Monthly Archives: October 2012

Thief Skills

Cropped image from Wikipedia

Eric recently did a clarification post on thief skills for use with B/X D&D, based on the idea of leaving the basic percentages as is (that is, working with the basics of the traditional system without completely rewriting it). The thief class in my Pahvelorn game is a version of the Greyhawk thief, modified slightly to fit the mechanics of the 3 LBBs. My general approach is similar to Eric’s, though I have not committed to writing how the skills are resolved (despite much rumination on the thief class in general). Here is an attempt at guidelines for thief skill use.

Thief skills include Climb Walls, Hear Noise, Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, Open Locks, Pickpocket, and Remove Traps. All of these are percentile skills, other than Hear Noise.

The following general principles apply to all percentile thief skills.

  1. Failing with a roll of 96, 97, 98, 99, or 00 means something goes wrong. The thief falls, the trap goes off, the lockpick breaks. Depending on the circumstances, the consequences of something going wrong may be dire (though a further saving throw might apply).
  2. Failing with a roll of 95 or less means the thief makes no progress, but does not suffer any other negative effects. Another attempt may be made. Most attempts take one turn, but see below.
  3. Succeeding by more than half means the skill use is quick. For example, if a thief has a 30% chance of success and rolls a 15 or less, the task was accomplished with alacrity. The exact amount of time required is up to the referee, but it should take much less than a full turn.

Move Silently is an attempt to approach or move past an enemy without being detected. Any action taken while moving silently automatically gains surprise.

Hide in Shadows allows a character to remain hidden even if someone is searching. Any action taken while hidden in shadows automatically gains surprise.

Regarding the two stealth skills, as specified above in principle 2, failing a Move Silently or Hide in Shadows roll does not mean that they are noticed (unless the roll is particularly bad, as laid out in principle 1). Neither Move Silently nor Hide in Shadows may be used in combat.

Characters other than thieves (or thieves that fail a stealth-related skill check) still have recourse to the standard chance of gaining surprise. This is 2 in 6 by default per encounter. It may be adjusted up or down based on the specific situation and character preparation.

Picking locks and removing small mechanical traps require tools and the special training of the thief. Larger traps must be disabled or avoided by player ingenuity. Traps may be discovered by using the same procedure for secret doors: 1 in 6 chance per turn (2 in 6 for demi-humans) given a 10′ x 10′ area, or by engagement with clues and explicit description.

Hear Noise functions exactly as the standard 1 in 6 listen at doors action, but with better chances.

Armor penalties apply to all percentile skills and are -20% if wearing chain and -30% if wearing plate. Hear Noise may not be attempted if wearing a helm.

I think this also reveals an interesting potential taxonomy. Listening and searching (the d6 checks) have to do with the state of the environment external to the thief. Whether or not a trap is present or a monster is beyond the door is not a function of the character. It’s either there or not. In contrast, all the other skills represent something about the character. Climbing, picking locks, removing traps, etc — these are all things that the character in some sense controls (particular task difficulty notwithstanding). Further, they are things that a character experientially can perceive the success of. They know whether they have failed to make progress climbing the wall or have fallen in a way that is different than a failure when attempting to use Hear Noise. Is there nothing there or did I just not hear it? This also explains why there is a Remove Traps percentage, but no Find Traps, as that is covered under the search action.

Thus, I propose the following final generalization: the d6 checks are rolled by the referee (to represent the objectivity and externality of the environment) and the percentile checks are rolled by the player. Even the Hide in Shadows and Move Silently skills, if looked at in the proper light, are not about being perceived by others, they are about the thief’s talent. Why shouldn’t the thief know whether or not they have successfully hidden in shadows? Thus, the thief can use the skill before they need to depend on it, unlike the surprise roll, which always happens when the thief is already potentially face to face with danger.

Note that this approach is more forgiving in several ways than the guidelines in Supplement I: Greyhawk, which specify (page 5):

The ability of a thief to climb is also a function of his level. There is a basic chance of 13% that a 1st level thief will slip and fall in climbing. With each higher level attained by the thief this chance is reduced by 1%, so that a 10th level thief has but a 4% chance of slipping.

And, regarding Open Locks, Remove Traps, Pickpocket, Move Silently, and Hide in Shadows (page 11):

A score above the indicated percentage means failure, and no further attempts may be made.

Role Playing

There has been some discussion recently about what it means to play a role in an RPG. Is it just making decisions about a unit like in a war game, or does it involve trying to get inside the head of an imaginary character? My general take is that it can be either depending on the player, but that the weight of that role playing is in setting interaction and the notoriety that a character builds up within the game.

