Monthly Archives: June 2013

Shamans of Pahvelorn

In addition to the ancient mystery religion of the lost True Empire (to which traditional clerics belong), numerous spirits and powers are worshipped by the folk in the lands around Pahvelorn. Here is one example of a shaman class, which calls on Legatus Rattus, servant to the Mother of Thousands, rat goddess often worshipped by the poor and oppressed.

Shaman: HD, combat, armor, advancement as cleric. Prime requisite: charisma.

Proper obeisance is required each morning. Doing this lets a spirt (such as the mother or one of her high ranking servants) into you and makes the spirit’s spells available. While you have the spirit in you, you detect as chaotic. You turn as an undead of your own HD, but a successful turn drives the spirit out rather than causing fear or anything else (you must find a sanctuary and perform the proper rites, as in the morning).

Chant in High Murine (which sounds high pitched but echoey, like thousands of rats chanting in a draughty hall) and roll 1d20 and add level to activate a power. Beat the target by 5 and get some extra effects. Miss by 10 or more and there will be consequences. 1 is always a failure, 20 is always a success. Spells must be maintained after cast (meaning you can’t have more than one spell active at once, but you can take other actions after the initial casting).

Target numbers proceed spell descriptions.

Spirit: Legatus Rattus

  • 11 Speak with Rats: self explanatory.
  • 12 Sticky Feet: climb rough vertical surfaces at half movement, no chance of falling (save might be required if you take an arrow or something).
  • 13 Psychic Swarm: target is afflicted by a swarm of shadowy psychic rats swarming over them. -2 penalties to AC, saves, and attack. Further, save versus magic or must use actions to either attempt to flee or claw madly at the illusionary rats.
  • 13 Fever Bite: grow long ratlike incisors for one encounter/exploration turn. Hits require a save or the target becomes afflicted by a wasting disease that automatically does 1 HP damage per round. Ineffective against huge creatures or those with more than 6 HD.
  • 14 Hole Spotter: spend a turn and perform a smoke ritual that may reveal hidden hidey-holes. Only hidden things with gaps that smoke could find are discoverable, so some sophisticated secret doors might not be located, even on success. The smoke seems to take the form of thousands of tine, questing rats.
  • 15 Summon Dire Rats: 1d6 semi-corporeal rats materialize. 1/2 HD, 1d3 damage, +1 damage for each hit beyond the first if they gang up on an enemy. Semi-intelligent. Rats disperse following combat or one exploration turn. If slain, they may not be summoned again until the proper rites have been performed (that is, the next day).
  • 20 Summon Legatus Rattus: Miss by 10 here, and the Legatus will likely be hostile.
    HD 10, AC 3, attacks 3, Sv 5, Mv 24/12 (climbing)

Regarding more spells: other spirits can be discovered in play. Then before a session you can pick which you want to invoke. Basically, it is preparing a set of spells as a group rather than one by one.

Basic feats

Pick one of these at first level. You can either double down on your archetype (such as a magic-user taking an extra spell slot) or grab something from another class (like a fighter with climb walls). Or you can roll 1d20 and trust in the Norns. This should allow the creation of many different hybrid character types with minimal fuss. I was working with the Basic rulebook in mind, but I bet this would work with many other, similar systems.

  1. Magic-user spell slot (and one spell)
  2. Scroll casting (and one scroll to start with, determined randomly)
  3. Wand proficiency (and one wand to start with, determined randomly)
  4. Cleric spell slot (and one spell)
  5. Turn (or command) undead as cleric of equivalent level †
  6. Tough/lucky: +2 all saving throws ‡
  7. Increase hit die one step (for example, d4 becomes d6)
  8. Dwarf-sense: notice dungeon features as dwarf
  9. Elf-sight: infravision and find secret doors as elf
  10. Harrier: +1 missile attacks, AC bonus of 2 vs. large creatures (as halfling)
  11. Backstab as thief
  12. Pick pockets as thief of equivalent level
  13. Climb as thief of equivalent level
  14. Move silently as thief of equivalent level
  15. Hide in shadows as thief of equivalent level
  16. Open locks as thief of equivalent level
  17. Remove small traps as thief of equivalent level
  18. Hear noises as thief of equivalent level
  19. Armor proficiency (ability to use the next better category of armor)
  20. Weapon proficiency (ability to use a weapon not usually allowed)
My Basic Rulebook

