Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Mind-Saber: An Elegant Weapon For a More Civilized Age

Inspired by this wonderful thread on of re-imagining Star Wars if the original movie was the only canon -  i.e. exactly what you did from 1977 to 1980 - I present this little Artifact from under the Dying Sun.

The Mind-saber appears as a tube of metal covered with electrode touch-points.  This Artifact only works in the hands of one possessing psychic powers; it is simply a hunk of metal to anyone else.   If a psychic holds the device with a bare hand, he may focus his sorcery into the tube, which creates a shimmering energy-field resembling a sword-blade.  Various tubes produce blades of various colours and lengths and no one has any idea why.

The Mind-saber is amazingly responsive to the psychic’s thoughts, allowing even a physically-frail individual the potential to be a combat force.  The wielder of the Mind-saber may use his CHA to modify his Combat Roll, rather than his STR.  Furthermore, the ‘saber can be moved with such ease that it also provides a Defense equal to the user‘s INT Modifier.  The “blade” slices through objects with unnerving ease and is extremely harmful.  It has a Damage Multiplier of x3 and the following modifiers vs. Armour Class:
AC 0: +4
AC 1: +3
AC 2: +2
AC 3: +1
Should the wielder lose contact with the Mind-saber, it will shut off.  No one has ever been able to figure out why a psychic cannot project his mind-force across space into the weapon, but it only functions when in physical contact with flesh.  In addition, because the weapon feeds off of the user’s psychic power, anyone wielding a Mind-saber suffers a penalty of -2 to all sorcery rolls, including using Disciplines and Psychic Combat.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Special Maneuvers: Give A Guy A Chance

In thinking further about Special Maneuvers, it occurs to me that they a probably too powerful.  I think perhaps the victim should get a Saving Throw.  So it would work like this:

Special Maneuver
If the Combat Roll is 15+, the attacker has the option to make a Special Maneuver. If so, he subtracts 5 from the Combat Roll so that he does less damage (so a roll of 17 reduced to 12 has a base damage of 2 now). He can reduce the Combat Roll to 10, in which case he does no damage other than the results of the Special Maneuver. These Maneuvers include:

Wound - the opponent must make a CON Throw or roll on the Wounds Table (which usually happens only if reduced to 0 or less HP).

Knock Down/Back - the foe must make a DEX Throw or stumble back a few feet or falls down.

Disarm - the foe must make a DEX Throw or his weapon goes flying out of his hand.

Stunning Flurry - a flurry of disorienting blows that forces the foe to make an INT Throw or lose his next turn.

Deadly Display - the character's display of martial prowess is so intimidating that the foe must immediately make a Morale Throw.

The Referee should feel free to add any other Special Maneuvers that seem fun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dodging and Defense

I've been wrestling with the idea of Defense for a long time now.  The concept comes from Spellcraft & Swordplay, which, in turn, takes it from OD&D.  The base idea is that magical armour and shields don't affect Armour Class, but rather levy a penalty to incoming attacks.  That mechanic disappeared as the idea of Weapons vs. Armour modifiers were dropped; at that point, Armour Class became simply a defense number, so it was easier to have armour and shields just change the AC.  Since S&S keeps the Weapon vs. Armour table, it makes sense to keep the original mechanic.

But, S&S doesn't give the mechanic a name and I have expanded upon the concept in Dying Sun.  First, I think shields are criminally undervalued in Ye Auld Game.  I won't rehearse the argument; suffice it to say that there is a reason that most people don't enter hand-to-hand combat  without something to hide behind.  So in Dying Sun, shields gives a Defense of +2.  A fighting-man can use an off-hand weapon to parry instead, gaining a +1 to Defense, but only against melee weapons (you can't parry arrows except in super-hero games).

Something was still bothering me, though.  And then, I got involved in a discussion at about the game Atlantis: the Second Age.  And that reminded me that I really liked the idea from Talislanta (the base system) in which a character's weapon skill not only adds to their combat roll, but subtracts from an opponent's roll.  And that caused me to figure out what was bothering me: Defense was too unconnected to character.  It reminded me that I had added a house-rule to the very AD&D-based system in the Arcanum (the predecessor to A2A) in which weapon bonus functioned similarly.  So, anyway, that all prompted this rewrite:

Defense is a penalty levied against incoming attacks.  Defense equals the Attack Bonus from Class and Level.  Thus, a 4th level Slayer with 2+2 Attacks has a Defense of +2.  Monster Size can also grant a Defense.

Shields grant a +2 Defense versus all incoming attacks and may add to DEX Throws for area-effects attacks and the like.  As with other armour, most shields are made from natural materials and break when they take a hit from a roll of boxcars (see Critical Hit).  If a character is wearing natural armour as well as using a natural shield, assume the shield breaks first.

Bronze shields work as normal.  A steel shield adds an additional point of Defense, making +3 in total.

A combatant may use a small, parrying weapon in the off-hand instead of a shield. This grants only a +1 to Defense versus incoming melee attacks and none versus missile attacks. It does, however, give the character 1 extra attack with the off-hand weapon at -1 to the Combat Roll.

In turn, that prompted me to think Survivors.  I felt that while Slayers ought to be the best at actively defending, Survivors ought to be good at just getting the hell out of the way.  And so I write down the following this morning:

In addition to the usual ways in which in a character is protected during a fight, he may also choose a full-bore defense by dodging.  The character declares his intent to dodge during the Declaration Phase of the round.  Dodging means that the character gets no attacks - Melee, Missile, or Sorcery - as dodging essentially replaces those actions.  He does get a half-move exactly as if he had attacked.  Note that the dodging character must have at least ½ of his Movement Rate to dodge; otherwise he is too encumbered to move fast enough.

Any time the dodging character is attacked during the round, he is allowed to make a DEX Throw to avoid the attack.  If successful, the dodger avoids the attack entirely; if unsuccessful, the attack proceeds as normal.

The Referee should feel free to add modifiers to the dodge throw.  A more balanced system, would allow the attacker’s degree of success to function as a penalty to the dodging DEX Throw.  So, if the attacker rolls “13”, the dodge roll takes a -2 penalty.  This ruling is more fair to the attacker, but adds complexity.  Alternately, one might use the attacker’s combat bonus as a penalty instead.  So dodging an attack from a 5th level Slayer is always at -2.   The Referee might also apply a penalty to consecutive dodges with each dodge after the first adding a cumulative -1 penalty; this would reflect the idea that a combatant can only really evade so much in the 5 seconds of a combat round.