A character’s personality is created based on what they actually do. It’s all well and good to write “coward” on the sheet, but if the character tends to charge into battle, then the actual personality of that character is foolhardy or impetuous, not cowardly, and this arises out of actual play.

Through their actions, characters create a reputation. This is also part of their personality, and will affect social interactions. Charisma can help a bit (that is the modification to the reaction roll), but if you are Mao Zedong or Steve Jobs or Genghis Khan your actions speak louder than your charisma.

Basically, this is another way of rephrasing the novelist’s dictum of show, don’t tell or the aphorism that actions speak louder than words. You don’t need to speak in a funny voice or make up backstory motivations to play in character, you need to engage with the setting and show how your character is. If this means occasionally acting against the incentive system of the game, it is exactly that counteraction that gives the role playing weight (just like altruism is not actually altruism if you are paid for it).

Aside: whenever I publish something here, I usually also share it on Google Plus. This post is a slightly edited version of a comment on the G+ thread associated with my recent post on 5E energy drain (you will need to be in my G+ circles to see the G+ thread). At the time of this writing, that G+ thread has 124 comments, in comparison to the six on my blogger post. This shows the level of interaction about RPGs going on over at Google Plus right now, and how the social networking model decreases the friction of interaction.

Energy Drain & Max HP

A recent D&D Next blog article raised the topic of energy drain. Traditionally, energy drain causes a loss of levels, which is terrifying to players because it invalidates real-world effort (which is of course the point; the only way to really make undead scary is to harrow the player rather than the character). However, level drain is incredibly unpopular with the mainstream of players, because most people don’t understand that some monsters are really obstacles, not foes.

Image from Wikipedia
That being said, level drain is unlikely to be part of 5E, even as an option. Here is what they are proposing as a replacement for losing levels:

Level drain is a bit trickier, but we want to try modeling the drop in potency with a reduction of your maximum hit points (something that can last for a long time, but could be removed via spells or sufficient rest).

This actually seems like a reasonable method, assuming that the maximum hit points do not recover until the next level is gained (unfortunately, “sufficient rest” likely means the next extended rest, which totally neuters the threat). If it were to last until the next level it makes characters more fragile in a way that does not require a major overhaul of the character sheet. It also has more direct impact than ability score damage.
Further, what if the effect was framed as a curse that could be lifted with appropriate labor? Not a curse that could be lifted with remove curse, or the penalty just becomes a money sink. So players have a way to get back to full strength (at diegetic cost). Additionally, the effect could also automatically go away upon gaining a level. Thus the effect becomes similar to a level drain by default, but can also be the jumping off point for side quests (particularly ambitious referees could incorporate some aspect of the spirit’s past existence, such as a proper burial or restitution to victims).
For every energy drain event, the character could be marked by the grave. Also, somewhat related, this is how I run energy drain in my current Pahvelorn OD&D game.

Marked by the Grave

To be used for characters that have a close encounter with the unquiet dead. In the entries below, “the spirit” refers to the particular undead that the character survived an encounter with. Appropriate for accompanying a level drain.

Roll 1d30:

  1. Flowers wilt when the character is nearby
  2. To others, the character seems to walk slightly crookedly
  3. The spirit can be seen behind the character in reflections
  4. Eyes lose their color
  5. The spirit is now in every one of the character’s dreams
  6. The character’s weapons always drip with rivulets of blood, even after cleaning
  7. Nearby domestic animals become uncomfortable and seek to flee
  8. Character is always cold, and requires extra clothes to remain warm
  9. Small fires (such as lanterns and torches) gutter and go out nearby
  10. A great injustice that the spirit suffered in life shows up as a forehead brand
  11. Echoes of the spirit’s voice underly (and subvert) all words the character speaks
  12. The character’s skin is icy cold to the touch
  13. Garments worn lose their color so that they are only shades of gray
  14. Character slowly acquires the facial characteristics of the spirit
  15. Thin glass cracks upon touch (windows, mirrors, glassware)
  16. All alcohol consumed becomes the spirit’s blood
  17. Insects (especially maggots and carrion bugs) find the character’s scent pleasing
  18. All humanoid enemies slain take on the aspect of the spirit
  19. Unsheathed blades nearby seem to whisper the character’s name
  20. Character’s hands and garments remain soiled always
  21. Becomes somnambulant if not restrained during sleep
  22. Any door the character opens leads to the land of the dead
  23. Afflicted with illusionary stigmata (related to the spirit’s death)
  24. Smile forever appears to others as a rictus even though nothing has changed
  25. Any food the character touches loses all flavor
  26. Plants that grow near the character have a strange and twisted aspect
  27. Garments worn quickly become tattered and ragged around the edges
  28. Nails, grown black and talon-like, continually manifest dripping blood
  29. Footsteps leave tracks of cremation ash
  30. Character often sees the spirit lurking submerged in bodies of water