My Basic Rulebook

Some of these options are likely to be redundant (such as a thief with “open locks as thief of equivalent level”). You can either not pick such options, re-roll them if rolling, or use the following guidelines for handling redundant options. Weapon proficiency becomes weapon specialization, and means +1 to attack and damage with the weapon in question. Armor proficiency becomes armor specialization, and adds a bonus of 1 to AC when wearing armor. A redundant thief skill grants a bonus (+1 if using d6, +15% if using d%). Redundant backstab adds an extra die of damage. Redundant elf-sight or dwarf-sense adds +1 to the d6 roll. The “harrier” feat stacks with the halfling class. Redundant turn undead grants a +1 to the 2d6 roll. Redundant scroll caster or wand proficiency? I don’t know; make something up. Maybe it’s just a free item at first level, or extra charges when using wands, or bumping up the exhaustion die if using something like abstract wand ammo.

You’ll note that there are not really any new abilities on this list. That is intentional, to keep the options as familiar as possible. If you’ve ever played Basic D&D, it should be super obvious how all of these things work.

† Choose either turn or command when the feat is taken.
‡ +2 is equivalent to the difference between the dwarf and fighter saves in the Basic rulebook.

Telekinetic sword

The striking edge of a telekinetic sword works over a distance. That is, you swing your sword here and something over there gets cut. When activated, the live edge of a telekinetic sword shimmers slightly, as if it were coated in psychedelic foil, though this does not produce any light. Radiant arcs accompany the delivery of the telekinetic strike at the point of the target, along with noises somewhat like a buzzing whip-crack. Effective range at full power is equal to the wielder’s HD x 10 feet. Range at reduced power (half damage) is HD x 20 feet. So, a 4 HD character attacking with a telekinetic sword can hit targets up to 40 feet away for full damage, or 80 feet away for half damage.

Telekinetic swords are disorienting to use, as they don’t react to the wielder kinesthetically as is commonly expected. Becoming accustomed to the quirks of a given sword requires at least a week for familiarization (roll two dice and take the lowest result for attack rolls prior to the completion of this period; familiarization is assumed during downtime, so telekinetic swords can generally be used “next session”). The physical edge of a telekinetic sword is not actually sharp, and only does 1d3 damage if used unactivated as a mundane melee weapon (though they may be used as melee weapons when activated). Telekinetic swords are psychically resonant when active and their use can be sensed by any psychic creatures nearby. Further, as psychic antennas, they may also amplify certain psychic effects, which could be either positive or negative for the wielder depending on the situation.

Some version of Final Fantasy 4 (screen shot from here)

Some version of Final Fantasy 4 (screen shot from here)

AC by class AND level

Armor of Stefan Batory (source)

Armor of Stefan Batory (source)

In my recent post about magic-users and armor, there was one option for doing strict class-based AC (that is, all fighters have AC 3, all magic-users have AC 9, and so forth). One downside of that system is that other than gear with special enchantments it doesn’t allow for much in the way of advancement (which is a big part of what makes D&D work as a game).

Here’s another idea that works with OD&D hit dice to address that concern. Take the combined hit dice value (for example, HD 5+1 = 6) and subtract that from 9 (or add it to 10 if using ascending AC). That is the characters armor class (improved further by one if using a shield). This gives fighters the best AC, but also allows gradual progression. Following the same example, a character with 5+1 HD has an AC of 3 [16]. This is sort of the defensive equivalent of using hit dice as attack bonus. AC should also be capped, depending on the desired campaign power curve (if I was using this for Vaults of Pahvelorn, the best AC from hit dice would be 3, or 2 with a shield, because danger should always remain). Really, the term “AC” here becomes a bit vestigial; it’s really more of a defence stat, but continuing to call it AC probably helps from a UI perspective, given that it works exactly the same as AC.

If you wanted to preserve some mechanical effect from armor, maybe allow it to add a bonus to the death saving throw† (light = +1, medium = +2, and heavy = +3). This further reinforces the idea that HP is a mixture of elan and resolve, and that there are no potentially telling blows until HP have been exhausted. The downside of armor would be an encumbrance style penalty to ability checks, non-death saving throws, and escape rolls.

† Rather than deal with negative HP or have death occur at 0 HP automatically, I allow PCs to make a death save. If this is passed, the character is unconscious. If it is failed, the character is slain. This is one of my favorite house rules, and probably deserves its own post so that it can be linked to directly.

