Monthly Archives: September 2013

Spells Without Levels: Psychomancy

These spells are inspired by charm person, read languages, sleep, and feeblemind. See spells without levels for more information about this project.

Bewitch

Hostile creatures become neutral, neutral creatures become friendly, and friendly creatures become infatuated. Friendly creatures will be open to serving the sorcerer, given some basic incentive, and infatuated creatures require no incentive. Affects a number of HD worth of creatures equal to sorcerer level.

Comprehension

The meaning of obscured or indecipherable communications is laid bare. This spell may be used to understand the words of any language or read the true intent of a cyphered missive. Even spirit or animal speech, such as the groaning of clouds or the howling of wolves, may sometimes disclose their secrets.

Dominate

By standing completely still with eyes closed in concentration, the sorcerer may enter the body of another within sight, gaining access to any of their senses, and dictate the subject’s physical actions (a saving throw applies, but does not end the spell, and the sorcerer may attempt command again in following rounds, against the same subject or another). Subjects of this spell may resist any given dictated action by taking a die of damage. Such manipulation is awkward (a minor penalty applies), and lends a marionette-like quality to the movements and demeanor of the subject so controlled.

Dust of the Sandman

Sparkling dust conjured from the land of dreams blankets a small melee, and all within must save versus magic or fall asleep.

Plasmic Manipulation

The sorcerer examines the mind of another for spells or other plasmic entities and may choose one of the following options: 1) steal one spell for later casting 2) implant (and thus lose) a spell into the target’s consciousness 3) free any number of plasmic entities from the target’s mind (in effect voiding prepared spells). The target of this spell is permitted a saving throw (use of a spell shield provides a +2 saving throw bonus rather than entirely preventing the effect), and if that saving throw is a natural 20 the target may instead raid the mind of the spell’s originator, with recourse to the same three options.

Redon - Closed Eyes (source)

Redon – Closed Eyes (source)

 

Spells Without Levels: Translocation

These spells are inspired by water breathing, teleport, locate object, and dimension door. See spells without levels for more information about this project. The last sentence of portal needs more work, but I think the idea should be clear.

Breath Transmittal

A number of creatures equal to the sorcerer’s level need not draw breath to sustain life for the duration of this spell. Instead, the sorcerer inscribes a breath sigil, and the atmosphere around the sigil is magically transferred to the lungs of the creatures selected during the casting of the spell.

Revisitation

A number of persons up to the sorcerer’s level are transported to the location of the sorcerer’s sigil of return. Carried and worn possessions are conveyed as well, though there is a 50% that any awkward or cumbersome object is left behind. The sigil of return must be scribed under the gaze of the sun and is destroyed if moved from its place of inscription.

Recall

Nonliving items marked with the sorcerer’s recall sigil are transported to the sorcerers current location. A number of significant items per level (following encumbrance guidelines) may be recalled.

Portal

The sorcerer places a portal sigil on two doors and by the casting of this spell connects them so that they become the same door as long as the sigils endure. A traveller stepping into one steps out of the other, with directionality of travel governed by the facing of the sigil (travellers enter toward the sigil and exit from it). This spell only works on doors of established essence, and is permanent, but closing the door after it has been opened from the sigil side destroys the enchantment and the sigils.

Altdorfer - Design of a portal (source)

Altdorfer – Design of a portal technology (source)

 

Spells Without Levels: Spiritualism

These spells were inspired by ESP, clairaudience, clairvoyance, mirror image, anti-magic shell, dispel magic, knock, detect magic, invisibility, and massmorph. Second sight has been presented before, but the version here is simpler. See spells without levels for more information about this project.

Astral Projection

The sorcerer’s spirit is liberated and may venture safely from the body up to 10 feet per level (which remains in stasis while the spirit is absent). The spirit is ethereal (and thus invisible to most mortal creatures), and may pass through a thickness of rock equal to level in feet, but is barred by lead or magical wards. While ethereal, the sorcerer may reach into the brains of others to raid surface thoughts, though targets of a higher level than the sorcerer are permitted a saving throw.