As always, thoughts welcomed.

More with Adding to Combat

I'm actually really surprised that no one thought my idea of adding Special Maneuvers to combat might be too complex.  Gratified, but surprised.  I'm hoping to give them the road-test soon.

So, you only have yourselves to blame for my continuing to think along these lines.  First, I decided to codify some of my thoughts into one place.  For example, in what follows, I had discussed breaking weapons and armour before, but I had that rule in the section on Weapon/Armour Materials.  I realized that it made much more sense to put those rules together with the rules for Special maneuvers.
Combat Results
During each of the three Combat Phases (Melee, Missile, and Sorcery), everyone making an attack of that type makes a Combat Roll with varying results:
Roll is snake-eyes: Fumble
Roll is 10- : Miss
Roll is 11+ : Hit
Roll is 15+ : Special Maneuver
Roll is box-cars: Critical Hit
If the attacker is using a weapon made of natural, non-metallic materials, it breaks.   The Referee should feel free to apply other results; for example, he may rule that Artifacts also break on a fumble or perhaps just run out of power.
As discussed previously, the degree of success indicates base damage done. This is modified by the weapon’s Damage Multiplier and sometimes other modifiers as well (such as STR).

Special Maneuver
If the Combat Roll is 15+, the attacker has the option to make a Special Maneuver.  If so, he subtracts 5 from the Combat Roll so that he does less damage (reducing a roll of 17 to 12 means that base damage goes down to 2).  He can reduce the Combat Roll to 10, in which case he does no damage other than the results of the Special Maneuver. These Maneuvers include:
Wound - the opponent rolls on the Wounds Table (which usually happens only if reduced to 0 or less HP).

Knock Down/Back - the foe must stumble back a few feet or falls down.

Disarm - the foe’s weapon goes flying out of his hand.

Stunning Flurry - a flurry of disorienting blows that forces the foe to lose his next turn.

Deadly Display - the character's display of martial prowess is so intimidating that the foe must immediately make a Morale Throw.
The Referee should feel free to add any other Special Maneuvers that seem fun.

Critical Hit
A roll of box-cars has one of the following effects:
Automatic Hit - if the attacker had no chance to roll 11+, he still hits on box-cars. This means that everyone has at least some chance of hitting any foe.
If the attacker has no need for an automatic hit, then another effect results.
Break Natural Armour/Shield - if the foe’s armour and/or shield if made of natural materials, it breaks and becomes useless. If both armour and shield are susceptible to this effect, the shield will always break first.

Extra Damage - the weapon’s Damage Multiplier increases by one. A Tiny Weapon goes from x ½ to x1, a Small Weapon goes from x1 to x2, and so on.
More to come.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Know Your Audience

Alright, I'm a dunce: I just now noticed that there is a button that let's you see your audience on Blogger.  I got 7 views from Russia this week!  There was a period back in my Pleistocene Epoch (i.e. university) when I studied Russian.  It started as just a way to avoid taking Spanish or French, but I ended up really liking it.  My father's family emigrated from Russia in the early part of the previous century so I had a kind of genetic curiosity about it.  If I hadn't been so eager to graduate, I might have pursued it further.  As it is, my knowledge of the language has sadly deteriorated over the intervening years and ya gavoritz pa-russky ochen ploha chasty.

Anyway, zdrastvitye tovarishy!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Special Combat Manuevers?

I finally got ahold of a copy of Mongoose's Runequest II.  After a first go through, I'm fairly impressed.  It's still more fiddly than I like - I still think that SIZ is one stat too many, the Parry rules have too many qualifiers, hit locations, etc. - but really it's pretty slick.  The thing that really grabbed my attention was the idea of Combat Maneuvers.  It's the first time that I have seen the idea implemented in this way: rather than choose a Maneuver before you roll and face a penalty, you roll and if you achieve great success, you earn a Maneuver.

That's clever.  It removes a huge waste of time at the front end when the player usually has to decide if he wants to do a special move.   So that has me wondering about using something like that in my gaming.  That's always a suspect thought - "I just saw something cool in some other game; I'll add it into mine!"  That doesn't mean that it is a bad idea, just suspect.  But let's set that aside for the moment and see how it might work.

In my One-Roll Combat, you succeed on a roll of 11+ with each point in the one's place being the base damage (so 11 gives 1 point, while 14 gives 4 points).  Unlike most iterations of Ye Auld Game, this means that the Combat Roll has "success levels" or "margins of success".  And that's what RQII's system is based on.  But my roll also takes damage into account which RQII doesn't.  Thus, here's a first thought:

On a roll of 15+, a character may reduce his Combat Roll by 5 to take a Special Maneuver instead.

If the roll was 15, that takes it down to 10, which means no hit point damage is inflicted (a zero in the one's place), but you get the Special Maneuver instead.  If the roll was a 17, it would go down to 12, meaning you do 2 points of damage plus the Special Maneuver.

RQII has a list of Maneuvers that go on a bit too long for me.   I'd do something like this:
  • Wound - the opponent rolls on the Wounds Table (which usually happens only if reduced to 0 or less HP).
  • Knock Down/Back - the foe must stumble back a few feet or fall down.
  • Disarm - um...disarm.
  • Stunning Flurry - a flurry of disorienting blows that forces the foe to lose his next turn.
  • Deadly Display - the character's display of martial prowess is so intimidating that the foe must immediately make a Morale Throw.
So, does that seem like something  that would add flavour to Dying Sun or just add complexity?  I'm not sure right now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October Playtest Report

Optimism isn't my strong-suit.  I seldom find the silver-lining of the lemons that life gives me (or however that goes).  Still, one can try.

It appears that my Sunday Labyrinth Lord game has fallen apart.  It was a new game with only three of us, but I was quite enjoying it.  The Referee was running us in a setting that was heavily inspired by Vance's Lyonesse, which was nifty.  It was my first go at actually playing LL;  a little trickier than I expected, but only because we could never be sure whether we were remembering the actual rules or the B/X rules, which prompted more book shuffling than desired.  But still, fully enjoyable.  Gaming with three is always a perilous prospect; you are balancing on the knife-edge of being too light.  Alas, our third, a younger fellow to whom we were introducing the delights of old-schooling, suffered some unpleasantness in personal life and appears to have decamped my little postage-stamp of an island.

