Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New Spell: Prognostis


By weaving the magics of time and consciousness around himself, the sorcerer sees into the future a short distance.

The GM narrates some vague and "just off-screen" moments in the session's immediate future. After that narration, the player rolls six d20s, reveals them only to the GM, and chooses one of the results. Then, the GM chooses one of the results. Alternate choosing until the player and GM both have three results.

The next three d20 rolls that would be made by the PCs are replaced by the player's chosen results (the player chooses which result to use and when, each only being used once). Likewise, the next three d20 rolls made by an NPC or monster are replaced by the GM's chosen results, in the order he/she chooses.

The idea with this spell is that the caster gets a flash of immediately subsequent events. A couple rounds of combat, or a minute of exploration. The GM could reasonably give the caster some info about the future of the game session without revealing too much.

If there is a falling scythe trap ahead, the sorcerer could envision the party rogue sliced in half just up the hallway. If a monster is going to ambush the party, the caster could witness the moment through the creature's eyes, so the party knows where the creature is coming from, but not what it is.

The dice results part of the spell is meant to simulate a moment in which the player knows what can happen, but not exactly what will happen, especially considering that each choice they make, and that the NPCs and monsters make in response, changes what is possible for the remainder of the spell's effect.

I think this spell should be a level 6 spell. Just a feeling.

The origin for this spell idea is that all future-seeing spells in D&D suck. At level 9, you get BS like Foresight, which gives you narrative advantages, but virtually no mathematical effect (+2 AC and Reflex? Come on....).

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D Classes without Math: Magic-user

Wizard, Magic-user, arcanist, etc. It is a staple of D&D, and perhaps the single most interesting class, based solely on their capabilities. Spells are essentially the only common thread (mechanically speaking) through all the iterations of D&D, and wizards are the undisputed masters of spells.

But what does that mean when you take out the math?

Well, that question has perplexed me for months. This post was supposed to go out with the rest of the "without Math" posts. Clearly, it did not...

Because I can't really say what a math-less magic-user would look like. It has a kind of backwards quality about it that the other classes do not. Every fighter can do the same things, as far as the game is concerned. The details about how they do it, i.e. what weapons they use, how much armor they wear, whether they focus on Dexterity or Strength...none of it really matters. They are still a fighter because they do fighter stuff. Hit things with weapons, absorb some damage, protect the less combative party members, run into the danger.

But...what is magic-user stuff? Fireball? Magic missile? Scribe Scroll? Reading magic? There is an argument to be made that, yes, that is magic-user stuff. If you can do those things, you are a wizard. But not every magic-user ever learns magic missile or fireball, or how to scribe scrolls, or even how to read magic. As more and more spells are printed, and the boundaries of what magic can and cannot do (and how easily it can or cannot do it) has expanded, we have found that very specific types of casters are now viable. Casters that don't use spellbooks. Casters that even change the very idea of how mortals can access magic.

Also, "fireball" and "protecting the squishy guys" are not the same level of abstraction. "Fireball" would be better described as "AoE damage." "Magic Missile" is best described as "unavoidable magic damage that's cheap." Of the four core classes, none but the magic-user can do those things. But is an illusionist, who knows no damaging spells at all, a magic-user then?

Must we abstract further and higher? Maybe the magic-user is the class that makes sweeping changes to the environment the party is in, either clearing obstructions or creating them. This definition would then include things like knock and illusory terrain, which are yet more staples of the D&D wizard. Looking over the wizard spell list from 3.5, I think this definition is rather complete. But it is so general that it could take any in-game form whatsoever. Wizard, sorcerer, illusionist, evoker, swordmage, abjurer, warlock...even divine casters could fit within this definition comfortably.

And yet, this definition leaves us with nothing but "casts spell" as the 'math-less' portion of a magic-user. Essentially, we're back where we started.

We don't want to have to write up all these different classes, because we would never be done. If we want to be able to write up a coherent set of rules for all magic-users (math-free, of course), we have two options:

1. Make it wizards only. If you can cast arcane spells without a spellbook, it's because you are a monster or demon or dragon and not a PC. Humanoid races have only one way to learn and use magic, and that's spells and spellbooks. If you take D&D as written, remove every non-wizard arcane casting class, you have this system. There is still a lot of room here. Every type of wizard specialist is available. Spell selection is wide open and creates meaningful differences between all wizards.


2. Make it up as it becomes relevant. Have no written rules in your system for spells and magic. Instead, make magic entirely an in-game discovery and learning process. If you want to have the PCs fight a dark mage, write up the basics of how that guy knows/can use magic. This could be any micro-system of your choosing. The most obvious is a spellbook with a finite number of spells. What system you use to prevent characters from casting these spells endlessly each day is up to you. Then, if the PCs decide to investigate this dude's magic (presumably after turning him into a fresh corpse), they can pursue it, and you'll know exactly how it works and how powerful it is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why the ranger class sucks these days...

To understand the fall of the modern ranger, it is helpful to study the rise of the modern bard. When I first started playing RPGs over a decade ago, the bard looked like this:

Now I first want to say that I mean no disrespect to the artist that worked hard on this piece. I think it is a great piece of art, but a bard this is not. The musical instrument is a hardly visible afterthought (he's wearing a lute on his back) and his outfit doesn't scream "storyteller" or "poet" but rather "rogue" or "eccentric."

And this perfectly describes the bard class (D&D 3E) that this picture was used to represent: a mixed bag of uncertain purpose. It has middling attack bonuses, a middling spellcasting ability, mediocre spell selection, and its class-specific features were so situational and odd as to be laughable.

Hence, this comical representation of the bard throughout 3rd edition's reign.

But now! NOW the bard looks like THIS:

Holy moly! Look at that badass fantasy character! A sweet guitar that sticks out like a sore thumb (in the best way) the subtle wood flute hanging around the neck, the lack of any weapons or aggressive garb. This bard is something unique unto itself. The colors are bright and stylish. Even the character's haircut is edgy and cool. This is a socialite. This is a world-traveler.

And just like the picture, the 5e bard is the king of classes. Highly versatile, interesting, and competent. A skilled magic-user, a healer, and combatant, and even a battlefield inspiration.

It is admittedly a bit overpowered, but at least it's playable in an unironic way.

So what has the ranger done in this same timeframe?

Well, the first ranger I ever saw in a D&D book looked like this:

This is someone I can picture roaming the wilderness for months on end. The armor might be a little overdone, but it also looks rugged and that is important. The weapons are sharp and deadly, there are torches on his back next to his bow, and he is wearing a green, elvish-camouflage cape. He's ready to face the wilds. And he even looks like he has, given his bronzed skin tone (for an elf).

This 3rd edition ranger was not as playable as it seemed, but it was playable nonetheless. Favored Enemy is a very tricky feature to make work in a standard D&D campaign, and that was the main draw of the class. Worst case scenario: your 3E ranger had the high attack bonuses, decent hit points, some fun combat perks to start with, and nice skill points and spells to fill out the weaker areas of the character. If your party needed to track anything, or survive in the wilds, you needed a ranger, no question.

What about the ranger now? Well........

She's either a drow, or a purple elf. Neither of those scream "wanderer of the forests" to me like the tanned elf from before. She is also wearing a bright blue cape and puffy white sleeves. Not exactly camouflage. 

