Monday, April 27, 2009

Personalities of the Rainy City -- Part I

Being a compendium of some of the illustrious personalities of "The Rainy City." 

All these characters made an appearance last night in our D&D heist game in the rainy city. Both PCs and NPCs are included in the list. Most of the personalities of these characters were invented on the spot, sometimes with the aid of a name list. Some of the events of the adventure are noted or hinted at in the character descriptions.  

The Rainy City: A Rogues Gallery
  • Pizarro: Wizard and entrepreneur,  owner and proprietor of Pizarro's Steam Baths, the hottest new bathing spot in the Rainy City. It stands proudly at the edge of the waterfront in the Bluffs, clouds of steam pouring forth into the rain from its three storied windows and rooftops. It is said that beneath the steam baths Pizarro has set a flametongue sword on a great black stone, and it is by its heat that he creates the steam his patrons so enjoy. Others say he has bound a demon from hell in those cellars. Still others rumor that the steam comes from the fiery breath of a dragon. 
  • Kraul Geist: A freelance "security expert" who will evaluate your anti-theft measures and offer you the best of advice on keeping scoundrels away from your most valued possessions. Kraul is the man who, upon hearing various rumors from Hyperion (below), set the heist of the flametongue sword in motion. 
  • Hyperion the Hated: Wizard and entrepreneur, master of flames and fires. His own fledgling steam bath business is faltering badly. Pizarro's successes vex him. Still, he is magnanimous, speaking often and loudly about what a terrible shame it would be if someone were to steal Pizarro's magic sword. 
  • Vengus Ulf: Non-guild alchemist who offers a variety of salves, unguents, elixirs, and tonics to those who cannot afford to pay guild prices. He works from the front room of his townhouse at the edge of the wharves, just east of the Trades District. He would surely join the guild, if only they would approve his application.
  • Pallas the Pallid: *cough* *cough* A good customer of Ulf's. Not a healthy man, he suffers from the dampness and lack of sunlight. Now his wife has begun spending all their money at the baths, and he can no longer afford guild prices for his medicinal treatments. 
  • Jaelin the Charmer: Alf who lives in a treehouse in the Sump, the overgrown swampy slums that sprawl out along the western part of the city. Jaelin does not understand human money. Is he interested in demons? "Everyone is interested in demons." 
  • Maleficus: An old school chum of the alchemist Vengus Ulf, where "chum" means they were classmates and have a long history of antagonism and barely concealed hostility. Newly appointed to oversee guild memberships, he stops by Vengus's "house" to talk about why Vengus should consider joining the guild... soon. 
  • Schwiller the Boatman: A boatman who plies the bay that cuts through the channel harbor that cuts through the city, beneath which the ancient ruins of the great school of magic lie submerged. Schwiller uses a pole to push off the towers of the school and so navigate his way across the channel. His many sons are also boatmen. 
  • Zamdor: A boatman with an eyepatch. It is his opinion that there is a dragon beneath the steam baths. He's not sure how they feed it. 
  • Quintas: His fine boat has a roof! An elegant way to travel for the discerning customer. 
  • Axatos: Rumor has it he's next in line to become guildmaster of the Alchemist's Guild. An old school chum of the alchemist Vengus Ulf's, where "chum" means Axatos was the school bully during Ulf's tenure at the school. Axatos enjoys visiting the "Elite Baths" section of Pizarro's. Only the finest baths for him.  
  • The Esteemed Mr. Fingo Bunk: The most famous burglar in the Rainy City. It is reported that he cased visited the steam baths just before the PCs arrived.
  • Libitina: A pretty girl who works the ticket tent at the steam baths. She bears a striking resemblance to Elania the Smuggler. If her name badge did not state so clearly "Libitina," one would certainly be forgiven for mistaking her for Elania.
  • Verres the Pig: The fattest man in the fine baths. A regular visitor who speculates freely on the source of the steam. 
  • Mad Dog Konstantinos: Gang lord and murderer from the Sump. He has really begun to enjoy his visits to the steam baths with his cronies. The visits help him relax. 
  • Oculam the Oracular! A well known wizard and patron of the baths. He sees all! He knows all! Do you believe him? You do! 
  • Nameless Guards stationed in the central building, not yet open for business: The first is handily knocked out when the door hits him full on the night of the heist. The second surrenders immediately and gladly shares everything he knows about how to find the secret doors that lead to the lower levels. 
  • The Steam Beetle: Chained at the bottom of the stairs, this chittering creature guards the entrance to the chambers below the steam baths. It shoots scalding steam 5' from its mouth at any who approach, so beware. 
  • The Troglodytes: They run the machinery beneath the baths that pours water into the central heating chamber once each hour. They are terrified by sorcery, and when some a half dozen of their number fall into an enchanted sleep cast on them by the Jaelin the Charmer, the other two run off to hide in their barracks, pushing their beds up against the door to bar it closed, and throwing all their worldly possessions -- a bag of 500 copper -- to the burglars in hopes of buying them off. 
  • The Salamander: Trapped beneath the steam baths, bound within a pentagram to the black stone in the central chamber, it is the salamander that causes the steam. Once each hour, the trogs  operate the machinery that releases a torrent of water into the chamber. The native heat of the salamander boils it to steam, which is then channeled through pipes to the steam baths above. Once freed from his servitude, he seeks to burn down the whole of the baths and burn up Pizarro. But first he must contend with the terrible wet conditions of the rainy city, and then he must find his hated captor.
  • Nameless Guards stationed in the administration building, which the burglars try to quickly loot on their way out: Not as easily fooled or as easily cowed as the nameless guards from the central building. These nameless guards are the other sort -- they'll shake your hand while using their other hand to try to cut you to death with their swords. And a hell of a job they can do of it, too. 
That ends the rogues gallery. If I've missed anyone -- or missed any details -- I'm sure one of the guys will chime in. I'm also happy to talk about what anything I mention in the descriptions actually means, if anyone is wondering about any particular character or detail. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mission Time

