die instead of trying to compare all the different systems.

Here we go...

Gambling: I'm going to list this one first to get it out of the way, because it can be applied to pretty much any of the following options, or implemented on its own as well. Simply, the players, and possibly GM, gamble on what the outcome of a roll will be. Maybe you could bet Hit Points, and get some kind of return in damage or outcome on a success. Maybe you could use the Price-is-Right method of guessing under, and being as close as possible, without going over. You could have a few different kinds of bets to choose from, like Craps, and each one has a certain probability for a certain return. Wanna bet odds for you attack roll? Okay, that's 50% probability, for 1d6 damage. Wanna bet only 18-20? Okay, that's 15%, for 2d8 damage. The options are countless here. Also, gambling is fun and reasonably stressful. That can be great for combat, at least.

Crits and Fumbles: These are almost universally used. Typically, a roll of 1 is a fumble and a roll of a 20 is a critical. You could always change which number means what. Maybe hitting the target number exactly is a critical hit, and a 20 is just a success as per normal roll. Maybe they are both crits? So now your crit chance is 10% for numbers 19 and lower, 5% for 20, and 10% for numbers 21 and above. Weird.

Expanded Crits and Fumbles: Check this out. You could also use this idea for a different kind of bonus. Forget the "GM's friend" of + or - 2 to adjust the roll for any situational things. Instead, expand the critical or fumble zone by 2 (so 18-20 crit, or 1-3 fumble). Now, taking a risk isn't about changing normal success and failure probabilities, it's about changing extraordinary success and/or failure probabilities.

Advantage & Disadvantage: If you don't know what this is, or haven't downloaded the Basic D&D Rules over at Wizards, you should. What I love about this mechanic is how self-contained it is. I suppose you could expand it to use 3d20s, if you were a hedonistic psychopath...

Evens & Odds: I first saw this in 13th Age, where certain character attacks/abilities can only be used on evens or odds. It is particularly interesting when you consider that some things can be used on even or odd misses, which is a great way of adding a silver lining to a failed attack roll. Damn, I missed the goblin...But hey! I can cleave into the next guy for 3 damage, because I rolled an even number! Huzzah! 

Lucky Numbers: Again we return to the renowned Zak S. for his creative kung-fu mechanic that can totally be applied to anything your heart desires. It's like evens and odds.

Success+ (plus): I got this from a mechanic called "boosting" from Within the Ring of Fire. Essentially, the higher you roll in that system (which is an exploding 2d8 system), the more damage you deal with your attack, or the cooler stunts you can perform with skill checks, etc. You could do it as a 1:1 excess roll converts to damage thing. You could do it in increments that create greater and greater effects, like for every 3 points above the target number you can choose to do a stunt, which get stronger the more times you boost.

Failure- (minus): Same as above, but with failures and numbers below the target number.

Results fall within a range: This is a big change, but the idea is akin to this 2d6 system, but with a d20. You figure it out. Shouldn't be too hard.

Target is success, further is worse: In this one, you are aiming for the target number exactly, and each step away from it, above or below, is a little bit less successful.

Dice as Static Modifiers: My friend Max found a variant for 5e where the proficiency bonus is handled with a die that you roll in addition to the d20. So +2 proficiency would be 1d4, +3 would be 1d6, +4 1d8, +5 1d10, and +6 1d12. Granted, +12 is a bit high considering the original cap of +6, but you get the drift. You can do this easily for stats, weapons, classes (like a combat die, a magic die, a skill die, etc.).

Dice as Situational Modifiers: This one is new, as far as I can tell. Essentially, you use dice instead of the static bonus from a given situation. 1d4 for a moderate advantage, 1d6 for a good advantage, 1d8 for a serious advantage.

Dice as Modifier Resource: As above, but you get to add them on demand, instead of as a way of mechanizing an in-game advantage. Also, you only have so many per day, or per encounter, etc.

Reroll Numbers: This is from the way 13th Age handles two-weapon fighting. Simply, reroll all missed attacks on natural 2s. But you can expand on this indefinitely. Higher level fighters might get to reroll certain missed attacks.

Roll Under: Another big change, though you can implement it on only certain rolls to more easily describe improvement over time (roll under stats, for example). Goblin Punch's house system uses this mechanic really well.

Opposed Rolls, Higher Wins: Self explanatory.

Opposed Rolls, Difference is Result: As above, but you can add in the Success+ or Failure- stuff too.

Everything is save vs. 11: Why not flip a coin for every roll? Except don't flip a coin, because you can't adjust the probability of a coin flip. Instead, adjust the 50/50 chances with situational stuff, or Situational dice.

Everything is save vs. X: As above, but you choose a number other than 11 as your base for success. Make it 14 for a more difficult game, or 8 for an easier one, etc.

That's all I've got. If you've got anymore, leave them in the comments!