Something tells me that this piece was just supposed to be a warrior-type drow, and when time came to put a ranger picture in the 5e Player's Handbook, somebody grabbed this one, drew a bird onto the bow, and called it a day. Not cool.

And worst of all, the 5e ranger is by-far the least popular class. Only three skills? Someone that survives on their own in the wild with no help only gets three skills from their class? Favored Enemy gets nerfed, even though it was already mediocre at best. And don't even get me started on the current state of the animal companion... what a joke. It's so unpopular, in fact, that WOTC has made it a point to update it completely. Are the updates enough? Eh. I'm on the fence.

The Upswing

So what is wrong with the ranger? Why does it blow nowadays? Why is it "weak"?

Because it doesn't do anything. Sure, it can do all the normal character stuff fine. In fact, it can do all the normal character stuff (moving, hiding, fighting, seeing, hearing, etc.) more reliably than any other class. Move through brambles unhindered, fight invisible things, not lose its way in the woods, etc.

But those things aren't exciting. If a rogue could only hide, and not sneak attack, it would suck (by modern standards). Well, the ranger is exactly that. Sure, he or she can run through a field of pricker bushes without getting slowed down or hurt, but once on the other side of the field, they will put you to sleep with their lack of unique proactive choices.

Doing things was the focus of my Ranger Class without Math from a few months back. If you don't wanna read that through, here is the lowdown.

I give them two major weapon choices in combat: bows and knives. They get to choose whether to engage from afar or close up in each fight, not as a one-time character feature. No more melee OR ranged rangers. Each ranger is both.

I give them an awesome and totally independent animal companion to control, which is just one more sweet and proactive choice they get to make each turn. Every ranger gets one.

I give them the ability to make natural traps, and search for natural traps. Boom. Interesting choices in non-combat time other than tracking.

I give them herbalism and bush medicine to make them healers because if rangers don't know that isht then they die all alone in the woods. Just makes sense, and is uber useful for the party.

See how easy that is? But just like the bard because more capable and proactive between 3rd and 5th editions, the ranger fell from grace. How ironic that the tracker and wayfinder class has lost its way.

But hey, now you know how to fix it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

That Bard's Got SOUL!

Boy, it's been a long time since I posted. Better put some super useful and groundbreaking content on here to make up for that.

Fact: I'm tired of lutes and panpipes being the tavern background music. So, here we go:

Soulful Bard's playlist - Roll them d20s and hit play!

Note: Songs have no lyrics mentioning post-medieval technology.

1. You Were Never Mine (Cover) - Janiva Magness

2. The Midnight Hour - Wilson Pickett

3. In the Still of the Night - The Five Satins

4. Try a Little Tenderness - Otis Redding

5. Don't Leave Me This Way - Thelma Houston

6. California Dreamin' (Instrumental) - Baby Huey [TURN YOUR VOLUME DOWN]

7. Moanin' - Charles Mingus

8. I Hear the Angels Singing - Eric Bibb

9. Sherry Baby - Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons [Note: Mentions "twist party"]

10. Unchained Melody - The Righteous Brothers

11. This Magic Moment - Ben E King and The Drifters

12. Can't Take My Eyes Off of You - Frankie Valli

13. What's Love Got to Do With It? - Tina Turner

14. Runaround Sue - Dion

15. Duke of Earl - Gene Chandler [Note: this one is particularly appropriate for medieval settings.]

16. The Great Pretender - The Platters

17. Chain Gang - Sam Cooke

18. Natural Woman - Aretha Franklin

19. When a Man Loves a Woman - Percy Sledge

20. I Wish It Would Rain - The Temptations

Saturday, July 16, 2016

5 Goals Your NPC Organizations Shouldn't Have

There are three types of NPC groups in fantasy RPG worlds:
  1. Groups the PCs can fight. Example: the cult of an evil demon lord.
  2. Groups the PCs can receive service from. Example: a merchant guild.
  3. Groups the PCs can join. Example: giant-slayer mercenaries. 

No DM has trouble with the first group. They are the easiest to think-up and use in the game.

The second group is easier than the first, in that their motivations need not be world-shaking or nuanced. They can just be a trading band, after all. But they are also more difficult than the first group, because it is much less natural to roleplay a merchant than an evil cultist, considering how scant merchants are in most fantasy novels and D&D plot-lines. It's very similar to writing: the mundane stuff is the hardest to make believable because you haven't ever given much though to it.

Where many D&D worlds fail, however, is with the third group. I'll give you some examples.

Black-Flame Zealots: If these aren't the coolest divine group ever, I don't know what is. They are Assassin's Creed meets ninja meets Nepalese holy-warrior. If there was a novel or video game about these guys, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, they are a clandestine order of monks who work primarily out of city hideouts and only battle with the enemies of their god. They are like a thieves guild, but with more smiting and less casual sex.

How in the world do you DM a PC that is a member of this group? How do you convince the PC that going off to a random dungeon and looking for treasure is a reasonable quest given his profession? If an old lady says she has ROUSs in her basement, why on earth would a member of the BFZs offer to help her? Don't they have a dark god to keep at bay?

How about the Cavaliers? Mounted soldiers? Really? That's the kind of character you are going to play in this dungeon-crawling game? One who needs a horse at all times to have any fun?

The deeper you dig into all these supplemental classes and groups, the more you realize that over half of them cannot be played.

Sure, you can take the Purple Dragon Knight prestige class from 3.5's Complete Warrior, but take a look at their description, and the paragraph-long disclaimer about player-character members...

D&D 3.5, Complete Warrior, p. 70, Wizards of the Coast

In the end, a PC Purple Dragon Knight has no rank, no authority, no experience, no service record, no commitment to future service, nothing. They have nothing but an honorary title and a slew of class abilities that seemingly appear out of nowhere, given how little the PC actually has contact with their affiliate group...

These disclaimers are included because the designers know that players want the cool features and titles, but none of the responsibility. The PCs still plan to explore and search for treasure and kill monsters as their primary lifestyle, so being a full-time (or even reserve) member of some army is not on their to-do list.

And why should it be? This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Soldiers & Sergeants. If you want to play a medieval warfare simulator, play one. D&D is not that.

This is a reality that DMs and PCs need to accept: limit yourself so you can focus your game and do it well. Players don't need access to infinite character concepts to have fun, they need access to a handful of character concepts that fit the world and the tone the game is going for. DMs don't need infinite NPC groups from every walk of life, they need a couple dozen groups, the majority of which should be adventuring groups that PCs could easily join while still maintaining their normal day job.

There are a million reasons why an NPC group would be invested in dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. I'll put a bunch into a blog post sometime. But until then, here are five goals your joinable NPC groups shouldn't have, because they create direct contradictions with the adventuring lifestyle:

1. Operate in a particular area, e.g. a specific city, forest, or even country.

If the PCs ever want to leave, either the PC members have to quit, get some sort of negotiated leave time, or create a convoluted reason for why it is relevant to the Elvish Defenders of Leafwood that Joe the Ranger go off into a desert and dig up some magic scrolls about turning lead into gold.... These groups are type one or type two: enemies or service providers.

2. Research a particular thing unrelated to dungeons, e.g. feywild specialists, divination experts, very specific monster-hunters, etc.