Knight Approached by Death (source)

A Peek Inside Rappan Athuk

My new edition copy of Rappan Athuk (from the recent kickstarter) has arrived, and it is a gorgeous book (it feels very well crafted and is signature sewn). Almost 500 pages (including licence, etc) of megadungeon, with Swords & Wizardry stats (and thus compatible with virtually all traditional fantasy games and their simulacra). It is filled with evocative (though uneven, to my eyes) art. This is not a review (I haven’t spent nearly enough time with the actual content to do a review justice), but I thought some people might enjoy seeing inside.

Sustained Spells

Image from Wikipedia

Because of a comment Gustie left on my Sorcerer Patrol post, I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Origins recently. The magic system in this game uses the “mana” magic point system that has become standard in most computer RPGs. Spells are divided into activated and sustained categories. Activated spells cost a fixed amount of mana and have an immediate effect (which also may sometimes persist for a short period of time, but wears off quickly). Something like paralyze (which affects an enemy) is an activated effect, as is fireball.

Sustained spells, however, are essentially permanent but also reserve a fixed amount of mana which can’t be used for other magic while the sustained ability is maintained. Effects generated by this type of spell are often defensive (arcane shield, rock armor), but also auras which penalize opponents (miasma) or benefit allies (flaming weapons).

It occurs to me that this mechanism could be used for spells in a tabletop game as well, replacing or in addition to the idea of other durations. For example, a spell like shield or armor could be maintained indefinitely, perhaps by occupying two first level spell slots. Personally, I am less likely to modify existing spells in this way than to use this approach as a basis for new custom spells. In most cases infinite duration, even at the cost of extra spell slots being occupied, seems like it might cut into the resource management aspect of the game. However, I still think the idea has legs, especially for effects that are more interesting than a simple bonus.

Devil’s in the Details

Aaron Kesher’s excellent “Devil’s in the Details” series of articles from Fight On! are now available as separate free PDFs (as seen here). They have also been expanded to d20 tables.

Each is a series of tables for a common fantasy race of the form (some elves are… / most elves are…). For example, some elves:

13. Are haunted by murders of crows.

I believe I first read about these articles on Grognardia when James created some tables for Dwimmermount elves, and I think that is how I discovered Fight On!, the best OSR periodical.

Highly recommended.

Robe Wards

Image from Wikipedia

Here are a collection of special wards that may be added to wizard robes. I’m not totally sure about the power levels and costs of some of these, but I don’t think anything is too crazy.

Any ward may be decoded with read magic (though see obscuring ward below) and destroyed with dispel magic (the wearer’s saving throw versus magic applies).

