Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dwarves on Stilts

I recently noticed that Mirror, Mirror was available for free on demand as part of my cable service. I’m not going to say much about the writing, acting, and plot because, well, they weren’t very good (though I admit that the actress for Snow and a few of the dwarves did grow on me by the end).

However, there were a few worthwhile visuals, including bandit dwarves who use stilts to appear as giants, and a scene involving puppet golems controlled from afar by the sorcerous queen. Also, the costumes were pretty good in a totally over the top Lady Gaga sort of way (I could totally see this palate used in the Dying Earth). I also quite liked the depiction of the pocket dimension and the mirror as portal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any video clips of the good bits, but here are some images from around the web which might get across the general ideas.

Dwarves on stilts

Dwarves on stilts (source)

Puppet golems

Puppet golem creepily walking backwards Voldo-style (source)

Vancian wedding costumes

Vancian wedding costumes (source)

Hexenbracken

Hexenbracken Original

Hexenbracken Original

Not that I’m under the delusion that anyone that reads my blog doesn’t also read Zak’s, but I still feel compelled to post about this. Zak found this old hex map I put up but never used. I created it using the procedures from Victor Raymond‘s Wilderness Architect (which can also be found as a pair of articles in Fight On!, issues two and three).

He then prompted arbitrary people on Google Plus to stock it, democratic-like. The result can be found here (Google Docs spreadsheet) thanks, I gather, to Random Wizard. That’s right, almost every single hex has something interesting (that’s more than 600 keyed hexes).

From Zak’s summary post:

The Hexenbracken was created hex-by-hex over the last few days by a ton of people on Google + and Despite a certain amount of democratic noise that you’d expect from anything like this, I can say with my hand on my heart that it has a smaller percentage of stupid things in it than any other hexcrawl product I can think of.

The map, by the way, is in the public domain.

Hexenbracken with Gygaxian Democracy

Hexenbracken with Gygaxian Democracy — key

Doors of Edinburgh

James Maliszewski has mentioned before that staircases are evocative for him of adventure. For me, it’s doors. So, during my recent trip to the UK, I made a point of taking pictures of interesting doors. Here are some from Edinburgh.

IMG_3731 door

IMG_3591 door

IMG_3917 1 door

IMG_3761 door

IMG_3733 door

IMG_3685-1 rotated door

IMG_3667 door

IMG_3659 door

IMG_3641 door

IMG_3633 door

IMG_3616 edinburgh castle door

IMG_3568 door

IMG_3545 door

IMG_3541 door

1d12

1d12LS has a post up about using 1d12 to determine weather randomly. That’s a cool idea (I do something similar by making weather a sort of reaction roll with the cosmos, which I may have gotten originally from Talysman).

But I don’t want to talk about weather here, I want to talk about using 1d12 as a general resolution system. It has a reasonably large set of possibilities, and is also quite pleasant to roll. As LS points out, though 1d12 is not as common in the real world as 2d6, it does have the advantage of not requiring any addition. So how does it stack up for a five-fold result space? (All percentile probabilities are rounded, and so may not sum to 100%.)

1d12 Fivefold Probabilities (LS version)
Result 1 2–3 4–9 10–11 12
Chance (%) 8 17 50 17 8
1d12 Fivefold Probabilities (alternate)
Result 1 2–4 5–8 9–11 12
Chance (%) 8 25 33 25 8
2d6 Summed Probabilities
Result 2 3–5 6–8 9–11 12
Chance (%) 3 25 44 25 3

Neither of the 1d12 possibilities matches up exactly, and bonuses affect the result slightly differently than with 2d6, but it’s probably “good enough” to use with the same kind of probability curve (not quite a bell curve, but a big middle with small tails). I prefer the LS distribution; the alternate is just presented for comparison.

For a “1d12 only” game, you could use ability modifiers rather than full stats, and all action resolution could be done using the 1d12 simulation of 2d6 fivefold results. Rather than 3d6 in order, there would be 1d12 in order…

Rolling For Ability Scores (1d12)
Result 1 2–3 4–9 10–11 12
Modifier -2 -1 0 +1 +2
Chance (%) 8 17 50 17 8

Ragemoor

From the blurb:

Born of the stars, nurtured on pagan blood, Castle Ragemoor exerts its will over any hapless mortal who dares set foot within its living walls! Fortress … sentinel … guardian … prison! Those who oppose it, it kills! Those it would enslave, it drives insane!

