Monthly Archives: September 2011

Character Creation

Also sprach Jeff Rients:

Personally I loathe all the canonical cheating methods. I think there are two and exactly two legit ways to generate scores for D&D characters:

1) 3d6 in order
2) write down whatever numbers you like

Anybody stuck on “wants to play a X” should be using the second method. I’ve used this method before. One guy wrote down all 18’s, including 18/00 Str. Somehow, we all survived the experience.

Comment on Grognardia: Cheating Methods

Random tables as tools for deep design

A few days ago, Matthew Finch (of Swords & Wizardry) released the Tome of Adventure Design (TOAD; awesome acronym). Of course I bought a copy right away, but I haven’t had a chance to peruse it in detail yet. However, one passage did jump out at me immediately:

I should say up front that these are tables for deep design – in other words, most of them are too long, and contain too many unusual or contradictory entries, for use on the spot at the gaming table. There are already many excellent books of tables for use on the fly; the tables in these books are different. They work best as a tool for preparation beforehand, providing relatively vast creative resources for browsing and gathering, rather than quick-use tables designed to provide broad, fast brushstrokes.

It seems to me that randomness has two direct key functions in old school gaming:

  1. Inject impartial uncertainty into situations that would otherwise be hard to adjudicate (this is common to newer games as well); this function is carried out during game play.
  2. Assist in creativity; this function is usually carried out prior to play.

The first function, when properly employed, also helps create situations which can surprise the referee in addition to the players. This is such a common aspect of table-top RPGs that I don’t think it needs any more discussion.

The second function is newer to me, and also seems to be one of the core OSR referee techniques. I remember playing around with the random dungeon generator in the Gygax DMG, though I’m not sure if it led to any substantive adventure locations. I had the sense, and I think many people still have the sense, that “good” design comes directly from a planner, and that using tables would be somehow cheating. Using tables to design your masterpiece setting would be akin to Dostoevsky using dice and tables to determine the plot of Crime & Punishment (also related: frustrated fantasy novelist syndrome).

This seems to be an almost Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, where the thesis and antithesis are random results which at first glance seem contradictory. The reconciliation of this incompatibility is what prompts the creativity.

There are several other good products that I have come across that are based on similar principles:

More Class Ideas

Talysman writes about classes as answers to the question “how do you solve problems?” (the discussion at Grognardling is also worth reading, and is what originally pointed me to Talysman’s post).

I would reiterate this as:

  • Fighters solve problems by combat and fighting back.
  • Wizards solve problems with magic. 
  • Thieves solve problems with stealth and trickery.
  • Clerics solve problems by supporting others and channeling the power of a higher being.
  • Monks (replacing halflings) solve problems by evasion and redirection (with a side order of self-mastery, perhaps, allowing abilities like being able to fall farther without taking damage). Self-control, and understanding the limits and capabilities of the self, and seeing the weaknesses of others, are the key to the monk’s powers. 
  • Dungeoneers (replacing dwarves, perhaps as a morlock race-as-class) solve problems by understanding how things work, taking them apart, or building tools. Interestingly, writing about this potential class in this way has totally changed how I am approaching it. Maybe the dungeoneer is just as much an artificer class as anything else. For example, maybe they never get better at fighting like the fighter does (with an attack bonus based on level), but instead build specific weapons which have bonuses. And, the noticing construction elements of a dungeon like the dwarf class (such as sloping corridors) is very much in line with a dungeoneer. I’m not sure how well this would fit with the mood of the campaign I am working on, which is less steampunk and more sword & sorcery, but I’m willing to run with it for a while and see where it leads me. Blogging is just as much about publicly brainstorming as anything else.
  • Elves solve problems more holistically, by being an expression of nature, or the dark powers beyond mundane nature (depending on the tone of the setting). Thus, being inherently magical, they can cast some spells, though without the exactitude of the wizard. They can fight, though not with the training of the fighter. The elf, in this guise, serves as something of a jack-of-all-trades.
The most interesting consequence of this exercise in seeing classes as different ways to solve problems is the abilities it leads to for monks. Evasion is deflecting missiles and having saving throws to dodge or block attacks that would otherwise hit. It should also allow counter-attacks, or using the enemy’s attack against them (where it would make sense narratively). This ability fits the source material really well. It is dangerous to attack a monk, because the monk can use your own strength against you or use the opportunity to strike at your weaknesses.