  1. Elemental ward.
    Choose one: fire, cold, lightning. You may re-roll the next failed saving throw of the given type. Doing so exhausts the ward. Minor effects related to the element in question often manifest around the wearer, though generally in subtle ways (a faint aura of cold, sparks when walking on stone, etc). Cost: 500 GP. Components: the remains of an elemental creature of at least 3 HD.
  2. Paralytic curse.
    Anyone other than the attuned magic-user donning the robe must make a save versus paralysis or be frozen in place indefinitely. If the save is successful, paralysis is avoided, but the wearer feels uncomfortable and nauseous (taking a -2 to all rolls). Cost: 500 GP. Components: the spleen of a ghoul.
  3. Obscuring ward.
    This ward disguises the nature of another ward. It either hides a ward completely or makes it appears as a different (non-functional) ward. Useful for disguising wards that may rely on forbidden magic, such as diabolism or necromancy. Cost: 500 GP. Components: blood of an adulterer.
  4. Flaming retribution.
    If the wearer is slain, a fireball detonates with ground zero at the wearer. Cost: 100 GP per die of fireball damage, max = robe level. Components: ash from a home that was burned to the ground.
  5. Protection from evil.
    Choose one: demons, undead, faeries. As per the spell. Any hostile action (referee determination; the player should be given information about what constitutes hostility) grants the creature a saving throw versus magic to destroy the ward. Creatures of this type can also sense the ward and thus have a -2 on any reaction roll. Cost: 1000 GP. Components: captured creature of the appropriate type (minimum 3 HD), sacrificed or ritually destroyed.
  6. Demonic sympathy.
    The true name of a demon is inscribed as a ward. If the attuned wearer dies, the demon is destroyed. If the ward is dispelled, the demon is freed. Cost: 1000 GP. Components: demon’s true name.
  7. Undead retribution.
    If the wearer is slain, she raises as a wraith and inexorably pursues the killer. Cost: 1000 GP. Components: fat rendered from the flesh of a person killed by terror or energy drain.
  8. Precipitative ward.
    Rain, snow, and other natural precipitation falls around rather than on the magic-user. Winds are calmed slightly, but not entirely (gale-force winds remain dangerous). Cost: 50 GP. Components: cloud, bottled and preserved.
  9. Relay ward.
    This ward must be created voluntarily with another magic-user. The other magic-user may cast spells through the wearer, though targeting is still up to the wearer. This also creates some form of unidirectional magical channel between the two, and the remote magic-user will always be able to sense the approximate direction and distance of the wearer (the remote magic-user also gains a +2 to all saves versus spells cast by the wearer). Some masters use this ward in order to control their apprentices. Cost: 1000 GP. Components: blood from both parties, freely shed, mingled.
  10. Sartorial ward.
    Robes may shift in appearance as long as they continue to maintain approximately the same surface area. All wards remain visible unless magically obscured. Robes must continue to appear as some form of clothing. Cost: 100 GP. Components: the ashes from a suit of currently fashionable clothing, burned.
  11. Necropotent ward.
    No life will come into being within 10 feet of the robes. Living plants will also gradually die, and animals will become uncomfortable (-2 reaction roll). Useful as a magical form of contraception. Cost: 100 GP. Components: crops spoiled prior to harvest.
  12. Seelie friendship.
    Must be created jointly with another magic-user of the Seelie court. +2 reaction rolls with members of the Seelie, -2 reaction rolls with members of the Unseelie. Generally awarded as a boon to magic-users that have helped the Seelie court. The reverse, Unseelie friendship, is also possible, but obviously not both at the same time. Cost: 500 GP. Components: blood shed in violence of a member of the opposing court.

Wizard Robes

The Beguiling of Merlin (source)

The act of spell casting opens up magic-users to dark forces and draws the attention of wicked spirits. In order to defend against such dangers, many magic-users wear garments imprinted with powerful and esoteric pictograms. Such wards help protect a magic-user against psychic pollution or opportunistic attack.

To function correctly, the wards must be imposed spiritually between the magic-user’s soul and the magical threat. There are some extremely powerful magical periapts that can accomplish this task without the symbolism of clothing, but they are very rare. More common are robes which stand directly between the flesh of the sorcerer and the external threat, particularly flowing clothing such as robes, which provide more space for esoteric symbols.

Just like physical armor, robes provide a defense rating, from 1 to 6. This rating functions as a bonus to the save versus magic and does not provide any bonus to physical armor class. Warded robes also function, by referee determination, as AC against certain special creatures (such as those that are ethereal). In Hexagram, the magic defense trait bonus does not stack with the bonus from warded robes, though the magic defense trait may be used to protect a companion (see the path of wonder trait descriptions).

The symbolism of clothing requires that the robes bridge the space between flesh and threat, so conventional armor may not be worn at the same time. However, most magic-users fear arcane assault more than physical assault (which may be guarded against by certain abjuration spells and loyal warders). Thus, many magic-users opt to wear robes rather than traditional armor (though they may forego wards and wear armor if desired). There are legends of warded mage armor, particularly among the faeries, but such treasures rarely come without strings attached.

The base cost of warded robes is as follows, by robe level. This includes the cost of materials and the labor of skilled tailors. Robes take one week per level to create.

  1. 10 gp
  2. 100 gp
  3. 500 gp
  4. 1000 gp
  5. 5000 gp
  6. 10000 gp

In addition to the saving throw bonus, warded robes may have up to N special wards (where N is equal to the level of the robes) which can provide special protection. The nature, cost, and availability of these additional wards are up to the referee, but often require special materials or far away knowledge.

Robes must be attuned to a particular magic-user. The cost of attuning a set of robes to a new owner is half the original cost. Additionally, the magic-user must cast a spell of level N as part of the attuning procedure. Warded robes that have not been attuned function at half-level (rounded down) until the garments are reworked to fit the soul of the new wearer. Some magic-users may also work curses into their garments (these would fall under the category of special wards) as insurance against theft.