Seriously, a comic about a living castle drawn by the great Richard Corben that is equal parts Gormenghast and Lovecraft? Get out of my head! Do I really need to write anything further? I want to write up a mega-dungeon inspired by this and run it right now.

Note that Corben’s art is wonderfully adult-oriented (that is, potentially NSFW).

I read the hardcover compilation of the first four issues, which I believe encompasses the entire story (I don’t think more issues are coming). It is a quick read, and I’m sure I will return to it many times.

Ragemoor

Ragemoor — preview image from darkhorse.com

Petitions

James Tissot - Noah's Sacrifice

James Tissot – Noah’s Sacrifice (source)

This is an extension and refinement (I hope) of some recent ideas regarding cleric magic. It has some atmosphere that I like, but I worry that it is A) too complicated and B) overpowered. Opinions on both of those aspects would be appreciated.

There are four categories of cleric magic, called petitions. All require calling upon holy power, and thus are subject to mysterious divine whims. The four categories are commands, prayers, rituals, and abjurations. The first three types of cleric powers map to the three game timescales: combat rounds, dungeon exploration turns, and days (the turn unit for wilderness exploration). A petition requires the given amount of time to attempt, at the end of which a petition check is made (see below). Thus, commands are the only petitions that can be used during combat since they only require a round. No petitions need to be prepared beforehand, with the exception of abjurations.

The petition check uses 2d6 and works much like a reaction roll. Half level (round up) is added as a bonus. An unmodified 2 is always a failure and an unmodified 12 is always a success. An abjuration petition check of 2 ends the abjuration. Thus, if you roll a 2 for turn undead, your deity has deserted you. A vial of holy water may be used for a +1 bonus to the petition check (holy water is encumbering, may be used no more than once per check, and is consumed when used in this way). Petition checks for commands and abjurations are opposed (penalized) by enemy hit dice. Other petition checks have a difficulty numer (equivalent to the old spell level ranking) which is listed in the table of petitions below (in parentheses).

Petition Roll
2d6 Result
2 or less Abandoned (given petition no longer available this session, abjuration ends)
3, 4, 5 Spurned (further attempting this petition is at -1)
6, 7, 8 Ignored (failure, may try again with no penalties)
9, 10, 11 Answered (standard success)
12 or more Rewarded (double effect, demons or undead destroyed, etc)

Abjurations are defensive magics, and only one can be active at any given time. The player must decide which before the session starts. They function like rituals in that they require a day of preparation, but they then remain active during the entire following day. Petition checks are used when the abjuration is challenged rather than when the ritual is performed. So, for example, if a demon attempts to touch a cleric that has protection from evil active, then the player rolls a petition check (penalized by the demon’s HD) to see if the demon is able to overcome the holy protection. Abjurations also have their dangers: in some situations, they may function as beacons.

Cleric Petitions
Level Command Prayer Ritual Abjuration
1 turn undead
2 cure light wounds (1)
detect evil (1)
detect magic (1)
light (1)
purify food & water (1) protection from evil
3
4 hold person speak with animals (2)
find traps (2)
bless
5
6 sticks to snakes neutralize poison (4)
cure serious wounds (4)
speak with plants (4)
remove curse (3)
cure disease (3)
locate object (3)
protection from evil, 10’r (4)
create water (4)
continual light
7 dispel evil
quest
raise dead (5)
commune (5)
insect plague (5)
create food (5)

The metaconcept of spell level has been discarded (though you can still see some of the spell levels show up as difficulty numbers), and the various petitions have been bound to character level directly. The levels that various powers are gained at is the same as in the 3 LBBs. I’m pretty sure this is not the best arrangement; the various powers should probably be more evenly distributed around the levels (that’s probably a task for a future post). It is particularly odd that the level 3 and 4 spells both become available at cleric level 6 in the original rules. It may seem like cleric levels 3 and 5 are “dead,” but this is actually not the case as the “half level” (competency) bonus is incremented at both of those levels.

Some specific spell interpretations using this system. Cure spells may not be used more than once per character per encounter (and may cause aging). Continual light is a ward against shadows, functions as sunlight, penalizes or prevents hide in shadows (depending on situation) and moves with the person of the cleric. Purify food & water is not usable offensively against water weirds unless you can force them to sit still for a long time.

These changes may grant the cleric more power. The petition check system introduces the chance of failure in any given situation and also consumes diegetic time (potentially exposing the PCs to random encounters). Despite those balancing factors, it seems like the cleric should formally become the “medium armor” adventurer (as she probably always should have been) so that heavy armor can become the purview of the fighter.

