Category Archives: Techniques

Agency preserving illusions

Image from Wikipedia

What makes a hazard in a tabletop RPG fair? I believe that clues are what make hazards fair. They can be subtle clues, or even indirect clues, but if there are no clues you are playing a game of chance rather than a game of skill. Especially if hazards can kill a character dead with only a saving throw as potential saving grace, clues are critical (the issue is slightly blunted, though not removed, of the lethality rules are more forgiving).

This is relatively straightforward with physical traps, such as darts, daggers, and collapsing ceilings. Just think about the mechanism required for such traps and add description. Scorch marks, dead NPCs, holes in the masonry, dust on the floor in a particular pattern, watermarks on the walls, etc.

But what about illusions? Theoretically, an illusionary floor could cover a pit full of spikes covered in save or die poison. Sure, you would still get a saving throw, but having to roll a saving throw should come after making a mistake. So what is the clue for an illusion?

There has been some discussion of illusions by Courtney over at Hack & Slash. For example, this example of detecting illusionary pit traps suggests using magic saving throws after physical interaction is attempted (such as throwing a coin into an illusionary pit). And in a post about another illusion-powered trap, Courtney writes:

There should be at least a single word in the description of the object to indicate it’s chimerical nature.

For example, describing a rolling boulder as preternaturally silent. This approach is not entirely satisfactory to me, especially the saving throw method, because there are no clues at all prior to interaction. Moving to the second example, this is better (a clue is presented at the outset), but it also seems somehow artificial, and perhaps difficult to apply to non-visual illusions. I don’t think the “one word” rule is bad, exactly, but I think clarifying exactly what kind of clues illusions might create would be useful, especially when moving beyond examples of visual illusions that don’t make noise.

Consider this quite from The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (book 2, Divided Allegiances, chapter 13):

Young sir, if you think it is easy to produce even illusory fire, I suggest you try. My old master, who is well-known in the arts, always said that a fine, convincing illusion was far more difficult—because reality carries its own conviction, and saves its own appearances. If you make a flame, it is a real flame, and you don’t have to worry, once you’ve got it. But an illusory flame can go wrong in many subtle ways—even such a thing as forgetting which way the wind is blowing, so that it flickers the wrong direction.

Perhaps this is a potential answer. No illusion is perfect enough to not have any logical inconsistencies. So here is a simple rule of thumb similar to Courtney’s “one word” dictum. Every illusion has at least one inconsistency or “deja vu” moment (like the cat from The Matrix). Maybe something plays in a loop or doesn’t quite react correctly to the environment. I believe this could easily handle illusions involving any of the senses, because the heuristic is something incongruent, rather than something chimerical.

Potential inconsistencies may also, of course, be caused by something else that is not yet understood. For example, a flame flickering the wrong direction might also be an indicator of a draft coming from a secret door. So inconsistencies should not necessarily be seen as a dead giveaway of an illusion, but they are something that needs to be understood before a party can proceed without potentially subjecting themselves to the mercy of the saving throw dice.

Difficulty mode

Dürer, Death and the Landsknecht

In addition to the background / reward dyad, another important game parameter is lethality. Next to incentives, lethality is probably the single most important determinant of how a tabletop RPG plays, because lethality is another way of saying risk. What do setbacks potentially involve? Is it possible to lose the game? Any consideration of lethality must also consider healing, because that is the other side of the coin. In D&D, the exact same dungeon and hazards can be made either very difficult or trivial, depending on the scarcity of healing.

This is a hugely controversial issue among fantasy gamers, as can be seen regarding the discourse around options for self-healing in 5E and the differing reaction to the idea of healing surges in Fourth Edition. Many old school games also use variations on the “healing surge” idea (though they are usually called something else).

Because lethality and healing are so important to how the game plays, I believe they should be explicit choices at the start of any campaign with clear options, though there is no reason to force any particular style. But what is it that is actually being selected? The thing being selected, which both lethality and the availability of healing are in service to, is how difficult the game is. This single choice will go a long way to make sure that all players (including the referee) are on the same page regarding the nature of the campaign.

Hit points in Hexagram, in any mode, are not persistent beyond any particular session. Instead, HP are rolled when required by the difficulty mode, the details of which are summarized in the table below. A character’s hit dice total is what matters; hit points are situational. I believe this reinforces the abstraction of HP, which is required for any lightweight system. In addition, I have been actually using this method of re-rolling HP in several different incarnations and have had nothing but good luck with it. It also greatly simplifies HP recovery, obviating the need for bookkeeping (the guidelines for when to re-roll take care of that).