This shouldn't be confused with something like a weapon-specialist group. I'm talking about any group where actively adventuring would cut into their study time, rather than be study time. Sword masters-in-training can hone their skills anywhere, but students of Fey lore have nothing to learn while infiltrating the underground city of the Derro. These kind of academic groups are also type two.

3. Serve a particular (non-deity) leader or country, e.g. a king or empire.

Unless he is the king of dungeon exploration, I don't want to hear about any PCs being in the kingsguard.... These are type one and/or two.

4. Pursue sedentary or mundane professions, e.g. blacksmiting, fishing, etc.

You don't have time to smith while you are slaying dragons and stealing their treasure, so smiths don't do that stuff. They stay home and smith. If you are a smith, you aren't a PC. If you are a PC, you aren't a smith. No ifs, ands, or buts. Type two again.

5. Enact a modern moral or ethical sensibility.

I'm not saying every group should be made up of assholes, but if your PCs come across the Loving Sisters of Peaceful Coexistence, do NOT let them join. Peace and non-violence are for farmers, not adventurers. Sad but true. The players can agree with their message in spirit, but they have to realize that their entire lifestyle (i.e. the entire game) is premised on violence and stealing, whether it is against other sentient races, monstrous races, or just plain ol' monsters. Evil in D&D is real, and it is out to get you. Monsters exist, and they don't only attack when threatened by oil spills or aggressive human expansion. And since the monsters are evil, might as well take their stuff when their dead. Right? Peace can be an ideal in your world, but it cannot be the mainstream. This could be type one or two.

Now go make some NPC groups that love spelunking and looting. I'd join that shit...

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How to Escape the Railroad D&D Game: Get off at a station

Quick announcement: Haven't posted in a while (got a full-time job), but plan to keep posting as often as possible. Will most likely shift my focus from game system design to adventure design, as that is where my head is right now.

"Some players, Mr. DM, just want to watch the world burn." 
 - Someone afraid of sandbox games

"Players don't panic when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying."
- Someone afraid of railroad games

Oh that unanswerable question: railroad, or sandbox? So short, and so mystifying. Within its seemingly binary choice are paradoxes and contradictions enough to fill entire college courses. See: Free Will vs. Determinism.

But let's boil the idea down to this: every DM wants their players to feel as though they are making choices that impact the world, but how do you do that without needing to literally create an entire world spontaneously?

Some will argue that you make a little "sandbox" and let the players do whatever they want in that little area. Easy. My response is this: even generating a tiny area that is a "free-roam" zone for the players is an unimaginably huge task. The idea doesn't ever scale down. PCs can cover a lot of ground in one session. You can't pre-generate all those possible paths, even in a very limited sandbox. And if you're thinking, "you don't generate everything the PCs can do, just the things they are likely to do" I say, welcome to a railroad game....

Meanwhile, if your argument is that you create some basic details and improvise the rest, you've entered into a similar paradox. If you magically incorporate your details into any path the PCs take, then you are running something VERY close to a railroad game. Best described as the "Quantum Ogre" effect. On the other hand, if you are willing to entirely abandon what you have prepared for the sake of maintaining player agency, then why prep at all? What are the odds that your players will choose exactly what you have prepared for them without railroading them at all?

To further confuse things: For every player that will purposefully avoid a pre-built story for something they think will be more exciting, there is a player who will do the opposite: ignore any hook or moment of inspired DM roleplaying for the never-ending slog through what they see as the "story."

The only way to appease both of these player types is to give the entire decision process over to the players, and then hold them to their choices. Your game must have cause and effect relationships, or the "watch the world burn" types will have no boundaries. Just so, the game needs to have very regular moments of choice, or the "go with the plan no matter what" types will quash everyone's creativity.

Okay, enough theory. Let's talk about putting this into practice.

Step 1: Prepare shit. There are no two-ways around it. You have to prepare sessions if you are going to give them any substance. Dynamic combats with interesting monsters, unique NPCs with believable spots in your world, competent antagonists, and many other parts of great D&D only thrive in the pre-game creative process. Maybe your random tables, acting, and improv are so good you don't really need to prep. If that's the case, I hate you.

Step 2: Accept that session 1 is railroad-y. Every D&D party has to suspend disbelief for long enough to accept that they are together, that they are at least allies in some respect, and that they will continue to work together until further notice. This is not an easy narrative step when your players are supposed to be brimming with "free will" and "agency." As the DM, you have to put your foot down and tell the PCs, "Welcome to session 1. Your characters are are all gathered in ______ for _______ and are planning to do _________. Go." Get the game going, regardless of whether every player is 100% into the mini-plot you have for the first session.

Step 3: Everything in the world has space for a hook. You have to bake hooks right into the body of your game world. Every corner should conceal another hook. But you need to expand your definition of what a hook is. Magic items are hooks. (What is it? Who can tell us? Where are they?) Information is a hook. Overheard conversations. Letters. Gossip. Everything. (The baron's raising an army? Why? Where? Someone mentioned the God of Socks. Who is that? Where can we learn about such a deity?) People are hooks. The dark spells cultists use are hooks. Statues are hooks. Paintings are hooks. EVERYTHING CAN BE A HOOK. Write a sentence for each good one you think up, and remind your players that these hidden treasures of adventure are everywhere if they pay attention and ask questions.

Step 4: Pace your sessions correctly. This will end up being a whole other blog post, but the short version is this: be smart about how long to spend on things around the table, and when to initiate them. Big combat after 4 hours of roleplaying session? Probably a poor idea, especially if it's getting late. Remember: you can always stretch things out with good roleplaying and description. You cannot, however, speed things up arbitrarily. When players focus on something, the time management is under their control. Prepare enough content to fill 50-75% of your session, then stretch it as needed.

Step 5: Finish your sessions at a choice, and have the players make it before ending. This makes #4 doubly important, because step 5 depends of successfully executing step 4. Each session should contain minimal "choice" points at the beginning and middle, because the more your players can veer off the path mid-session, the harder it is to make that session tight and satisfying. BUT, a major choice about what to do next that is placed at the end of a session allow players to tell you exactly what to prepare for next time. This choice point doesn't have to be "multiple choice" either. It can be "open response." So long as you have a week to prep what the PCs choose to do, they can do anything they want. Now THAT is agency.

Hooks are not choice points unless the players have nothing more urgent to do. Hooks can be kept in the back pocket of the party until some adventure time is freed up. This maximizes player agency, because it allows the players to choose the next part of their story organically, based on what most interests them about your game world. Free yourself from the trap of the escalating railroad campaign! You are better than that!

But let's be real: at the end of the day, even this style looks like a railroad. Pre-planned sessions that the PCs can't really change much once they are prepped by the DM.

But railroads can take you anywhere. Railroads (in the sense of pre-prepared sessions and stories) only become constricting when the players get an urge to jump off mid-way between stations. Solution: put in more stations. One at the end of every session. Keep the sessions focused and let them flourish into more depth instead of more plot if you have extra time in the moment. Your players will naturally want to follow mini-stories and plots to their immediate ends. Keeping players focused on a plot for one session is not an impossible task. 

Trying to milk that one major player choice for three or four sessions of material is asking for trouble.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sneaking Around In Tabletop RPGs

Stealth checks are a mess. I have yet to meet or hear of a GM that actually uses stealth checks in any deterministic way when it involves more than a single "sneaker." Party stealth is the most common kind of stealth check made, and as far as I have experienced, the party just needs to roll a rough average above the difficulty to avoid detection. Like a skill challenge a la 4E. How else could you actually do it?