Conduit

A sorcerer may use another person or thing as a relay for spells. The sorcerer’s conduit sigil must be placed on the conduit. As long as the sigil remains, the sorcerer may meditate and perceive the surroundings of the sigil.

Ethereal Boundary

The sorcerer is surrounded by a field that disrupts magic and is ethereally opaque and impassable. This barrier blocks any magical effect, both entering or leaving, though a saving throw is required to successfully block spells cast by a more powerful sorcerer. A number of people equal to the sorcerer’s level may be sheltered within the barrier.

Hekaphage

Hekaphages are ethereal creatures which feed on magic and can consume enchantments and curses. A saving throw applies if the sorcerer level is less than the enchantment level. There is a chance in 6 equal to the level of the enchantment that the magic drained is sufficient to cause the hekaphage to manifest in the material world, though it will be fat and sated with the magic it has consumed.

Plasmic Key

All closed doors and secured entrances have a plasmic lock in addition to any material latches. Opening the plasmic lock voids any material fastening, but requires the fabrication of a plasmic key, which is consumed (if material) by the plasmic lock when used. The key for a particular plasmic lock is 1) a weapon that has been blooded in anger, 2) a freshly severed finger, 3) a debt to an angelic being, 4) a song enthusiastically sung, 5) the sacrifice of a sinner’s life, or 6) a randomly determined possession (significant in terms of encumbrance).

Second Sight

To the second sight, sorcerers radiate the presence of their prepared spells and enchanted items crackle with energy or leak glittering seepage. Specific enchantments reveal aspects of their nature visually. This spell reveals invisible and ethereal creatures and things.

Shroud

The sorcerer becomes invisible to mortal creatures but appears as a blazing beacon to those with the second sight and many natural denizens of the spirit world. While shrouded, a sorcerer exists partially in both worlds, and may be harmed in either. Willing spirit creatures may be brought into the material world with the sorcerer when the spell ends.

Reality Shift

Anything within a perfect sphere of radius 10′ per sorcerer level may be shifted entirely into the spirit world, thus becoming invisible, insubstantial, and ethereal (unwilling conscious targets are permitted a saving throw). The sorcerer must remain within the boundaries of the enchantment, and nothing may leave for the duration of the spell (though the sorcerer may permit other entities entrance by whim). Paradoxically, the gaping absence does not affect the material world in any other way (for example, bridges will continue to stand if their supports are shifted).

Redon - Reflection (source)

Redon – Reflection (source)

 

Spells Without Levels: Necromancy

These spells were inspired by phantasmal forces, animate dead, death spell, magic jar, and reincarnation. See spells without levels for more information about this project.

Poltergeist

A number of wicked poltergeists equal to the sorcerer’s level are summoned to haunt a place, person, or group of people (there is a 50% chance the haunting persists after the spell ends, and the sorcerer only retains influence while the spell is active). While alone the poltergeists will do their best to harass and torment their chosen targets, or all living creatures other than the sorcerer if no specific victim was indicated. Though the poltergeists cannot talk and are insubstantial, the sorcerer can direct them to laugh insanely, become visible as ghostly menaces with varying forms, howl discordantly, and cause telekinetic mischief (including the hurling of heavy or sharp objects that may cause real damage, though the referee should decide exactly what the poltergeists do).

Reanimate

Command or animate a number of HD worth of undead up to the sorcerer’s level (undead HD must match HD as they were in life), which is also the maximum HD worth of undead that a sorcerer may control at once (a saving throw applies for previously existing undead, and if the undead are under the control of another entity, that entity’s saving throw should be used). The newly risen dead are wide eyed, hopeful, eager to serve, and often overenthusiastic, if not particularly creative, in carrying out directives. When the spell ends, the undead minions 1) turn on the sorcerer in anger, 2) become catatonic, 3) collapse into mundane corpses, 4) dissolve into superheated ash or toxic slime, 5) travel to the land of the dead by opening a gate (which remains), or 6) become permanent minions (though they still count against the maximum number of controllable undead).