Undefeated, the now campaign-less Referee and I got together anyway and ran some test combats for Under the Dying Sun.  I had really wanted to do this for a while now because I hadn't been able to kick the tires of the One-Roll Combat System.  I was rather concerned that it might prove too hard to hit and hurt things this way.  Fortunately, that did not prove to be the case in our test runs.  Hits were coming pretty often actually, with my sword-slinging Slayer doing 6 points of damage on most hits.  Combat was brutal and to the point.

Only in retrospect did I think to do some statistical analysis on this.  If that sort of thing bores you, feel free to skip the rest of this post.

In B/X, a 1st level Fighter has a 50% chance of landing a hit  on an unarmoured opponent (assuming no bonuses from STR and so on).  In Dying Sun, weapon choice makes a difference so the comparison is a bit tricky, but let's try.  A 1st level Slayer has the following chances:
  • 72% with a sword (the best weapon against an unarmoured foe)
  • 58% with an axe
  • 42% with a mace or spear
  • 17% with a club
  • 8% with a fist.  
I'm a little worried about that last one, but otherwise it works for me.

That B/X Fighter has 40% chance to hit a leather-armoured foe.  A 1st level Slayer has
  • 42% with a sword
  • 28% with an axe or spear
  • 17% with a mace
  • 8% with a club
  • A lousy 3% with a fist (that is, only a roll of boxcars)
 OK, now I officially think I need to jigger with the unarmed modifiers.  Otherwise, I'm still fine.

Our increasingly-beset B/X Fighter has a 30% chance to hit a foe in mail.  Our Slayer has
  • 17% with a spear
  • 8% with an axe or mace
  • 3% with a sword or anything else.
Finally, a 1st level B/X Fighter has a 20% chance to hit a plate-clad foe.  The Slayer has a flat 3% with anything.

Now, let's do this all over.  But this time, our two warriors will have advanced to 7th level.  The 7th level Fighter has a 75% chance to hit an unarmoured foe.  The 7th level Slayer has the following:
  • 92% with a sword
  • 83% with an axe
  • 72% with a mace or spear
  • 42% with a club
  • 28% with a fist. 
BUT, the Slayer also gets 2 attacks every round to the Fighter's 1.  Unfortunately, I don't have the maths to figure out how that changes the odds.  If anyone does, I'd be grateful.

Now, the Fighter has a 65% against the leather-clad foe.  The Slayer (with his 2 attacks) has:
  • 72% with a sword
  • 58% with an axe or spear
  • 42% with a mace
  • 28% with a club
  • 8% with a fist
The Fighter 55% against mail.  The Slayer has:
  • 42% with a spear
  • 28% with an axe or mace
  • 17% with a sword
  • 8% with a club
  • 3% with a fist
Finally, the 7th level Fighter has 45% against plate armour.  The Slayer has:
  • 17% with a sword
  • 8% with a club
  • 3% for anything else.
Results: armour - particularly heavy armour - is way more useful in Dying Sun as written than in B/X and those calculations assumed that the foe did not use a shield.  Of course, armour is also way more expensive in Dying Sun.  Plate costs a measly 60 gp in B/X and is easily affordable to the 1st level Fighter, whereas a suit of Heavy armour made out of lacquered wood or Scorpion Man chitin costs 5 times that amount (300 coins) under the Dying Sun and represents a huge amount of wealth; steel plate costs 3,000 coins and represents thre income of a small city.  Only the richest can afford heavy armour.  Even measly light armour, which costs 20 gp in B/X costs 50 coin in Dying Sun.  And, on top of that, it is very hard to wear armour for protracted lengths of time under the Dying Sun.

Conclusions: I'm not yet sure.  I think I want to up the weapon modifier for fists against the lighter armour classes.  Otherwise, I think I'm pretty happy with it.

Pakistani Flood Relief & Gaming

Just in case you missed the news, RPGNOW is again doing a brilliant job at collecting money to help victims of disaster; in this case, those suffering from the flood in Pakistan.  It's brilliant because for a mere $25, you get almost $1,000 worth of gaming downloads.  There is some cruft to be sure, but you get some really big ticket items such as Steve Kenson's rules-lite super-hero game ICONS, the repacking of the old-school classic Dragon Warriors, HarnMaster 3rd edition, the gigantic FATE-based Star Blazer Adventures, Greg Stolze's Wild Talents 2nd edition,  some module called The Cursed Chateau by some hack named Maliszewski :), and - why not - Exalted 2nd edition.  And much more.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tales of Arthur Machen and the Supernatural

One of the big trends over the last few years in the Old-School Renaissance is the turn towards Weird Fantasy.  Carcossa, Athanor, Planet Algol, and the late, lamented, World of Thool just to name a few.  That last one, Thool, was uniquely interesting in that it's creator passed on some of the most famous sources of inspiration (paging Mr. Lovecraft!) and drank from a less well-known literary well.  Thool's drawing from William Hope Hodgson was particularly well-done: the existentially-creepy Weed Men from The Boats of the Glen Carrig.

In that spirit, I'd like to turn my attention to Arthur Machen.  Machen was a fascinating writer: a devoted Catholic and a Grail Quester, a Monarchist and a passionate lover of his native Wales, a Victorian born some 50 years too late who repeatedly wrote about horrid sexual practices, and a craftsman of ornate prose who was unexcelled (in my opinion) at evoking nameless dread from seemingly-ordinary reality.

I first became acquainted with Machen at second-hand back in a previous existence as a professional scholar of medieval heresy, magic, and witchcraft.  There, I found his name repeatedly linked to the bete noir of witchcraft historians, Margaret Murray.  Unless you sturdy such things, you may never have heard of Ms. Murray, but you have almost certainly encountered her central thesis: that the phenomenon labelled "witchcraft" in the medieval and early modern periods was a dimly-glimpsed survival of a pre-Christian, Northern European religion, which survived in an organized form as a sort of medieval conspiracy or counter-Church.  Once upon a time, this idea was so accepted that Murray was allowed to authour the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on "Witchcraft".  More lastingly, she was one of the founding mothers of the modern Wicca movement.