Some petition check examples:

  1. A level 6 cleric prays for speak with plants. Spend 1 dungeon exploration turn in prayer, then roll 2d6 +3 -4, which simplifies to 2d6 -1, and consult the petition roll table. If the result is a failure (but not a 2 or less), the cleric can try again if another turn is spent.
  2. A 2 HD demon attempts to challenge the protection from evil abjuration of a fifth level cleric. Player rolls 2d6 +3 -2, which simplifies to 2d6 +1, and consults the petition roll table to see if the abjuration holds the demon at bay. Even if the demon overcomes the abjuration, as long as a 2 or less is not rolled, the abjuration endures and the demon will need to overcome it again for further attacks.

The system is designed to almost guarantee success (just like how I handle thief skills) as long as enough time is spent, assuming 2 or less is not rolled.

A Tale of Two Books

Swords & Wizardry Complete

Swords & Wizardry Complete — gorgeous Erol Otus cover

ACKS core book

ACKS core book

That is, the ACKS core book and the recently reissued Swords & Wizardry Complete. For those that are not familiar with these systems, ACKS is a second generation clone that adds proficiencies and detailed economic domain rules to a base inspired by B/X D&D. Swords & Wizardry Complete is a first generation clone of OD&D and all the supplements with a few new ideas (like a single saving throw, support for ascending AC, and a challenge rating system). But I’m not going to talk about either of the game systems here. Instead, I’m going to consider at the physical books, both of which have notable strengths and weaknesses. I find the content in these books valuable, and would recommend both texts to anyone interested in old school D&D or its simulacra.

ACKS binding flaw -- click to enlarge

ACKS binding flaw — click to enlarge

The ACKS books is nicely laid out. However, the binding is terrible. It is glued (like a perfect binding), not sewn, despite having a hard cover. My copy has never seen play or a game table, and I have only occasionally leafed through it physically (I had access to the PDF well before the hardcopy arrived, and did most of my ACKS reading digitally). Despite this very light use, the back endpapers have somehow separated along the line of the spine, and the pages have begun to pull away from the spine.

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

The binding on the Sword & Wizardry Complete book (done by Frog God Games) is excellent. It is signature sewn and feels durable. All the Frog God books I have are similarly high quality (the recently kickstarted Rappan Athuk and the Tome of Adventure Design, for example). However, some of the internal images are horribly pixelated. I’m not sure what process was used for image transfer, but I can get better results with my iphone camera and home laser printer.

These criticisms are made in a spirit of love, not malice. I like both of these systems, wish them success, and may even play them directly some time. Even in the age of deluxe original reprints, and cheap PDFs of the Basic and Expert rules, there is still a place for the simulacra, especially when they introduce innovations (such as ACKS lairs and the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw), maintain communities dedicated to older styles of play, and offer free downloads (such as the “3 LBB” version Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox). However, some of the pleasures of this hobby are the physical artifacts, both in terms of art and book quality. Especially for their price, both of these books deserve better construction. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, in comparison, with a similar customer base, has managed to put out virtually flawless books (in terms of their physical qualities, at least).

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry Complete -- excellent stitched binding

Swords & Wizardry Complete — excellent stitched binding

ACKS -- perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

ACKS — perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

Inherent and Learned

I have been dipping into some Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer FRP texts recently, and this has gotten me thinking about skill-based (as opposed to class-based) systems. Back forever ago, I participated in a game called Blackwater Falls that started as D&D but was converted partway through to a fantasy White Wolf hack (which, at the time, seemed like the cutting edge of RPG design).

The basic idea of the old White Wolf system was that the chance of succeeding at a given action was derived from the combination of an inherent quality (an attribute, such as dexterity or appearance) and a learned quality (an ability, such as archery or medicine). Each of those stats were rated from 1 to 5, and contributed to a dice pool. So, shooting an arrow would be a dexterity + archery action. Assume a character had a dexterity of 2 and an archery of 3. In this case, 5d10 would be rolled, and the number of successes (dice results above some value, based on the situation) would determine the outcome. Too many dice and too much counting, but I still think the direct combination of inherent and learned qualities is an interesting and intuitively appealing approach. Some versions of D&D have something similar in the division between ability score modifiers and THAC0 or attack bonus increases, but the system is not generalized or particularly elegant.

