Monthly Archives: January 2013

Necrology: Satyavati

Tomb/prison of Ibarkaju

It seems like analyzing player character deaths might be a good way to discuss the issues of risk and fairness, so I am going to make this a regular feature. This exercise is not intended to be a celebration of lethality or a collection of macabre DM trophies. Instead, I want to think about the interplay between clues, hazards, and player decision-making. Basically, I’m interested in reflecting on the actual play experience of specific character deaths because I think they can help inform scenario design. Rulings required to adjudicate will also be noted.

The first entry is a relatively straightforward death. The magic-user Satyavati was slain by animated statues that were guarding the tomb or prison of an ancient wizard. This is how the session went down. The party entered a 50′ x 30′ hexagonal chamber that had pillars carved in the form of stately warriors running down the room. At the north end was a plain stone slab upon which was lain a perfectly preserved body in loin cloth. There was writing all over the body and slab recounting wizardly crimes. The figure on the slab was holding a stone tablet over his chest that was inscribed with magical symbols.

Satyavati cast read magic on the tablet, and it turned out to be the equivalent of a scroll of protection from evil, which he cast. As the characters were investigating the area around the body, two of the columns animated, stepped down from their pedestals, and attacked. There were several rounds of combat (one of the PCs needed to make a save against paralysis, which was successful; though the players didn’t know what it was for, it still scared them and they retreated).

As they moved away from the slab, the statues disengaged and resumed their pedestal positions. Safely at the south end of the room, the characters regrouped. Someone suggested that Satyavati approach and continue to investigate since he still had protection from evil active and had not been attacked previously. They didn’t know whether or not it would ward away the statues, but thought that it would be worth a shot. As he approached, the statues animated and attacked again. Satyavati lost initiative, and was reduced to 0 HP by the attacks. He then needed to make a save versus death (we don’t play with auto death at 0 or negative HP, but instead use a saving throw) which was automatically failed due to a previous effect (which the player knew about).

Ramanan (the player of Satyavati) described the session thusly:

The party ventures off to the glass forest of Pahvelorn. They investigate the statue of St. Azedemar, the disgraced cleric / wizard killer. They move on toward the Ziggurats, and come across some 6-legged moles, who are being eaten by a werid fury centepede snake. A battle ensues, but the party of Gavin are victorious. Entering the Ziggurat, a staircase leads down to a submerged chamber. The party manages to cross the first room they find, despite a giant ooze that makes their life difficult. The second room contains an altar, which the party decides to muck around with–twice: Satyvati didn’t survive the second time. My next saving throw is a automatic fail. DEAD!

Referee note: the chamber with the ooze was partially flooded, not totally submerged. The “automatic fail” saving throw was the result of a “natural 1s” LotFP table (from Green Devil Face 5) that we have been using, the text of which is:

7. Your next saving throw attempt automatically fails.

Yes, this effect is dissociated, but we have been having lots of fun with this table.
Were any rulings required? I needed to decide if animated statues counted as evil for the purposes of the protection from evil spell. This is something that I had already determined beforehand, though the players did not know the mechanics. Undead and summoned creatures are “evil” but constructs are not unless they are possessed by a spirit. I’m in favor of things like this being mysterious and requiring experimentation and discovery. The danger was clear here, and the choice to potentially reengage with the statues was made explicitly. Further, there were a number of second chances involved (initiative, statue attack & damage rolls), so chance could have still saved the intrepid magic-user.

RIP Satyavati, magic-user 2 (picture by Gus L)

5E goals

The fourth part of the D&D Next goals series was just posted, covering the proposed “advanced” rules. Here are links to parts one, two, and three if you are interested (they are all worth reading). Overall, I have to say that I am quite impressed and intrigued, even regarding the advanced rules.

Previously, I had assumed that this would be the basic structure of 5E:

  • Basic: similar to Moldvay, simple traditional classes
  • Standard: more classes, feats, and other build options such as multi-classing
  • Advanced: detailed tactical rules, miniatures, domain rules, etc
However, it seems like in addition to detailed rules for adding depth to particular parts of the game, “advanced” will also cover a number of what Mearls calls “dials.” That is, guidelines about how to adjust things like XP rewards and lethality. These elements would replace elements of the core game rather than adding to it. Anyone who has been following my blog recently knows that these are the things that I am probably most interested in adjusting when tinkering with rules.

For example:

This seems like an excellent way to structure the game, and I really look forward to seeing the final presentation.