Scarlett: You know the drill?
Ripcord: Yeah. Circle the area and listen for your beacon on channel 23. If we hear nothin' in 30 minutes we consider you dead and report back to the Flagg. 
Scarlett: You don't have to like it.
Ripcord: Good. 'Cause I don't
G.I. Joe: Resolute, Episode 6 (Watch it here: Adult Swim or Youtube)

This dialogue struck a chord with me because I've been thinking a lot lately about mission time in D&D and how it can be leveraged in play. The 10 minute adventuring turn is just as fitting for tracking small unit military ops (appropriately enough, perhaps, given the game's history), as it is for the "heist style" campaign I'm working on. 

Why haven't adventuring turns been emulated by more RPGs? Or have they? I like to think of myself as having a pretty broad experience with the hobby, but while I can easily think of games put concepts like abilities, character classes, surprise checks, and so on to good use, I'm drawing a blank on systematic use of adventuring turns. Even D&D hasn't really used them since pre-2nd edition. Has anyone emulated this kind of structure? 

My sense is that it hasn't been used by many games. Maybe it's a side effect of taking the game out of the dungeon. Or, if staying the dungeon, playing more of a "kick in the door, kick some ass" style game than an exploration and expedition style game. Maybe it's because skill systems have absorbed some of the work -- it can take a variable amount of time to carry out a skill check, depending on the skill. But even then, it seems like a lot of games don't offer much in the way of benchmarks for how much time passes with a skill check, with a few notable exceptions. 

The James Bond 007 game would be one exception. It's a standout game for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that it manages to include a base time for each skill (which is then modified by degree of success), with skill entries that include information like: 

Demolitions: 12 minutes. 
Lockpicking and Safecracking: 3 minutes for lockpicking; 15 minutes for safecracking.
Stealth: 1 minute per 50 feet travelled. 
Seduction: Anywhere from 5 minutes to a lifetime.

Millenium's End is another game that gives some information about time associated with skill use. But neither one builds in a default adventuring turn structure like classic D&D. Does anyone? It seems to me that a 5 minute "mission turn" would be a good fit for a modern game, and where appropriate, skills could fairly easily be given a base time in terms of 5 minute mission turns. If I wanted  to run a "military adventure" campaign (i.e., GI Joe), I think I'd personally want this kind of information handy. 

As referee, I like to be able to set up the basic situation of the mission, maybe including a map, some information about key rooms, and some patrols, and then let the players decide how to deal with it. Adventuring turns with associated skills would help make this kind of play work well without relying entirely on ad hoc judgment calls about how time passes. Now, the ability of a referee to make ad hoc rulings is a basic part of what makes RPGs so flexible, of course, and I don't see an adventure turn system as something to replace that. I think of it more as something to provide a background rhythm and set of shared assumptions, something that helps everyone stay on the same page and helps the referee make consistent rulings about time. 