Murray's idea incorporated the notion, both attractive and repellent, that the past haunts the present.  Machen worked with that idea as well, but rather than pretend to scholarship, he used it to inform his fiction.  In The Novel of the White Powder he presents something like Murray's Witch-Cult, but the the result is something so dreadful that it is never quite described.  This is a favourite technique of Machen's wherein suggestive phrasing not only adds to the horror (that is, the reader is left trying to wonder what could be so horrible), but alludes to the insoluble mystery of existence (the real world, lying just under our imagined ordinary one, is ineffable).

In stories such as The Novel of the Back Seal and The Shining Pyramid, Machen worked out an idea that had some popularity among the folklorists: British stories of "the Little People" are cloudy memories of short-statured, pre-Celtic inhabitants of the Isles.  And in Machen's stories, these ethnological dead-ends are terrifying.   Even if you have never read those stories, you might know the idea from Robert Howard's loving tribute, The Worms of the Earth (Howard was a happily acknowledged fan of Machen's work).

Machen's most famous horror story is probably The Great God Pan (his most famous story period is undoubtedly The Bowmen, a tale of a war-time miracle that was so convincing to his contemporaries that it supposedly came true).  It's one of his earliest and most Decadent (in the technical sense) and displays his core ideas: a mystical reality invisibly underlying our own own, contact with which lets out the evil within Man.  Perhaps his best story, though, is The White People, which may not be horror per se, but which is an amazingly creepy journey into the mystical world through the mind of a little girl.  If you have ever wanted to make Faeries the scary, alien things that the ancients thought of (as opposed to Tinkerbells), you must read The White People.

Although both Machen and Lovecraft were writers of Weird Horror and both ably used similar techniques of suggestive allusion, they were also quite different.  At the risk of reductionist psychologizing, it is worth noting that Machen was a High Church Anglican, who vehemently disapproved of the stolid, Puritanism to which Lovecraft was heir.  In any case, Lovecraft's vision is cosmic and his terror comes from the realization of man's essential, pitiful smallness within the vast cosmos.  Conversely, Machen's vision is decidedly terrestrial and terror proceeds from the realization of the horribleness that resides within Man.  It is humanistic, but in a strangely distorted way.  Although the actualization of Man's inner evil might provoke a physical transformation (the stunting of the aboriginals or the indescribable bodily alteration in The White Powder and The Great God Pan), these things are still human - are still us - in a way that no Old One ever could be (you might argue that HPL was doing something the sort in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but I think that would be wrong).  

If you haven't read any of Machen, then shame on you.  It's not too easy finding copies of his works as he has not been republished in the manner of Lovecraft, or given the limited, but royal treatment afforded to Hodgson.  Still, Machen is worth the effort.  Even though the revelations contained therein may...change you.

Balanced, Random Character Generation

This is pretty much a random idea that popped into my head for no very good reason.  So why not blog about it?  :)  The idea is to preserve random generation of Abilities, but which would be balanced in the sense that all characters have the same total number of points. 

Start with the B/X scheme of Ability Modifiers (my favourite scheme of Ability Modifiers based on 3d6).  This should be hard-wired into your brain, but just in case it isn't:

Average roll for 3d6 is 10.5, while the range of average (i.e. no modifier) Ability scores is 9 to 12.  We have to decide what we would want the Ability scores of the PC's to average out to.  Let's pick 11 (pretty damn average).   If evenly applied to all 6 Abilities, that would be a total of 6x11=66 points.  If we wanted a more heroic game, we would pick a higher number, but let's just try this for now.

We roll 3d6 for all Abilities in order and deduct the points from the total as we go.  So I get:

STR: 11 (leaving 66-11=55 points)
INT: 9 (55-9=46 points)
WIS: 14 (46-14=32 points)
DEX: 14 (32-14=18 points)
CON: 5 (18-5=13 points, so...)
CHA: 13

That's a nicely-mixed character, with slightly above-average (+1) WIS, DEX, and CHA and moderately below-average (-2) CON.  He's definitely not a Fighting-Man; probably a Thief.

Now that randomly-rolled example turned out easy because I didn't run out of points.  Let's fake it now and push the system with an improbable bunch of high rolls:

STR: 15 (66-15=51)
INT: 15 (51-15=36)
WIS: 15 (36-15=21)
DEX: 15 (21-15=6)
CON: 15 (6-15= -11.  Oops)

Alright, I don't have enough points left to pay for that CON.  So here's what happens now: we circle around and subtract the required number of points from STR.  We need 11 points to make up the difference and our strong-man suddenly goes down to STR 4.  Who said this was going to be fair?  It's still random generation.

But that leaves us with 0 points and we still have to roll CHA.  OK, so let's roll and - mirabile dictu - we get another 15.  Who'd a'thunk?  Now we circle back to the second stat, INT, but we can't take all 15 points because you have a minimum of 3.  So we take 12 points from INT (leaving us now weak and dumb) and then move on to WIS, where we take the final 3 points outstanding.  That gives us a final of:

STR: 4
INT: 3
WIS: 12
DEX: 15
CON: 15
CHA: 15

That's one hell of a weird character which is a good thing in my opinion.  But, if it seems too harsh, you might stipulate that no more than X number of points can come off of any one Ability (maybe 5?).  If you did that, you would end up with this instead:

STR: 9
WIS: 14
DEX: 10
CON: 10
CHA: 15

He's certainly not the ubermensch he would have been with the usual method, but he's a more interesting character for that.  

One alternative that I considered was using total modifiers rather than total Ability Score.  I quickly decided against that, even though it would be much quicker, since it would mean that all characters will be much more samey.

Is this system worth using?  I have no idea.  Like I said, random thought.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Specialties: First Very Rough Draft

This is the kind of thing I am thinking about:

Three Base Classes Plus A Specialty

The debate over the number of Classes in Ye Auld Game goes back at least as far as Supplement I: Greyhawk, which saw the introduction of two new Classes: the ever-lovin’ Thief and the ever-righteous Paladin.  For all I know, however, there may have been debate before that; one of those ludo-archaeologists like James M ought to try and check on that.  I have to assume that there were people in 1975 who looked at Greyhawk and said, “Five Classes? Geez, I can’t take this rules-bloat!”.