Death Ray

Kill one creature of HD less than or equal to the sorcerer’s level (if cast against targets above this HD threshold, the spell is not expended). A saving throw applies, though even if successful the target takes two dice of damage. There is a possibility that any creature slain by this spell will rise, either immediately or in the future, dedicated in undeath to vengeance against the sorcerer (chance again as per the creature’s save versus magic).

Soul Transfer

The sorcerer’s soul is placed in a talisman such as a pendant or article of clothing, leaving the original body behind in stasis. While in the talisman, the sorcerer’s consciousness remains active and aware of events nearby, and may possess any body that comes in contact with the talisman, though a save is permitted if the possession is resisted. If this new body is slain while occupied by the sorcerer’s soul, a saving throw is required for the sorcerer’s soul to return to the talisman and avoid becoming trapped in the spirit world.

Transmigration

Prepared canopic jars and paraphernalia must be available, and a freshly slain person’s organs harvested during the casting of this spell. Using the properly prepared remains, a ritual of three days and three nights may then be performed that slowly gathers a new body around the soul still contained in the brains and viscera. This new body should be determined using random encounter tables.

Edit: renamed the slay spell death ray.

Redon - Cauldron of the Sorceress (source)

Redon – Cauldron of the Sorceress (source)

 

Spells Without Levels: Elementalism

These spells were inspired by fly, fireball, lightning bolt, protection from normal missiles, pass-wall, lower water, part water, move earth, and control weather. See spells without levels for more information about this project.

Chariot of Air

A tumult of air elementals, prismatic and cacophonous, bears the sorcerer aloft and in any direction desired. Buffeted this way and that, no subtle action may be taken or communication attempted over the roar and incoherent babbling of the winds. Despite the many voices they have stolen, these creatures communicate by caresses and only madly wail in confusion if not in contact with the sorcerer.

Pyrokinesis

The sorcerer gains complete control over a fire, and may cause it to grow, shrink, or otherwise change. The fire may be detonated (causing 1d6 damage per sorcerer level to all nearby), though this ends the spell.

Rockspeech

Awaken the greater spirit of a hill or other stone prominence. It will obey basic commands, but is usually very slow, and is aversive to areas of great corruption. There is a 1 in 6 chance that the shift will be immediate and accompanied by an earthquake.

Seduce Waters

Divested of all equipment and clothing, the sorcerer bathes in a water, such as a river, lake, or pool (but not sea or ocean, as those old gods are wicked beyond measure) and in so doing communes with the spirit of the water. The water spirit will obey basic commands (though sometimes in fickle ways), and thus may be parted, lowered, or otherwise modified. Spirits often have requests of sorcerers, given how they are during most of their existence hemmed in by rock and sky.

The Spell of Subterranean Gullets

All tunnels, pits, and lacunae are the mouths, throats, and visceral spaces of the greater earth god Maxilor. The sorcerer may command the instantaneous opening of such a void in stone or rock, either horizontally (as a tunnel) or vertically (as a pit) to a depth of 10 feet per sorcerer level. The stone slowly returns to its former configuration, and will have closed completely (crushing any within) by the end of the spell.

Stormspeech

The sorcerer may command the weather, though only in generalities such as summoning powerful winds, occluding the sun with dark storm clouds, or causing a downpour. Invariably any weather modifications will result in threefold retribution as the skies become enraged by mortal interference and reassert dominance in days to come. Stormspeech is most commonly used for speeding ships on placid seas, as the seafaring sorcerer will likely be far away from the rebalancing when it comes.