For a lot of play styles, this may not be a big deal. But for running heists, military operations, spyjinks, and expeditions into hostile dungeons, I think it would be very valuable.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Great Dungeon Caper

Dungeons and Dragons is a heist game. 

You have: 
  • Unbelievable treasures.
  • Guarded by impassible tricks and traps.
  • And Impossible guardians.
  • Including sentries in position (numbered rooms) as well as roving patrols ("wandering monsters").
  • The passing of turns to ratchet up tension.
  • XP for stolen treasure. 
  • A crew of highly specialized scoundrels -- safecrackers, intelligence gatherers, muscle for when things go wrong. Anyone could be the high charisma con man. Bonus points for the crew being a bunch of misfits brought to gether to do a particular job.
  • Reaction rolls for pulling cons.
  • "High tech" (high arcane, of course) security measures.
  • Equally "high tech" (high arcane) ways to create distractions and fool those security measures.
  • An emphasis on (player) cleverness to circumvent obstacles.  
Ocean's 11. The Italian Job. The Great Muppet Caper. 

D&D can handle a fantasy world version of these kinds of stories. While megadungeons and wilderness exploration are well regarded classic approaches to D&D (and megadungeons can be very heist-like), the rules are pretty well set up for a game about big heists and capers. 

The Job
Because D&D actually treats 10 minute game turns as a meaningful unit of gameplay, there is solid mechanical support for infiltrations and time sensitive B&E jobs. Many thief skills can be attempted multiple times with no penalty, but it it could be ruled that it takes time to do them. Maybe one turn passes for each Open Locks check or Find/Remove Traps check, and on a failed roll, you can choose whether to take another shot or whether time is running out and it's time to cut and run. Meanwhile, the wizard has is keeping a zone of silence around the safe cracker -- but that has a fixed duration too. Elsewhere in the compound, another party thief and the fighter stand ready to stage a distraction, drawing attention away from the vault where the "Eye of Vecna" is sealed up. 

Patrols can be modelled with encounter checks, with patrol frequency matched to the frequency of these checks. Maybe the default frequency is once every third turn, but it increases to once per turn if an alert is sounded. When encounters do happen, the rules tell us the distance at which the encounter starts (2d6 x10 feet). And if our adventurous thieves get the drop on the guards (the results of the surprise check show that the guards are surprised, but the PCs aren't), then the rules already note that the party can simply slip away and avoid the encounter (Moldvay, B23). Close call. But the job is still on. But woe be it to the party if the guards catch them by surprise. 

This just scratches the surface of the idea, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. It's the basic approach we're taking with the Rainy City campaign, where high stakes capers can be set up by the PCs independently, or on commission from city wizards out to steal from or sabotage their rivals. The ruins of the great school of magic lie beneath the waves, a megadungeon delve for adventurers willing to take those kinds of risks. But other kinds of high stakes jobs abound in a city this full of the treasures of a previous age, as well. The rewards are great for teams with the skill and panache to pull off the robberies. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You have 1-3 turns left to live...

"Otherwise, the rot grubs will burrow to the heart and kill their host in 1-3 turns." 
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, p. 83. 

One to three turns. That's 10-30 minutes. That is not a lot of time to get rid of those rot grubs... but it's a hell of a sight better than 1-3 minutes (1-3 rounds) would be. In classic D&D, turns and rounds are different. This is an easy distinction to overlook, but paying attention to it could make all the difference in the world to that greedy adventurer who's been digging through offal in search of treasure (yes, even though he kind of deserves the bit of trouble he's in). 

I love the 10 minute game turn in D&D as much as I love the combat round. But my impression is that it isn't one of the most beloved distinctions in the game. I should probably start by admitting that I never paid much attention to the difference between rounds and turns myself when I first learned the game as a kid, even though I learned from one of the best versions of D&D for taking turns seriously -- Mentzer's BECMI. It was only two years ago, when I first started playing classic D&D again, that I first started actually seeing how much the turn/round distinction can add to the rhythm of play, and I couldn't believe what I'd been missing. 

