30 May 2012

D&D vs. G&G

If there is anything that dooms the goal of D&D Next to unite the players of all previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the fact that the fans are divided into two incompatible gaming philosophies: those who think player characters should begin as more-or-less competent novice adventurers who improve dramatically over time if they survive long enough, and those who think player characters should begin as superheroes and retire as gods. For the first group, player skill and referee impartiality are essential; without both, there can be no sense of accomplishment, because D&D is considered a game. For the second group, balance between player characters and their adversaries (and between one another) is essential; without balanced encounters, their story arc might get cut short, and without balanced parties, not every character will be guaranteed an equal share of the spotlight (because D&D is considered a story). There is no way to reconcile these divergent philosophies into a single game.

By all rights, when Wizards of the Coast first decided to lead the game in this direction, they should have renamed it Gods & Götterdämmerung to avoid confusion. Back in olden times, we referred to this as Monty Haulism — a hopefully brief phase one outgrew. Blatant wish fulfillment was easier to resist when the publisher (TSR) railed against it. When Wizards of the Coast made it the raison d'être, the continuity of the world's first role-playing game was severed forever. There were already games for which this playing style was possible. 'Tis a shame the fundamentals of D&D were so recklessly abandoned. Trying to foist the fundamentals on G&G players now, however, will only frustrate them. On the other hand, diluting or ignoring the fundamentals will only enrage traditional D&D players. I do not envy the task of the D&D Next designers.

28 May 2012

Table: Secret Door Clues

In response to some comments calling for a table of secret door clues (q.v.) to assist in the technique of descriptive searches for the same, I started just such a table. If anyone wishes to add any results, perhaps we could create a larger master table or at least a network of links to a variety of such tables. At any rate, here's my first attempt:

Secret Door Clues

Roll 1d10

  1. Discoloration in a section of the wall
  2. Faint flow of air emanating from a crack
  3. Grooves in the floor in front of a section of the wall
  4. Horizontal seam
  5. Less debris/dirt/dust in front of a section of the wall
  6. Newer material in a section of the wall
  7. Scratches in the ceiling in front of a section of the wall
  8. Tracks that disappear into the wall
  9. Vertical seam
  10. Worn area in front of a section of the wall

N.B. This table is concerned strictly with observation, not physical interaction. Touching or tapping objects or surfaces will yield logical, non-random results depending on the nature of the secret door.

26 May 2012

Secret Doors 2

Have you ever noticed that, in movies and television shows, most secret doors are discovered accidentally? In an episode of The Bionic Woman I watched recently ("Sister Jaime"), Jaime bumps into a wall in a convent's winery and is surprised to find that it recedes, revealing a hidden room. How often has a character in a work of fiction leaned against a wall, pulled a book from a shelf, stepped on a loose brick, or otherwise touched something that revealed the existence of a secret door without intentionally searching for one? It certainly occurs more often than active searches. I think this supports the idea of the search roll as an accidental discovery roll when descriptive searches fail (because the wrong area is being searched) or when active searches are not even undertaken. Secret doors are inherently interesting, and they hopefully lead to interesting things, so why would a referee not want the player characters to discover them? I'm not suggesting that secret doors should always be revealed in all circumstances, but I think accidental discovery rolls ought to be a significant secondary method for finding them. With that in mind, I don't think it would be unreasonable to increase the standard chances. I would recommend a 2 in 1d6 chance for most player characters; elves would have a 3 in 1d6 chance. And for added amusement, I would give a bonus to characters with low intelligence and wisdom [and dexterity] (although there would be no penalty for those with high scores). Anyone with an intelligence or wisdom [or dexterity] of 8 or lower receives a +1 bonus to all accidental discovery rolls (or +2 if both are 8 or lower [or +3 if all three are 8 or lower!]). I call this the bungling bonus. Comedic solutions to common problems...

[See comments for other great ideas.]