Difficulty Modes
Mode When HP is Rolled HP Recovery Death
Very easy Each combat N/A Impossible; instead, a setback occurs
Easy Each combat N/A Only on TPK or if left behind
Medium Start of session 1d6 post-combat 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Very hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, no save

For the easy modes, why re-roll HP per combat rather than introduce some recovery mechanism? One, it is easier. It keeps the focus where it should be, on the conflict, rather than on the resource management (which by hypothesis is not of interest). Two, it adds uncertainty to combat so that it is not the first resort in all cases, and prevents the HP total from feeling like a fixed buffer against damage. This method is somewhat reminiscent of the Carcosa dice conventions, but keeps the type of die used for the HD fixed (d6) which prevents overly wild swings in possible HP totals.

This is essentially a way to do tactical gaming within a more traditional fantasy game framework without any secondary abstraction or rule system sitting on top of hit points. “Hits” are, of course, assumed to be blocked, or flesh wounds. Diegetically, any kind of sword to the gut event would be something that a character would get a saving throw to avoid. Note that this does not require higher-level abstraction like “luck” to enter into hit points — every hit can still be a hit, just not a good one.

Is using the idea of difficulty modes pejorative to different styles of play? I don’t think so, and there is some value to calling a spade a spade. It seems important to emphasize that the same rules framework, with appropriately tailored incentives, can be used for games focused on player skill and for games focused on other things. When I do play video games, I often play them on easy or normal mode, and almost never on hard mode, because I am not interested in building the type of skills most video games reward. Rather, I want to experience some other aspect of the game, like graphics, or art direction. I think that many people feel the same way about RPGs.

This design allows the game to work on all modes without assuming healing magic. One may include magic items or spells that perform healing, but they will not be very important in the easy modes (because you will be re-rolling your HP before the next encounter anyways), and are otherwise problematic in the hard modes (see healing & aging). Healing being problematic is required so that the tension and resource management required for a hard mode game are not undermined. Resurrection magic is of course important to perception of risk as well, but I will cover that in another post.

Incidentally, my current OD&D game is essentially on hard mode.

Varying mortality and lethality

The current D&D Next play test rules for lethality and dying are way too soft for games that I would like to run. I want there to be a greater threat of death, for a number of reasons, but not least because I don’t want combat to be the first resort of PCs. Mike Mearls has already said that HP is likely to come down, but I don’t think that is enough. The dying rules also have to be addressed.

The thing that frustrates me about this discourse is that it is not an either/or proposition. It is easy to build several possible play styles into the core. First, you can always start at higher level. Some people object to this because higher level is also higher complexity, so you are really affecting more than one aspect of character design (though I’ll also note that a first level 4E character feels about as complicated to me as a 5th level traditional D&D character). Including options for different play styles does not take anything away from anyone else.

The various editions have already given us a plethora of death rules. All that is needed for 5E in this regard is for them to pick several possibilities that address different play styles and present them, along with pros and cons, in whatever becomes the referee guide. For lethality, three natural options jump out at me. For a lethal game, dead at 0 HP (perhaps with a constitution saving throw to be incapacitated rather than killed). Other options would be dead at negative 10 (or negative constitution) HP, and the current playtest version that is reminiscent of 4E (with all those fiddly death saving throws) could also be retained as an option.

Here is a proposal for supporting different levels of lethality. Vary starting hit dice. This has the advantage of not increasing complexity for other character aspects. Also, First Edition play falls out as a natural corollary (the 1 hit die variation). One die of self healing is also very close to common binding wounds and liquid courage old school house rules. Bump the starting hit dice up to, say, 4 or 5 and you will have a game that feels much closer to fourth edition; starting hit points will be greater, and PCs will have more hit dice available for spontaneous healing.

The other major aspect of lethality that is potentially problematic in Fifth Edition is the recovery provided by a long rest. In the play test rules, a long rest restores all HP and hit dice. This should be another part of the game with a menu of options. I would suggest recovery of one hit die for an old school feel (which would then need to be spent for any healing to occur), recovery of all hit dice for a less deadly but still random feel, and recovery of all hit dice and HP for a super-hero feel.

20 Quick Questions: Rules

Jeff Rients has a great list of 20 quick questions to add campaign details in ways that are likely to affect actual play. I was thinking, based on this other post by Jeff about treating all editions of D&D as a toolbox and this post by JB over at B/X Blackrazor about creating his own version of D&D, that it would be useful to have a list of rules that often change from campaign to campaign.

Here are 20 rules clarifications that are likely to be needed anyways at some point.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
  2. How are death and dying handled?
  3. What about raising the dead?
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
  14. What do I get experience for?
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
  17. How do I identify magic items?
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
  20. What about splitting the party?
If you decide this stuff early, you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to all be on the same page.

Edit: index of some responses here.

Wandering Plot Checks

Do your PCs start as strangers meeting in a tavern? There’s nothing wrong with this, if it works for your players, and you have a method for communicating adventure leads (a rumor table is the traditional mechanism). Here is another approach, if you (or your players) would like PCs to have a reason to work together, other than a burning desire to get rich or die trying.

