Monthly Archives: April 2013

Simple Corruption

All magic-user spells are considered black magic. A magic-user has corruption equal to the highest level of magic-user spell that has been cast. Cast a second level spell, congratulations: you are now corruption-2. Make up some interesting (non-mechanical) external manifestation to represent each point of corruption (solid black eyes, snake tongue, whatever). Bonus points if this has some relation to the magic-user’s modus operandi (such as signature spells).

Corruption is:

  • Subtracted from all magical healing
  • A bonus to saving throws against chaos effects
  • Chance in 6 that the magic-user registers as “chaotic” for magical effects or turning
  • A bonus to armor class
  • Chance in 6 that the magic-user ignores non-magical damage
  • HD of terror released into the world upon the magic-user’s death

A point of corruption may be removed using remove curse (the magic-user gets a saving throw if this is not consensual).

Magic-users are “turned” as undead of equivalent hit dice and are prevented from casting while turned. Turned magic-users are not forced to flee (but they probably will if they are smart). Turned magic-users get a saving throw each round to end the turn. Magic-users subject to the D (“destroyed”) effect are not destroyed, but get no saving throws.

touched on this idea previously, but I think this current approach is much better.

Some other variations, courtesy of fine folks on Google Plus:

  1. “D” results are as hold person
  2. “You could make corruption juice explode out of the magic user’s orifices for damage” (Justin W.)
    [Editor: perhaps 1d6 damage per point of extra success on the turn roll?]
  3. Successful turning drains prepared spells (Duncan Y., James S.)
    [Editor: perhaps one spell per point of extra success on the turn roll?]
  4. As above, magic-user loses 2d6 spell levels worth of prepared spells, lower level spells affected first (Brock C.)

You need to be in my RPG circle to access the above conversation.

Thief Roll

Jack from TOTGAD has an attractive house rule whereby he uses the “hear noise” d6 chance as the system for resolving all thief skills. This seems pretty reasonable to me, especially assuming that the alternative is the fixed percentile progression given in OD&D or B/X. All of the percentile skills start off rather low and slowly increase as levels are gained, with arbitrary differences between the various skills and no option to specialize in one skill over another (unlike the point buy systems of, for example, LotFP or Second Edition AD&D).

Looking at the OD&D thief (in Supplement I: Greyhawk), why does open locks start at 15% and move silently start at 20%? Do we really care about this distinction, given that all the skills start out at roughly the same level and increase at approximately the same rate? The one exception is climb walls, which starts out at 87%. But “always use hear noise” with perhaps one special case for climb walls is still far simpler than the official multiple stat percentile system, with functionally similar outcomes.

The schedule of thief hear noise improvement (from Greyhawk, page 11) is as follows. (Thanks to ODD74 for discussion about interpreting hear noise in the OD&D context.)

OD&D Thief Hear Noise
Level 1–2 3–6 7–10 11–12 13–14
Hear Noise 1-2 1-3 1-4 1-5 1-6
Effective d6 bonus +1 +2 +3 +4 +5

However, just when I was about to throw in my lot with this method, I realized that it does not allow for the variable degrees of success that I use with the old percentile system. That is, using d6, and without another roll, how do I distinguish between “no progress” and catastrophe? 16% (1 in 6) is too high of a chance for critical failure. In my current approach to thief skills, this is pretty important. Basically, if you fail your thief skill roll, but don’t roll 96 or higher, you don’t obtain your objective, but you can try again. The top 5% is the equivalent of rolling a natural 1 on an attack roll.

According to Greyhawk (page 11), pickpocket or move silently is the most favorable thief skill column, so one could just use that as a general thievery skill similarly to how Jack uses hear noise and preserve the 5% fumble chance.

Reactions

Recently, I wrote about an interception system which allows characters to defend allies by blocking incoming attacks. Interception belongs to a broader category of actions that can be taken out of turn. Each broad class group has it’s own type of reaction. Magic-users may try to disrupt enemy casters with counter-spells and thieves may take opportunistic actions.

Counter-spell. There are many different ways of resolving counter-spells, but the important point here for magic-users is that they don’t need to hold an action to be able to attempt a counter. They get one for free. Whether a counter-spell should require some sort of resource cost (maybe burning a spell?) depends primarily on the magic system. A simple “attack roll” system would work well for trad D&D if you want to decrease the opportunity cost of using a counter-spell (1d20 + half-level + int bonus >= 10 + enemy spell level, for example).