From OOTS #90
If you determine stealth individually, then certain party members (read: cleric, fighter, etc.) will fail virtually every check, because the game assumes they are in super noisy scale or plate armor. This means that even if half of the party moved into position undetected, the enemy is no longer caught unaware, even if they are still surprised or sneak-attacked by the rogue and ranger, for instance. The game tries to go easy on the sneakier classes by still giving them damage bonuses for being stealthy, but the mechanics have made a completely reasonable tactic (stealth) entirely devoid of utility except for those who specialize in it.

This bears mentioning, because we have all snuck up on our parent, sibling, friend, etc. in real life, and scared the ba-jeezus out of them. Sneaking up on someone who is not paying attention to their surroundings is actually pretty easy. Even cats and dogs, with their superior animal senses, can be scared out of their furry wits by a sudden jump from around the corner.

So why does the game assume you will alert your enemies to your presence most of the time, if you let the fighter or cleric anywhere in their earshot? Surprising the enemy shouldn't be so much about silence as about timing.

Take the Siege of Osgiliath, for example. Regardless of how the build-up was shot (which I feel left a lot of tension to be desired), the great thing about this scene is that the Gondorian soldiers still manage to get the jump on the orcs by hiding just inside the entrance, despite half of them having plate armor. They get a surprise round, even though the orcs know full well that there are enemies inside the walls. In fact, a lot of the stuff about this scene that bugs people actually would make for great rules-of-thumb around the table.

Yes, plate mail rings like a bag of tin cans and wind-chimes when you fight in it.

But, there is always some kind of white noise going on that will lessen the odds that someone who isn't actively listening for sounds notices a person in plate mail walking carefully.

Yes, soldiers run across the orcs' line of sight like, a dozen times just before the boats dock.

But it is dark and misty and foggy and the GM has to be honest: the orc saw a shadowy figure dart across the entrance. They know that Osgiliath is occupied, but they haven't heard any war horns. Does that really give them enough information to avoid the ambush? I don't think so.

It is a strange vestige of incorporating perception and stealth checks into the game that many GMs and players operate under two very unrealistic and paradoxical assumptions:

1) That nearly every non-living, physical detail about the world is shrouded in some kind of impenetrable fog or obscurity until such time as a good perception check is rolled.

2) That nearly everyone is fully aware of each living creature within eyesight and earshot until such time as a good stealth check is rolled against them.

Those assumptions lead to this being part of every D&D session ever:

(GM) "You guys begin trekking through the woods"
(Players) "We all go stealthily" *rollrollrollroll*
(DM) "Uh...yeah, okay you go pretty quietly on your way"

How is this even a thing? You roll one stealth check each for a whole day of travel, when earlier that day the rogue had to roll a whole stealth check just to take two steps behind an orc without it noticing? That's like saying the fighter can get through a whole day of random encounters with one attack roll, but has to roll for every attack when he encounters a pre-planned fight.

Are your characters seriously checking behind every tree and around every hill and padding every footstep to avoid contact with sentient beings? Or are you just keeping your voices low and going slow? Cuz you shouldn't need to roll for going slow, bro. Slowing down and shutting up is easy.

Are your characters trying to move fast, but not alert anyone? Tough shit. You get one or the other, unless you have some bombdotcom spell you wanna blow for super quick silent movement, or you are a high level ranger with some class feature that gives you crazy stealth stride. It is a basic fact of life, and one that needs to be preserved to have an interesting and problem-solving oriented adventure game: the faster you go, the louder you are and the more likely someone will notice you. The slower you go, the easier it is to move about without drawing attention to yourself.

Stealth is probably one of the wonkiest mechanics simply because it exists as the veil between the free-range character action outside of combat, and the turn-based character action inside of an encounter. Some might think of initiative when I say that, but initiative is "Step One" of combat, not the connecty bit. If you fail your stealth check, typically, combat begins. Maybe the target starts running away, maybe they pull out an axe and start swinging, who knows. Either way, it's now a two-player contest, and turns start being taken. If you succeed on Stealth, you remain the only "turn-taker" in the game, which means it isn't even a contest yet. No combat. Yet.

What would happen if we relaxed the combat structure of hard turns in a specific order, and instead made use of stealth merely as a means of getting the element of surprise on your side? In movies, for instance, when the action hero gets the drop on the guard guy, the hero snaps his neck or muffles him and slips a blade betwixt his ribs and that's all she wrote. In D&D, anyone but the rogue has almost no chance of taking the unsuspecting guard out in one-shot, because once combat rules kick in, damage is supposed to happen in little chunks over a long period of time. I don't see why the fighter couldn't shove his longsword through a dude's back and take him out (perhaps not dead, but certainly down), regardless of his HP. But again, if your combat is very rigidly segregated from your "non-combat" play, then it will be hard to justify anyone but the rogue being capable of shanking a dude.

And so stealth also brings up trouble with regard to how hit points work. One of the primary benefits of sneaking up on an enemy combatant is the opportunity to quickly and quietly dispose of them. However, most enemies in D&D type games have more HP than a fighter can deal in damage in one round. This winds up being "role protectionism," for the rogue. Even if the monk, or ranger, or fighter, or paladin, etc. snuck up on the enemy, they would not be able to kill them quietly, or quickly, thus giving their little stealth operation a close to 0% chance of success (where success is taking the enemy dude out without alerting the other enemies).

But enough about the problems with stealth. How do we fix it?

Well, there are a number of things:

  1. Stop screwing characters in heavy armor. Seriously. Give them penalties to swimming, give them a hard time when they try to run more than 50 yards, but stop forcing them to auto-fail stealth checks with your gratuitous penalties. Armor is heavy, armor is expensive, and those two things together are more than enough to counterbalance the bonus to a character's defense. In reality, D&D-type games have been biased toward not wearing much armor for a long time. If you are regularly in hand-to-hand combat, wearing no armor is suicidal. All those leather-pants-wearing thieves out there who have complained enough to be allowed into front-line fighting are messing things up for their armor-bearing allies. Reality checks should be used very sparingly when it comes to fantasy games, but this is a spot where one is sorely needed.
  2. There are two types of "sneak attacks." Ones where you plan to eliminate your target, and ones where you plan to get in a solid first strike against a big evil guy like a dragon. Take that into consideration when you are stating up your NPCs and monsters. If the standard ol' city guards have 5d8+12 HP each, then only the rogue can ever hope to take them out with a surprise attack. Don't do that to your players. Let your player characters outrun the rest of humanity in terms of HP and bonuses and such as they level-up. That way, a normal city guardsman always has roughly 1-8 HP, and even the bard could kill him silently with a good stab in the back. If you were hoping for the city guard to put up a good fight against your magically equipped and time-tested PCs, you are designing your encounters wrong. Simple as that.
  3. If a PC critically fails a stealth check, they should be seen, no question. However, a regular fail on a stealth check should be interpreted more loosely as "a complication is added to the scenario." The castle guards stop to chat, and the careful timing you did of their rounds is now totally useless. A new NPC shows up to speak to the guard, or give him some food, or something else. A third party, like a wild animal or a beggar or something, shows up and draws attention in a direction you didn't want it drawn. The dog smells you and starts to bark from his cage, but the guards are just telling it to shut-up for now. This way, when the party rolls stealth all together, there are three possible outcomes: everyone succeeds and no complications arise, some people fail and complications arise, everyone fails (or at least one critically fails) and the PCs are discovered before their plan can occur. Now, the fighter and cleric can come along just like everyone else, but each additional person is another chance for a crit-fail to show up. Bigger party = harder to go unnoticed = perfectly reasonable to me.
  4. Be real about how aware the enemy really is. A small camp of orcs that is feasting and wrestling are essentially unaware of their surroundings unless they have posted a lookout (which should not always be the case, unless its wartime or something). Assuming there is no lookout, the PCs should be able to sneak around their camp (in the trees) without rolling anything. If they want to foot-pad into the camp, enter tents, steal food or gold, etc., then stealth checks are needed to see how well that goes, since a stray orc could easily befall them as they reach into the chests of treasure in the middle of the camp.
  5. Allow the players to solve the problem without rolling. If a rock thrown in the opposite direction of the entrance can draw the lookout away from his position long enough for the party to slip inside, then the party shouldn't need to roll stealth at all so long as they figured that out and did it. An invisibility spell + slow walking should allow a character to move through an open doorway without a problem, even with a guard a few feet away. Maybe a dexterity check might be needed if someone was to almost bump into them, but you get the drift.