Roll (or select) a party background from the table below. Each player then needs to figure out how their character fits in. This need be no longer than a sentence. I have used this method successfully several times. For example, in the Blackwater Falls campaign, the PCs were all inheritors of the archmage Wolfgang Constantine’s mansion (including the catacombs beneath). In my current game, the PCs are the second generation of a higher-level established adventuring company (the first generation went missing in the first session, so the PCs are left to figure out what happened, and deal with any loose ends, including outstanding adventuring commissions).

The point of these backgrounds is to open up possibilities for the PCs, rather than to funnel them into one obviously right course of action. They can also motivate recurring costs, the satisfaction of which can easily drive adventuring. For example, the PCs in the Blackwater Falls game also inherited the archmage’s considerable debts. This is actually, in my opinion, one of the most open-ended ways to structure PC challenges: the PCs have a problem (in this case, debt service, but the problem could just as easily be evil ninjas that want their secret manual back) and they need to figure out how to solve it. There is no right answer. They can try to accumulate GP to pay off the debt collectors. They can kill the dept collectors and deal with the consequences.

Many of the entries in this table have an element of looming or ongoing danger. This opens up some interesting referee challenges and opportunities. Challenges, in that you probably don’t want to decide beforehand what is going to happen. That’s boring for the referee and unfair to the players. Opportunities, in that you have more fodder for adventures. This element of the background story can function as a temporal version of a wandering monster check. Before play, you should write up a chart of things that could happen, and then every (in-game) day, (or whatever increment of time makes sense), roll a wandering plot check. 1 in 6 causes one of the events or encounters on the table to occur. This is yet another way that good timekeeping can help drive the game. The danger is, of course, that players just wait for the next “wandering plot” encounter. The key to avoid this is to making the encounters unprofitable in the same way that wandering monsters are unprofitable and avoided by skilled players. Also, you don’t need to explain the mechanic.

This table is just a proof of concept and is by no means complete.

PC Party Background. Roll d12.

  1. Shipwrecked! PCs thrown together by circumstances. Inspiration: Lost.
  2. Trapped in a haunted house. This could also be a ship or other kind of vehicle. You will need to think of a reason why they are all there to begin with.
  3. Escaped prisoners. Fairly or unfairly accused? In any case the PCs better work together or be captured by the authorities.
  4. Ex-slaves. Raised from birth by a mad genius? Super soldiers whose mind-control devices malfunctioned? Escaped slaves or freed slaves? Some slaves could have been left behind, clear adventure fodder (and a source of new PCs if you want to maintain the origin story).
  5. Boomtown! Some valuable resource (maybe a dungeon?) has been discovered. This is similar to a conventional “start in the tavern” game, but you can also add something like employment by an business which specializes in dungeon delving. You can also emphasize the frontier, town-building aspect (which can also make resource management more important). Inspiration: Deadwood.
  6. Second Generation of an Adventuring Company. The PCs need to deal with all the enemies the first generation made, and all the intrigue that goes along with it. The first generation may now be masters of a stronghold, or may not have reached name level yet. Traditionally, the first generation would have also been PCs at some point, but this is not required.
  7. Servants of Chaos. This need not be a party of evil characters. A job’s a job, right? You just happen to work for a red dragon. Or whatever.
  8. Explorers! Maybe you have a charter from the Resident Authority Figure to map the unknown, like Lewis and Clark. Or Star Trek. Party may have a vehicle of some sort; be careful with map scale here as old school D&D is primarily a game of exploration, and vehicles might allow them to venture farther and faster than you expect, making it hard to avoid the quantum ogre effect.
  9. Privateers. Bandits or pirates that can operate legally (because they prey on an enemy of the state).
  10. Rebels! Members of a resistance front against the evil oppression of X. Inspiration: Star Wars, Robin Hood.
  11. Black-ops. Covert team for lord or other powerful figure. Or some wizard’s apprentices & henchpeople. PCs get missions and may be paid. Inspiration: Mission Impossible, Charlie’s Angels.
  12. Ex-black-ops. You and your friends know too much. Or The Organization thinks you do. Or maybe they just have to downsize, and need to clean out the old file cabinets, as it were. Or The Organization was wiped out and the only survivors are the PCs. Inspirations: Burn Notice, Red.

Quests are problematic as the basis of an entire campaign, unless you are running a mini-series type of game that you expect to end once the quest is fulfilled. Because of this, you will notice that there are no quests on the table above, because they don’t really work well in a sandbox context. Once the quest is done, the logical reason for the adventuring seems to end (The Hobbit: retake Erebor and reclaim the dwarven treasure; Lord of the Rings: destroy the ring). You can just keep pushing back the completion of the quest artificially, but that makes player choice less meaningful (for example, in Inuyasha, there is always one more shard of the magical Jewel of Four Souls to collect). Not recommended, unless the quest is peripheral to the driving force of the campaign as a whole.