Opportunism. This kind of action may be used for something like an attempt to grab a pouch from the belt of a passing enemy. Perhaps a dexterity check is required for success depending on the action in question. Remember that this is a reaction, not a free action.

Characters may not take more than one reaction per turn, and only primary PCs (not retainers) may use reactions. This rule is to decrease potential complexity and to mitigate any game slow-down caused by extra actions. It is not expected that reactions will be relevant during every combat round.

Clerics, being a species of fighter/mage, could (at character creation time) choose either the intercept or counter-spell reaction type. Intercept would be more appropriate for crusader style clerics, whereas counter-spell might be useful to a witch hunter.

Monstrosities

Monstrosities

Monstrosities

As part of the recent Swords & Wizardry Complete reissue Kickstarter, the S&W Monster Book was also replaced by the new Monstrosities. The basic format is one page per monster, each with a picture, somewhat reminiscent of the second edition Monstrous Manual. It is a relatively large book (slightly over 550 pages), though not so large that it is unpleasant to use. The interior is all black and white.

First, the positives. The cover image is evocative and unique. The rich color is gorgeous, and it avoids the looking like a cliche fantasy picture. It actually looks like a painting. I could see how the cover might not be to all tastes, but I like it. The binding is sturdy (and signature sewn). Overall, the physical artifact feels like a well-made book, and is up to the (high) bookbinding standards of Frog God Games. Each monster also includes an encounter sketch, which is a great idea.

Monstrosities further shines as an OGL reference work for module writers that want to reference classic monsters. The entire text (not the images) is OGL, and each monster has stats in single line form (convenient for copying & pasting) in addition to the AD&D multi-line key/value standard. This is actually a useful form of redundancy. The Tome of Horrors Complete included a short tutorial about how to reuse OGL monsters legally too, which would have been a nice sort of thing to include in Monstrosities.

There are plenty of good monsters contained within. Malizsewski’s HP-draining “redcap” version of the goblin has creepy fairytale atmosphere and uncommon, interesting mechanics. Sean Wills contributed an adventurer-trapping worm that lures explorers into its stomach creatively. Or Random’s parasitic spectre (it does more or less what you would expect, but it’s still a good idea, and well implemented). Just for three examples.

Can you tell what this smear is supposed to be?

Can you tell what this smear is supposed to be?

That said, there are also quite a few negatives. First, the interior art is mostly uninspired. It ranges from okay to downright bad (with obvious computer shading). There are a few good pieces by Jason Sholtis, though even those are often reused from other products. In the age of plentiful, inspired talent on sites like DeviantArt, this seems to be a huge shortcoming, especially in a bestiary. More samples are provided at the bottom of this post.

Page space use

Page space use

Second, and most glaring, is that many of the pages are between 25 and 50 percent blank. Some are more than half blank. While the encounter sketches are welcome, the total absence any maps was also a lost opportunity. Consider how good a book like this could have been if filled with Dyson-style lair maps? That is an as yet unfilled market niche.

Third, many pages are spent on classic monsters such as goblins. Pretty much all trad rule sets (including all three versions of Swords & Wizardry) include a good portion of these monsters. To be fair, some of these retreads are somewhat redeemed by the included encounter sketches, but I still wonder about the intended audience. There already exist good, free references of classic monsters for the original game (see every retro-clone with a free version), and of course the original Monster Manual is not hard to find. This also means that the creative, community-created monsters mentioned above are mixed in with old standbys like rocs, sahuagin, and shadows. While this is not a huge problem, it does dilute what could otherwise have been a unique bestiary with a very strong personality, like the Fiend Folio (which is now back in print!). Basically, same-old creatures feel a bit like padding (and probably inflate the price).

Some pages are almost a total wash. For example, the entirety of the useful information content on the zombie raven page are the words “zombie” and “raven.” Now, I like zombie ravens just as much as the next necromancer, but I don’t need a page of text to tell me that they can fly, that they have 1 HD, that they have undead immunities, and that an encounter with them might entail a flock. Does anybody? I can’t imagine that being useful to even a total newcomer.

Overall, there are some good ideas in the text part of the book, but the illustrations are hugely disappointing and the layout is a bad use of space. I don’t want to sound too negative–as Wayne R. writes, the encounters in Monstrosities could, strung together, make an reasonable hex crawl, and it would be interesting to see such an implied setting come into focus.

Really?

This is a “pyre” zombie, so I think that is supposed to be flame

Hey, this one is good!

Hey, this one is good! …

... but it is also an example of terrible layout.

