Monday, March 30, 2015

Dark Elves, Emphasis on the "Dark"

I've decided I like the term "dark elves" better than "drow." Mostly because ever since RA Salvatore, the term "drow" has a whooooole bunch of baggage that I don't want to incorporate into my campaigns.

So my dark elves live above ground. If you checked out my post about dwarves, then you know that we already have a subterranean race. Two, actually, but that other race is yet to come.

I did a brainstorming session with my aforementioned friend, Max, who just set up his new movie review blog which you should all check out: Amateur Hour Film Reviews. Anyway, in said brain-typhoon, we hammered out some broad strokes to revamp other races, and the dark elves were on that list, so consider this post a dual-effort.

We know Eladrin despise decay, and Elves are generally okay with the balance of nature (life, death, the whole shebang), but Dark Elves idolize death. They believe that the material world is a sort of purgatory for unclean souls, which the Raven Queen is putting through a crucible so they might prove themselves. Death is an aspiration. When the Queen of death calls you, you should be thankful.

Dark Elves are not strictly evil, just as the Raven Queen is not evil, but their beliefs and credos make it nearly impossible for any other race to get along with them. To them, death is an everyday occurrence. They don't cry at the deaths of their own, they cry at near deaths. To survive a near-fatal accident or illness means the Raven Queen has rejected you, and you must continue your trials and tribulations here in the material plane before being allowed into the spirit world.

The only evils, in the eyes of the dark elves, are the undead. Undeath is the chiefest of sins. Dark elves are called by the Raven Queen to abolish all of the living dead, and torture those that create such abominations.

Physiologically, Dark Elves are very similar to Elves. They are lean and lithe, wear their hair long, and have pointed features. Their skin ranges from an ashy gray to an absolute ebony or obsidian. Their hair is generally a silver white, and their eyes run the same gamut of greens, blues, and oranges seen in their crepuscular cousins.

Dark Elves rise at night and hide during the day, not that they have much to hide from, but the harsh rays of the sun are annoying to them. Dark Elven woods are barren and feel haunted. The trees are gray, petrified. The plant life is dominated by black, thorny vines. This is the effect of dark elf magic. It is very akin to defiling magic from the oh-so-beloved Dark Sun setting in Dungeons and Dragons. It sucks the very life-force out of the sorcerer's surroundings for use as fuel.

Their magic is potent, and so is their poison. The petrified trees in their woods drop black leaves that never rot or decay. These leaves turn to a black powder upon being pressed, which can be mixed with water to make ink (thus dark elves are some of the most prolific writers in the world), OR, the powder can be mixed with saliva and kept in vials. After a few days away from fresh air, the powder and spit mixture turns into a deadly poison called Raven's Kiss.

Raven's Kiss first causes paralysis of the major muscles. Then, it causes paralysis of the muscles involved in breathing, causing the afflicted creature to suffocate unless cured or magically aided in some way.

Dark Elven funerals are large and time consuming. It may seem a lot like a human funeral, with family and friends of the deceased speaking words of endearment and telling fond stories and memories, but unlike human funerals, Dark Elven funerals are full of dry eyes and smiles. At the end, the Dark Elves often lament how fortunate their dead kin are, to have been chosen by the Raven Queen to enter her great kingdom in the true world.

Monday, March 16, 2015

I'm for Random Level Up Bonuses

Power-gaming requires the ability to plan your character.

Playing stereotype characters requires the ability to plan your character.

Games that emphasize balance require the ability to plan your character.

So, because I like my games kinda old school, I don't care much for the ability to plan your characters.

Stats should be rolled randomly, straight down. I also allow the player to swap any two stat values for each other before getting on with the rest of character creations. This allows a meaningful but minimal amount of control over the character's trajectory.

Then I randomize the number of items characters get. Usually basic clothes + 1d6 other things. This isn't a rule for how much the character has to their name, but rather how much they have on them at the beginning of the game. Rolled low? Well, maybe your character was just robbed by bandits, and strolled into town without two coppers to rub together.

Race and class are the player's choice, but since stats are mostly random, this is another instance of meaningful but minimal control. (Combine that with VERY simple races and classes that only grant abilities at first level, and you have a nice open ended character on your hands.)

Lastly, when characters level up, I have them roll on one of two tables. Even levels is a 1d6 table for increases in HP, extra spells, etc. Odd levels is a 1d6 table for increasing one of your stats by 1.

I want to give an example of how you can use this to enhance your games, in case you aren't already sold on the idea.

EXAMPLE: Grimbug, the orc warrior, had just achieved level 2. His player rolled nice strength at character creation (hence the warrior class), and he has a nice dexterity. In my game, that means he is pretty good at sneaking around. But he is a warrior, so he doesn't think about sneaking all that much.