Trapped Lightning

First a trap, such as a bottle or copper rod, must be prepared and then set out under an open sky in a cosmically enticing manner, which will draw the lightning. By speaking the words of the spell, the trapped lightning may be discharged, doing 1d6 damage per sorcerer level to all in the path of the bolt or radius of the discharge (which can be bound again immediately if another trap has been laid in the correct location), though beware that being doused with water will free and disperse the lightning prior to use. When used as a melee weapon by the sorcerer, an undischarged lightning rod will knock back human-sized targets and deal one die of damage if a saving throw versus magic is failed.

Wind Barrier

Swirling winds deflect small missiles such as arrows or spears. The spell moves with the sorcerer, and may shelter a number of people equal to the sorcerer’s level. Outgoing missiles are hindered as well.

Roerich - Spell-words (source)

Roerich – Spell-words (source)

 

Spells Without Levels: Diabolism

These spells were inspired by hold person, protection from evil, geas, invisible stalker, light, cloudkill, contact higher plane, and conjure elemental. An element of Death Frost Doom informed covenant. I might give sorcerers that start with conjure the true name of a 1 HD minor demon. See spells without levels for more information about this project. Some spells make use of sigils. A sorcerer may only ever have one sigil of a given type active at a time and the creation of a new sigil causes any previous sigils of the same type to vanish.


Bind

Summon invisible, extra-dimensional chains. A number of hit dice worth of creatures equal to the sorcerer’s level may be bound, and saving throws apply. Bindings may be set as traps by laying a binding sigil.

Circle of Protection

Supernatural creatures of HD less than or equal to the sorcerer’s level may not cross or disturb the circle boundary. A number of people equal to the sorcerer’s level may shelter within the circle. The circle must be drawn prior to casting, is immobile, and lasts until the circle is broken.

Covenant

Magically seal a bargain between the sorcerer and a counterparty by awarding temporary control of both souls to a devil. Free assent is required, but may be compelled by factors external to the magic (such as a dagger to the throat). Demonic malady rewards temporary deviation, and ignoring the covenant completely allows the devil to take permanent possession, which causes death (and eternal torment).

Demonic Assassin

Conjure forth a demon and negotiate terms (part of payment is always the soul of the target). The sorcerer’s sigil must be set upon a possession of the target. The demon will then hunt the possessor of the object the sigil is set upon until the possessor is slain.

Gleam

Conjure a hovering insubstantial spirit of radiance that does not shed heat, does not require air, is not doused by water, and may be maintained with concentration. A number of gleams equal to level may be summoned and the illumination of each is similar to torchlight. Gleams may be directed to bedevil enemies, which will cause temporary blindness (if a saving throw is failed) as long as the spirit remains engaged.

Miasma

Summon the poisonous atmosphere of hell. Determine effect randomly: 1) save or die if breathed 2) one die of acid damage per round and vulnerable objects must save 3) burning blindness permanent until treated with salves and poultices 4) uncontrollable retching which imposes a -4 penalty and prevents complex actions such as spell casting 5) one die of cold damage per round and any killed in the miasma rise as uncontrollable ice revenants 6) the stench of chaos requires all within to save or go berserk, attacking randomly any within reach. The miasma follows the wind, but otherwise seeks to descend back to its place of origin.

Petition

Query a creature from another dimension. If a particular true name is known, it may be intoned during the casting of this spell, and the named creature will answer, otherwise determine the entity randomly (such as from a table of demon lords). Answers are not guaranteed to be truthful, and entities will usually attempt to further their own interests.

Conjure

Call a creature from another dimension. If a particular true name is known, it may be intoned during the casting of this spell, and the named creature will come, but the veil may also be rent without care for what will emerge (determine entity randomly, either by rolling 1d20 for HD and making up the other details or by using a table of creatures from other dimensions). Sorcerers may control any conjured entity of hit dice less than or equal to the sorcerer’s level with concentration, but otherwise the standard reaction roll and negotiation procedures apply.