Those are my best pieces of advice. If you have any other tips, or you've got the ultra-genius way of resolving stealth that I could never have conceived in a million years, please leave them in the comments. Pretty please?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of Open Legend: An Open Source RPG

Open Legend RPG is an open-source, classless, genre-flexible tabletop RPG with a universal list of combat options and a Cocktail Weenie approach to special abilities (called feats). The system was designed for maximum character creation flexibility, and also features a universal role mechanic that involves a d20 as well as additional polyhedrons that explode (are rolled again for an even higher result if they rolled their maximum result initially). It is free, and the rules are most easily accessed on their website.

First of all, the website is gorgeous. It is far better organized and easier to read than essentially all major RPG SRDs. I'm big on layout, so OLRPG gets an A+ on that front. The homepage does a nice job of introducing the concepts, and there really aren't that many pages. Everything is organized intuitively, and if you know how to do Crtl or Command + F on your computer, then finding the boon or bane or feat you're looking for is trivially easy.

There is also just a sense of invested effort that you get while reading these rules. This was an honest design project that was held to the highest standards by the people at Seventh Sphere Publishing. As someone who has poured over rulesets and RPG books, I can tell when I am reading a rule that was rewritten fifty times until it was exactly the way it should be. I get that a lot from OLRPG. A+.

Before I continue, I want to get a few things straight. If I had to choose between my ruleset and OLRPG, I would choose my ruleset. But not because either or is objectively better. Rather, the RPG I like best is the one that is well designed, with my preferred type of game in mind. My favorite kind of game is a cinematic sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawl. OLRPG as a system best supports a story-driven heroic high-fantasy (as far as I can tell). That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a great game system outside my comfort zone, though.

OLRPG is as successful at its goal of being flexible and story-strategy balanced as any RPG I have come across. It's focused, and the designers eschew all those fiddly bits and accessory rules that are so tempting to include when making one of these pen-and-paper games. I can't tell you how many rulesets out there include a core mechanic that sticks out like a sore thumb, clearly included on a whim because it was "cool." Cool doesn't cut it when it comes to accessible game rules. Sure, reading through OLRPG, you may find yourself lacking inspirational fluff text...

"But that flavorless shapeshift feat sounds so boring compared to my D&D druid's Wildsphape power" you might say.

Well, tough nuts. You're (probably) an adult. Add some fluff text yourself. Describe how your character's power is unique in-game. Don't count on the game rules to make things fun in spite of you. You are more than half of the creative force in the whole affair. Grab your RPG by the horns and run with it, don't expect it to carry you.

This is all to say, I respect OLRPG for sticking to its guns and letting the rules speak for themselves, rather than injecting fluff for readers to geek-out over. I also respect it for taking a stand of how to roll, when to roll, how to interpret rolls, and how to move your game along (more on this later). Just because it is open-source doesn't mean it has to be wishy-washy, and it is not. Kudos on that.

So, if you are just reading this review to get the gist of the game and then read the rules yourself, I can confidently say that OLRPG is worth a look, and a one-shot if you have time. And since it is open-source, it may just be the platform you need to make some cool RPG content, if that is one of your goals.

Now, if you want some discussion of the crunchy bits (this is a design blog after all), well, buckle up.

Everything is a point system: Attributes, feats, and so on. You allot points to a category and then can do the special stuff associated with that level in that category. This allows your character to sit anywhere on a spectrum of hyper-specialized to jack-of-all-trades. This changes magic-user functionality from your classic D&D: in OLRPG it is more difficult to have a pyro-specialist that can also consistently open magically-locked doors, a la the D&D evoker with knock prepared. Everything is a roll, so even if the pyro-wizard has a couple points in the right areas for unlocking a door or magically cleaning some clothes, there is a chance that even those simple tasks would fail to some degree, when they would normally go off without a hitch is your standard D&D spell system. Not a flaw, but a change in gameplay that might rub some players the wrong way.

The d20 + additional exploding dice math is weird: Why no 1d12? Obviously I am biased when it comes to my blog's namesake die, but I also think this design choice deserves discussion. Clearly, the larger the die number, the less chance that it explodes. A 1 in an attribute, which gives 1d20 + 1d4, will explode once every four rolls. Meanwhile, someone with an attribute of 4 will roll 1d20 + 1d10, which explodes once every ten rolls. Less than half as much. So from attribute levels 1-4, improvement means less "spikes" of talent, but more consistently high performance. Then suddenly, a score of 5 yields the greatest chance of exploding dice (1/6 + 1/6) for an exploding die roughly once every three rolls, as well as the most consistent high rolls, given the unique bellcurve of results. This by no means breaks the system, but it will create strange patterns where a little bit of talent in an area yields randomly huge rewards, but a lot of talent in the same area can't (mathematically) reach the same heights nearly as often. Weaker characters will surprise you more than stronger ones. Weird.

When everything is based off of points, some things get complicated: The hit point equation is pretty gnarly, even for a tabletop RPG, but that always seems unavoidable with these points-in-areas systems. Also, there is a large potential range of HP here, depending on how many points someone puts in those three categories. You could start with 10 HP, or 34 HP, depending on your character build. That's nearly as extreme as the 1d4 sorcerers vs. 1d12 barbarians in D&D 3.5, which has been largely abandoned by later games inspired by 3.5 (such as Pathfinder and D&D 5e) for being too large of a gap. However, HP is not linked to level in OLRPG, like it is in many RPGs, so maybe this is a non-issue. In that case, scaling challenge with non-scaling HP will be an interesting hurdle for new game masters.

Feats: for an open source game, this approach is a dream come true because it means you can easily and quickly design a new character concept or power or skill or whatever and share it with other people and know that it meshes perfectly with the system they use. Definitely the right choice.

Races: Any rule that tries to get players away from humans and half-elves is a good rule in my book. I can't tell you how many RPGs I've seen played where race wasn't roleplayed at all....

The Character "Secret": I love this idea. I think it goes a long way toward establishing that flavor of fantasy adventure. Secrets are the butter to my monsters-and-magic bread, and it is general enough for any character concept. Good stuff. Might steal it for my games.