That is, until Grimbug's player rolls on the d6 level up table and Grimbug gets a +1 to stealth (which translates into a 5% increase in stealth check successes in my game). Well, suddenly Grimbug's player is gonna think about stealth more, and probably try it out more often.

See, random level-ups denote what the character will be better at in the future. They speak to a part of your story that has yet to be told.

Level-up bonuses that are set and selectable are indicative of what has already happened...which has already happened...and can no longer help make your game more fun.

A friend of mine was recently bemoaning his players' cliche character and race combos. Dwarven fighters, elvish rangers, halfling rogues, etc. He's running a 5e campaign, but this player trap has been around for a loooooooong time. I'm not saying my style of game is a 100% fix...

...all I'm saying is that when Tordek the Dwarven fighter starts developing magical abilities he doesn't understand (and his player didn't foresee or plan) it certainly makes him a lot more interesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

RPG Tools of the Trade: Weapons

The bastard sword is everything that is wrong with the Dungeons & Dragons style of weapon mechanics.

The bastard sword was put into the game because they needed a sword between the longsword (d8) and the greatsword (2d6 or 1d12, depending on the edition).

But then they also needed a style of sword between one-handed and two-handed...

Well they put in a bunch of rules and regulations and exotic weapon proficiencies, but as it ends up, the bastard sword was always the best bang for your buck. If you were a fighter and you weren't wielding a bastard sword and heavy shield, you were a fool.

I'm gonna get a little technical here, but bear with me. These kinds of breaks within a game rule module (i.e., the weapons system) results from a failure to define the system's "space." See, the vast majority of weapons in D&D, until the bastard sword, were either one-handed, or two-handed, never both. Somewhere along the line, someone decided to give a mediocre bonus for wielding a one-handed weapon such as a longsword in two hands (strength bonus plus a half, for instance, or the flat +1 damage in 4e, etc.). But even that addition was okay, because it didn't muddle the two categories in form or function.

Then the bastard sword was born out of the two-category wedlock (pun intended) and everything went down hill.

So here are the dimensions of your "weapons space" that you have to define when you are designing your game's weapon system:

-First: The damage dimension.

D&D did this worse than just about anyone. 1, 1d3, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 2d4, 1d10, 1d12, 2d6, 3d4,'s garbage. There is no need for this. Not to mention that a dagger (d4) is just as deadly as a greatsword (2d6) when used by the right person in real life and in fantasy literature and film, so why screw them in your system?

No, you need to figure out 2-4 serious damage categories for your weapons and not break them. I use 1d6 (one-handed) and 2d6 drop the lower die (two-handed). This makes every weapon equally deadly on a good hit, but still gives larger weapons higher average damage. You could also do something like 1d6 small melee, 1d10 large melee, 1d4 small ranged, 1d8 large ranged. This balances the range-damage dichotomy pretty well, and gives you something to show for that extra hand you need for large weapons.

-Second: The proficiency dimension.

I like to give my players bonuses. If you are giving someone a penalty that isn't in-game and situational, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you need help.

Why would I play a game that takes time to tell me all the things my character is bad at? No. that -4 "non-proficiency" penalty from 3.5? That shit needs to GO. And those countless proficiency bonuses from 4e? God, I don't know what's worse, number inflation, or random number redistribution to make things look more balanced when they are mathematically the same as before.

Here's what I do: each weapon has basic properties, trained properties, and mastery properties. If you have no proficiency with the weapon, you get the basic package when using it, and that's it. No penalties, no financing charges, no early cancellation fees. You just get vanilla, and that is always better than nothing.

You trained in that weapon though? Well, now you start getting some extra cool stuff on top of the basic package, like the ability to counter attack with a rapier when your enemy misses you badly, or the ability to circumvent shields when you swing your flail, or a sweet little bonus to AC for knowing how to use that bo-staff right.

Mastery works the same way, you get even more cool stuff, like the ability to do grapple maneuvers with your greatsword (like you're supposed to when you're good with one), or more devastating critical hits with your battle ax, or the ability to throw that greatclub....okay, well, maybe not that last one, but you get the drift.

Third: The accessibility dimension.

Lastly, you have to figure out what groups you are gonna package these pointy suckers into so you can easily point certain classes to their early weapon choices. For me, Simple, Light, and Heavy do the trick. If you can picture the class walking around with a greatsword, they get all three groups. More subtle, but still martially focused? Simple and light only. Wizard types that usually eschew martial combat? Simple only. Done.