Solomko - Fortune-telling (source)

Solomko – Fortune-telling (source)

 

Spells Without Levels

Roerich - Magician (source)

Roerich – Magician (source)

Rather than rate spells by level and make some spells only available to high level sorcerers, spells could be level agnostic. Two important properties are required for a level agnostic spell. First, power and spell consequences need to be modulated so that basic game challenges are not circumvented. That is, all spells need to be appropriate for beginning characters. Second, spell capabilities must scale to some degree with sorcerer level so that they remain relevant throughout the game. This approach provides several benefits, such as the possibility of playing many different kinds of sorcerer from the beginning of a campaign (no waiting for 9th level magic-users getting raise dead in order to be a “real” necromancer), and puts more potentially campaign altering tools in the hands of players immediately (though such alteration often comes with consequences).

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has taken a similar approach with some spells, such as the first level summon spell, and A Spell to Grant One’s Heart’s Desire (basically, a first level variation of wish) from Better Than Any Man (available as pay-what-you-want). These spells were definitely an inspiration.

There may be some drawbacks to this approach to spell design as well, and I am certainly not claiming that this model is better for all campaigns. For example, there is something to be said for aspirational spells as motivation. Further, dividing spells into levels introduces complexity gradually. That said, random determination of spells can help mitigate information overload, and hopefully other adventure motivation will be available.

Following this logic, I have created a new set of level agnostic spells inspired by the original list in Men & Magic. Each spell description is restricted to three sentences. If backwards compatibility is desired, all spells could be treated as first level. If replacing all magic with level agnostic spells, rather than the standard spell progression, a sorcerer could have a number of spell slots equal to level, with bonus spells slots perhaps awarded for characters with an exceptional intelligence. Spells that persist over time last 1 turn per sorcerer level. Some spells make use of sigils. A sorcerer may only ever have one sigil of a given type active at a time and the creation of a new sigil causes any previous sigils of the same type to vanish.

The categories that seemed to arise naturally in this process were diabolism, elementalism, psychomancy, necromancy, spiritualism, translocation, and vivimancy. (There are a few spells that I’m still not sure about, which might potentially give rise to more categories.) Each of these categories will be presented in an upcoming post.

Dragon Age Tabletop RPG

IMG_6147 dragon age dice

Three stunt points generated

Green Ronin has developed an RPG based on the Dragon Age video games and set in the same world. Currently, there are two boxed sets out, roughly following the basic/expert example set by Moldvay and Cook/Marsh. Set 1 covers the base system and takes characters from level 1 to 5. Set 2 takes characters from level 5 to 10, introduces character specializations, and includes subsystems for crafting poisons and traps. The system manages to navigate between simplicity and complexity in a very pleasing way, and it is worth looking at for the game even if you are not interested in the franchise that it is based on.

There are eight abilities: communication, constitution, cunning, dexterity, magic, perception, strength, and willpower. Starting abilities range from -2 to 4, with 1 being called out as average. They are determined randomly using a table that maps 3d6 to ability numbers. Characters also have things called ability focuses, which function somewhat like skills but are only very lightly specified. Really, no info other than focus name is needed in most cases, as they are all pretty obvious in function, and are presented in the book without unnecessary padding. More products should take this approach. A simple overview of the system, followed by a list of focuses (organized by governing ability), followed by an example of use in play.

The basic resolution system is 3d6 + ability against a target number, with the potential to bring in an ability focus for a further +2 bonus if it makes sense contextually or is explicitly called for. Thus, one might make a willpower (self-discipline) test, which would be 3d6 + willpower for most characters, but 3d6 + willpower + 2 for those with the self-discipline focus. Attack rolls are handled identically, as each weapon group has a focus; for example, to attack with a sword, a character makes a strength (heavy blades) test. As characters increase their abilities as they level, no separate attack bonus or attack table is necessary to model the increase in competency; the ability test system carries the entire load.

Of the three dice used, one is special (called the “dragon die”) and must be distinguished in some way from the others (three dice come in the Set 1 box with one being a different color). When doubles are rolled on any two of the three dice, stunt points equal to the value of the dragon die are generated. These stunt points can be used for extra effects such as more damage or a chance to immediately cast another spell (for mages).