The Blackwater Falls system used that basic paradigm, but combined it with the simplicity of roll-under ability checks. Inherent + learned was a number from 1 to 10, and then the roll-under check was done with a single d10. Quick and elegant; I still like it. I don’t remember exactly how we did advancement anymore, but I think it was close to unmodified White Wolf. Each kind of stat had an advancement cost (inherent stats cost more to advance than learned stats) and XP was spent directly on improvement. This is okay, but seems less impressive in retrospect.

To refine this system, consider combining the core of the above paradigm with a roll to advance system (this is inspired by BRP or Call of Cthulhu). Inherent and learned stats would each be rated from 0 to 50, thus resulting in a combined range of 0 to 100. Don’t worry about how starting inherent stats are determined for now; it could be by rolling, arrangement of an array, or something else. Also don’t worry about how skills are selected. Just assume that starting characters have their collection of inherent stats like strength and a small number of skills. The exact list of stats is also not important right now.

Here is how action resolution works. Let’s look at dexterity and archery again. Say our character has a 25 dexterity and a 21 archery. The archery check number is 46. You could use percentile roll under for this, but simplifying by rounding down and using a single d10 decreases the number of required operations during play. So the target number becomes 4. Roll 1d10, 4 or less is a success.

Now for advancement. At the end of any session, each player picks one inherent stat (such as dexterity) and one learned stat (such as archery) that they used during the session, and rolls for advancement. However, the roll in this case is above instead of below (so that it becomes progressively harder to improve stats as expertise is gained). Following the example, the target number is 47 or higher. Percentile dice are rolled twice, once for the inherent stat involved and once for the learned stat. Any success increments the stat by 1. Pre-calculating the threshold number (inherent + learned) for each learned stat would make the action resolution process extra streamlined, and would be low cost since the numbers change infrequently.

Increases to inherent stats are limited by starting point. Not everyone can be Einstein or Arnold just by experience or trying really hard (though everyone can improve and it is the rare person that gets within spitting distance of their true potential). To reflect this, I would say that inherent abilities can be increased up to 10 points beyond the starting score. Thus, a character that begins with 21 strength can increase it to 31 through play. This is also important to prevent acquired blandness, as all PCs converge towards being good at everything (a common downside of overly general systems). Learned stats are also limited by their associated inherent stat. So archery can never be higher than dexterity (or whatever). Since all action checks are a combination of inherent and learned, going from 36 all the way to 46 through advancement is still useful, despite the rounding down for the 1d10 check, because when combined with different learned stats the percentile part might still make a difference.

Since the action check is done with 1d10 and the advancement check is done with percentile dice, not all advances will lead to a direct effect on play. That’s okay; they still bring you closer to a real improvement, and since the advancement checks happen every session, I think that is okay. The percentile number ends up being somewhat like the Hackmaster idea of fractional ability scores, but much more elegant. I’m not sure how long it would take characters to top out using this system. Given a large set of skills (and the increasingly slow chance of advancement), I could see this being functionally unbounded. If not, some more thought would need to be given to other forms of advancement.

I see learned stats for this system being significantly different than most of the skill-based systems I have encountered, which tend to be concerned primarily with modelling all of the things that define a complete individual. 4 points in drive, 3 points in literary analysis, 3 points in dancing, etc. That’s not the model for learned stats here. Instead, they would represent only adventuring skills (as appropriate to the genre in question). So a fighter-type might have pole-arms 20 and crossbows 17. The level of specificity is still somewhat up in the air. A specific stat for derringers is probably overkill, but an all in one melee weapon skill is probably too general. The traditional thief abilities are at about the right level of granularity (pick locks, hide in shadows, etc). For magic-user types, an individual spell or ritual is a separate stat, and could be used at will assuming all the requirements are met (along with some danger of mishap or chance of corruption). Learned stats will require some more explicit guidelines and examples, but I think the basic intent is clear.

Since all actions are based on inherent + learned, there would no suggestion that, for example, only thieves could sneak. Everyone could roll dexterity (or whatever) +0, even if they don’t have any appropriate learned stats, such as hide in shadows or stealth. The same is true for any relatively mundane action, like climbing.

Rather than an make an advancement roll, a player may choose to acquire a new learned stat, assuming that they have performed some action that allows getting a new skill to make sense in the fiction. For example, rescuing a martial arts master might allow a character to learn some kind of combat skill. Finding a tome of forbidden lore might allow the learning of a spell. The way I am thinking about this now, getting a new learned stat should not require a roll; it happens with no chance of failure. A newly acquired learned stat would begin with 1d10 points. Another option would be to require the player to roll under twice the associated inherent stat to start off the learned stat, but I think that might needlessly slow down advancement (the fictional justification, along with giving up an advancement roll, seems like it would be cost enough).