Okay, maybe not.  But still, the debate, while it has waxed and waned over the years has never gone away.  At it’s simplest, the question is, “How many Classes do you need?”  But, probing a bit into the consequences of the answer, we see that the real question is, “What does a Class really represent?”

We see that evolving debate play out over the first three supplements to the Little Brown Books.  I already mentioned the introduction of the Thief and Paladin in 1975’s Greyhawk; that same year brought us Supplement II: Blackmoor with two more Classes: the Monk and the Assassin.  Finally, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry saw the last official Class for original D&D, the Druid.  In two more years, we would get the Player’s Handbook for Advanced D&D, which would give us the Ranger, the Illusionist, and surely the weirdest-arsed class ever produced, the 1st edition Bard.   It just goes on from there, and that’s not counting the innumerable unofficial Classes that appeared in the pages of the Dragon, such the Ninja and the Bounty Hunter.

Obviously, the tendency was to accumulate more Classes as time went by.  Although I’m sure the real reason for this was to bring new, shiny, and cool stuff into the game, the (probably unintentional) consequence was to define the idea of Class much more narrowly than before. Classes began to more and more overlap with the idea of “Profession” and sometimes even “Background” (aka the Barbarian).  So even though the Fighter, the Cavalier, and Barbarian are all basically guys who fight, they all end up as separate Classes due to very slight distinctions which would have been left mechanically undefined in the fruitful void in the early iterations of the game.

So much for the obvious history lesson.  I felt I needed that little recap to get to the real subject of the post.  In it’s pairing back down of rules, the OSR has generally leaned toward the broader idea of Class, which means fewer Classes.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think anybody has felt the need to retro-clone the Cavalier.  I should hope not.

I lean toward the extreme end of this trend.  Adhering to the credo of “Kill the Cleric, Keep the Thief”, I pretty much use what I think of as the three base Classes: Fighting-Man, Wizard, and Thief (howsoever you name them). In Under the Dying Sun, I call them Slayer, Survivor ,and Sorcerer, and have tried to be very explicit about the broadness of their meaning.  I’ll admit that I am using the idea of the Cleric in my Onderland Campaign (recoloured as the Champion), only because I hadn’t reached my stage of current thinking when I began it. I wouldn’t allow it now.

All that said, I too feel the allure of the additional Class.  Not so much for the “shiny and new”, but because there are certain Classes which seem to evoke the archetypal feel that a Class should have.  Although I feel the Cleric is irrelevant, I still think the idea of the Ranger is cool.   I played a Ranger the first time I ever ran through B2 and played his spiritual heir in my longest running campaign.  But really, a Ranger is just a Fighter with some woodcraft. Maybe not in AD&D, where he got some of the weirdest-arsed abilities this side of…well, the Bard, but still, you know what I mean.

I’ve been playing with the idea of staying with three Classes, but adding Specialties (not wedded to the name). The spur to this thought was talking with Trey at the Sorcerer’s Skull about Backgrounds in his City setting.  But I should note that I am explicitly not thinking of Profession or Background.   I am actually thinking of a little something from 2nd Edition.

Yes, yes, pick up your jaw.   I know that 2nd edition is generally vilified in the Old-School circles. I think it had a lot of dreck myself.  But, in some ways, the worst thing about 2nd Edition was a pattern of good ideas poorly implemented.  Look at pretty much anything published for Dark Sun; maybe the one with the surfer dudes.  Yeah.

One of the good ideas poorly implemented were "Kits". Kits were supposed to be a little something that you layered onto Class to give a little distinction.  The Al-Qadim setting actually did them pretty well.  A Fighter could take the Askar kit and be a warrior of the peasants or he could take the Mameluke kit and be a slave raised to be a perfect soldier.  A Rogue could take such diverse kits as Merchant, Holy Slayer, or (my favourite) Barber.  The idea was that to give some additional flavour and, perhaps, a little mechanical tweak or two. The Askar, maybe the best example, gets a benefit to Reaction rolls from people from his town.

Now, the whole Kit idea ended up being a disaster.  TSR began to put out entire books filled with Kits and they became so littered with rules-changes that you might as well have saved yourself the trouble and just made a new Class.  But the idea, I’ll contend, had merit and that’s what I’m thinking off.

At first, I was trying to come up with Specialties that could be used by any Class.   For example, one called “Woodcraft”.  If a Fighter took the Woodcraft Specialty, you’d have a Ranger; a Thief would give us a Scout, and a Wizard would give us a Druid.  Each Specialty would give a little something - in this case, hunting and tracking - and then maybe give each particular Class something else. Maybe the Ranger gets a the traditional Combat Bonus (though I think versus animals as suggested here, rather than against humanoids), while the Scout gets maybe the Armour Class bonus of the B/X Halfling or maybe a slight bonus when using the short-bow on horse-back (for that Mongol-warrior thing).  Druids? Um, something.

The more I work on it, though, I’m wondering if that’s too limiting.  I’m not sure. Anyway, I’ll probably post some sketchy, initial ideas soon.

Savage Doug Takes Up the Challenge!

Before I could even attempt to do an Underground-style map, Doug at Savage Swords of Athanor designed one.  I like it.  It shows some real promise to the idea.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The London Underground Comes to the Rescue

In thinking about some of the problems presented by the Fantasy trip-style of mapping, it suddenly dawned on me that a lot of the same problems had been faced by the London Underground and solved by the clever Harry Beck in his iconic map for the Tube.  Earlier maps had been a bit confusing.

Beck's map is totally different.

The genius of this map is that it abandoned geographic realism in favour of abstraction concerned solely with the relation of the various lines and station to each other.  Added to this, by denoting the various lines with different colours, it becomes possible to show where they overlap with other lines and still keep it all clear.

This method of mapping only improved over the years.  The contemporary map is just a model of clarity.  To really see that, you have to zoom into the central loop. 

So, this map shows me a great way to do the TFT-style map.  Instead of colouring the entire hex, draw fine, coloured lines.  Three big advantages to this.

First, it lets you draw straight right and left , as well as up and down, becuase you can draw along the edge of the hex as well as through the middle.

Second, you can easily show different levels running overlapping by having differently coloured lines running parallel in the same hex.