The character creation process is elegant. I am usually quite averse to character creation with too many options or steps, but the approach Dragon Age takes makes the choices accessible. The procedure alternates between randomness and choice to help players create characters that are not entirely random but nonetheless have some interesting, unpredictable features, guaranteeing that characters of the same class and even background are distinguished mechanically.

You roll for ability scores (having the option to switch one pair), then pick a background, which determines your race and class options. Next, you roll for a random background benefit (which can be something like an ability increase or an extra focus). Importantly, the background ideas are mostly clear without needing to do extended research. So, for example, if you want to play a magic-using character, you take either the apostate or circle mage background, and then follow the procedure outlined in the background (in the case of circle mage, you pick either human or elf, roll for a benefit, and take the mage class). The last few steps involve noting down several basic class features, making one or two more choices from short lists for things like class talents (which further guide the player into choices about things like spells), and then finally equipment (I would prefer a table to roll on for equipment, but even as is it is streamlined compared to “here’s some gold, go buy stuff”). Players end up playing the class they want, in a unique way, without needing to hunt through option lists or feeling like they need to do homework to understand the choices. There is almost zero sense of missing out on synergies due to lack of system mastery despite the large array of possibilities.

If focuses are the AGE equivalent of skills, then talents are the equivalent of feats, in that they further customize and focus a character’s class (thus the difference between a dual-weapon warrior and a two-handed weapon warrior is handled in the system by providing a talent for each). Some direct examples of talents include archery style, poison-making, and entropy magic. The talents available to a particular character are determined by class, so only mages have access to the magic talents, for example, whereas other talents might be available to multiple classes (archery style is available to both rogues and warriors, for example). Each talent has three tiers (novice, journeyman, and master), which become available as the character levels, and each tier offers some benefit. The journeyman level of archery style, for example, allows faster reloading. Mages gain new spells through their talents, which helps balance them against the other classes in a way that does not feel forced.

Many talents do have prerequisites, which I tend to dislike in these sorts of systems, as they often require knowledge of later options before informed decisions can be made about features even during character creation. However, the options are presented in such a logical way, and introduced gradually through the levelling process, that I think this common stumbling block has mostly been avoided (though I would like to see it in play). For some examples, the contacts talent requires a communication of 1 and archery style requires training in the bows group.

It is worth noting that the default assumption of the Dragon Age RPG, in line with the experience of the video game, is a greater focus on combat and tactical play than is usually true for classic dungeon crawling games. Thus, most of the spells are designed for combat (which actually makes sense in the world of Thedas, as mages are only kept around to combat darkspawn, but I digress) and the game does seem to have a slight case of numerical inflation, at least coming from a predominantly OD&D perspective. For example, warriors begin with 30 + constitution + 1d6 HP, and all classes gain 1d6 + constitution HP per level achieved. That’s a lot! To put this in perspective, the bastard sword does 2d6+1 damage and the two-handed sword does 3d6 (with strength also adding to melee damage). Aside: ranged weapons add perception to damage rather than strength, which is a nice touch. That said, my initial impression, looking at monster stats, is not that combat will turn into a slog of HP attrition, but it’s hard to say for sure without playing it. The resolution system using ability tests, is, however, heavily bounded, with opportunities for bonuses few and far between, making me think that the overall power curve of the system is gradual.

Strangely, for an RPG inspired by a video game, scant attention is paid to gear. While this is probably a good thing overall, given how common magical items seems to devalue enchanted items in games that make use of the upgrade treadmill (sword +1, sword +2, etc), it still seems somewhat odd. The example magic items are mostly consumables, and don’t include things like magic staffs that increase spell power. Though Set 2 includes some crafting rules (for poisons and traps), enhancing weapons with runes and enchantment are not covered, despite their prominence in the Dragon Age video game. Perhaps such rules will be included in the upcoming Set 3. While I would rather an emphasis on gear be omitted rather than implemented poorly, even better would be to see the challenge of creating an elegant system surmounted (especially since I am attempting to create such a system for Gravity Sinister). I really appreciate the gradual introduction of complexity behind the overall design, and I can see how introducing enchantment as content for levels 11+ might make sense, though it does feel somewhat off that lower level PCs can’t pay for having enchantments laid on their weapons (for example).

