Friday, April 15, 2011

Head-Smack on Critical Hits!

The loyal, hypothetical reader may recall my wrestling with Critical Hits and Special Maneuvers in Under the Dying Sun.  In my last go, I decided that having an event occur on both a roll of box-cars and a roll of 15+ was all just too much and needed to pick one or the other.  In the "end" (by which I guess that I mean the end of the post), I chose box-cars as both simpler and more psychologically satisfying.  But I was sorry to give up the opportunity for better fighters to have an increased chance of special events.  There it stayed for the last few months.

Until I was prowling around on, looking at a thread about various ways of using 2d6 in FATE.  Marius B suggested in this post that when rolling 2d6 against a positive target number (as opposed to the default FATE method), you had the opportunity to allow special events when rolling doubles that beat the TN.


That was the missing piece.  I can keep the simplicity and psychological appeal of box-cars, while still opening up the opportunity for better combatants to increase their chance of a Critical Hit.  Since the target number in S&S is a "11", the odds are that only double-sixes will be a hit.  But, with a net modifier of +1, you could also get a crit from double-fives; a net modifier of +3 would add double-fours; and so on.  You could add the matching piece about fumbles when you miss with doubles, but I have decided not to use that here as it would mean that 99% of folks have a better chance of fumbling than hitting; the lands under the Dying Sun may be harsh, but not that harsh.

As I mentioned in that thread, this is a real head-smack moment for me as I have long admired the way in which Tynes and Stolze's Unknown Armies implemented this idea in a percentile system over a decade ago and blogged about using it not too long ago (while forgetting to credit UA).  Sigh.

Anyway, that makes the relevant section in UtDS as follows:

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 box-cars or a Hit made with doubles: 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.


The degree of success indicates base damage done.  This is modified by the weapon’s Damage Multiplier.

Critical Hit
A Critical Hit results in one of two effects: Automatic Hit or Special Maneuver.

Automatic Hit - if the attacker had no chance to roll 11+ due to modifiers (from Weapon vs. AC, opponent's Defense, etc.), he still hits on box-cars.  This hit counts as a Combat Roll of "12"  i.e. the degree of success is 2.  This means that everyone has at least some chance of hitting any foe.

If the attacker has no need for an Automatic Hit, then he can choose a Special Maneuver:

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.

Wound - the opponent must roll on the Wounds Table (which usually happens only if reduced to 0 or less HP).  This Wound is always temporary.

Knock Down/Back - the foe stumbles back a few feet or falls down.  He needs to use a Half-Move to stand up or lose all Defense.

Disarm - the foe’s weapon goes flying out of his hand.  He must use a Half-Move to draw another weapon.

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.  This is only useful against NPC's as player characters never make Morale Throws.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Do You Need an Illusionist Spell List?

Every once in a while, someone at will post to the long-defunct thread "101 Days of RC D&D".  This was a pretty beloved thread - which is why it is frequently revived - and one that was responsible for more than one person's return to old-school gaming.  I know that I had been making moves in that direction, but participating in that thread really catalyzed a lot of my thoughts on the subject.

Anyway, I was thinking about something I had posted to that conversation regarding elven magic.  I was suggesting some ways to make elves - actually, I think that should be "Elves" - a bit distinct from human wizards - OK, "Magic-Users" - without really mussing with the rules too much.  My two ideas boiled down to making Elves nature magicians and giving them Druid spells OR making them creatures of glamour and giving them Illusionist spells.  Of those two, I was much more intrigued by the second, since the tree-hugger elf has long uninterested me, while scary-fairy-tale things still compel my attention.

I never got around to making that elven illusionist list of spells, but the idea has continued to interest me.  I might have done so for my Onderland Campaign, except nobody has played an elf so it wasn't needed.  But I was also held back by a nagging unhappiness with illusionist spells.  And the problem was basically this: when you come down to it, aren't all illusion spells just different applications of the same spell?  Unlike the MU spells, which involve all sorts of effects - from conjuring balls of flame to Jedi mind tricks to summoning demons - illusionist spells could be pretty much summarized as...well, creating illusions.