Third, the whole thing becomes so much less cluttered.  Look at the tube-map: it's so damn clean.

I think I'm going to play around with this for a little while and see how it goes.

Mapping the Fantasy Trip Way

Most of us learned the idea of the dungeon map from D&D (which, since D&D arguably created the dungeon-map, makes sense).  It is akin to a very simplified blue-print, depicting a top-down, two-dimensional view of the structure on gridded lines.  It looks like this:

The Fantasy Trip, that proto-GURPS which evolved itself from a melee-game, suggested something a bit different within it's equivalent to the Dungeon Master's Guide, Into the Labyrinth:

This is, in many ways, a fascinating alternative style of mapping.  I want to discuss three.

First, it is most definitely not a blue-print.  It is an abstract map that in no way resembles the territory.  It is more akin to a series of directions laid out on visual form: turn right here, choose left or right next, and so.  That abstraction brings both advantages and disadvantages when compared to what we can call "the classical dungeon map".

The significant disadvantage is readily apparent when you look at it: it is ugly.  And by that, I don't just mean aesthetically unappealing (although it is that), it is also much harder to read than the classical map.  It comes across as both cramped and cluttered.  In addition, by not attempting to replicate the look of the actual dungeon, it does not convey any aesthetic information to the Referee.  

Compare it with my humble little map done int he classical style above: my map shows the Referee that the tunnels are winding, irregular, and organic, formed by centuries of water winding through the limestone to create a karst geography.  Look at the tunnel running between Areas 2 and 22: the map depicts the wildly varying diameter of this tunnel.  Area 22  itslef is supposed to represent a man-made section that has fallen to ruin.  None of that appears on the TFT Map.

But the abstraction into direction is helpful too.  Imagine a player trying to map that same tunnel.  There are no map keys there; barring wandering monsters, there is nothing significant in the tunnel.  Do you, as the Referee, want the player to struggle with somehow conveying all of that information on rock-form and diameter and whatnot?  Or can the player just draw a line from the tunnel to the south to the tunnel to the north and call it good?  After all, mapping adventurers are not cartographers or geologists; they just want to know how to get from Point A to Point B.

Let's turn to the second item.  You can't tell unless I give you part of the map key:

This TFT map depicts depth in a two-dimensional format.  Part of the reason then that the map appears so cluttered is that it holds six different dungeon-levels on it; the other part of the reason is that the levels ought to be depicted by varying colours but are done in black-and-white.  This three-dimensionality is something for which the classical-style map is notoriously unsuited.  The D&D books had to resort to cut-aways to give indication of depth and the relationship of the various levels to each other on the horizontal plane.  Despite that, most classical map of multiple levels end up stacking neatly on top of each other, so that you get what amounts to an upside-down high-rise.  I don't want to get into the mid-80's experiments with three-dimensional maps, such as in the original Ravenloft; suffice it to say that they looked cool, but they were a bit hard to use in play and, more to the point, are beyond the ability of most players to create.

Third, and much less meaningfully,  I dare gamers of a certain vintage not to look at the above, imagine that it is in colour, and not think of TSR's board-game,  Dungeon, whose board looked like this:

I have many fun memories of playing Dungeon (despite it's flaws), so that exercises a certain appeal to me.

I have never used the TFT-style of mapping, but I must say that I am finding it more and more attractive.  It cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that the classical-style doesn't.  In making my own maps, I find that the biggest speed bumps are those little representational details that don't matter one white to the players.  Indeed, I am embarrassed to say how many times I redrew that blue map up at the top of the post because "I just needed to fix a little something".  In someone who is already prone to the procrastination of perfectionism, this is a real problem.  

I think I could avoid some of the confused nature of the sample-map by being able to use actual colours.  I have already thought to "correct" the proposed colour-scheme by using the actual spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, etc.); the key given substitutes Brown for Yellow and I know that I would never remember that in play.  Additionally, it would be easier now to depict tunnels crossing over/under each other than it was when that map was drawn by, I think, Ben Ostrander 30 years ago.

I do have some trouble seeing how to represent man-made dungeons in this method, given the inability to draw lines straight left or right, but maybe that is me confusing the map and territory again.

Does Mass Slaughter Need Sprucing Up?

Loyal, imaginary readers may recall that the Slayer class in Dying Sun have an ability called Mass Slaughter, which is just my renaming of the traditional Fighter benefit of multiple attacks against low-level opponents. As it stands now, the text reads like this:

Mass Slaughter – Slayers gain additional attacks when fighting rabble i.e. 1 Hit Die creatures. They receive a total number of attacks equal to their level. Thus a 4th level Slayer gets 4 attacks versus rabble (instead of the regular 2), while a 10th level Slayer gets 10 attacks (instead of the regular 3). These attacks cannot be split between 1 Hit Die creatures and those of greater Hit Dice; all Mass Slaughter attacks must be made on 1 Hit Die opponents.

There have been debates about this ability for as long as I can recall, specifically as to whether or not it is any good.  I like it and think it fits in with the presumed "end game" of YAG, but it does somewhat depend upon the kind of game being played.  If you are playing game where higher level characters can expect to be  involved in mass battles against armies which are largely composed of 1 HD soldiers, then this ability rocks.  It allows the high-level PC to scythe through enemies like a Greek demi-god.  On the other hand, if your high-level play continues to revolve around dungeon-crawls then I think we would have to say that the ability isn't too useful.  In a high-level dungeon-crawl, you are basically fighting high-level monsters (this situation is somewhat akin to the high-level Cleric and his Turning abilities which JB recently discussed).

Now, I just had a sort of idea that might be interesting.  It wouldn't entirely alleviate the dungeon-crawler's lament, but it would add a bit more versatility to the stunt.  The idea is that Mass Slaughters applies to creature's of Hit Dice not exceeding 1/3 (round up)of the Slayer's level.  Thus, it works for 1 HD foes from levels 1-3, adds in 2 HD foes from levels 4-6, and 3 HD foes from levels 7-10 (which is as high as my charts go).

In a traditional setting (i.e. not Dying Sun), that would mean that 4th level Fighters would get extra attacks versus foes such as Hobgoblins, Gnolls, and Zombies.  Under the Dying Sun, that would give the guy extra attacks versus foes such as Sand Ghuls, Troglodytes, and the weird hawk-hounds known as Darzai.