While I am tremendously impressed by the core engine and the character advancement system, there are still some shortcomings. The GM book, other than the monster entries, is mostly a discussion of things like how to deal with player types and plot arcs rather than useful procedures that can be followed. Thus, I don’t think the Dragon Age sets would make a good introduction to the kind of games that I like to run, and though I can see myself running the game pretty much as written in terms of player options and resolution systems, I suspect I would need to import many tools (dungeon stocking, random encounters, reaction rolls, etc) on the referee side. There are some offhand remarks about being open to player choices that seem to caution against preplanned plotting, but little is done to emphasize the “play to find out what happens” ethos (Apocalypse World, page 108) that I think is the true strength of tabletop RPGs.

For another deficiency, the art is extremely bland to the point of being entirely forgettable. There is plenty of world flavor in the mechanics (summoning healing spirits from The Fade and so forth), but you won’t find anything interesting in the visual presentation (I feel mostly the same way about the video game, actually, despite really enjoying many structural aspects of the setting). The mechanical excellence of the system mostly makes up for the aesthetics, in my opinion.

There’s still a lot more to say, such as a more detailed consideration of the mana-based magic system and a discussion of the integration with the default world of Thedas, but I think this post has droned on for long enough. Perhaps I will continue to write about other aspects of the game if I don’t get distracted by something else. Free quickstart rules are available that contain the base system and several pregen characters (though without the full character creation procedure). PDFs of Set 1 and Set 2 can be bought (sans RPGNow-style watermark, thankfully!) from Green Ronin’s web site. Though the physical production of the boxed sets is nothing special (booklets, a few maps, and some quick reference cards), it’s nice to be able to read the books in printed form and I’m not unhappy with the purchase. The Set 1 box includes 3 standard pip-style dice, with one die of a contrasting color for use as the dragon die (I mention this only to make clear that you won’t be getting fancy dice with a dragon icon instead of a 6 or something).

Last word: not perfect for me as a complete game, but probably the best mechanical implementation of distinctive player character development that I’ve read so far.

Degree of success as damage

Men & Magic, page 19

ATTACK MATRIX 1.: MEN ATTACKING (Men & Magic, p19)

A simple house rule idea that just occurred to me, for D&D and similar games: damage from a successful attack = 1 + attack roll degree of success. The 1 is necessary so that some damage is still done when the attack roll succeeds exactly (otherwise, you are essentially applying a -1 penalty to the attack roll).

Some benefits:

  • One roll rather than two.
  • Makes clear the true nature of the attack roll (expected damage is the important thing).
  • Higher level fighters do increasing damage in a pleasing way.
  • The attack roll has many seeming degrees of success.

Expected damage numbers are provided below, for fighters of levels 1, 4, 7, and 10 against ACs of 9 and 2 using ATTACK MATRIX 1 from Men & Magic, page 19 (B/X uses identical numbers other than for zero level people; see the Expert Rules page X26). These numbers are averaged over all die possibilities, including misses, and so are expected damage per round. Comparisons with expected numbers from weapons dealing 1d6 (average: 3.5) damage are provided in parentheses.

Fighter Level Damage Versus AC 9 Damage Versus AC 2
1  3.3 (1.925)  0.5 (0.7)
4  4.55 (2.275)  1.05 (1.05)
7  6.8 (2.8)  3.3 (1.925)
10  8.55 (3.15)  4.55 (2.275)

You will see that in general, this shifts the damage potential up for most situations (all, in fact, other than first level versus AC 2, at least of those data points shown in the table). ACs 9 and 2 were chosen because they encompasses the full OD&D range from unarmored to plate & shield. Results are independent of other bonuses, which will just raise or lower the expected numbers for all schemes. I imagine the numbers would remain somewhat similar if using a simplification such as hit dice as attack bonus. The same numbers obtain for the other classes, though the level ranges are different (a 9th level cleric hits as a 7th level fighter, for example).