24 May 2012

All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

I remain convinced that instead of cobbling together a golem of incompatible materials (D&D Next) in a hopeless attempt to appeal to gamers with opposing views of even the most basic concepts of role-playing, Wizards of the Coast should keep all editions of Dungeons & Dragons in print (or in PDF and print-on-demand), and, if they still believe there is a need for another edition, simply design the thing with the goal of making the best game possible for its own sake. Instead of worrying about getting everyone to play the same iteration, however, why not support all iterations? There will always be gamers who will flock to the newest edition for whatever reason, but there will also always be gamers who will never give up the edition with which they started. Creating significantly different editions of a game guarantees a fragmented hobby. The more editions that are created, the more fragmented it becomes. The solution is not another edition. The solution is to provide support for the existing fragments (i.e. keeping each edition available). The fragments do their own recruiting. If they are supported, then they also bring in new customers. Leaving behind a customer base that was satisfied is simply a bad business strategy.

If different editions merely represented newly incorporated errata, improved organization, and/or better physical components (sturdier boxes, better binding, nicer dice, etc.), there would be no such thing as edition wars, of course. We would all still be playing the same game. We are not all playing the same game, though, and D&D Next, despite the hype, will not change that. Its novelty will probably alter the balance, but it will never put Humpty together again.

22 May 2012

You Said It

The first time a player reads or deciphers the magic word or phrase that activates a magic item, pass it to the player in a note instead of telling them verbally. If the player reads it aloud and the item is being held, the item will be activated instantly regardless of the player's intentions.

"Say, John, what does the note say?"
"Well, Jane, it just says, 'Disintegratrix.' Whoops!"

Naturally, this does not apply if the player character is being told the magic word or phrase by someone (or something) that knows.

"O wise and learned sage, we have paid you the sum you require. Pray, tell us the magic word."
"The magic word is... 'Kaboom.'"
"Did you say, 'Kaboom?'"

20 May 2012

Player Character Wish Lists

For many, the main value of the Dungeon Masters Guide (and possibly its greatest selling point) is its catalogue of magic items. Explicitly written as an aid for DMs to stock their dungeons with fantastical treasures, it is implicitly the equivalent of the old Sears Christmas Wishbook, that annual catalogue mailed to customers that included a section on every child's favorite subject: toys. Children traditionally pored through its pages, circling the toys they most desired in the hope that their parents, noticing the defacing of the catalogue, would recognize the meaning and pass the word to Santa Claus who would then magically fulfill their wish on Christmas Day. So it is with the Players Wishbook. Players read its pages as dreams of avarice dance in their heads, and they make lists of what they most desire for their characters.

These lists may take two different forms. The first, and oldest, merely consists of a note to oneself (the player) to seek information at the earliest opportunity about the possible existence and whereabouts of a desired magic item. If the player strongly envisions his or her character as wielding a rod of lordly might, then inquiries might be made the next time a sage is consulted. The sage might not know the answer, but he or she might know someone who does.

The second form of wish list consists not of personal reminders to the player, but requests submitted to the DM. The DM is supposed to decide which requests are reasonable and then work those items into a dungeon or encounter so that the player character will "coincidentally" stumble upon that item in the course of adventuring. Lo and behold! Your heart's desire was in the kobold's stash (or the ogre's bag, or the dragon's trove, etc.). This method was probably first suggested in an issue of Dragon in the 1980s (I seem to have faint memories of it), but it appears to have been institutionalized by post-1st edition gamers (and probably enshrined in the rules of some games).

Perhaps needless to say, I do not condone the second form of wish list. It comes too close to the actual granting of a wish. It clashes with immersion, it's lazy, and it feels too much like cheating. In the end, it's also a bit of a let-down. Oh, there's that robe of eyes I've always wanted. Let me just make a check mark on my (shopping) list. There. Next!

The first form of wish list is fine, but with one caveat: the player character should almost never be certain that such an item exists or has ever existed. The character may have heard of the magic item, but it might be nothing more than a folktale or the tall tale of an inebriated traveller. This enables the player character to make inquiries and remain in character because the magic item will at least be known in lore even if there is no such thing as an actual Apparatus of Kwalish in your fantasy campaign.