Combat & movement

Image from Dark Classics

Jack recently wrote about differentiating weapons. I have also in the past sought to make weapon differences meaningful over and above damage dice, with varying levels of success. Jack’s proposal has some Third Edition assumptions (such as critical ranges) that I don’t use, but I find one of the properties he gave daggers particularly interesting. In his system, dagger wielders may use movement actions to attack. Presumably, this is to represent quick close attacks and perhaps grappling.

5E is also experimenting with using movement as a resource that can be “spent” in combat. For example, five feet of movement can be used to stand up from prone, allowing a character to stand up, move (slightly less than normal) and attack all in the same round. Now, this particular rule might be too fiddly (and might be difficult to make work without using a grid). If doing combat only using a shared imaginary space, is there really much difference between 30 feet worth of movement and 25 feet worth of movement? Probably not.

I am, in general, not enamored of the action economy approach to combat. It tends to slow play down and make the decision process more complex without adding corresponding depth. For more on how this worked in 4E, and the proposed simplification for 5E, check out this blog post. Fifth Edition is also experimenting with other ways to spend combat time resources which look intriguing, such as spell concentration being required to maintain continuous effects (which should help control the problem of appropriately enchanted wizards being potentially better at any conceivable task, a problem that I gather can be relatively acute in Third Edition and Pathfinder, though I have never played high level games in either of those systems). For more on concentration in 5E, check out the second half of this Legends & Lore article.

Back to the topic at hand though, I still like the general idea of a tradeoff between mobility and other weapon properties. However, multiple attacks have the potential to be both cumbersome (extra die rolls) and unbalanced (that is, clearly superior to other weapons in damage dealing potential), so this needs to be handled carefully. Further, without a grid, it seems difficult or impossible to keep geometry and tactical placement relevant. Again, this makes me wish for a simplified and non-quantified representation of combat beyond conversational description. Something that would perhaps be gained by using miniatures in a loose, almost informal manner.

What kind of OD&D implementation based on movement might work for the dagger? Before a dagger wielder can get any kind of benefit from close fighting, they must first get inside an enemy’s guard. It seems reasonable to model that as a successful to-hit roll. They must also successfully bypass any kind of “hold at bay” active from pole-arms. Once the dagger has hit, the attacker is considered up in it and future attacks do “two dice, take highest” damage. Note that this also applies post-backstab for thieves. As long as the attacker chooses to maintain this disposition, no significant movement is possible, as they are focusing on carving up the target.

This is similar to a grapple (though there is no grabbing going on). Pole weapons are almost impossible to bring to bear against a dagger wielder up close, and all weapons other than a dagger or short sword attack at -1. The target may disengage by spending an action and making a successful dexterity check. Fighters may attempt a disengage maneuver along with a standard attack, but all other classes must spend all their efforts just to get the sharp thing away from them. Whether or not dagger work can be used effectively against non-humanoid enemies should be determined situationally (bear: sure, purple worm: not so much).

Giants of Pahvelorn

Image from Dark Classics

Before the coming of Lord Arios, giants ruled the Whiskerknife Hills and surrounding areas. The giant-bane Arios, along with his companion the wizard Ismahir, drove the big folk away and built the fortress of Pahvelorn. Some say the giants retreated to the dark places of the earth, others that they were driven south into the Cobramurk Mountains.

The giants themselves believe that they came from the sky. Each glittering star in the evening night, they say, is a palace of their forbearers. The terrestrial giants are divided about the events which brought them to the ground world. Some believe there was a civil war above, and that the giants of the hills and mountains are the remnants of the defeated. Others aver that the over-world was menaced by some great doom, forcing its dwellers into the imperfect world below.

Giants have two uses for humans: meat and slave labor. In the legends, they keep and breed humans like humans keep cattle and dogs. The dull and small ones are intended from the start for the cook pot, but they have also developed a hardier breed which they use for other tasks. These are called drudges. They are large compared to most humans, often seven or eight feet tall, with tough skill and thick, ropy muscles. They cannot speak, and only usually understand a few crude words. Even the best drudges grow old however, at which point they too are destined for the great cleavers of the giant kitchens.

Drudges roll 12 + 1d6 for strength and constitution each, 2d6 for dexterity, and 2 + 1d6 for intelligence (other ability scores are 3d6). They worship all giants as gods incarnate and have no talent for sorcery.

An embarrassment of riches

There is a good chance you have already found out about WotC rereleasing many classic D&D PDFs, so I won’t pretend that I’m breaking any news here. Of couse, if you haven’t seen them yet, you should browse over and take a look:

The servers seem to be under some strain though, so you might want to come back in a few days after the initial stampede.