Magic-Users and armor

Brainstorming several different approaches. Goals: should provide interesting trade-offs while respecting the fictional logic.

  1. Chance of spell failure. Maybe N in 6 chance, where N is based on the armor heaviness (light = 1, medium = 2, heavy = 3). Problem: the rational course of action is to carry a suit of armor and put it on after all spells have been used. This is lame. Such an approach might even encourage annoying things like taking off armor to cast spells and then putting it back on (yes, this can be balanced with random encounter checks, but still lame).
  2. Wearing armor causes an armor penalty, equal to the type of the armor (where light = 1, medium = 2, and heavy = 3). This penalty applies to all physical checks (attack rolls, saves, ability checks, etc) and works much like the encumbrance penalty (and in fact is cumulative with it). This could be offset by a class-based armor skill (fighter = 3, thief = 1, magic-user = 0). Problem: while this would increase the game cost of magic-users wearing armor slightly (-3 to physical saving throws, escape rolls, and constitution checks associated with drowning are big deals), it doesn’t really impact casting spells at all. Further, one seeming corollary of this system is that zero level characters would probably have armor skill of 0, complicating the common case if consistency is maintained.
  3. Use a roll-to-cast system. I love this, but it’s also very invasive, and probably requires reworking many spells as well to do correctly. I would like a solution that supports the traditional Vancian system.
  4. Maybe magic-users just don’t get as much benefit from armor, but still take all of the downsides? Kind of like this. Magic-users could get AC 8 from leather, AC 7 from chain, and AC 6 from plate. Has promise, but is perhaps too complicated. Also, I don’t much like the corollary that magic-users have less skill with armor than standard zero level civilians. I prefer to think of all the character classes as somewhat competent adventurers; magic-users are not assumed to all be frail academics. I suppose zero level characters could also gain less benefit from armor, but that seems to introduce unattractive complications.
  5. Magic-users can wear armor, but only special enchanted armor (elven chain perhaps). This necessitates some justification for why magic-users can’t cast in normal armor (such as overly scientistic claptrap like how metal interferes with magic, which just invariably leads to subversion of the balance rule through creation of things like wooden or chitin armor). Also, it means that all “fully upgraded” magic-users must aspire to finding a suit of special armor (kind of like how cloaks and rings of protection are so critical in AD&D). Suboptimal.
  6. Learn to stop worrying and love magic-users in armor. I don’t mind this aesthetically. In fact, I quite like sorcerers in armor (picture by Stefan Poag), but it does seem wanting in terms of class balance (greatly decreasing the relative combat power of the fighter, specifically). That’s not the end of the world, especially as I have already improved the to-hit rolls of fighters in my current game.
  7. Provide compelling alternatives that compete with armor (such as robes). Combine with options 6, and maybe a increase the encumbrance cost of armor while not adding a full more physical penalties on top of the general encumbrance penalty. This is close to status quo, with the exception of explicitly legitimating magic-user armor use.
  8. Class-based AC. This has a certain attraction, especially if taken to the logical extreme where you literally say that fighters and clerics just have AC 3 no matter what they wear, thieves have AC 7, and magic-users have AC 9 (aside: clerics really should be the AC 5 class, but whatever). That solves the problem in one sweep, maintains both abstraction and balance, and makes armor only important as a kind of magic item or cosmetic affectation. That last bit is also maybe a problem though, as it does away with consequences of armor for things like drowning.

As you can see, my thoughts are all over the place. Anyone else have any good ideas or suggestions?

Edit: added option 8 based on Guy F.’s comment on Google Plus.

Weapons Revisited

Update: I recommend using the slightly simpler approach to this same basic idea described in the Weapons Quick Reference post.

Image by Piranesi (source)
Image by Piranesi (source)

I started work compiling various blog posts into a Vaults of Pahvelorn Player’s Guide, and the very first thing I decided to look at was my old weapon properties post. This is one of those topics that I think would really benefit from the accessibility of being included in a player’s document, because despite being designed mostly as bonuses, in play we still often forget many of the weapon features. One of my ongoing personal design goals is to make weapon choice just as interesting as spell choice, without relying primarily on variable damage dice (which promotes an overly numerical approach that I find lacks interesting trade-offs).