Now, another important feature is character fluidity. I don't want to prevent my rogues from wielding greatswords if they want to, so there's no sense in putting up barriers to that kind of stuff. In fact, a simple rule for how to gain training or mastery in a weapon (note: simple rule, not simple in-game task) is highly recommended.

Dungeon World grants XP through misses in combat. That's not a bad idea for gaining weapon training. Think about it.

Until next time-

Friday, March 6, 2015

Wood Elves: No Magic for Me, Thank You

They don't do magic.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Okay, some wood elves (just "elves" from now on) can magically heal people, but they don't really consider it magic. More like, helping nature along.

Other than that, they do not partake in sorcery of any kind*. They believe the world is balanced as-is: life, death, the laws of nature, etc., all working as one. Magic would bend that balance, and though they will not inhibit others from doing magic, and do not fear or misunderstand magic, they will not practice it themselves.

But that doesn't mean they just sit around all day and do nothing!

Elves are avid wind and string instrument players. It's rare to find an elf without a set of pan pipes, a flute, an ocarina, a lute, a harp, or some other musical item on their person. Unwelcome guests in Elvish forests are often met with eerie and disturbing sounds and notes from all directions, the sources of which are completely hidden.

Elves live about 90 to 120 years.

Elves keep pets like no other race could bare to. Nearly every elf has at least one pet, most have two or more. Typical pets include dogs, cats, birds, moles, snakes, etc. A significant minority of elves are socially content with just these animal companions, and choose never to get married or raise a family.

Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are the staples of an Elvish diet, although they also hunt small game (duck, squirrel, etc.) to make desserts on special occasions. Larger animals are viewed as too majestic and few to hunt or consume in good conscience. They don't farm, only gather.

Elves don't mine or smith metals. If an elf owns something metal, they either found it, or traded for it with human who live nearby. Elvish armor is all leather and bone, and elvish weapons are all wood (i.e. bows and arrows, javelins, clubs, slings, etc.) and are of very high quality.

Elves are mainly nocturnal, hunting and working and playing during the night, while the protectors among them patrol the wood for dangers. During the day, when most threats such as orcs, jaguars, the undead and so on are dormant, the elves eat, rest, and sleep (a mere hour a day is all they need).

Elves typically inhabit small nests of leaves at the base of trees or up among the branches. They eschew personal effects or property that cannot be carried at all times.

Elves loathe violence when it can be avoided, but they will also fight bitterly, and to the death, when acting in self-defense, defense of their home/family/friends, or when the enemy is unnatural and has already been provoked. If elves can sneak around violence, or avoid future bloodshed, they will. Elves never go on conquests or campaigns, for land or glory. Any request to get an Elvish army to march beyond its forest's borders (assuming the forest still stands and is inhabitable) would be flat-out refused.


*Elves that DO explore sorcery are universally corrupted by it. They quickly lose their minds and become evil, seeking only to unhinge the balance of the world just to find out what happens. The elves have a name for these poor souls, and in the common tongue it translates roughly to "lost ones."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why I Don't Let Players Roll All the Dice

"In my game, the players roll all the dice."

It's a nice thought, and it certainly has its benefits.

-It makes the GM seem more like a storyteller and less like an opposing team.

-It speeds up the GM's turn, keeping players engaged.

-It removes the need for a GM screen, which makes the whole experience a bit more casual and comfortable (imho).

But I disagree with it on theoretical grounds.

You see, game mechanics shape the story you tell at the table. Even if you don't think they do, they do. Let's take 3.5 as an example:

When a fighter swings a sword, the fighter's player rolls the dice. But when the same fighter is trying to avoid a sword-swinging orc, he doesn't roll anything. He uses his static Armor Class number and hopes the orc rolls low. Why? Isn't the fighter still trying to win? Isn't the player served equally by attacking and defending? Why not give the player agency (or rather, illusory agency in the form of a random die roll) over protecting their character as well?

Here's why: if your game allows players to impale themselves with their own roll, then your game probably isn't gonna be that fun.

Truth be told, there is a chance this happens in my game. If a player fumbles an attack roll, there is a random fumble table result that allows the monster an auto-hit counter attack that could kill the player, I suppose. But that result requires very low HP, and then a fumble, and then rolling one particular result on the fumble table, and then rolling enough damage on 1d6 to kill the player. Rare enough to warrant the shock value? I think so.

Anything more common than that and I think you have a problem. I can see low HP moments feeling like those god awful video game quick-time events which force you to press a certain button within one second or die. "Uh oh, the third orc is attacking you! Better roll AC again, or DIE."

As a player, I can accept when a monster rolls well and KOs me. But if it was my roll that took me out of the fight, I'd feel stupid.

