Friday, January 29, 2010

Playtest Draft v.1-3 Available

This version incorporates some of the great art I've received.

Witch-Men: The Invisible Enemy


No. Appearing: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Size: *
Armour Class/Defense: *
Move: *
Hit Dice: *
Attacks: *
Modes: 1D-1 random
Disciplines: 1D-1 random
Special: Astral Projection, Telepathic Projection
Moral: Never check Morale in Possessed body
Treasure: *
XP: *
* as per being possessed

Witch-Men are the invisible enemy of all who live beneath the Dying Sun, never seen, but always feared. No one knows who or what they actually are or whether they are, in fact, Men at all. They are only encountered by proxy when they possess some other being. The Witch-Men use their Astral Projection to wander the world and find suitable victims, which they then possess with Telepathic Projection and use as living tools. There are many stories about the Witch-Men--that they are remnants of the Senex trapped in another dimension, that they are giant foetuses who live inside glass wombs, that they are monsters of the ID released in an experiment gone horribly awry--but these are nothing more than speculation.

The records of encounters with Witch-Men indicate that they use living beings as pawns in the furtherance of their obscure schemes. They may possess a being for years without attracting notice and even the whisper of “Witch-Man” can stir up a frenzy of paranoia. Sages feel that there are only prevented from dominating the world due to the fact that they obsessively plot against each other; the more conspira-torially-minded believe that this is just what they want you to think.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Simple Unarmed Rule; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Grappling

I'm rather surprised at how useful this blog has been.  I'll admit that I was quite dubious at first: why bother writing things here when I could be writing them directly into my game?  But that turned out to be wrong: just the act of making the ideas public has been helpful in ordering my thinking, not to mention the comments from my perspicacious, hypothetical readers.  So, thank you blog and bloggites alike.

A good example of this concerns unarmed fighting in Under the Dying Sun.  I posted of my anxiety over this subject a few weeks ago.  I received a goodly number of suggestions and, although none of them struck me as quite right, just having it out there helped me to think more clearly.  I was, as you doubtless recall, concerned about how Armour Class would affect things, since Dying Sun uses the Chaimail-derived Weapon vs. AC mechanic.

Well, I'm no longer concerned because it is bloody obvious how to solve that problem: all grappling acts against AC 1 (unarmoured).  Given the abstracted nature of combat, it really doesn't make a difference whether you are trying to grab a a guy in plate mail or one who is naked.  The only question left in my mind is whether the grappled one gets an immediate STR Save to get loose or whether he has to wait until his turn, thereby automatically losing his attack.  I favour the second option right now.

A grappled foe is subject to various actions from his grappler.  The grappler can simply continue to hold the foe, preventing further action; he could hold the foe to help someone else attack him (or himself if he's a four-armed Scorpion Man), negating all Defense and granting a +4 bonus to the Combat Roll; he could throw the foe, causing him to become prone and wasting another turn standing back up (unless he's on the edge of a cliff, of course); or he could crush the foe, automtically hitting as per a Small Weapon (2D, take the lesser damage).  The grappled object can't do anything until he makes a STR Save and breaks loose.

I feel pretty good about that mechanic: it's simple, straight-forward, and uses existing rules.  As one of players pointed out, given that there is a 1-in-36 chance of your weapon breaking every round, I should expect to see a lot more grappling than in the usual game.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Quite Distracted By: Back Pain

I have heard the screams of outrage from my loyal, hypothetical readers, wondering where I have been.  Unfortunately, where I have been is in a decent amount of pain from a back injury.    However, even in my suffering, I have been thinking about Under the Dying Sun.  I am working on getting a face-to-face play-test going in March.  I have one very enthusiastic player and we're going to go fish for some more.  Meanwhile, the Play-by-Post play-test continues to be quite useful.  Finally, art is picking up steam.  I've had some nice pieces donated to me by some lovely folk.  I have also been coordinating with a professional artist to do some Brom-like pieces for the cover and the early sketches are great.  So, with a little help from my facet joints, I should back to real work soon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Again with the Weapons versus AC Chart?

Yes, again. My last attempt was here. And, as I said then, it was good enough to test-drive. But having done so, I'm now convinced it needs more work. The basic idea is sound. The Weapon Class thing is working great and the Weapon Size thing is nice too. But the actual numbers? Not so much. So, Attempt No. 4 follows.

I'm trying one very new presentation here. Rather than have the chart show the number needed to hit, I'm working on the idea that you always need to roll an "11" to hit, just like every other roll in Spellcraft & Swordplay. Instead of giving the target number then, this chart gives you a modifier to your roll. It's actually all the same damn thing, but looks different. It's more AD&D Weapon Modifier, I guess, although my goal was to make it simpler to judge the value of the various Weapon Classes at a glance and unify the mechanic more.