I haven’t bought anything yet (I’m just settling in from a transatlantic flight), but I’m sure I will. The PDFs for sale now are from recent, higher quality scans, and are bookmarked (according to the product copy I have read).

Thank you Mike Mearls and everyone else at Wizards of the Coast that was involved for making this happen. Moldvay D&D is now in print again, and for only $5!

Basic wands

Image from Dark Classics

Image from Dark Classics

There are three main types of elemental wands: flame, cold, and lightning. Magic-users may craft any of these wands beginning at first level. Crafting requires a sympathetic component, which is not necessarily required to be valuable. Some examples: a bonfire, the remains of a monster with an elemental affinity, a hand lost to frostbite, a branch struck by lightning. In addition to the sympathetic component, 100 GP worth of components are required per wand level, along with one week of work. Thus, a third level wand costs 300 GP and takes one week to create.

Along with the sympathetic component and ritual materials, an object for the wand itself must be procured. Simple objects may be used for the wand (such as a yew rod or a bone), though wands made from such mundane materials crumble to dust, shatter, or otherwise fall apart when exhausted. More finely crafted wands will simply cease to function when used up and can be enchanted again in another wand creation ritual. Traditionally, wands are batons, though this is not required. For example, consider the famous jewelled storm gauntlet of Hyssiasto of Urtar.

The use of a wand does not require an attack roll. Instead, enemies must make a saving throw versus wands and then take 1d6 damage upon failure. Damage from wands is considered magical. Range is as thrown weapon. Especially vulnerable targets may take extra damage (for example, a creature of fire might be vulnerable to a cold wand, and soldiers in metal armor are vulnerable to lightning). In general, this is operationalized as penalty of 1 to the wand saving throw and +1 damage per die. A natural saving throw of 1 results in two dice of damage.

The destructive potential of any given wand is not unlimited. At the end of any combat during which a wand is used, 1d6 is rolled for exhaustion. On a roll of 1 or less, the wand has lost its enchantment. If wands are used outside of combat, exhaustion is checked for at the end of an exploration turn.

The three types of wands also have the following additional effects:

  • Flame: ignite oil or flammable materials such as paper
  • Cold: slowing and penalty to actions requiring fine motor control
  • Lightning: also damages those touching target (or in water with, etc)

Wand level has several different effects. A higher level wand in the hands of a more experienced magic-user is more difficult to resist. Enemies take a save penalty equal to the lesser of wand level and wand user spell capability. Spell capability is the highest level of spell that can be prepared (which is pretty much magic-user level / 2). That is, higher level wands must be crafted to take advantage of a higher level magic-user’s power. For example, the targets of a fifth level magic-user’s third level wand make saves at -3 (because the highest level of spell that a fifth level magic-user can cast is 3). The same magic-user would have the same effectiveness with a fifth level wand, because of being unable to fully take advantage of the wand’s power. Additionally, the wand level is used as a bonus to item saving throws that the wand needs to make.

In addition to the standard attack, there are two alternate ways that wands may be used: surge and final strike. Surges do one extra point of damage per wand level (assuming the target fails the save) but require an immediate check for wand exhaustion. Final strikes do one extra full die of damage per wand level (assuming the target fails the save), but also automatically exhaust the wand.

Having two or more wands of different elemental affinities in close proximity can be dangerous. If either of the wands are subject to an event that would require a saving throw (such as being blasted by dragon fire), both must succeed at an item saving throw. If either wand fails the save, the wands rip apart in a vortex of unleashed magic power. The detonation causes 1d6 damage per wand level to any spiritually attuned (that is, spell casting) creature within five feet. Additionally, a wild surge or magical mishap occurs (roll on any such table, maybe this one or this one). Thus, most sane magic-users carry only one type of wand. Note that this risk of meltdown is only present due to miscibility; having a single type of wand does not carry the same risk, even if the wand is destroyed.

There are legends of many other kinds of wands, but the methods needed for their creation are more obscure. Magical research or the discovery of ancient manuals is required.

Judgments & hazards

Vincent Baker on the role of the GM in DitV:

Most importantly, don’t have an answer already in mind. GMing Dogs is a different thing from playing it. Your job as the GM is to present an interesting social situation and provoke the players into judging it. You don’t want to hobble their judgments by arguing with them about what’s right and wrong, nor by creating situations where right and wrong are obvious. You want to hear your players’ opinions, not to present your own.

Dogs in the Vineyard, page 124

There are a number of interesting parallels here to what high-quality D&D play is for me. In a sandbox game, you don’t want to hobble the choices of players in terms of where they should go or how they should approach a problem, nor create situations where there is a clear optimal solution. There should always be interesting trade-offs, whether those trade-offs are spending more time to be more careful or taking one route rather than another.