Another example from 3.5: saves vs. magic.

3.5 had a near universal mechanic of "offensive actor rolls 1d20 + modifiers." Why would the game suddenly reverse this rule for saves against magic? Was it a mistake? 4e seemed to suggest so....

I don't think it was. Where magic is concerned, expending a limited resource (spell slots) if price enough for casting a spell. Simultaneously asking the player to risk a total miss, which would then waste the resource completely, is just cruel.

Now, asking the defending monsters to roll instead doesn't guarantee a hit, in fact it hardly changes the probabilities at all. But it does transfer the illusory agency of a miss from the player to the monster.

Wizard rolls low when casting a spell: "Wow Magic-Bob, you suck. Learn how to be better."
Goblin rolls high when saving vs. a spell: "Wow Magic-Bob, that goblin sure is tricky."

See what happens? It was the same exact mechanical outcome, but a different narrative structure, because when the magic-user's spells all go off with roughly the same DC to avoid, no one can say the caster has suddenly become crappy at his one job, instead, the monsters just feel more capable.

And having monsters that feel more capable is ALWAYS better than having players that feel less capable.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Wait, There Were Eladrin in 3.5?

You bet there were. And they weren't just sparkly-eyed elves either.

Specifically, they were found under the Core Monster Manual's "Ghaele" and "Bralani" entries, which are now part of the OGL.

I don't give a hoot about their stats though, I'm interested in their picture, which is the only real fluff part of the OGL stuff. Check them out:

Link to SRD page

Wooh! That's what I'm talking about! Look at those muscles, and the bad ass weapons, and the +5 level adjustments. THOSE things are NOT just pointy-eared humans who like magic, that's for sure.

Then 4e came along and fixed all the math, but spoiled all the imbalance. The only Eladrin that could be found in that game were boring, occasionally-teleporting humans who lived a long time.

So here is how I would play Eladrin in my game:

-Eladrin are, far and away, the most successful of the races in terms of: wars won, magic discovered, overall physical prowess (some races are stronger, some are faster, but if there were a fantasy decathlon, the Eladrin would win every time), history documented, weapons and armor smithing, architectural feats, agricultural efficiency, and civilization longevity.

-Eladrin live a LOOOOOOOONG time. Like, thousands of years. Because of this they are extremely meritocratic. If you can't become really really good at SOMETHING given a couple thousand years practice, you're probably pretty hopeless.

-But they have traits you wouldn't expect, too. Their governments are either run by royal families or monarchs, because it is stable, and thousand year old kings are quite level-headed. 

-Despite their meritocratic lifestyles, they dislike competition because short-term measurements of accomplishment make no sense to them.

-They are ultra confident, but not to a fault. Chances are, they are very good at anything someone asks them to do, but if they aren't, they will listen avidly to anyone who can teach them how to accomplish the task. They ask LOTS of questions when learning anything, and struggle to understand why anyone would refuse to share their knowledge with others or get bored of teaching.

-Eladrin generally have one or two children, when they are around 100 years old. Eladrin children actually mature faster than humans, reaching adult size and reproductive ability by age 10, at which point they are essentially self-sufficient and often live on their own. This total lack of a significant childhood makes Eladrin prejudiced against children other than their own. Being called a child or "young" is a big-time insult to Eladrin.

-Eladrin may marry many dozens of times in their lives, each new marriage supplanting the old one, almost always without any bad-blood or animosity on the part of either partner.

-Eladrin are downright rude to anyone who says they will accomplish something, and then are not able to.

-Eladrin see the acknowledgement of beauty as their only currency. For example: Farmers will give away their crops in order to show off how beautiful their plants are. Swordmasters hold public lessons frequently to make a display of their techniques. Wizards's favorite spells are often flashy and impressive. So on, so on.

-This comes with a significant downside, however. Eladrin will sometimes wage war in order to seize land that is naturally beautiful. Often, a handful of Eladrin warriors will show up in a quaint non-Eladrin town, near a very pretty waterfall for instance, and serve the hamlet with a contract to relocate so that the Eladrin may inhabit the aesthetically pleasing area. If the townspeople agree (are smart), the Eladrin usually make the move as easy and beneficial as possible by giving the ex-inhabitants food and lumber for relocating. If the townsfolk resist, well, there is a reason they only need a handful of warriors...

-Lastly, Eladrin hate the idea of decay. Not death, such as in battle, or when crops are reaped for harvest, but withering, dying. They avoid it in their environments at all cost, using magic to prevent flowers from ever wilting, riverbed stones from ever eroding, trees from ever dropping their leaves, etc.

Done. I know I said I was going to do wood elves today too, but they'll wait until next time.