…but it also is an example of terrible layout.

Really?

Really?

Sholtis' shroom is good, but also in Demonspore

Sholtis’ shroom has a goofy majesty, but it’s also in Demonspore

Hello, smudge tool

Too much smudge tool

Interception

To throw yourself in the path of an attack directed toward another character, make an attack roll. If this intercept roll hits an armor class as good as the attack roll being intercepted, the interceptor becomes the new target of the attack and moves between the attacker and the original target. The decision to intercept must be made prior to the attack roll.

Fighters may perform one intercept reaction per combat turn. Characters of other classes may only perform an intercept if they hold their action. Retainers directed to intercept attacks may be required to pass a morale check.

I want to add a sentence about how intercepts can only be attempted if they make sense logically, or are supported by the fiction (or whatever), but don’t have quite the proper language down yet.

Coming Full Circle

My old AD&D PHB

My old AD&D PHB

When I left for university in 1999, I sold almost all of my RPG books. My memory of exactly why and to whom is hazy, but somehow and for some reason I did.

I had written my name on the interior of some books, though, and somehow my AD&D Player’s Handbook made it into the possession of Guy F. (of Unvisible Citadel and Chaotic Henchmen Productions). He sent it back my way.

The world is small.

.

.

.

Welcome home, book.

The arcane sigil that brought the book back

Inscribed, an arcane sigil of return

 

Sui Generia

In myth, monsters and treasures are often unique. For example, not a medusa, but the medusa. Not a sword +1, but Excalibur. The advice to give items or creatures a backstory to increase interest is sort of obvious, but what if this principle is taken further so that most things are not only named and distinct, but also unique? Taking this approach also serves as a self-discipline mechanism for controlling the supply of power within the game, by making magic items essentially take the place of artifacts.

I had originally wanted to sketch out an entire setting using this method, but that proved too ambitious, so instead I am presenting a suggestive miscellany. The basic model was to take each example element from the rule book (Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox), interpret it through the lens of the setting (often as a unique element), and then place it on the hex map. This also serves, procedurally, as a checklist for campaign creation. Since you are placing game elements on the map, it guarantees that you are focusing your preparation on things that will show up directly in play.

Based on this principle, there were two other seeds from which the setting grew: each magical staff became the symbol of office for one arch-mage (leading to 10 arch-mages) and the most powerful monsters became the gods of the setting. This was also partially inspired by the original Deities & Demigods (which is in essence a high-level bestiary) and the way Carcosa presented the great old ones.

The divinities, thus, are immanent. For example, Xelior is the efreeti. Hegombol is the dragon. Though they may be challenged and slain, if killed within their domain they will not be truly destroyed and will rise, full of vengeance, on the next day. The gods are not divine aspects of mundane monsters; there are no dragons other than Hegombol.

  • Arudin, genie of the air, ruler of the open skies and patron of all who would remain unchained. Stats as djinni.
  • Baalroch, ruler of HELL. Stats as baalroch demon.
  • Garviagad, ruler of VALHALLA, the land in the sky above the southern seas. Honorable warriors are reborn in VALHALLA. Stats as storm giant.
  • Gezarvalu Catastrophon, the many-headed, incarnation of chaos and destruction, worshipped only by the insane. Rises from the sea without warning and lays waste to all nearby. Stats as hydra.
  • Hegombol the Volcano, terror of the northeast, the dragon. Demands, and is paid, monthly tribute from the town at the base of his mountain. Stats as red dragon.
  • Xelior, genie of fire, slave to the arch-mage Azafont of the Brass Tower. Stats as efreeti.
  • Yex the Colossus. Said to once have been the mightiest of the gods, until tricked by the arch-mage Luder Dreamwalker. It is said that Yex first taught humans the mastery of stone-craft and building. Luder destroyed part of the fabulous temple of Zumen, and while Yex was distracted stole his capstone, which was also his soul. Now Yex stands frozen, supporting the remains of the temple. Stats as stone golem if the capstone is returned. The realm of Yex is all lands above the sea.

There are 10 arch-mages, each of which possess one of the 10 staves of legend. The staff is not only a source of power, but also a symbol of office. Anyone who can claim one of the staves becomes a new arch-mage. The staves no longer have charges, but instead may be used any number of times. After each use, 1d6 is rolled and on a 1 the staff will not work again until the next moonset.