Why 1/3 of the level?  Well, it means that you get a boost at 4th level, which is the point at which the Fighter traditionally becomes a Hero and at which you have moved from Basic to Expert level play (or Low to Mid level, if you prefer).  Of course, the next transition is traditionally 8th for Fighter (Super-Hero) or 9th (Name level).  But since my scope of levels is lower than usual, I'm comfortable with 7th.  If you wanted to push further than my chart into 11thg level, you would then transition to 4 HD beings.

I think it might add a little lustre, as it were, without being too powerful.  Other thoughts?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exploration-based Experience for the Dungeon

I have now done so many posts about experience and advancement, that I have have decided to tag them that way for easy reference.  In this case, I am considering tying XP awards directly into dungeon-exploration.  A little back-ground first:

It is only relatively recently that I grasped that exploration is the premise of Ye Auld Game.  I think James Mal may have been the one to get that through my thick skull.  That's been key in my evolving XP rules, such as here and in the proposed Dying Sun rules.  But my thought has mostly centered on overland exploration, following in the foot-steps of the estimable Jeff Rients.  However, in the process of going back and adding tags to old posts, I stumbled across Five Ways to Avoid Tracking Thousands of Experience Points.   One of the ideas caught my eye anew:

4. Characters level up whenever they successfully complete a new level. So, venturing from the 1st dungeon level to the next, if they don't get eaten by the first monster, they level up.

That was flippant and off-hand, but I now think that there is some real meat to this idea.  The key is not to focus on getting to the next level, but on exploring the current level.

The Basic Concept: characters earn XP for exploring dungeons.

When I put it that way,  I can't believe that I never thought of it before.  I mean, that is what the game is supposed to be about, isn't it?  The traditional "XP for gold" method is supposed to encourage this (again, I totally misunderstood this for years until Mike Mornard made sense of it for me).  And it's not a bad method at all.  But it is a little circuitous.  And it does have the side-effect of creating of Wiemar Republic-style inflation when a guy has to scrape together 200,000 pieces of gold to make next level.  So let's cut out the middle-man and proclaim the following three ideas:

A) The reward for finding treasure is that you have found treasure. 
B) The reward for killing monsters is that they cannot eat your spleen.
C) The reward for encountering a keyed area of the dungeon is experience points.

This gives us three distinct rewards which all make sense of the game's premise.  You A) collect treasure so that you can hire sell-swords or buy new armour, which allows you to B)kill monsters, who will otherwise eat your spleen and, in sundry other ways, prevent you from C)exploring the dungeon.

Question: What does "exploring" mean exactly?

Answer:  It means that the characters have come to understand some portion of the dungeon and can find their way there and back again.  That's right: it means mapping.  It means no XP if you run away from a spleen-eating monster and get lost.  No XP if you are so bad with directions that even you can't figure out where your map leads.

Question: Why "keyed areas" only?

Answer:  Insightful question.  A classically-designed dungeon is mostly empty.  Both the LBB's and Moldvay recommend that only about a third of the rooms have anything worth noting.  It seems to me that this makes the keyed areas the ones to find.  Yes, you could argue that any rooms should count if the goal is exploration and that's reasonable too, but that gets a bit unwieldy.

Question: Why would that get unwieldy?

Answer:  All right, all right; hang on.  I haven't gotten there yet.  Hang on.

Question:  Fine.  Then try this: how much experience is a dungeon level worth?

Answer: Now we're back in sync.  Let me answer that in bold:

A standard dungeon-level is worth enough experience that a single-class character can advance to the next level upon completion of the exploration.

Traditionally, the Magic-User has the highest XP requirements of any single-classed character; Elves don't count here.  An MU needs 2,500 XP to go from Level 1 to Level 2.  Therefore, Dungeon Level 1 should give 2,500 XP in total, enough to bring everybody except the poncy Elf to 2nd Level.

And here's where we get to the unwieldy thing from before.  It definitely doesn't work to do all that as a lump-sum; the XP has to be parceled out.  I first thought about giving XP for each square or hex encountered, but quickly realized that this would become the boring bean-counting exercise I wanted to avoid in the first place.  So, instead, we divide that total XP award by the number of keyed areas.  If there are 10 keyed areas on the 1st level dungeon, then each area is worth 250 XP.  Simple, eh?

Question: Well, maybe, but what if there is a fractional result?

Answer: Then your dungeon is smaller than standard-sized and not worth as much XP in total.  Each area is still worth 250.

Question: OK, smart-guy, then what does a standard-sized dungeon mean?

Answer: Noticed that, eh?  Well, look, there are sometimes really small levels, such as sub-levels, with only a few rooms.  That shouldn't be worth a full level.  Conversely, there are sometimes gigantic levels with tons of rooms and that ought to be worth a bit more.  So, I pick an entirely arbitrary number and say:

A standard-size dungeon level consists of 10 keyed areas.

I use 10 because it's just the simplest and because the XP tables are full of numbers easily divisible by 10.  If we use the classical guidelines, that means a standard dungeon would have about 30 rooms with 10 of those being special and keyed.  You could, of course, change those numbers however you like.  But if we stick with 10, then we get the following:

Each keyed area of a dungeon's 1st level is worth 250 XP.
Each keyed area of a dungeon's 2nd level is also worth 250 XP.
Each keyed area of a dungeon's 3rd level is worth 500 XP.
Each keyed area of a dungeon's 4th level is worth 1,000 XP.

And so.  Lots of room to fiddle if you like; make some areas worth more and others less.  In other words: salt to taste.

Question: What does this system do?

Answer: The $100,000 question.  It encourages you to explore dungeons.  As with the classic system, there is little to incentive to kill monsters other than to save you life.  Running away and parlaying don't rob you of even a minimal experience award.  It encourages a relatively careful approach to dungeoneering rather than a quick bash-and-grab. You can still bash-and-grab if you like - after all, money is always helpful - but it isn't encouraged by the system.

Question: What does this system not encourage as opposed to the traditional one?

Answer:  What is doesn't encourage  if fighting for fighting's sake or feeling the need to pilfer every last copper because you are almost at the next level ("I just need 2 more XP!").

Question:  Why would entering a room make you better at sword-fighting?