Of course, rather than just copying the old rules into the document and moving on, I immediately start to significantly revise them. Since I wrote the original version, I have been exposed to Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, which both take approaches to weaponry that have influenced me substantially. I think weapon tags are a wonderfully efficient way to remember the various features, and while yes you need to read the definitions once, it seems like once you know that dangerous-1 means backfire on a natural roll of 1, you are unlikely to ever need to look that up again. I think this version below is much improved over the original, and many of the rules have also been simplified (for example, riposte just automatically deals damage to attackers that miss and roll poorly rather than requiring another attack roll).

Weapon damage is 1d6 by default. Some weapons have additional benefits, as described below.

Axemelee, damage: re-roll 1, shield-smasher
Daggermelee, quickdraw, throwable, range-2, concealable, grapple
Macemelee, penetrating-2
Swordmelee, quickdraw, riposte
Two-handed swordmelee, two-handed, damage: 2d6 take highest
Pole armmelee, two-handed, interposing, damage: 2d6 take highest, reach, awkward-2
Quarterstaffmelee, two-handed, parry (melee)
Spearmelee, throwable, range-3, interposing, reach
Javelinmelee, throwable, range-5
Shieldarmor-1, parry (missile), damage: 1d3
Bowmissile, two-handed, range-7, reload-0
Crossbowmissile, two-handed, penetrating-2, range-6, reload-1
Slingconcealable, missile, insignificant, missile, range-4, reload-0, versatile ammo
Oilbombdangerous-1, flaming, immolating, penetrating-2, range-1, reload-1, unreliable-3
Powderbombarea, damage: 2d6 take highest, dangerous-1, flaming, range-1, unreliable-3
Areano attack roll, all enemies in area of effect take damage, save for half
Armor-N+N armor class
Awkward-N-N attack if not used at reach
Concealableeasy to hide in standard clothing (will not be noticed without a search)
Damagedamage inflicted is modified as stated
Dangerous-Nbackfires (damages wielder) on natural rolls of N or less
Flamingdeals fire damage and flammable targets must save or be lit up
Grapplefuture attacks auto-hit if a dexterity/strength contest is won
Immolatingsave or ignite, continuing damage, additional save per round
Insignificantdoes not count as an item for encumbrance purposes
Interposingmelee enemies must save to attack wielder, and on failure take damage
Meleemay only be used when engaged in melee (essentially, range-0)
Missilerequires ammunition
Parry (type)save to deflect one attack per round that hits (limited to type, if given)
Penetrating-N+N attack versus targets with armor
Range-Nweapons of higher range afford a free attack round as enemy closes
Reload-Ntakes N rounds to reload (reload-0 fires every round)
Ripostedeal damage if enemy misses and rolls 5 or less
Shield-smasherdefender with shield must save or have their shield destroyed
Two-handedrequires both hands to use effectively
Quickdrawmay ready and attack in the same round
Unreliable-Ndoes not function on rolls of N or less (overridden by dangerous)
Versatile ammomay use any small hard object (coin, rock) as ammo

Further Notes

  • “Mace” includes warhammer and military pick.
  • Wielding two weapons (where one is not a shield) grants +1 to the attack roll (credit to Philotomy).
  • A flask of oil may be used to coat a weapon and then ignited to give a metal weapon the flaming property (likewise, arrows). This is a reload-1 type operation. On attack rolls of 5 or less, the fire goes out. Such flaming weapons will also go out after one exploration turn (or after combat).
  • Target of a grapple may spend an action to attempt to free themselves (this is another dexterity/strength contest).
  • Ranges: bomb < dagger < spear < sling < javelin < crossbow < bow
  • Ranges are not measures, but are only used in relative comparisons.
  • Shooting or throwing into melee: determine target randomly.
  • Crushing/bludgeoning damage is sometimes important (skeletons, living statues, and so forth), but I decided that this is probably clear enough contextually, and thus doesn’t require a property (Google Plus discussion). I may change my mind on this, though.
  • A strength/dexterity contest means: both contestants roll either a strength or dexterity check (their choice). This is a less than or equal to d20 check, and the one that makes it by the most wins the contest (ties go to the defender).
  • I kind of want to add a great axe and maul (two-handed varieties of the axe and mace), but that would probably necessitate giving the two-handed sword an added benefit, and I haven’t been able to think of anything that I like.

Thanks to Robert G. on Google Plus for suggesting the property name interposing.

For ease of future reference: G+ threads on flaming oil: here and here (and Philotomy).