Rules for when and how to roll, and failing forward: super like. We roll too much in most modern RPGs. Rolling over and over for the same thing, taking 10s and 20s like we have to describe everything in terms of a roll of the dice, and failing trivial tasks like opening a door. Much better to take the stance that Open Legend does and have rolls be random results for specific types of challenges or drama, not just anything that happens. As with my remarks on spellcasters above, you may even want to broaden this rule to include certain magical things that should be trivial.

Wealth score: I've seen this used before, and have tinkered with such abstract wealth systems myself. At the end of the day, I think the simplest system is just to use gold pieces and assign a rough gold value to everything. Silver-lining: taking this rule out and using a gold-piece system is trivially easy, so no harm done even if you aren't planning to use this rule.

Combat: Rolling an attack is pretty complex. Weapons are properties and ranges for the attack, rather than entities that determine damage. Coming from a standard d20 style background, anything beyond 1) roll to hit number 2) if hit roll damage, makes me a little weary. I imagine that the process of swinging a sword at something would be slightly more laborious at the table than I find ideal. Similar to systems where you "build your spell as you cast." Which I think you do in OLRPG, too. However, I am very intrigued by the boon/bane system and how it redefines and broadens what a typical d20 game lets you attempt in combat within the rules. Sure, you could knock someone prone in D&D 3.5, but it was a pain in the ass to look up the extremely unique rule for doing so. Open Legend has a streamlined way of attempting nearly any self/ally-benefitting or enemy-sabotaging action that scales with how complex/useful the boon or bane is. I myself think that just an attack roll or ability roll is abstractly enough rule to cover anything a player might do, but that means my players have to take it on faith that I will be fair with what they can do and what their enemies can do. OLRPG takes a little bit of that judge-jury-executioner responsibility that old-school game GMs have and puts a more robust actions-and-consequences skeleton into play. I can always respect a little modern-game sensibility, even if I don't feel I need it.

Monsters: Where are they? Do I make them myself? I may have missed this, and I haven't even begun to delve into the OLRPG Blog so that could be my fault. But I am certainly interested in how a game without scaling HP can survive the difference between the PCs fighting a group of goblins, and the PCs fighting a group of dragons....

And that's all I've got. Make sure you go check out Open Legend and follow them of their social media.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Stories Better Told In-Game

I took the cleric and paladin classes out of my game because I felt that a character turning toward a religion was something that should happen during play. That moment that a warrior defends a temple and holy light shines down on them and they receive Pelor's blessing is too good to be passed up as mere "backstory." That's the meat and potatoes right there, not the appetizer!

A mortally wounded adventurer is carried into the hut of an old hermit woman, and as she prays over him, he sees a vision of Elhonna calling to him, telling him she needs him to spread her teachings. It's his destiny, which if not achieved, would yield terrible consequences. Boom, cleric (or missionary) origin. It has a sense of urgency and reality, rather than the distant and ephemeral relationship most cleric class members have with their deities.

This game decision was extremely freeing, because now religion didn't have to be part of the campaign if I didn't want it to be. Sure, characters could be religious, but unless I chose so, no divine powers (and thus near-direct deity involvement) would be required. Pantheons take a long time to make, man. Sometimes I just want murder-hobos fighting dragons in a godless hell-hole, but as soon as any divine class is allowed, there is an entirely new dimension to my world that I need to fill out, whether it will be used a lot or hardly ever.

Not to mention, NPC members of religions also got toned WAY down, so that they are nearly all mundane people with regular reasons for being religious, rather than magically gifted healers who can be the deus in your deus ex machina plot problem. AND a great corollary to this is: magic healing is much rarer, therefore the game feels more dangerous. May not be your thing, but it is so my thing.

This train of thought led me to arcane magic-users, M-Us, or "moos" for short. A moo is basically in the same boat as a cleric or paladin: they have some supernatural ability that everyone wants to know more about, but the narrative drive it creates is crippled by the game always beginning en media res of their development. A moo's first experience with magic is a defining and contextualizing moment of unprecedented importance in the story, but when it is resigned to the backstory, it matters not at all.

So, you can take moos out too, and make magic exactly like religion: you get it during play, if at all. Again, the freedom this offers is immeasurable. Now, if I don't want to incorporate pact magic and patrons in my game, I don't have to worry about a player choosing the warlock class. It also means magic (and religion) can be totally mysterious and not balanced, because it's all in-game development. It puts the risk-reward balance in player character choices, rather than character creation. No need for spell slots, no need for domains and specialization rules. Just cause and effect story.

Each spell or magical power is its own rule module with its own limits and costs and risks. If you want a bigger/better/cooler/flashier version of what you have, you can't just kill stuff until you level-up, you have to go out in search of the better version and learn how to do that. But be warned, it may have costs you are not willing to pay, or be on the other side of a challenge you are not ready to face.

Not having any set rules for how magic functions allows you to try different things for each moo, like magic atrophy, crude magic, modified vancian magic, wizard garment restrictions, a panoply, i.e. collection of magic foci, or the spell components you've been ignoring your whole life.... And so much more!

But wait! Won't these magic systems spin wildly out of control? Won't my moos either become gods among men, or slump over and give up because the costs of magic are too high and not balanced with the real classes?

It's all in how well you DM, of course. But rest assured, your moo isn't just a moo, he is also a warrior, or a dwarf, or a scoundrel, or some other mundane/race class first. Not all D&D characters live beyond their first couple adventures, and not all moos ever get to cast fireball before blowing themselves to smithereens in a magical mishap. All game systems have edge cases that screw things up. You deal with them as they come along. But at least with in-game magic only, your players (and you, to some extent) get the excitement and mystery of magic back in your campaign.

Players now have to actually choose whether gaining magical power is worth the risk. Parties now have to gather information on their sorcerous enemies before charging in, or risk death by unanticipated magic abilities. Playing a moo well now requires learning and exploring above all else, and especially above choosing the best spells at each level.

This fantasy RPG hobby of ours is about three things. First is being with friends, and what system you play should have no effect on that. Second is exploration of a magical world. If gaining magic is part of exploring, rather than part of the rulebook, then that's just more exploring to do. Win-win. Third, tabletop is about problem solving in a more dynamic and complex environment than any video game or board game can model. If you make magic a problem to be solved, and a challenge to be overcome, rather than something characters are just handed from the get-go, then you have all the more material to work with as a DM.

Until next time.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Magic as Science vs. Magic as Sin

Science is something we teach in school, though most science learned in school is science that was first done over a hundred year ago. Science is a profession, and states across the world fund sciences to maintain high qualities of life and military superiority. Science is something that happens in broad daylight, and you can point to it in the natural world.

The most exciting and (very rarely) dangerous science is done by geniuses in university laboratories or government locations. They act with the acknowledgement and approval of some governing body of officials or intellectuals, even if these experiments may be morally questionable to the public.

These governing bodies also regulate how much of the scientific knowledge and know-how is accessible to the public at large, though often how dangerous an average joe can be with science is less about knowledge and more about acquiring expensive materials. Occasionally, unregulated rogue agents gain materials and make fatal uses of science, and the states and universities immediately move to prevent this kind of action in the future.