So, you say, what's going on here? My earlier attempts took the Chart as presented in S&S, bundled things into Weapon Classes, and tweaked a bit here and there. This time, I started with a clean slate and just played with it. My first principle was that Swords are pretty much the best things in the world for attacking unarmoured guys and get less effective as the armour gets heavier.

I then made the bludgeoning family into the inverse--getting better and better as the armour increases. Is that realistic? I don't know. My goal isn't realism, but rather the twin goals of plausibility and variety. I want weapon choice to be a tactical consideration akin to Rocks-Paper-Scissors--no weapon is the best at all times.

I get a little wacky with Flails. I decided that they function like Maces, but are harder to wield successfully, giving them a -1 when compared to the other bludgeons. But, they ignore Parry and Shields, meaning that they are slightly superior when fighting an opponent with a Shield.

Foot and Fist was relatively simple--it's pretty much always a bad choice. This isn't a gong fu game, after all.

I had some trouble with Clubs. After all, aren't they bludgeons like Hammers and Maces? Well, not really when you think of them as basically non-weapons pressed into service. So I made up a new Weapon Class lumping all those things like that together and made them suck, but not quite as much as Fists. The thing to keep in mind is that by "Club", I don't mean something like an Aztec war club. Anything really big or spiky or metallic goes into the Mace/Hammer class.

That left Axes and Spears. Now those were hard. You can see that I ended up just trying to split the difference from all the other classes, making the Axe a lesser Mace and a Spear a lesser Sword. Neither is as good as the model, but neither gets as sucky at the extremes either. I'm not at all wedded to these numbers and it wouldn't surprise me if a continue to play with them. Still, this is my favourite stab at this thing yet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Eternal Pain of Grappling

It's a word to send shivers down a Referee's spine: grappling. Ye Auld Game has been plagued throughout it's history by no-good punks trying to fight without weapons. Man, this is a game about swords and sorcery! You dig? Pick up a stick and fight like a man! Or an Elf! Or whatever!

Forgive me, hypothetical readers, if I lose my usual erudition in this post, but grappling does that to me. I have never seen seen rules for this that have made me happy. Scratch that, I have never seen rules for this that did not make me decidedly unhappy. I recall looking at those rules in the 1st edition DMG, scratching my head, and then turning to look at that sad-eyes Succubus again. Why is she so naked and so sad? Mostly, I have always screwed shut my eyes and hoped that weaponless combat would go away and, by and large, I have been successful in this over the decades of my gaming life.

So what should happen during the second fight of my Under the Dying Sun play-test? Not one, but two players try to grapple! And both attempts were--darn the luck--clever. Sot Sojat, the Scorpion Man, finding himself without a second weapon to use in his third hand, asked if he couldn't use that free appendage to grab a monster and hold him in place for a targeted attack. "Damn," thinks I, "that's smart". Then Khalid al-Khazan, the Desert Man Sorcerer, finding himself not too successful with spell or weapon, wants to pull a beastie off a companion before it eats her shoulder. "Hmn," think I, "that's a good idea."


For the Bug-Man, I let him make an attack with his fist, saying that it would do no damage if successful, but would give him a +2 on his weapon attack. That wasn't bad, actually. I can live with that. After all, it isn't going to come up too often and it's a nifty little trick that only a four-armed alien can do.

But the other left me stumped. Do I follow the pattern, roll an attack with a fist, and specify that it won't do damage? But the Attack Chart makes it very hard to succeed in attacking with a fist because it presumes that you are trying to hurt something. That's okay for the grab-and-hit thing, but not really right in this case. Do I run some kind of opposed STR vs. STR roll? That works in a lot of games, but really doesn't fit into the S&S rules-set without some straining.

In the end, I said that the monster would have to make a STR Save to resist being pulled off. But I'm not really satisfied with that. And if it comes up twice, I really need to have some way to deal with it. Because it totally makes sense in this setting, to imagine that people are going to pull hair, kick in the vitals, and do all sorts of things like that.


Monday, January 11, 2010

On the Naming of Things

Oddly enough, as I work on my grim Sword & Planet supplement for Spellcraft & Swordplay, I found myself hit with the following piece of fluff that has nothing whatsoever to do with, but which fit right in with my Onderland Campaign.

"The naming of things is the taming of things. For to give something a name is to separate that which is named from all other things. To give the name earth to rock and dirt and loam means that the sky and the sea are not part of the earth. A name circumscribes an object's essence.

"At first, there were no names, since the folk had no interest in taming the world. The Faerie-folk crafted the first names of things. Long and broad were the faerie names and with much inflection. Like meandering streams were those names and by them, the Fae worked their subtle arts.

"But the Tribes of Men brought new names with them, over the Hither Gates. The names they gave were short and sharp. What they lacked in breadth, they brought in precision. The names they wrought were like knives; they were like hammers beating all things into small shape and making tools of them. With these names, Men made mastery over spell and steel and raised up their dominion over all things.