Rationalized Hit Dice

Hit dice in the original little brown books only used six sided dice. Plusses were applied to modulate the values by class. So (ignoring constitution for simplicity), a fourth level fighter would have 4d6 HP, whereas a fourth level magic-user would have 2d6+1 HP. Coming to OD&D from one of the later editions, the absence of different hit dice is one of the most striking differences (along with flat d6 weapon damage, to which the size of hit dice is related). This approach was dropped almost immediately, in Supplement I: Greyhawk, and forever after different classes have used different sized dice for their hit points.

I have come to appreciate the hit dice being only from six siders. It keeps the totals grounded. It works particularly well with rerolling per session (the scalar bonuses feel less strange, as they just modify the per-session expected value slightly). However, the actual progression seems somewhat arbitrary and unmotivated. For example, the original fighter “dice for accumulative hits” progression was, by level:

Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
HD 1+1 2 3 4 5+1 6 7+1 8+2 9+3 10+1

What’s up with that?

It’s relatively easy to fix, though. Here is my proposal, broken down into progressions for high (fighter), medium (cleric), and low (magic-user) hit dice.

Level High Medium Low
1 1d6+1 1d6 1d6
2 2d6+1 2d6 1d6+1
3 3d6+1 2d6+1 2d6
4 4d6+1 3d6 2d6+1
5 5d6+1 4d6 3d6
6 6d6+1 4d6+1 3d6+1
7 7d6+1 5d6 4d6
8 8d6+1 6d6 4d6+1
9 9d6+1 6d6+1 5d6
10 10d6+1 7d6 5d6+1

The patterns should be easily intelligible. The expected values are relatively close to the originals, though in Men & Magic the magic-user gets all the way up to 9+2 (by 16th level). Gary sure did love the wizards.

What about after tenth level? My inclination would be to halt HD growth entirely past tenth level. A sort of soft E10. It would also be reasonable to keep adding some bonus HP though, in the manner of AD&D. I would probably just make it a flat +1 per level for every level above ten, irrespective of class. Going much above +1 would start to overwhelm the d6 values, unlike the larger hit dice sized used by AD&D, so probably best not to adopt the AD&D numbers (given characters of equal level, the relationship of fighter > cleric > magic-user will still obtain, which I think is the most important thing).

Necropraxis

Welcome to my new domain!

For a while now, I have been less than enamored of Blogger, for a number of reasons. The most continuously irritating aspect has actually been the URL rewriting by visitor location. But there are other more substantive issues as well, such as Google’s project of unifying their products (which I understand but do not like) and the poor Blogger backup functionality (it does not export images, for example).

Further, I have never really liked the name of my old blog. The meaning of “untimately” is only that it is one of the ways that I most commonly misspell a word (don’t ask me why I thought that was a good idea for a name). Really, at the time when I started my old blog, I knew that if I waited for a name that I was really satisfied with I would never actually begin. So I just picked something that was somewhat arbitrary and got on with it.

But now I think I have a name that I like, that makes sense, that is easy to remember, and that is rather unique. The meaning of the name Necropraxis is twofold. Necro and praxis, of course, refer to death and practice (as in contrast to theory). Necromancy, despite recent linguistic corruption, is more properly predicting the future by communication with the dead. So necropraxis, being the practice of manipulating death and unlife, more closely captures the idea of undead than necromancy.

Necropraxis, in addition to gesturing toward my fascination with legends of the undead, also makes sense when considering OSR gaming. By playing (or learning from) the older editions of games, we are reviving them. Animating them to serve our current needs. Not allowing them to rest or vanish into the past as nothing but curiosities.

I’m still learning how to use WordPress, so the visual style and layout will likely change, but I wanted to go ahead and make the move, because once I made the decision to change and registered the domain, I found myself reluctant to publish new content to Untimately. Like my original blog launch using Blogger, I figured that it would be better to just get this off the ground even if the presentation was not perfect. I have learned enough about WordPress that I don’t think anything like static URLs should change going forward. However, I still need to find a good blogroll plugin and play around with how comments are handled. So, if anyone can recommend a good blogroll plugin (something that sorts by recent post and shows image previews would be best), I would be appreciative.