Some time later, I began to become intrigued by the second edition era Birthright setting.  Birthright had all sorts of things wrong with it, in my opinion, but it did some things right, and one of those was evoking a medieval sense of Faerie.  And the best book in the line on that topic was Blood Spawn, which was a totally inappropriate name, since it was about creatures of Faerie (called "the Shadow World" in Birthright) rather than creatures of the Blood (which was a, let's not get into it).  Anyway, Faerie is presented as place of constantly shifting appearance and every intelligent being in Faerie has an ability called "Seeming" which allows them to manipulate that reality.  At low levels, this is essentially illusion, but at higher levels the line between appearance and reality is lost and one can effectively order around the world to one's desire.

This, to me, is exactly what faerie glamour is supposed to be.  In my mind, the basic implementation in YAG would be that Elves in the mundane world have inherent powers of illusion - making straw seem to be gold, grass seem to be a feast, and goblins seem to be human babies.  As they grow more powerful, these glamours attain more reality.  And in faerie places, they are effectively total reorderings of reality.

But then I look at the various iterations of illusion spells and see that Audible Glamour is different from Phantasmal Force is different from Massmorph and so on.  And I think that maybe this really doesn't model what I'm thinking.  So here's an idea I have been playing with:

Faerie Glamour
In the mundane world, an Elf may cast one glamour per day per level, although his ability is unlimited in frequency when in Faerie (if using the standard spell-casting system.  I need to come up with alternate rules for Spellcraft & Swordplay and other games that use a casting roll).

At 1st level, the Elf can create an illusion that affects one sense.  This need not be the same sense each time; he could make an illusory light at one point (a will-o-the-wisp) and then make wholesome milk smell curdled the next.  The Elf can affect one additional sense for every three additional levels (4th, 7th, etc.)

At 13th level, the Elf can affect all five senses, at which point he is effectively reshaping reality.

Glamours do not disappear if touched or disbelieved.  Someone who touches an illusory snake and feels nothing there is free to draw his own conclusions, but the snake does not go poof.

At 1st level, the Elf's glamour last for five minutes.  The duration doubles at each additional level, so that they last for almost half-hour at 5th level (80 minutes).  At 13th level, glamours are of indefinite duration and last until the Elf dies or the glamour is dispelled.

Although the Elf can seem to injure someone with his glamours at quite low levels, these seeming can not do any actual damage.  Anyone subjected to an illusory attack makes the appropriate Save (depending on what system you are using).  If the Save succeeds, the subject believes himself to have avoided the whatever it was; if the Save fails, the subject takes damage as normal depending upon the attack (a sword, a fireball, etc.), but all of this illusory damage is recovered as soon as the glamour is dissolved and the subject has a chance to recover.

However, as the Elf advances in power, his glamour achieve more and more reality.  At 4th level, 20% of all damage done by a glamour (minimum of 1 point) acts like regular damage for purposes of recovery (however that works in your game of choice).  This increases by an additional 20% for every three additional levels (meaning 100% at 16th level if any Elf should be so fortunate as to rise to that height).

Obviously, this needs more work.  As much as I like the more laissez-faire treatment of spells in older D&D, illusions just seem to call for a bit more guidance.  For example, there may be a need to describe area of effect (I don't think a 1st level Elf should be able to make an illusory mountain).  I probably need some method of adjudicating the distraction effects of illusions.  But still, the idea appeals to me more than the standard illusion spells.  Has anyone ever done anything similar?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ability Scores in OD&D: Use 'Em or Lose 'Em

The central idea of character generation in D&D is picking up some six-siders and rolling some stats.  This act is so central to most of our thinking that it sometimes comes as a surprise how meaningless abilities are, by and large, in the original iteration of that game.  That abilities have become more and more mechanically important over later iterations only reinforces the notion that stats matter.  But when you look at the LBB's, abilities do only two things: a high score in a prime can give an experience bonus and Charisma affects the maximum number of hirelings. And that's about it.  No modifiers to melee or missile combat; no modifiers to armour class; no modifiers to Hit Points.