  • Dedardima the Collector. She possesses the Staff of Absorption, and has peppered the known lands with bunkers and underground compounds, many of which she has forgotten about, in preparation for the final battle which she perpetually fears is about to occur. She is also known as the Doomsayer.
  • Azafont of the Brass Tower. He possesses the Staff of Beguiling, and also ring of Xelior, the Efreet. The pleasure gardens of his estate are infamous.
  • Gorbex. She possesses the Staff of Command. She dreams of killing all the gods and being queen of the world. She has a huge army.
  • Sambasmyr the wanderer. She possesses the Staff of Healing. She was driven out of her tower by the betrayal of an apprentice, Cassadior, who also tried, and failed, to steal her staff.
  • Aznix. He possesses the Staff of Power and delights in the struggles of kings and warlords. He will sell his loyalty to the highest bidder.
  • Kokal the Undying. She possesses the Staff of Lordly Might and is ageless. She allows few mortals into her presence.
  • Sathifor the Corruptor. She possesses the Staff of the Snake and is worshipped by the lizard-men of Neshistathelex.
  • Luder Dreamwalker. Possesses the Staff of Striking. It is said that he lost his first body long ago, and survives by claiming new hosts through their dreams.
  • Magaitand, the Liche. He possesses the Staff of Withering and rules from the drowned palace of DAI-PALAN in the Swamp of Beltikur.
  • Chalasu. He possesses the Staff of Wizardry. Nominally the highest ranking of all wizards, but nobody pays attention to him. He is said to have forgotten more spells than most magic-users have ever cast. His eye was taken by Baalroch, and he would like to get it back. His tower in the hills is where the council of arch-mages meets, once per year.

Though this setting is directly compatible with the unmodified Swords & Wizardry rules, several house rules developed naturally during the process of creation. First, clerics do not in general exist. Any clerics played will be of the singular, prophet variety. The cleric spells that do show up in the setting can be prepared by magic-users.

Further, I see magic working slightly differently. Spells are prepared as normal by magic-users, but require components to cast. This came from the idea of distributing components around the hex map explicitly. Rather than fire and forget, each time a spell is cast, a component is consumed. A spell cannot be cast without components, even if it has been prepared. Magic-users begin with 1d6 components for each spell known. Components beyond this beginning allotment must be acquired during play.

Components are specific things, not abstract GP values; a list of components by spell can be found below, along with hexes where the components can be found. Occasionally, components may be available for sale, but this is neither consistent nor reliable (especially considering that the sale of many spell components would be considered morally reprehensible by most upstanding persons). If you are playing with my strength-based encumbrance system, each type of component consumes one encumbrance slot.

For an example of another sui generis magical item, consider Mendo’s Magnificent Flying Machine, last of its kind, as a stand-in for the flying carpet. 1 in 6 chance to learn how to operate, but then it also need fuel. The flying machine can transport up to 10 persons. This item also shows how this procedure is not just re-skinning. No existing mechanics are necessarily privileged, but instead are used suggestively. For example, this version has an added benefit (can carry more people) but also some downsides (you can’t roll it up, and you need to secure fuel). So it’s not exactly the same. I like doing this much more than just giving existing stats a new face.

The images below were done by Gus L. from Dungeon of Signs. Thanks Gus!

Azafont of the Brass Tower (Staff of Beguiling)

Azafont of the Brass Tower (Staff of Beguiling)

Queen Gorbex (Staff of Command)

Queen Gorbex (Staff of Command)

Sathifor the Corruptor (Staff of the Snake)

Sathifor the Corruptor (Staff of the Snake)

Magaitand, the Liche (Staff of Withering)

Magaitand, the Liche (Staff of Withering)

Sambasmyr the Wanderer (Staff of Healing)

Sambasmyr the Wanderer (Staff of Healing)

Mendo, master of the ancient flying machine

Mendo, master of the ancient flying machine


Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day

Last Gasp

Rumbling Roar of the Chaimera

Rumbling Roar of the Chaimera

Logan K., who you may know as the artist of the winning map in Gus L.’s recent Tomb of the Rocket Men contest, has just launched a new gaming and art blog along with another contributor, Rose. Their work is fantastic, so I highly recommend that you check it out.

Already there are some wonderfully NSFW illustrations of petty gods and several posts about magic rules, including a chaos magic maleficar class. This post is alone better than most of the supplements on my shelf. Some samples…

…from the That Which Should Not Be table:

The next time the party wakes they will find the caster crusted to their bedding like a chrysalis, their hand sticking out the side like it is expecting to be held. If anyone touches the hand they feel a sting before it shrivels back inside the crusted shell. Save vs. Poison or the same happens to you the next time you sleep. You may not want to wait to find out what will eventually hatch from the cocoon.