"Yet the Old Names still have their power, as even as shadows have some reality. And he who works slowly and softly and subtly will find much strength in those Old Names."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Abstract Hit Points

It has only been since my return to Ye Auld Game that I realized the abstract nature of combat. OK, that's pretty obvious now, but it wasn't when I started playing in my misbegotten youth. Clearly, that roll you make when fighting doesn't represent just one swing of the sword in a 60-second combat round and having 30 Hit Points doesn't mean that arrows bounce off your chest. This is, incidentally, why I now refer to "the Combat Roll" in my games, rather than "rolling to hit". A failed roll might easily represent a connecting blow that gets parried or glances off a helmet or whatever, while a successful roll needn't spill blood and might represent cowing the enemy or causing them to lose their footing. The point is that D&D combat is actually a helluva lot closer to the indie concept of Conflict Resolution than to the "old-fashioned" Task Resolution.

Possibly I was led astray in my thinking by Dr. Holmes who uniquely and idiosyncratically shortened the round to 10-seconds, but, more likely, it was the fact that the game never came out and explained the concept of abstract combat. It's a bit hard to wrap your head around that notion when you're ten without a little help. Making things even more opaque is that the game itself is a bit confused on the issue. Need a fer instance?

Why does Constitution give you better Hit Points?

Does that seem a silly question? It shouldn't. Because if the combat roll is an abstraction of positioning, feinting, swinging, etc., then Hit Points are an abstraction of dodging, parrying, losing your nerve, slipping, and a whole bunch stuff in addition to actual wounds. And the higher your Hit Point total, the smaller the portion of wounds HP's can represent. In which case, why does Constitution help you parry or keep your cool? Why privilege Constitution? Shouldn't Dexterity help you with dodging? Shouldn't Wisdom help you steel yourself? Shouldn't Intelligence help you find the best position?

One of my favourite things about the old (and now new) Dragon Warriors game is the way it included mental attributes into your attack and defense capabilities. I can't think of why Ye Auld Game shouldn't either, except for this: really, all Abilities ought to count for something in a fight. Yes, even Charisma. But how unwieldy it would be to do that. You either end up with ridiculous HP bonuses (a +2 from this, a +1 from that, and your 1st level character is functioning at 3rd level) OR you have to come up with formulae: Intelligence only adds half it's bonus and Charisma a quarter and so forth. I'm not crazy about either of those options.

So here's what I'm thinking: your Hit Points are your Hit points and Abilities don't affect them one way or the other.

Is that weird? Well, the game has seen a steady progression in the utility of Abilities, from little more than XP gifts in OD&D to the over-blowing of Dexterity in most latter editions (discussed a bit more fully in a previous posting). With Spellcraft & Swordplay as my core, I have a game that gives just about the perfect weight to Abilities by using them to replace Saving Throws without diminishing the importance of Class. All of which supports me in the idea that Abilities don't affect Hit Points, since they do affect the less abstract Saving Throws.

Now, that's nice and simple, which encourages me to seek greater simplicity. One of the most common house-rules in the universe is giving 1st level chappies maximum Hit Points. This for obvious reasons. I don't always do that; indeed, in my current Onderland Campaign, I had the players roll starting HP, which gave us a fairly fragile 3 HP Thief. But, on the design level, is the random determination of Hit Points a good thing?

I know that the old-school movement tends to favour randomness in most cases and in many cases I agree. I think that random determination of Abilities brings a lot to the table. But, as we know, Abilities don't mean all that much, certainly not when compared to Class and Level. True, some iterations of the game have minimum requirements for race and Class, but, all in all, those things are determined by the player, not the dice. Hit Points are extremely important, on the level of Class and Race and not on the level of Abilities. Perhaps my thinking here is slightly heretical, but the more I think about it, the more I'm coming around to the idea that Hit Points are set by your class, just like so many other things.

Let's pretend that we have agreed on that point. How would you do Hit Points in this scheme? Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing was, I think, the first game to use your Constitution score as your starting Hit Points. But BRP is not level-based; those starting Hit Points are pretty much all you get, ever. I don't think that would work well for us since gaining Hit points is part of the general combat improvement that everyone gets with leveling-up.

Then, as is often the case, I thought of Bard Game's The Arcanum, one of my favourite D&D variants. In that game, you also had the Constitution idea, but, more usefully, the idea that gaining Hit Points was non-random and based on Class: warrior-types gain 6 HP per level, rogue-types gain 4 HP per level, and wizardy sorts gain 2 HP per level. I like that idea.

Here's my first take for Under the Dying Sun:

Slayers begin with 8 HP, and gain 4 per level
Survivors begin with 6 HP and gain 3 per level
Sorcerers begin with 4 HP and gain 2 per level.