In addition to psychic defense, warded robes also have social value. They advertise to strangers that the character is a magic-user. Such open magic-users are assumed to follow the laws of the ancient academy and to reject black magic such as diabolism and necromancy. One of the responsibilities of magic-users following the ancient rules is to hunt down and punish sorcerous rebels. Many magic-users are quite zealous in this task, in order to protect their fragile reputation. Within the society of magic-users, the complexity of robe symbolism also functions as a crude method of assessing another magic-user’s skill and power.

It is assumed that there are only three kinds of magic-users that do not wear robes openly. Those that are too poor or inexperienced to craft proper garments. Those that wish to conceal their nature (this is considered evil and is a crime in many places). And those, like the arch-mages of myth, that are powerful enough to need no external protection.

Armor by Class

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Armor is something I have never been totally satisfied with in D&D. It’s not because I object to the abstraction of armor making characters harder to hit rather than preventing injury (though I have written about that before). Rather, I don’t much like the idea that a magic-user can’t strap on a breastplate and get some benefit from it. This is not a major problem for me; I don’t have any issue playing traditional B/X with all the armor and weapon restrictions and having a great time. But it does seem like an imperfection.

That being said, I do think fighters should be better at using armor. The weapon restrictions problem, which is similar, has been very elegantly handled, in my opinion, using damage by hit die rather than by weapon (which I originally based on Akrasia’s damage by class). Perhaps something similar could be done for armor without totally modifying the underlying system?

First, I am going to fall back on my earlier assumption of a threefold armor classification (light, medium, and heavy corresponding to leather, chain, and plate). Traditionally, there are also several types of character class regarding armor use. The heavily armored classes can use plate (fighters and clerics). The lightly armored classes, such as thieves, which can only wear leather. And finally the unarmored classes, such as magic-users, which can wear no armor.

My basic idea is that by default, armor grants one point of AC per tier. So, for example, leather armor would grant +1 AC and plate armor would grant +3 AC. Someone with no armor skill (such as a zero level character or a magic-user) who straps on a suit of plate thus only gets +3 AC.

Additionally, characters gain an AC bonus equal to their armor skill if their armor skill is equal to or less than the AC bonus of the armor in question. The armor skills by class are:

  • Cleric (heavy): +3
  • Fighter (heavy): +3
  • Magic-user (none): +0
  • Thief (light): +1

In other words, you get to double the AC bonus when using armor of a tier less than or equal to your (class-based) armor skill. None of the big four classes seem to have medium armor skill (though in terms of balance, the cleric probably should). However, there are a number of subclasses that seem like they would naturally have medium armor skill, such as the ranger.

Effective AC Bonus
Class Armor Skill Light (leather) Medium (chain) Heavy (plate)
+1 +1 = +2
+2 +2 = +4
+3 +3 = +6
+1 +1 = +2
+2 +2 = +4
+3 +3 = +6
+1 +0 = +1
+2 +0 = +2
+3 +0 = +3
+1 +1 = +2
+2 +0 = +2
+3 +0 = +3

In the table above, each armor column has three numbers: the inherent armor bonus, plus the class armor skill bonus, which together = the full AC bonus. The armor skill bonus only kicks in if it is not greater than the armor bonus. So, for example, a thief, who only has an armor skill of +1, gets no armor skill bonus when wearing chain, making chain equivalent in terms of protection to leather (though the thief can still wear chain if circumstances require it).Similarly, for example, magic-users benefit much less than fighters from plate, but a magic-user in plate is still better armored than a magic-user in leather. In effect, this system defines how much protection comes from just wearing the armor and how much protection comes from skill at fighting in armor. Some classes may get less benefit from wearing armor, but all penalties, whether they are encumbrance, speed reduction, thief skill impairment, spell failure chance, or anything else, apply in full. All else being equal, a thief will thus gain the same AC bonus from leather as they would from chain, but will take fewer penalties in the leather. The same thief will be slightly more protected in plate, though presumably at the cost of rather still penalties to sneaking and maybe fleeing (depending on the specific armor penalty rules that are active).

Potential AC bonus from a shield is equal to half the armor skill, rounded down, meaning that thieves (who have a +1 armor skill) and magic-users (who have a +0 armor skill) would gain no benefit from using a shield, and fighters (who have a +3 armor skill) would gain a +1 from using a shield (as would any class that was deemed to have a medium armor skill). This ends up outputting the original numbers, which is nice, but also means that it is impossible to gain any benefit from a shield without armor skill, and I’m not sure that is satisfactory. Provisionally, I think characters without enough armor skill to use a shield should be able to get the +1 AC if they spend their action focusing on using the shield to defend.

Incidentally, this same system could easily be used with Hexagram, substituting the path of battle “defense” trait (or something derived from it) for the armor skill bonus described above.