I see this working as follows:

  1. Adversary attacks monk
  2. Monk then chooses to (on a successful save) either get a free counter attack or to redirect the enemy’s attack against themselves
  3. Adversary makes attack roll
  4. Monk makes save
  5. Consequences determined based on result of monk’s save (i.e., monk takes damage if the save fails and the adversary hits the monk’s AC, or monk gets a counter-attack, or adversary’s attack is compared to their own AC, etc.)
Perhaps this dodge/counter-attack/redirect ability can be used a number of times per round equal to the monk’s level. I need to play-test that and see if it bogs down at higher levels. That, in addition to jumping, falling, and some bonus to unarmed strikes, would make a very interesting and viable class.

Halflings & Monks

James Raggi describes the game role of the halfling as:

Halflings can hide like nobody’s business. And these guys almost never miss a saving throw (regardless of category).

So, mechanically, the halfling class is hard to hit, agile, and sneaky. The first two fit a martial artist pretty well. Monks in AD&D (according to the 1E PHB) have the following abilities:
  • AC bonus (by 13th level, they have a natural AC of 0)
  • Increased movement (for combat mobility)
  • Increasing number of unarmed attacks per turn
  • Can do deadly damage with open hand attacks (by 13th level, 3d4 + 1)
  • Some thief abilities
  • Able to fall greater distances without taking damage
  • Speak with animals as druid
  • Mask the mind from ESP
  • Immune to diseases
  • Immune to haste and slow spells
  • Feign death
  • Limited self-healing
  • Speak with plants as druid
  • Greater defence against charm, hypnosis, suggestion, geas, and quest
  • Psionic mental blast attack
  • Poison immunity
  • Quivering palm super death attack
Like many of the AD&D classes, this laundry list of abilities is a bit overwhelming. The abilities further down only show up gradually as a monk progresses (I had actually forgotten how absurd that list of abilities gets as the monk progresses; to be fair, the AD&D monk also forgoes many benefits that other classes have, such as STR and DEX combat bonuses, can’t wear armor, etc). The mystic in the Rules Cyclopedia is more or less a basic D&D take on the monk class, and has similar abilities. There is also an interesting take on the monk in the first issue of NOD, which makes the monk a subclass of fighter and allows the monk to make a saving throw to deflect arrows and other missiles. [Oct 20, 2011 edit: I just learned that the idea to give monks a saving throw against missile attacks comes from the original Supplement II: Blackmoor.]
Of these abilities, I think the saving throw to knock missiles out of the air is perhaps the most evocative. It is also a great use of saving throw mechanic, which I think is often (poorly) overloaded to perform actions that are more properly skills or abilities. Also, if deflection requires an open hand, it also incentivizes unarmed fighting without resorting to unrealistic restrictions which can be problematic for suspension of disbelief (tangent: this is one of the reasons I love how Weird Fantasy Role-Playing has no armor or weapon restrictions while maintaining class distinctiveness).
Martial artists are also supposed to be hard to hit in general, continually parrying, dodging, and blocking. Both of the old TSR classes represent this as decreasing natural AC. This is not horrible, as dexterity can do the same thing, but it does work against the traditional notion of AC as the class of armor worn. So what if we do away with the AC bonus, and instead give the monk a saving throw against being hit by any attack that they could reasonably dodge or block? Of course, they would only be able to use their saving throw if they were unarmored and have free movement. This, combined with the impressive halfling save progression, would lead to a very viable and interesting class.
A good save is only a defensive and reactive ability though. And, in some sense, if you are being attacked directly when playing a class not designed for direct fighting, you are already in a bad place. So being hard to hit is all well and good, but to be really fun to play the class will have to have some proactive abilities as well. I also like the idea of being able to scale walls acrobatically (think how the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kick their way up walls and roofs, particularly in the ninja chase scene). Maybe this ability is the inverse of being able to fall greater distances without taking damage.
So, a partial list of abilities:
  • Save against being hit
  • More damage than normal when fighting unarmed
  • Fall greater distances without taking damage
  • Scale walls and obstacles acrobatically
Perhaps something having to do with grappling and restraining would be another good ability candidate.
I feel like this is a good base, but I’m still missing the most important part of the class: a good name. Monk and mystic really don’t fit very well. Monk has too many cultural connotations (I want this class to be able to represent any kind of martial artist character, not just Shaolin monks) and mystic just doesn’t seem to fit at all.Other related discussion:

It is interesting to me that people seemed to have connected the monk to just about every class other than halfling.

Dwarves & Morlocks

I’ve never particularly liked dwarves and halflings in D&D. For some reason, elves don’t bother me. Perhaps this is because there are plenty of examples of elf-life creatures or peoples in other literature (Norse myths, Melnibonéans, etc), whereas dwarves and halflings (especially) only really occur in Tolkien and his imitators. Yes, there are little people in some other myths, but not extensively, and not in a way that feels very close to the Tolkien dwarf or halfling. I feel like the elf is a more powerful archetype. So I’ve been thinking about how to reskin the class.