Turns are the rhythm of dungeon adventuring that underlies movement through the dungeon, dwindling torches, decisions about when (and what) to spend time on a search, trap finding, spell durations, and decisions about when to take time to rest. And it is a foreboding rhythm as well -- the drumbeat of passing turns heralds wandering monster checks. Wandering monsters are checked once per turn in OD&D ("Underworld & Wilderness Adventures," p. 10), once every three turns in Holmes Basic (also p. 10), once every second turn in B/X (Basic Rulebook, p. B53), BECMI (Basic Set, DM's Rulebook, p. 3 and p.48), RC (p. 29), at the DM's discretion in AD&D (AD&D1, p. 38), and once per hour in AD&D2, with a note that dangerous regions of the dungeon might require checks as often as, yes, once per turn (AD&D2, DMG, p. 101). 

Different versions of D&D emphasize the distinction to varying degrees, with the B/X, BECMI, RC line marking its strongest showing. But throughout classic D&D, it's there. I like to use it and make sure the players know that I'm using it. By setting out a few clear benchmarks for how long certain adventuring and exploring actions take, players have to weigh carefully how they spend there time. Is it worth checking every 10' square for traps when wandering monsters are about? How much time do you really want to put into searching this room thoroughly? If you go much deeper into the dungeon, will you have enough torches left to get back out? 

Turns give structure to an otherwise unstructured activity (moving through and exploring the dungeon), and I can see that it's an activity that DMs and players have apparently tended to approach more loosely. For all Gary Gygax's admonitions about the importance of timekeeping both outside and inside the dungeon (pp. 37-38 of the DMG), the turn system isn't given the prominence in AD&D that it has in the Basic lines, nor is it integrated as tightly with other sub-systems. By AD&D 2nd edition, turns are mentioned only occasionally in the game text. And they're gone for good in 3e (and so, of course, 4e). 

I'd be interested in hearing whether other people have made much use of the round versus turn distinction, and with what editions. The B/X -> BECMI -> RC line has turns built into so many of the spell durations (Sleep lasts 4d4 turns, Hold Portal 2d6 turns, Detect Magic 2 turns) that I assume a lot of people kept them alive there. But I'm very curious about how widely people have used turns to track time, movement, and searching in the dungeon, where I find them an invaluable addition to the game. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Temple of the Burbling God, Part 2

So the next morning, the party sets out. The expedition is led by Alar Vakaros, an elf from a snowy pine forest isle (Ben), and Ironbeard, an alcoholic dwarf from a ash covered isle called "The Asscrack of the World" in Dwarfish (Bill). They brought two henchmen from the crew with them: 
  • Shell, the shepherd and weekend warrior, who they've brought along because he is the only crew member to actually own a sword and shield, and...
  • Joe, the sewage engineer who was actually just holding his cousin's place in line when he got signed up on the ship, and who came along because he has a big mouth and is querelous enough to be easily goaded into doing dangerous things. His nature meant that he could easily back himself into a corner where he had to put up or shut up.
Most of the personality of these characters developed in play. Joe, in particular, ended up having pretty good repartee with Ironbeard -- they bickered and goaded each other, often to entertaining effect. 

The Dungeon
After trudging through the swamps and robbing a corpse of a helmet and a mace (both of which Joe took), the party found the dungeon entrance in the half-sunken lower levels of an ancient colliseum. Water running uphill from beneath the door of the dungeon let them know that something was up. They entered the first room (marked with a 1 on the map) where they promptly saw an enormous, bull-sized toad sitting in front of the door they wanted to go through. The one that the water seemed to be flowing from. The toad, "Old Wog," just sat there when they came in and eyeballed them lazily. I'd decided ahead of time that Old Wog was lethargic, and altogether too well fed to be particularly aggressive (though he would, of course, fight if attacked). His stats were the Giant Toad stats from the Cook/Marsh Expert set. 

And he was in the way. 

So Ironbeard decided to walk up and poke Old Wog on the haunches with the tip of his axe, muttering something to the effect of "get out of the way" and trying to get him to jab him into taking a hop forward. 

I gave Wog a standard (2d6) reaction roll to see what he'd do. Negative enough a result, and he'd attack. Positive, and he'd hop once forward. He hit a neutral result and just sat there.