How does that play out over a campaign? I see 4th level as the point at which we go into the Heroic mode. Under this system, a 4th level Slayer would have 20 Hit Points, which is pretty heroic in a mortal way. The 4th level Survivor would 15 HP's and the Sorcerer 10. I like the look of that. It matches up pretty precisely with the rules as they stand if you use the maximum HP at the 1st level idea (Sorcerers come out 1 point behind in the proposed system).

10th level is as far as my chart goes and pretty much the soft ceiling of any game I run. 10th level characters are pretty much super-heroes and I don't expect anybody to really go any higher than that. The 10th level Slayer would have 44 HP's, the Survivor 33 HP's, and the Sorcerer 22 HP's.

In the current draft, the 4th level Slayer would average 19 HP's (cp. with 20 above), the Survivor 13.5 (cp with 15 above) and the Sorcerer 12.5 (cp with 10 above). That's pretty much in line, with the new system slightly above average for Slayers and Survivors and slightly below for Sorcerers. At 10th level, the Slayer averages 35.5 HP's (cp. 44 above), the Survivor 30 HP's (cp 33 above), and the Sorcerer 27.5 Hp's (cp 22 above). remove the dice or not. This bears more thinking.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Non-Humans and Ability Scores

I'm still ruminating on my alternative experience system for Under the Dying Sun, but I want to think about something different today: non-humans and ability scores. In my presumptions here, I show my heritage as an AD&Der. Even though I began playing with Dr. Holmes' edition of Ye Auld Game, I quickly moved on to the Advanced version when my pal brought the Monster Manual to school and I saw the baroque, if not to say occult, delights of that iteration of the game. And that one is far and way the simplest of the three books.

While non-humans (demi-humans as St. Gary delightfully called them) have little mechanical differentiation from humans in OD&D, AD&D piled them on with gusto, as it did with so many things. Elves are my classic for poor design in this regard--bonuses to longsword and longbow use for no discernible reason, along with puzzling immunities to things like Sleep spells and ghoul paralysis. I could almost believe that somewhere there was a random chart of demi-human bonuses. All of those things contributed to Elf Fancying, which has caused so much harm to the hobby; or, at least, sniggering from the choir.

But while I have no trouble banishing such things from my thoughts, the idea of Ability Modifiers is much more durable. Unlike in OD&D, AD&D demi-humans all received some slight Ability Modifier the better to represent the otherness of these beings. Although the modifier was generally quite modest--a +1 to something and a -1 to another--it was immediately and quite properly seized upon by mini-maxers. I say "quite properly" since it was a perfectly reasonable response. One has so little control over a character rolled up without fudging or Goldbergian dice strategies that it made sense to use selection of Race to give some measure of command to the player rather than chance.

The result, unfortunately, was dullness. Particularly when a generous dice-rolling method was employed, it was not at all uncommon to find maxed-out demi-humans ("your Dwarf has an 18 CON too?"). And where the idea had been to present some otherness, it resulted in sameness. That's not to say that demi-human Ability Modifiers are entirely or even cheifly to blame for mini-maxing; they aren't. But they were a part of it.

And yet.

And yet the idea is so seared into my brain that I find it hard to discard even if I don't like the implementation. It was while re-reading my Cook/Moldvay B/X books for pleasure (as I often do), that I thought of a possibly better scheme. Some slight control over ability scores had been granted in the older game, but it took place after selection of race and class. This was the rule that let characters add one point to their Prime Ability by losing two from another. Let me say right here that I realize this scheme is as open to mini-maxing as the other. But what appeals about this is that it is a negative-sum decision. You always lose more than you gain.

There is a heckuva big qualifier, of course, because there is a huge mid-range in which ability scores don't matter. Losing two points of Intelligence when your Fighter has an 11 is totally painless. But the idea here is what I'm looking at. In Dying Sun, this qualifier would be substantially reduced for two reasons: first, abilities range from 2-12, giving a much smaller mid-range where no effect occurs from reduction; and second, abilities are more frequently the target of special attacks. An Intelligence of 6 is mechanically the same as one of 8 in Dying Sun, but if you are the subject of Psychic Combat, which directly damages the three mental abilities, then those two points may well mean the difference between life and a vegetative half-life.

So I'm thinking of bringing this approach into my game. Once you select Species and Class, you may perform the following swaps:

Helots: may add one point to STR in exchange for one point from both DEX and CHA.
Desert Men: may add one point to DEX in exchange for two points from STR.
Scorpion Men: may add one point to CON in exchange for one point from both DEX and CHA.
Wild-men: may add one point to WIS in exchange for two points from INT.

That's rough idea. If I adopt it, then I don't know if I will drop the Saving Throw modifiers for non-humans, which idea largely overlaps with this. I'm not entirely sold on this yet, but it has some appeal for me.