18 May 2012

Monster: Telateg

The following creature was inspired by a dream I had a few nights ago. It looked exactly as described.


No. Enc.: 1d6 (8d10)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 9' (3')
      Fly: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 1d4 hit points
Attacks: 2 (bite, sting + electric shock)
Damage: 1 hit point/2 hit points + 1d8
Save: F1
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XI
XP: 8

Telategs resemble large, bluish-black wasps 6 to 8 inches in length with long, segmented abdomens ending in bulbous, dual-pronged stingers that emit a dim white glow. Ordinarily, the glow is continual, but it may flash at a frequency that varies depending on whether the telateg is signalling a desire to mate, attract others to a source of food, or rally others to defend the nest. Another property of the telateg’s stinger is its ability to deliver a powerful electrical shock. Telategs use this ability to hunt for small fish by electrocuting schools of them when they are sighted near the surface of a body of water. Telateg “fishing parties” will patrol slow-moving rivers and placid lakes until they discover a school of desirable fish, then dip their stingers into the water and deliver a charge, carrying off the dead fish as they float to the surface. These stingers are also used as weapons to attack intruders in their territory (generally the area ranging from their nest to the nearest body of water), although they generally only attack if molested or their nest is perceived to be threatened. (Telategs are strongly attracted to the sight of gems, however. If gems are visible, telategs will attempt to carry them off to their nest and will attack if prevented from doing so.) Telategs build their nests almost anywhere with mud collected from nearby streams, rivers, or lakes.

Telategs are immune to electrical attacks and are unaffected by smoke.

16 May 2012

Secret Doors

My approach to detecting secret doors is the same as my approach to detecting traps: description. The players listen to my description of their surroundings, then they describe what their characters do to search for them. If a secret door is in their vicinity and their efforts fail to reveal it, then I secretly roll for their chance to detect it. This represents a second chance to notice something they have overlooked.

I realize this is the opposite of the method used by many groups. Standard practice is for the players to declare that they are searching a particular 10' by 10' area. For each such area searched, the referee makes a roll for each player character who is actively searching. That's all there is to it. It takes 1 turn per 10' by 10' area searched, so the only thing preventing a party from inspecting every foot of a dungeon (and making hundreds of secret door rolls) is time and Wandering Monsters. This might be considered reasonable from an archaeologist's point of view, but from the adventurer's perspective, as a player or a character, this could be rather boring.

Allowing player characters the ability to search quickly in this manner (perhaps 1 round per 10' by 10' area) is not the answer. Sure, they might encounter fewer monsters and use fewer torches as they conduct speed searches, but they're still just telling the referee, "I search this area," and listening to the referee roll dice. One could literally check for secret doors at full running speed in Wolfenstein 3D, and guess what? It was boring (searching for secret doors, that is).

Even using the descriptive method can be boring if the referee doesn't provide details that are conducive to initiating a search. Tracks that end at walls and sounds heard in rooms where there is no egress other than the door through which the adventurers entered are good indications that there may be secret doors. Sometimes the secret door can be fairly obvious, but the means of opening it is the real puzzle. Ultimately, the best use of secret doors is one that encourages player characters to explore with a sense of purpose rather than a feeling that they need to painstakingly inspect every 10' square surface of their environment, unless that's how your group gets its kicks. Otherwise, use sparingly and never randomly.

[In retrospect, I think Secret Door Techniques was my inspiration for writing this. Read ye, read ye.]

14 May 2012

Breaking and Entering and Reading Languages

Is there in fantasy literature any character with a reputation for being an accomplished thief with a rudimentary knowledge of magic other than Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser? Let me amend that question. Is there in any work of fantasy literature predating Dungeons & Dragons such a character that would explain the existence of the thief's ability to Read Languages (and magic scrolls)?