The expected values are close enough that this adjustment will obviously not break the game, though it might shift the dynamics slightly. One could also cap damage at 6 for slightly more restrained damage results (just for comparison, with that modification numbers versus AC 9 become: 2.55, 3.15, 4.05, 4.65 for levels 1, 4, 7, 10 respectively and have a much smaller standard deviation).

The spreadsheets that I used to calculate these numbers can be found here:

Landmark remix settings

Creating an entire, unique setting from whole cloth can be enjoyable, and also yields a setting which is guaranteed to be at least somewhat surprising, due to lack of familiarity. Doing such is also a lot of work, however, and does have several downsides. Namely, players either needing to absorb significant setting information before sitting down to play (at the very least, everything relevant to character creation) or players being radically unaware of setting elements (which can be fun, but can also feel somewhat contrived; sometimes it’s reasonable for PCs to know something about the world around them). Using an existing setting can moderate some of these issues, but comes with its own set of problems, such as referee research requirements (you have to actually read and absorb the thing), reward of player setting mastery outside of engagement with actual play, and potential misunderstandings regarding accepted canon.

It seems to me like there is space for an approach between the two extremes. Rather than writing encyclopaedic gazetteers or creating raw tables that must be entirely experienced though their effects on play, instead consider a list of slightly more detailed setting elements that are not yet fully integrated into a comprehensive setting. A full example of this is beyond the scope of this post, but one might think of Middle Earth being expressed as something like: Shire, Mordor, Mirkwood, Saruman, Moria, Rivendell, etc. Each of these elements is a landmark, something that everyone involved can use to become oriented.

How these elements fit together in your particular instantiation of Middle Earth (or whatever), both politically and geographically, would be unique, but players would have a bit more to go on than the standard home-brew setting, and with less work required on their part. Players could have access to a basic version of the list as well (hopefully not longer than a page or two) outlining the major features and obvious factions. That, plus some campaign seed event, would be enough to get started. This is somewhat like how the Final Fantasy franchise reuses common tropes in different games. Players go into these games looking for chocobos, Cid, airships, and so forth. Discovering the various elements is part of the fun.

This is the approach that I plan on taking with the default setting of Gravity Sinister. There will be a number of landmarks presented, but exactly how they all fit together, and where they show up geographically, is expected to be unique to every campaign. This not exactly the same thing as an implied setting, as the list of core elements will be presented directly, and referee guidance provided for how to place the landmarks and generate relationships between them. Torchbearer takes a somewhat similar approach, by referring to archetypal fantasy locations without detailing them (TB directs the game master to create a starter map by placing locations such as elfland, dwarven halls, a religious bastion, a wizard’s tower, and so forth). I’m thinking about something similar, though not quite so generic.

This method could also be used with existing RPG settings, as suggested by the Middle Earth example above. Scan through your favorite campaign book and come up with a list of 20 or so elements that make up what you consider to be the essence of the setting. Thus, your own personal Forgotten Realms could be distilled into a list such as: Shadowdale, Waterdeep, Evermeet, Calimport, Harpers, Red Wizards, Drow, the fall of Myth Drannor, and so forth. (I’m not really very knowledgeable about the Realms outside of the first few Drizzt trilogies and the Avatar novels, so forgive me if that seems like a poor starter list.) Keep the list somewhat limited so that preparation time is minimized. Just let your players know that you will be basing the setting on a (possibly randomized) custom jumble of those elements, and to expect new and surprising juxtapositions. The benefits of a shared aesthetic and shared world knowledge are maintained while the hazards of such are minimized.