The dwarf class has two major features: toughness, and dungeoneering. For an adventuring party, I think these features are interesting and fun, and though I could easily see a successful campaign that only allowed the four main human classes, I like having a few other options. And seven classes is a good number.

My first idea to replace the dwarf was to make a drow class. Underdark-dwelling, the drow could easily be made into a dungeoneer/assassin class. I think this is an interesting idea, and perhaps might work well in a campaign which hewed closely to classic D&D elves, but I want my fae creatures to more closely resemble the dark fairies of traditional mythology rather than the more mundane elves of D&D; also, allowing players to be drow would rob the subterranean depths of some mystery.

Another idea: why not replace the dwarf class with a morlock race-as-class? Morlocks are humans who have been underground for so long that they have been changed (credit, of course, to H. G. Wells). Using morlocks has the advantage of remaining truer to the human-centered genre of Sword & Sorcery. But is the morlock really a good fit for a dwarf class replacement? Weird Fantasy Role-Playing describes dwarves thusly:

Once the most powerful people on the planet, their decline has left them a spiritually shattered people. Once they took great pride in their grand architecture, their technological supremacy, and loved each other just as hard as they worked.

Morlocks, as I envision them, fit a similar description, though I see them as the lost slave worker caste of the “most powerful” ancients. The helots of Atlantis, as it were. Perhaps the ancients had exhausted the possibilities of glory in construction on the surface, and turned instead to cyclopean architecture deep beneath the surface (or maybe they ran out of the supply of some precious substance needed to build their structures on the surface, and need to dig ever deeper to locate more). Or, rather than building an arc to escape some approaching calamity, the ancients and their slaves retreated underground. Or, Moria-like, they delved too deep, and wakened long lost terrors (perhaps even impinging on the borders of hell). I really like this idea, and I think it is much more interesting than using drow, but it does suffer from at least one of the same limitations: perhaps morlocks would be better as NPCs to preserve mystery.

A human dungeoneer and treasure-hunter is another option, but this may overlap too much with the thief. And it is not nearly as stylish as the morlock. I haven’t decided yet.

25 Words & 1-Page Documents

One of the primary lessons I have taken from my research into OSR design principles is that preparing too much, in addition to wasting time, can also actually result in a less interesting and more constrained campaign. Instead, it is better to pursue a “just in time” strategy.

So, assuming I want to put this theory into practice, what is needed? There seem to be 2 categories of prep required: 1) setting & 2) rules (obviously there is some interaction between the 2, but I think it useful to consider them separately).

For the setting, first a basic concept or inspiration is needed. This doesn’t need to be complicated or even original. Using 25 words or less to summarize seems like a reasonable rule of thumb. Here is my first pass for the campaign I am currently working on:

Outcast adventurers, empty throne, squabbling nobles, mythic demihumans, dark fae elves, black magicians hunted, wizards unleash monsters, no dwarves or halflings, morlocks delve.

The rest of the setting info is probably referee-only. Including:

  • Basic hex map
  • Starting settlement
  • 1 or 2 levels of “dungeon”
  • Encounter tables for areas developed
  • List of hirelings
  • Several interesting surface locations (can be published modules)

We’ll see how that goes. I’m sure I’m overlooking something.

I would even say that you don’t need a map handout for the players. Let them map it themselves, and then be amazed at how their take on what was described differs from the maps behind the screen.

What about rules? Rules prep should includes what classes are allowed, how initiative is handled, etc. (A list of such common rules requirements would be useful to have, but I’m not going to do that here.) The way some people handle this is to essentially rewrite their own version of the classic rules. This is a wonderful thing, as it has given us products like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. (I realize that there are also other motivations behind the retro-clones and simulacra, such as keeping classic rules in print, but I don’t think anyone would argue that these products don’t also scratch the “this is what I play” itch.) But such extensive work is inimical to the core principle of “just in time” prep.

Instead, assume a common baseline, and then come up with some notes explaining how the proposed campaign differs. Example: B/X D&D baseline, but without clerics, replacing the thief with the LotFP specialist. This will allow you to communicate your vision to someone that is not as obsessive about your setting as you are (probably all of your players).

Divide the notes into the parts that concern the players and the parts that concern the referee. Each should become no larger than a single-sheet document. Situations that almost always require house rules (such as character death) should be included in the player’s document. The 25 word summary could also be the header of the player’s document, to quickly give a sense of the mood.