As far as I know, the Grey Mouser is the sole reason for this particular thief function, which is a tad preposterous considering that a) the Grey Mouser was the exception to the rule, and b) his limited magical ability came from his aborted apprenticeship with a hedge wizard, i.e. he was a dual class magic-user/thief who switched classes after 1st or 2nd level (per "The Character With Two Classes" on page 33 of the 1st edition Players Handbook).

Of all the classes in traditional D&D, the thief would probably be the least likely to have any sort of skill in either cryptanalysis or "decoding" writing in foreign languages. This might be a plausible skill for the thief-equivalent specialist class in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. For the typical uneducated pickpocket, basic literacy would be a rare ability. If any of the classes have an affinity for writing and interpretation of meaning, it would be magic-users, clerics, and monks. Just because thieves can communicate in their own secret jargon (Thieves' Cant) doesn't mean they have the scholarly training and resources to read a scroll in a foreign language they don't even speak (or that they can read at all). To suggest that thieves would have an ability beyond even that of sages to cast spells from scrolls is, frankly, absurd.

Instead of the Read Languages ability, I have ruled that in my games thieves may develop their Encode or Decode skill. This is a skill that enables a literate thief to convert writing in any language he or she knows to a secret code, and to comprehend encoded writing in any such language. If the thief doesn't know the language, he or she will be unable to decode or read it. In my house rules, thieves may choose which thiefly skills will increase as they gain levels (as in LotFP), so thieves who lack interest (or the ability to read) would concentrate on other skills, whereas those more concerned with esoteric treasure-hunting or espionage would be free to increase their Encode or Decode skill at a rate of their choosing.

That solves my problem, but I am still curious to know if there are other literary examples of the thief with extraordinary language skills and limited spellcasting ability.

12 May 2012

A Case for Demi-Human Level Limits

I've never been one to endorse level limits for demi-humans in D&D. As presented in the rules with which I am most familiar (Basic/Expert D&D and 1st edition AD&D), they are a contrived solution for an alleged problem — a "solution" moreover that utterly fails to offer a believable in-game explanation for its existence. However, in working out my own demi-human balancing act that does not resort to level limits, an explanation for level limits occurred to me that actually makes sense.

Consider the fairytale. In folklore and mythology, the beings we refer to as demi-humans often reside not in the world as we know it, but in a nether world that is usually unseen by mortals: a fairyland. Protagonists who interact with these beings either encounter them as intruders or visitors in our world, or are themselves transported to the nether world, either literally or allegorically. The beings are very often much more powerful in their world than in ours. It follows, then, that demi-humans who venture outside their own realm of reality (or unreality) will be limited in the practice of some of their abilities whilst away. In a role-playing game that posits the existence of levels of experience, it would be reasonable to place limits on the levels at which demi-humans may perform in the standard game world (conforming to the usual rules), but remove those limits when they are in their native nether realm. When they go home, they are at their most potent (much like devils, demons, and gods, come to think of it).

For those who don't mind or actually prefer level limits, I think this justifies it rather neatly in the context of the game world.

11 May 2012

Foraging by the Book

Basic/Expert D&D, unlike AD&D (as far as I can discern), has rules for foraging, which is a fine idea. The implementation, however, is not so fine. I'll take it line by line. The following (in boldface) is quoted from page X51 of the Expert Rulebook.

"Characters travelling in the wilderness may attempt to search or hunt for food, either to extend their normal supplies or prevent starvation." Extending one's normal supplies of food is probably always a good thing. Foraging to prevent starvation, however, may be futile, as we shall see.

"Searching for food may be done while travelling." This is good news. One can search for food without losing valuable time on the way to or from the dungeon or other destination. Gather as you go.