If your RPG magic is like science, then you can expect to find potions at your typical merchant's venue, and one or more of your PCs will probably have classical magic training in the form of a wizard college or monastic order. Practicing magic is not surprising, but practitioners of magic that are not part of the normal social structure are surprising and even cause for alarm. They may be hunted in the same way as those who intentionally use magic to cause destruction.

Your RPG with a scientific magic system may also feature a subject within magic that is forbidden. Blood magic, necromancy, demonic pacts, etc. This kind of study is punishable in the strictest sense. Much of the information on these topics is either folklore, or contained in lost magical tomes that somehow escaped destruction. These arts are studied in dark dungeons and hidden temples that pose as organizations.

The taboo inherent with these forms of magic is always related to the sin involved with practicing them. Blood magic involves manipulating the human body as a resource. Necromancy does the same for dead bodies. Demon pacts are deals with evil entities, which will surely help the monster cause pain and suffering, at least to others.

Now, remove the professional magic. That's an RPG with magic as sin.

All magic is done in secret, or in the open with impunity in the confidence that almost no one can stop the sorcerer unless they too plunge their hands in the muck. A mortal person using magic has the same effect as a villain in a movie that kills an innocent person, up close, without batting an eye.

Magic-use proves that the practitioner is willing to make morally abject choices to gain power and get ahead. It is sin in so far as it sells itself. No one has to be convinced as to the usefulness of magic. It draws practitioners in on its own undeniable results. Its pull is especially potent at the highest and lowest rungs of the social ladder, because those people are much more likely to be egomaniacal or desperate, respectively.

And the sin is really in the details, too. It isn't just pouring the blood of the innocent on the pentagram before chanting your 'duras' and 'diras.' It's having your eyes and your teeth pop out of your head while becoming a werewolf, and then eating them once the transformation is complete. Excuse me, I have to go be violently ill because I've just witnessed something I definitely wasn't meant to see.

But the power...oooooh the power.

In a magic as sin game, the players must choose whether they are good, or powerful. Any path that rides the line has to be invented on the spot. The magic itself asks you to compromise your morals or deal with entities that you know are dangerous and deceitful. But your players will gladly risk their characters just to see how far the rabbit hole goes.

In a game with magic as sin, the details can't be written out, they have to be discovered. It's the foot-in-the-door technique. You already broke into this library's restricted section to sneak away with a black magic tome, why not try one of the spells out and drink the blood of a rabbit, just to see if you can really become the fastest man alive? And when that works, why not give the book to the crazy necromancer for the promised 1,000gp? He isn't gonna destroy your village, after all. And hey, why not sacrifice a whole city of people so you can be immortal, like it says on that page you accidentally ripped out of the book before you sold it? You've gone this far already, and besides, the necromancer is gonna turn them all into zombies in a month anyway...

For my money, magic as sin is more provocative than magic as science. When accumulating power is absent of moral impetus (magic as science) then an artificial conflict has to be constructed: other people also gaining power, but these people don't like you for whatever reason.

But when power is inherently corrupting, then the conflict is natural: to preserve existence, the powerless must try to keep power in check, but the means by which to do that are pitiful compared to what the power can do.

And so for the players to be a force for good, they must truly be bright and steadfast, or they must flirt with evil without giving in completely.

Or if they are just muscle for hire looking to make a buck, the temptation of magic is the choice between a modest existence, and potentially infinite wealth (perhaps) at the cost of one's soul.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bounded Numbers Fix Boring Players

Nearly every person I've ever played D&D with is my close friend, and I love each of them very, very much. Having said that, I absolve myself of the hard feelings that might come with saying this: some of them are bad players.

By bad, I don't mean "they roll low all the time," a la Wil Wheaton, nor do I mean "they don't have an expert grasp of the rules," and in fact, those of my friends who understand the rules the least, and roll the lowest (on average) are often the best players. Rather, I mean they make uninteresting choices at nearly every opportunity, and count on the scaling within the game to make their character more effective, rather than counting on their own problem solving instincts.

There are several things that exacerbate this problem, such as lists, overly complex combat rules, and cookie-cutter encounters. Another mechanic that pours salt in the wound is unbounded numbers.

When bounded accuracy was announced as a major feature of D&D 5, I was very excited. I thought that bounded to-hit numbers, combined with a simple advantage/disadvantage mechanic, would result in a huge increase in player creativity at the table, particularly in combat.

But, I was wrong.

Things stayed the same, because damage continued to scale with level like it always did, and even worse, magic item bonuses are not calculated into the monster challenge rating math anymore, so most creatures will likely have less Hit Points than they should for the level of characters you throw them at.

That means monsters aren't all that hard to kill for characters of the appropriate level...

Which means just attacking and standing still is likely to win you the fight, all the math considered.

That's not my kind of game.

In my kind of game, players will likely die if they simply choose to attack a creature head-on, after level 3 or so. Goblins and dire rats and other such level 1 and 2 fodder shouldn't be a serious problem unless a character makes a bad mistake or gets totally surrounded. That's what intro levels are for: establishing a feel for the world, the game, and the ground rules of life-and-death. But once you enter larger monster territory, even just burly things like bugbears, the fear of god should be in the PCs if they don't have a plan that involves something more effective than "I swing my axe."

This means using the environment, taking creatures by surprise, enlisting further help from some townsfolk or mercenaries, or counting on a specific magic item to save your ass (if you're desperate).

A system can help you create combat that requires more creativity from your players, it just needs to be built keeping one thing in mind: characters should likely die in a fair fight against higher level creatures.

That's how you advance in a tabletop RPG: the character improves only enough to justify making the low level and high level monsters mechanically different, AND the PLAYERS get better at thinking about and approaching combat, and further analyze (in-game) how to increase their chances of survival.

A fighter character's sword skills should only become marginally more deadly through his tenure as an adventurer. But his combat skills should become MUCH more deadly, and this is only truly manifest via player improvement, not better numbers on a character sheet.

What you may notice is that this approach to designing a system would make random encounters particularly dangerous. While the discussion about the merits of random encounters is a whole different conversation, I will put this forward: good players should be able to get some kind of upper hand no matter what you throw at them, nor when. This doesn't mean they will win, or even survive, but it means that they will find something to work with.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Drinking Rainwater from a Wolf's Paw Print

If you haven't skimmed it, I highly recommend the Wikipedia page on the Werewolf. In particular, the section on Becoming a werewolf is full of great stuff that our D&D frozen minds would never think of.

Like how some myths propose that simply drinking rainwater from the paw print of any animal was enough to turn you into that creature.

That isn't just good monster lore, that's good magic lore. How different would the magician be if their magical abilities weren't a series of arcane words and arm motions, but a kind of esoteric utilization of the opportunities that the natural world presented to them? It isn't so much about knowing a spell, though a book full of instructions on how to do magical things would still be very important, but rather it's about putting the right components together to make an effect.

I can't help but think about the wizards and sorcerers and such in the games that I've played, and how boring they are as magic-users go. There's almost no mystery to them, and even worse, whatever mystery there was is totally removed once you realize the character has pulled out all their spells in the first session or two.

I'm never surprised by a spellcaster anymore. I'm never shocked at a player's spell selection. Probably because the classes and spells they have to choose from are too utilitarian and not nearly eccentric enough.

Of all the countless hours I have searched the web for game design content (particularly OSR content), no topic has felt more time consuming and unsolvable that making magic less...blah.