Answer No. 1:  Why would picking up a hundred-dollar bill make you better at sword-fighting?

Answer No. 2:  YEG's experience rule shave never been about causality or realism.  If you want that kind of system, BRP does a nice job of it.  XP rules in this game are about encouraging a play-style that supports the game's premise.

A little digression and anecdote about unintended consequences: as a young player, I never gave experience for gold.  I honestly think I didn't know I was supposed to for some years.  Was that dumb?  Maybe.  I learned to play by reading the Dungeon Master's Guide, which is an estimable book in many ways, but not as a model of organization.  Therefore, what I did was flip around in the tome until I found something of interest and read that.  Early on, I stumbled on the bit at the back which listed XP awards for all the monsters in the Monster Manual.  I therefore assumed that this was how you earned experience.

I eventually encountered the idea of XP for gold, but summarily rejected it as "stupid".  Why would a bag of gold make me better at stabbing things?  Stabbing things makes you better at stabbing things so it was XP for killing all the way.  The unintended result was to lose the premise of the game.  It became, as the stereotype often goes, entirely about killing things and taking their stuff.  But since stuff didn't give experience, the only stuff we were interested in was stuff that would help us at the killing of things i.e. magic items.

I can well recall games, staying up late, where we would finish off some monsters and one player would raise his head and say, "Geez!  You and you both leveled up, but I'm 750 XP short!  Little help?"   And the DM (sometimes me), woudl say, "Oh yeah.  Well, the giant's brother-in-law then comes over the hill to fight."

Question:  Well then, what are the potential drawbacks or unintended consequences of this system?

Answer:  Drawbacks?  You cheeky bugger!  Hmn.  Well, it could give players a notion that they may have missed some rooms, if you tend to make standard-sized levels: "Hey, we only got 2,250 XP.  I'll bet there is 1 more room somewhere that we missed."  But I don't see that as a major problem since that's really the DM's fault for making his dungeon's too standard."

And that's about that.  Combine it with the overland experience for exploring rules (which are, essentially the same substituting a keyed hex for a keyed dungeon area) and you have a game entirely about exploration.  The more I think about it, the more I like it. But I'm sure some perceptive, hypothetical reader will try and find a problem or two.  Please do.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gedankenexperiment: Vancian Rarity

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills.  Today...a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books..."
The Dying Earth, Jack Vance

We all talk about the Vancian magic system in Ye Auld Game, but 99% of the time we are talking specifically about "fire and forget".  Vance's strikingly original presentation of memorizing and forgetting spells is certainly one of the most unique in literature, but there is actually more to Vance's magic than just that.  The quote above is the one that always sparked my imagination.  These arrogant wizards know that, in fact, they have a tenth of the knowledge of their predecessors and, rather than convince them to pool their resources, it actually makes them guard the few spells they have both zealously and jealously.

Now, that's something I could do with more of in YEG.  So, imagine this:

Whatever iteration of the game you are playing, the 1st level Magic-User spells are the entire  syllabus of known spells.

Fly?  You wish.  Fireball?  Who can shoot exploding balls of fire; this is magic sonny, not comic-books. 

Of course, everyone knows that there are, in fact, other spells out there.  Every first-year sorcerer has read that bit of Laconius where he mentions the Miraculous Mantle of Obfuscation, which renders the user invisible, and the intemperate uses to which he put it in relation to the Witches' Coven of Outreterre  Or known the frustration of  studying that antique blabber-mouth Quinquarine, who, over the course of several volumes, promises to reveal the formula obscurely referred to as The Perambulatory Revelator of One-and-All, only to have no copies of the final volume survive the bonfires of the Irenian Orthodoxists.  Or  stared at the great tapestry at Biancule, depicting the turning of the invasion of the Mauvrian Hordes, and wondered what incantation allowed the fabled archimagus Villondro to enmesh the Mauvrians in gigantic spider-webs?

So, of course there are more than just these twelve spells.  That's why you are crawling down a hole in the ground with a party of cerebrally-challenged bravos, cut-purses, and roustabouts, facing death a hundred times over in the form of goblins, traps, and pneumonia, instead of staying in a nice cosy manse somewhere, casting Charm Person over and over for a hundred crowns a pop.  Because there are more spells out there.

And whoever finds even one of them, is going to be star among the thaumaturgical-set.  Seriously, people are going to be hitting you up right, left, and center for just a peek at your grimoire; the grimoire that contains the only known copy of Ariste's Vertical Realignment in the world (even if some slack-witted copyist wrote it down as Levitation.  But, hey, that error kept the thing lost all these centuries 'til you found it, so be nice to the guy).  You now become famous as "So-and-So the Levitator" and anybody who needs something vertically-realigned has to come to you; either to pay for the privilege or to try and steal your spell (recall, in this context, the bit in The Dying Earth where Turjan crashes the chambers of Prince Kandive).

The Referee is going to place far fewer scrolls containing spells above Level 1 in this game because even a single Level 2 spell is a major treasure.  Spell-Scrolls retain their value , of course, because of fire-and-forget.  The Referee is also much freer to cut off the spell list wherever he likes.  Don't like the Wish spell?  Fine; it never need come up.  In fact, if you don't like the whole concept of spells above level 6, say, then that's easy enough too.

One additional option is that one may want is to grant all MU's the entire Level 1 list in the books at start, in part for compensation and also because it sounds right to me.  I'm influenced here by Stephan Michael Secchi's Talislanta.   There were some thirteen "Basic Spells", including the Spell of Eldritch Power, the Spell of Conjuration, and the Spell of Radiance.  Anyone who had made it to 1st level had mastered those. As Secchi puts it:

The following list of spells forms the basis of Talislantan magical tradition, and represents a body of knowledge common to all practitioners of magic, regardless of race, nationality or profession. Apprentice spell casters spend years learning to master the complex verbal and somatic components of these powerful incantations, the origins of which date back to the Age of Mystery. So ancient are these spells that their authors' names have long since been forgotten.

Talislanta Handbook and Campaign Guide (1989)

At that point, one could have an entire career in magic with just those thirteen spells.  Anything beyond involved digging lost librams or stealing from someone else.  And then there were the big prizes: the spells of the Archaeans, the originators of magic, who were able to craft spells that far exceeded later ones in terms of horse-power and scope.