"If 1 is rolled on a d6, the party will have found enough to feed 1-6 men for one day." This is not good news. An entire party, regardless of how many adventurers compose it, has only a 1 in 6 chance of finding enough food for 1-6 of them. Were it not for the fact that they can search as they travel, it would be a complete waste of time. "If 1 is rolled on a d6, the party will have found enough to feed itself for one day," would have made a little more sense. Why a party of two would have the same chance of feeding 1-6 persons as a party of six or eight defies logic. Better yet, "If 1 is rolled on a d6, the party member will have found enough to feed 1-6 men for one day," gives each adventurer a chance to help provide for the party in much the same way that each adventurer has a chance to detect secret doors or listen at a door or break the door down.

"This food will consist of nuts, berries, and possibly small game." To which I would add or other edible plants appropriate to the environment in which the party is travelling, since they will sometimes find themselves in grasslands, jungles, or deserts. "Small game" would more accurately fall under the category of hunting.

"To hunt, characters must spend a day without moving." Methods of hunting that involve little or no movement often require the use of some sort of bait, which would not normally be used by a party of adventurers (as opposed to hunters). Other methods may involve a considerable amount of movement as the prey is tracked and pursued (probably not very often in the convenient direction of the party's destination).

"There is a 1 in 6 chance of having an encounter from the Animal Subtable on the Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables." Regardless of what the party intends to hunt, what it will end up hunting is a randomly determined beast that might be an antelope or might be an ape. The party might be dining on a crab spider, a giant leech, a hawk, or perhaps a unicorn. And why exactly is a mule in the subtable as a wandering animal? If a mule can be found in the wilderness waiting to be killed, surely cows, pigs, chickens, and geese would be reasonable. Seriously, though, there ought to be a separate subtable for legitimate prey, such as deer, rabbits, wild boars, pheasants, and other animals that human beings actually eat.

"This encounter is in addition to any normal encounter rolls for the day." Actively hunting increases one's chance of encountering living things. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I'm willing to give it a pass.

"Days spent resting cannot be used for hunting." Fair enough, but what about fishing? Fishing can be pretty restful...

The inclusion of rules for hunting under the subject of foraging is odd. Hunting and foraging are two different activities. If one is searching for food (i.e. foraging), one has a 1 in 6 chance of finding x amount of food. If one is hunting, one has a 1 in 6 chance of encountering a random animal that one may or may not consider worth eating. If it is deemed worthy to hunt and eat, how many does it feed and for how long? This information is not given. Does one need to roll "to hit" or otherwise engage in combat to kill it, or is the daylong immobile encounter considered an automatic hunting success? The rules do not specify. Unless a successful hunt provides a much greater amount of food, the lower odds of success combined with the restriction on the party's movement would make it a foolish choice compared to searching for food.

Basic/Expert D&D is an excellent example of clarity and brevity in most respects, but I think house rules are unavoidable in this case.

03 May 2012

Casting Spells Differently

In classic Dungeons & Dragons, magic is "Vancian" regardless of the spellcaster's class. Magic-users memorize mystical formulae and clerics pray for them (coincidentally for the same length of time), but spells always boil down to words that are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane, which, when activated, are promptly erased from the spellcaster's memory. To be regained, the magic-user must memorize them again and the cleric must pray for them again. I recall reading somewhere that the magically charged words of a spell (or verbal components if you prefer) are impossible to understand or remember for anyone who happens to hear a spellcaster utter them. These words are more than words. They are the essence of primordial power. Not even another spellcaster can recall the words of a spell by hearing them. They must be committed to memory by a period of study lasting no less than one hour (in Basic/Expert D&D) or 15 minutes per level per spell (in AD&D).