And for good reason. Magic is at its best when the situation in-game is the most tense and unpredictable. However, making magic cooler often means making magic more complex, which means players need more time to figure out what their magic does each turn. More time spent on one person's turn slows the game down. Slow turns kill the vibe, which is what we were trying to augment in the first place. It's a Catch-22.

I'm always returning to Tolkien's world, because that is perhaps the single most magical feeling world I have ever had the pleasure of being in. I have gone over and over what makes Tolkien magic so appealing, and part of it is always the fact that it is a story, and not a game. In a story, the magic-user can easily go four chapters without using magic at all, but in-game, if a magician character goes four sessions without slinging a single spell, they will probably be pretty ornery.

Something that I can learn from Tolkien immediately is that magic happens far more in D&D combat than it should. More combat-focused magic is certainly the trend in new-school games, and I find that boring. In a Harry Potter setting, where the entire fantasy world is primarily concerned with the academic pursuit of magic, combat magic is cool and refreshing. But in D&D and Middle Earth, where war and battle and monsters and the like are the main course, making magic combat-centric is the equivalent of doubling down instead of covering your bases.

Swords and bows and armor and monsters and catapults and legendary foes all roaming the battlefield isn't enough for you? You need fiery explosions every six seconds to make combat feel exciting and worthwhile? Nah, man. No thank you. That's over-saturation. One blast of searing light or call of a lighting bolt per story arch is enough for me, I think.

The best way to communicate this kind of magical feel isn't by describing it, but by presenting a list of spells and such to give you an idea of what this means. Hopefully, I'll be posting that soon.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Fantasy Archetypes as Chronology, and the Expanding Magician

There is some great blog literature about the cleric as a misfit in the fantasy world, and I suggest that you all read it if you get the chance. A good place to start is Delta's discussions of the cleric and how it bothered him throughout the years (scroll down to the bottom of the post).

This excommunication of the cleric would then leave us with three archetypes: the warrior, the scoundrel, and the magician. Three is a nice number. It lends itself well to overthinking and false analogies. The following may or may not be one of those.

Warrior, Scoundrel, Magician = Present, Future, and Past

The warrior is living for the glory, the thrill, the power. But the warrior's glory does not come after the fight, it comes during the fight, as he (or she) is flaying the dragon, beheading the minotaur, or stabbing the orc general. His strength and potency comes from what he can do right now. A general without an army to command right now is not really a general.

Warriors are typically depicted as men, in the real world, and even in fantasy. There are a host of stereotypes that explain this, but perhaps one of the least examined is the correlation between the male brain and mental focus: paying attention deeply to one thing is emphasized, but planning ahead and multi-tasking are underutilized.

I would argue that the warrior archetype is inherently uninterested in planning ahead and multi-tasking. It doesn't mean a warrior can't plan, or multi-task. But there is something about the warrior culture and warrior mindset that implies addressing problems as they arise with whatever strengths and strategies become available in real time.

In game terms, this means the warrior excels after combat starts. Once each combatant must begin making decisions and acting on them, the warrior is most in control. This means being reactionary. But very effectively so. "He does A, so I respond with B. She does C, so I respond with D." That kind of cause-effect reality means warriors are inherently focused on the present in order to be effective.

The Scoundrel, on the other hand, is most effective when they can predict what challenges lay before them. This can be boiled down to the mind-numbing mundanity of "I search for traps," but it also exists at all the other levels of interesting play. Cat burglars and art thieves stake out their targets to better predict what they will be up against. They set up road-side robberies as chests of gold are being transported from the royal coffers.

Even combat oriented scoundrels are focused on setting up a future opportunity to strike for maximum effect.

Scoundrels are the ones that walk away with the gold, avoid consequences, disappear into anonymity, etc. That doesn't happen on the fly, it happens because these archetypical characters are constantly planning. "If he does X, I will do Y. But, if he does W, I will do Z." A scoundrel's mind must always be playing with possible future worlds, and planning not just the next move, but the next three moves like a chess grandmaster.

The magician exists in the past. A magician's influence depends on what archaic secrets of the old world they can master, and what incredible shifts of reality they have accomplished. The magician is potent not based on how they can react to what their enemies are doing, nor how well they have planned to deal with their opponents' strategy. A magician is powerful based solely on what they are independently capable of. If you can incinerate a man at the flick of a wand, the most important part of your development as a magician was not the moment of incineration, nor the plan you concocted to find and incinerate that person. It was the moment you figured out how to incinerate someone. The sheer unpredictability of your powers is, in itself, dangerous.

"I have amassed this power," the magician says. "Try and stop me if you wish."

This makes the magician sound like an evil archetype. And it sure as hell works for evil characters. But it can also be a force for good. Unless you live in a world that has entirely collapsed to evil, then evil must have been defeated or staunched in some way before, but you can only find out what those methods were by looking to the past.

This tripartite comparison creates its own rock-paper-scissors relationship as well. Warrior is reaction, magician is unpredictability, and scoundrel is prediction. The warrior beats the magician, because the only way to beat something that's unpredictable is to react efficiently and effectively at a moment's notice. The magician beats the scoundrel, because if the scoundrel cannot predict their opponent's capabilities, their advantage is lost. And lastly, the scoundrel beats the warrior, because it is trivial to predict something that works on a basic cause-effect, action-reaction formula, and it is therefore easy to counter.

Yet another insight from this comparison is what it has to say about the magician and "game balance." I'm not talking about balance in the sense of "the magician shouldn't deal more damage than the warrior" or "shouldn't roll higher stealth checks than the scoundrel." Rather, I'm talking about giving your players and their characters roughly equal time to shine in any given game. Warriors are best at reacting to sudden events, and scoundrels are best at planning how to circumvent the better part of the challenges they can predict. The magician should be pure, raw magical effect.

But if you let the magician prepare too accordingly for the challenges they will face, then it begins to overshadow the scoundrel. Who needs to sneak around the frost giants and set their fortress on fire if the magician has a dozen fire spells prepared?

By the same token, if you allow spells to become too utilitarian, and give the magician too many of them, then they start to overshadow the warrior. Oh, the demon has summoned two fire beasts? Well, my wall of iron will keep them at bay. Now the demon is trying to disintegrate my wall? I cast arcane transference and absorb his spell, then use the spell slot I gain from that to cast sonic boom against the crystal golems, which is an auto-critical.

See what I mean? Old school magicians, with their tiny spell lists and laughable number of spells per day were like a shotgun: effective when used for its intended purpose, somewhat effective if used for a well-thought-out improvised purpose, and disastrous if used for anything else. Sure, you can shoot an enemy with a shotgun, and you can even blow open a locked door with a shotgun, but you can't put out a house fire with a shotgun, and you can't create an anti-venom with a shot gun. During those times, other characters get to shine.

But the trend in magicians has been to transform them into a Swiss-army knife/multi-tool/Skeleton key archetype, where they can steal the spotlight entirely, so long as they do their research and prepare the right spells. Not only is this unfair to the players who want to make characters that aren't magicians, but it also is opposite the original feel of the magician. Archaic and arcane secrets aren't a dime a dozen. In the LOTR movies, Gandalf was away for over a year doing research and hunting gollum just to learn about the history and tell-tale signs of the One Ring.

In the books, that quest takes him exactly seventeen years. I don't think that much time should be necessary to discover some arcane secrets, but you get the drift.