I’ve yet to play Dogs, and it’s always hard to get a sense of how an RPG will play just by reading it, but this looks to me like the social hazards are somewhat isomorphic to the D&D dungeon. Not in a plot sense, as is sometimes discussed (where dungeon-like event flow charts are created), but more like a set of potential connections between various NPCs and their interests.

In D&D, making a physical choice is almost always what engages the risk/reward system, whereas in Dogs the act of judgment engages the risk/reward system. Judgment is more abstract, which is perhaps why the stake setting system is required. The same kind of thing is going on in D&D, it’s just that what is at stake is usually more obvious, and so requires less mechanical centrality.

Simplified spell progression

The rule:

  • 1 spell per magic-user level
  • No more than 2 spells per spell level
  • Spell competency = level / 2 round up
  • Progression stops once there are 2 slots per spell level
Thus you get a progression that looks like this:
Adjusted Magic-User Spell Progression
Class level 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
2 1
2 2
2 2 1
2 2 2
2 2 2 1
2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2 1
2 2 2 2 2
2 2 2 2 2 1
2 2 2 2 2 2


  1. Easy to remember
  2. Compatible with the standard magic-user class
  3. Approximates traditional gameplay at low levels
  4. Only starts to diverge at 4th level
  5. Scales back at high levels
  6. Never more than 12 prepared spells assuming B/X
  7. Exactly one new spell slot gained per level
  1. ?

Unless you already hate the traditional Vancian spell system, I don’t see how this isn’t an improvement.

This would also work for spells of up to 9th level (Supplement I: Greyhawk/AD&D style), if that’s the way you roll (just add three columns, and extrapolate to 18th level).

Addendum: this actually works reasonably well for clerics, too. Just round down rather than up for spell competency, and stop at the highest leve of cleric spells. So first level clerics still wouldn’t get a spell. Access to the highest level cleric spells would be pushed back slightly.

Previous Resolutions

Amazing Flower Knight Kingdom Death mini

Last year I made some gaming resolutions. Let’s see how I did.

  1. Make a big dungeon
    Success. The Vaults of Pahvelorn still have many unmapped and unkeyed areas, but there is a big chunk of the dungeon that is complete, and I have been running it for the past 3 or more months. There are some interesting (at least, I think so) mechanical tricks too, though many of them have not been encountered.
  2. Basing and/or painting minis
    Outlook is not so good here. One of my previous players glued some of my Otherworld minis, but other than that I didn’t do anything. The good news is that I think I decided not to care. In the future, if I buy any more minis (I already have some coming from the Reaper Bones kickstarter), I’ll just buy ones that don’t require assembly. Not that I even use miniatures for anything, as pretty much all my gaming right now is over Google hangouts. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the amazing miniatures that are part of the Kingdom Death game, you should check them out (credit to Ian for posting about KD; note, mature content). I have been recently thinking again about how much miniatures can help with the shared conception of combat geometry though, even (especially?) without using formal grid rules.
  3. Classic D&D
    Total success! Running OD&D, and playing in numerous (mostly Labyrinth Lord based) other games, especially the excellent Wampus Country, HMS Apollyon, Dungeon of Signs ASE, P&P OD&D, Dwimmermount at OSRCon, and several others.
  4. Make some art
    Not so successful. I don’t think I got around to doing any art, unless you count the Pahvelorn maps. This is just not part of my routine, I guess.
  5. Wilderness map with encounter tables and everything
    Reasonably successful. Not quite as systematic as I would like, but I have a functional wilderness outside of Pahvelorn.
  6. Gaming purchases: limit to 1 per month
    Total, abject failure. I stopped counting, but I’m sure I bought more than one thing per month. The point here is not so much about saving money (though that is always nice), but rather not buying things that I don’t have time to dedicate sufficient attention to. During 2012, I was still in the process of (re)discovering tabletop RPGs, which is why I picked up so many gaming books. There is not really anything else I want now, so I imagine I’ll be better about this in 2013. I’m sure something good will come out now and then though.

2012 Fiction Readings

I didn’t keep track comprehensively of what I read last year, so I’m sure this list is incomplete. But here is a partial list along with some quick thoughts about each. Here is a similar post for 2011.