[The estimable Sham has rightly pointed out that I got a little carried away here.  Abilties in the LBB's do more than that.  For the record, here's what they do:

  • Low or High score in Prime Requisite modifies experienced gained (from +10% to -20%).
  • DEX 12+ gives +1 with missiles, while DEX 9- gives -1.
  • Very high (15+) or very low (6-) CON adds or subtracts 1 from each Hit Die.
  • Most interestingly: all CON scores in between those extremes affect what will later be called "survival shock", from 40% at CON 8 to 100% for CON 13+.
  • CHA establishes the maximum number of hirelings (from 1 to 12) and high or low score modify their loyalty base.  I'd note here that these later modifiers are far and away the largest in the game - CHA 18 gives a whopping +4!
  • Finally, the text suggests some other uses but does not codify or explain them.
    • STR "will aid in opening traps" (?)
    • INT allows addtional languages to be spoken (but doesn't explain how many)
    • DEX "will indicate...speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell,. etc. (but, again, no mechanics.  I assume that this is where Holmes got his initiative rule)
    • CHA (perhaps most famously and certainly most amusingly) "is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover....charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service."]

I have no idea if the original crew ever thought that was strange - why is it so important to roll CON if it doesn't do anything?  I have to assume something like that went through the minds of Gary as Supplement I: Greyhawk quickly added to the mechanical meaning of abilities.  And a scant few years later, the Player's Handbook increased the role of stats to an almost overburdensome level (I never used all the mechanics associated with abilities such as "system shock" or maximum spells per level).  As James M. discussed recently, it is rather amazing to see how far things had come in the Dungeon Master's Guide, the last piece of the AD&D trifecta, with the discussion given to various dicing methods to produce superior abilities (or, as I like to call it, "cheating").

But let's go back to the original game for a minute.  The increased importance is certainly one valid way of dealing with the largely irrelevant abilities, but it isn't the only way.  I have often considered taking the alternate route: eliminate abilities altogether.  "Heresy!", you say.  "Is it even D&D then?", you ask.  Well, maybe so and maybe not.  The very intriguing Platemail presents a strong case that rolling abilities isn't a sine qua non of Ye Aulde Game.  What have always been the really meaningful stats in D&D are Class and Level and it's perfectly reasonable to say that anything else is needless complication.

One objection to this line of thought is that all characters of like Class and Level will look too much alike i.e. have no meaningful differentiation.  That's certainly the attitude that later iterations in general - and WD&D iterations in particular - have taken, as well as one I see expressed with some frequency among what, for lack of a better name, I have to call "new schoolers".  But I don't buy it.

My experience is that no assemblage of abilities, skills, feats, talents, etc. serve to differentiate characters any better than simple, imaginative investment in the character (and often does so much less well).  I'm saying "imaginative investment" rather than "role-playing" in part because it makes me sound smarter, but also because "role-playing" is too restrictive a term, implying as it does a kind of Method Actor regime.  Imaginative investment can be that, but it doesn't need to be.  You can invest some imagination in a character even if you always refer to him in the third-person.  Imaginative investment often occurs during play in reaction to particularly notable (often absurd) events, such as when Bob the Fighter manages to miss every single shot with his bow and ends up being nicknamed "Hawkeye" and the butt of jokes for many an adventure.

I risk digressing too much here, so I'll hope I expressed my point clearly enough.  Because it was made in order to suggest that eliminating abilities might well provide even more opportunity and incentive for imaginative assessment than would otherwise be the case.   If I want to play the game, and don't just want to treat it as a war-game, moving chits around the board, there's an implicit encouragement to come up with something to distinguish "Level 1 Fighter" from every other "Level 1 Fighter".

Emphasis "might well provide" because I have never had the chance a game without abilities.  But I'm eager to give it a try.  And if any of my loyal, hypothetical readers have done so, I'd love to hear how it went.