This is all well and good and I have no problem with any of it as it applies to magic-users, but there's something a little wonky as it applies to clerics. I have no problem with clerics sharing the same limitation of a certain number of spells per level, nor with clerics having to pray to regain spells, but I do have a problem with the words. That is, I do not like the verbal components of clerical spells to be identical in nature to magical spells, i.e. impossible to understand; impossible to remember. Clerics, as priests, are in the business of communication. They study the message of their faith, whether it involves interpreting scripture, interpreting omens, or speaking with spirits. They disseminate the message by preaching to congregations or spreading their faith as missionaries. Clerics communicate. Now, certain religions may indulge in a fair amount of obfuscation for various reasons (such as the use of secret symbolism to protect them from persecution if they are oppressed, or the use of complicated rituals and hierarchical structures to maintain power), but one thing most religions are not shy about is communication. It therefore stands to reason that the "spells" for which a cleric prays are not the arcane formulae memorized by magic-users, destined to fade from memory within seconds, unable to be understood even for a second by the uninitiated. On the contrary, clerical spells are words of power that manifest divine will through the agency of the cleric, and those words are a message that can be understood by anyone.* As the power to cast a spell is granted by a cleric's deity (or, in some cases, the deity's divine servants), the essence of the spell is not a formula to be understood by the cleric, but a message to be conveyed by the cleric.

I would go so far as to say that any player character wishing to cast a spell as a cleric must state what his or her character is saying in order to make the spell work. This needn't be a formally composed invocation, but rather a statement of the cleric's faith and a supplication to his or her deity to enact the desired effects of the spell. This works best if it is stated in character in the player's own words. The same words are not required whenever the same spell is cast. In fact, it probably serves the game better if the words are personalized to reflect a given subject, situation, or location. The words chosen would certainly vary dramatically depending on the cleric's patron deity or sect. Each spell that is cast becomes both an affirmation and an act of proselytization (and it makes playing clerics more enjoyable, too).

I should add that the words themselves, in a clerical spell of this type, do not trigger a spell's effects. It is the cleric's entreaty, the cleric's expression of desired intent, that enables him or her to become the vessel of divine will. The words alone do nothing if they are not accompanied by the cleric's faith and piety.

I think this makes clerical spellcasting significantly different in flavor (and more interesting) without the fuss of new mechanical rules.

* Even in a game world with multiple spoken languages, I think I would rule that the clerical spell as uttered would be miraculously comprehensible to anyone regardless of their familiarity with the cleric's language.

02 May 2012

Speak to Me in the Common Tongue

I am considering a new house rule for my fantasy campaigns: Nearly all beings capable of speech speak the Common Tongue as their native language. It is truly the universal language. Accents and colloquialisms are the only true variations in spoken communication. Writing is another matter, however, for every people and species with literacy has its own unique system of writing for expressing the same language. Any language bonus gained by high intelligence or species refers to the written language only.

This may seem absurd at first, but is it any more absurd than a fantasy adventure where social interaction would be limited to hiring interpreters or resorting to pantomime? Think of it in terms of the universal translator from Star Trek or the semi-telepathic communication on Barsoom. Would we really want every encounter with a new civilization to be burdened with a new invented language and a long period in which the story stalls whilst everyone takes a course on Tholian or Gorn or whatever happens to be the alien of the week? Yes, it's unrealistic, but it's no more implausible than replicators or warp drives, and it allows the characters to interact in much more interesting ways. The Martian tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs are teeming with exotic sentient species, but how exciting would it be if John Carter had to spend months learning the language of each one just to have a rudimentary conversation? The Martian tales are, incidentally, the inspiration for a world where there is one spoken language with a multitude of written forms. It makes perfect sense for a world of exploration and swashbuckling adventure.

After all, what is being sacrificed by the absence of spoken Goblinish or Trollish at the game table? Those languages are not really being spoken. The referee generally just says that the players fail to comprehend, or blathers nonsense syllables. And the suggestion of using multiple real world languages just destroys immersion and presumes a knowledge of more languages than is reasonable to expect of most gamers (not to mention the referees).

It may not be the perfect solution, but it impedes role-playing the least, which is why I think it may be the best solution.

01 May 2012

More to Buy

Added to my wish list: The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time and The God That Crawls. I missed the chance to back the Indiegogo campaign for them, but I plan to purchase them when they become available. (And the need to save money for that purchase is the main reason I'm not taking advantage of the May Day sale at the LotFP store.)

Happy May Day!