  • Roger Zelazny – Jack of Shadows
    Wonderful, tightly written, from the original Appendix N, highly recommended. More here.
  • Margaret St. Clair – The Shadow People
    At least half of this book is really interesting, especially the depiction of the underworld and the creepy fairies. Flawed by overly earnest 60s politics. More here.
  • Andre Norton – Quag Keep
    Maybe the first novel based on D&D. Really quite bad though. Don’t bother unless you are really interested in the history of pulp fiction and specifically how it intersects with D&D. More here.
  • Robert Howard – Kull: Exile of Atlantis
    In some ways a proto-Conan. At least one of the stories even shares a plot with a Conan story. That said, Kull is more reflective, and the setting is more detached from standard medieval fantasy, being more like the mythic ancient world. Highly recommended. The illustrated Del Rey collections are also quite attractive. More here.
  • Robert Howard – The People of the Black Circle (Conan)
    Conan novella. Probably needs no introduction. Exceedingly D&D in feel.
  • H. P. Lovecraft – At the Mountains of Madness
    I first read this in high school when I didn’t really appreciate Lovecraft. Rereading it convinced me that dungeons need more penguins.
  • Karl Edward Wagner – Darkness Weaves
    Engaging Lovecraftian dark fantasy. Quick read, flawed by bad dialogue. Great adventure ideas and setting though. Kane seems like too much of a power fantasy to me.
  • Jack Vance – Showboat World
    Everything I’ve read by Vance has been excellent, and this is no exception. Lacks the poetic power and imagination of the Dying Earth stories (especially the later ones), but still wonderful. Vance is a master stylist.
  • William Hope Hodgson – The House on the Borderland
    Excellent, surreal, beautifully written. Maybe even a bit disturbing, in a sort of cosmically nihilistic way. More affecting than Lovecraft for me, definitely (though that may have something to do Lovecraft’s presence in pop culture now).
  • Michael Moorcock – City of the Beast
    Barsoom knockoff without much else to recommend it. Despite being an Elric fan, I don’t really care for Moorcock’s writing. I read his work for the imaginative settings. Probably more worthwhile to spend your time on Burroughs or some of the other Eternal Champion Moorcock stories if you are in the mood for his brand of pulp fantasy. More here.
  • Poul Anderson – Three Hearts and Three Lions
    A number of D&D tropes were pulled directly from this book, so it is worth reading for the historical impact alone if you are interested in that sort of thing. Additionally, it’s actually a pretty good read, though I prefer The Broken Sword. More here.
  • Brandon Graham et al – Prophet: Remission
    I can’t really praise this highly enough, though I haven’t gotten around to writing a blog post about it yet. Surreal, futuristic, posthuman. One of, if not the, best comic book I have read (not that I am all that widely read in this area). Here is a taste.
  • C. S. Friedman – The Coldfire Trilogy (Black Sun Rising, etc.)
    An old favorite. Science fantasy that manifests almost all the D&D tropes through a goth lens. Read it for the setting, not the plot. Feels like it would make a good anime. More here.
  • Grant Morrison – Doom Patrol, volumes 1 – 3
    Some interesting ideas, but a bit slow and I didn’t care for the art (though it does gradually improve marginally). The philosophical ideas are also a bit too transparently referenced for me. Overall, my opinions on Doom Patrol are mixed. I have the next three sitting on my shelf. The Bisley covers are excellent.
  • Neil Gaiman – The Books of Magic
    Gaiman’s vision of faerie land and small gods has always been appealing to me, so I enjoyed this, though it was nothing particularly special. His Sandman work and his novels are probably better.
  • Grant Morrison – All-Star Superman 1
    Great art, very iconic. Reads like a collection of short stories (there is not much plot continuity). I wanted to read some Superman after hearing Frank Mentzer compare high level play to the dilemma Superman faces: not how to defeat his enemies, but how to prevent those he cares about from becoming collateral damage. I wrote about this idea and how it relates to power levels before also. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn how to enjoy high level play more.
  • Elizabeth Moon – The Deed of Paksenarrion
    The story of a paladin and the most like AD&D of perhaps any novel I have read, including books explicitly set in D&D worlds. Recommended, though it is slow in places. Be aware that there are some relatively explicit torture scenes.
  • Robert Howard – The Hour of the Dragon (Conan)
    The only novel-length Conan story Howard wrote. Of course it is good.
  • Jodorowsky – The Metabarons
    Like an extended comic from Heavy Metal. Feels like all of the dialogue is shouted. Visually beautiful space opera setting. Also connected to The Incal, which is drawn by Moebius and waiting on my shelf for me. See also Weapons of the Metabarons which contains this sublime image (a collection of Weapons is coming soon, I gather).
  • Tolkien – The Hobbit
    Worth a regular reread. I enjoyed many aspects of Jackson’s adaptation (the coming of Smaug in the prologue, the riddle scene), but overall the movie is a bit too grandiose for this modest story.