The Ocean. When you are wounded your body gushes saltwater instead of blood, tiny translucent organisms and vibrant crustaceans you never imagined writhe about on the floor. If you are killed your body will burst and release the ocean.

…from the Abyssal Side-Effects table:

Fat, silvery tadpoles that look more like sperm squeeze out of your tear ducts, if kept in water for 3 weeks they will mature into long-limbed vaguely translucent milky frogs without eyes. The frog’s tongue oozes lazily from its mouth before being drawn back in, its croak is a gurgle, you never see it feed. Licking the frog is a powerful aphrodisiac. 10% chance the effects are permanent.

Be sure to check out the PDFs available for download (among which are the maleficar tables).

Feat Creep

In the recent Legends & Lore article, Mike suggests that ability score improvements could be a simple alternative for feats. This is not something I would use, because I don’t think it’s a well-crafted trade-off: a bland bonus that is likely to affect the thing you do most often versus something specific that might add some texture. It also encourages numerical inflation.

The suggestion that it will be common for characters to “raise their key ability to 20” seems particularly unfortunate. Players often use ability scores as a form of personality profile. How boring is it that all melee fighters will ultimately have 20 strength? Isn’t class level (with attack bonus and so forth) supposed to capture the idea of progression in class competency?

Having a prestige class be essentially a preselected feat chain is not a bad idea though (sort of the high level equivalent of the lower level “specialties”) and is easy to tie into the setting diegetically, which I like. It also allows people who enjoy complex character builds the opportunity to mix and match feats but means that players who are not interested in that minutiae can just go by high level flavor, like Warhammer careers.

I don’t think there should be any mechanical prerequisites for feats though, except maybe level. Needing to consider the dependency graph for feats in earlier editions is a big contributor to the overwhelming complexity of the feat system. The model for magic-user spells is a good one, from a game design perspective. Distributing the spells over multiple levels keeps the initial complexity down, but allows for significant individualization of characters over the course of play.

Hit Dice as Attack Bonus

Costume design for the Opera "Prince Igor" by Alexander Borodin

Ivan Bilibin, costume design (source)

When I recently played in Evan’s Uz campaign, he had hit dice do double duty as attack bonus. Uz is based on Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, which, like OD&D, only uses the d6 for hit dice (modulating the difference between classes using bonuses as described here). The elegance of this approach impressed me. Only one number is required for both hit points and offensive ability. And it generalizes to monsters, though you might want to cap the bonus depending on the campaign power curve (max +10 seems pretty reasonable to me).

I don’t remember exactly how he did it, but this is how I might do something similar. Fighters find their attack bonus by adding their hit dice expression together. For example, a fighter with HD 5+1 has a +6 attack bonus. All other classes ignore the bonus part of the hit dice expression and just use the base HD. So, a cleric with 4+1 hit dice attacks with +4. Tougher classes always have more hit dice than weaker classes, which is also how attack bonuses should work.

This is what the attack bonuses would look like given the recently posted rationalized hit dice progression (hit dice are in parentheses):

LEVEL HIGH MEDIUM LOW
1 +2 (1d6+1) +1 (1d6) +1 (1d6)
2 +3 (2d6+1) +2 (2d6) +1 (1d6+1)
3 +4 (3d6+1) +2 (2d6+1) +2 (2d6)
4 +5 (4d6+1) +3 (3d6) +2 (2d6+1)
5 +6 (5d6+1) +4 (4d6) +3 (3d6)
6 +7 (6d6+1) +4 (4d6+1) +3 (3d6+1)
7 +8 (7d6+1) +5 (5d6) +4 (4d6)
8 +9 (8d6+1) +6 (6d6) +4 (4d6+1)
9 +10 (9d6+1) +6 (6d6+1) +5 (5d6)
10 +11 (10d6+1) +7 (7d6) +5 (5d6+1)

Another way to look at this rule would be that all classes use base hit dice as attack bonus, but fighters get an additional +1. Or, one could just use the additive hit dice for all classes, which makes things simpler (no special case for the fighter) at the cost of decreasing the relative power of the fighter slightly.

Using this system necessitates running with ascending AC. I have actually been considering switching to ascending AC off and on for a while now anyways. This attack bonus system is probably simpler and easier to understand than my attack ranks system, and it does away with another table (usually a good thing).