At this point, I think Bill considered how reckless Ironbeard was and went to the dice himself, rolling a d20 vs his Wisdom to decide whether to poke the old toad again, a little harder this time. He failed his Wisdom check, and gave Old Wog a more pointed jab. 

One reaction roll later, Old Wog was taking a hop forward, and the party was continuing on its way. 

I doubt that scene would have played out like it did if we hadn't trusted the system, and trusted the dice. As a GM, I'm a pretty big fan of reaction rolls -- they add a certain variety and (dare I say it?) realism to monster and NPC behavior that I might not always match if I just made judgment calls for everything. I'm a creature of habit, like most people, and I know it's easy to fall into habits with monsters (like always attacking, fighting to the death, and so on). These habits are just that -- habits. They're not particularly realistic, or particularly interesting. Random results help add variety that a fundamentally habit-based creature (like me) probably wouldn't. 

Here are a few other aspects of the adventure that basically came out of the dice rolls: 
  • Ironbeard's (ultimately humorous) inability to hit anything at all, leaving him to be upstaged by Alar Vakaros, his elven companion, and even by the henchmen. 
  • Speaking of henchmen, Joe in particular had a tendency to refuse to do what he was told (he failed a few morale checks when asked to do dangerous things in the dungeon), which forced the PCs to do the reckless or dangerous stuff if they wanted it done
  • A horde of small, hopping frogs advanced menacingly on the party until someone decided to just start stomping on them with their boots (random encounter, result of "centipedes," fit to the theme of the adenture). 
  • And speaking random encounters, the generally safe, casual pace of the exploration came from the dice as well. Even though the adventure lasted 42 turns, and I checked for wandering monsters every 2nd turn like clockwork, only one random encounter actually occurred. All the rest of those rolls came up negative.
And I'm probably forgetting some. The adventure was fun -- trudging through muck and goop, keeping an eye out for weird frogs, robbing corpses, flipping through damp, rotting books, and just exploring. By any conventional definition, I suppose the expedition would have been counted as a failure --  the party didn't solve the mystery of the upward flowing waters, didn't battle the frog cult and destroy it, didn't stop the pirates or even loot the best treasures. But the rhythm of dungeon exploration, of trying to figure out how to make a torch when they've all run out, the weirdness, and the party banter meant that while the expedition would probably have been counted as a failure, the adventure most certainly was not. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Temple of the Burbling God, Part 1

Last time, I posted scans of all my notes from the Isle of the Frog adventure that I used to kick off a short campaign last fall. This time, I'd like to talk about what happened in play. 

Set Up
There were three of us (me, Bill, and Ben), and we played in Bill's apartment. Where we played may seem like minor point, but it ended up having an interesting side effect. I didn't have as much stuff at the table as I might have had at my place. It was just the nudge I needed to just leave the minis and maps home, and it was ended up being only session in the campaign that we played without minis and grids. I tend to think this had a positive effect on the game that night, something I say in spite of my general fondness for maps and minis. (I'd be remiss at this point if I didn't mention that the role of minis seems to be a topic of some discussion again at the moment.) 

In any case, I came without minis and dungeon tiles. And I also came without many books: I had my notes, my copies of the B/X rulebooks, The Monster & Treasure Assortment, and The Risus Companion. We rolled up characters using the standard rules: 3d6 in order, hit points rolled, etc. Since there were only two players, Ben and Bill each created a couple characters. They each only played one character at a time, but having an extra PC on hand let them choose who to use depending on the situation. It also gave them backup characters if needed -- a useful thing to have in classic D&D. 

The Situation
The setting was "The Island Kingdoms," a vast ocean filled with inumerable fantastical isles. The PCs crewed a ship of exploration, sailing forth to discover new isles with a small crew. They arrived at the beach of this little swampy isle to find a somewhat decrepit resort run by a staff that looked suspiciously like a bunch of damned pirates pretending to be in the hospitality industry. Green statues of frogs with coins in their mouths decorated the otherwise somewhat "polynesian" style resort. 

The Adventure Begins
The PCs weren't the only guests at the "Emerald Resort" -- a goblin ship had also docked and the goblins were busy running around, laughing, drinking, and trying to set fires (there was more than a little bit of Pathfinder influence on the goblins). Ironbeard (Bill's dwarf) listened in on the goblins' own adventuring plans while getting drunk in Rummy's bar. The goblins were heading into the island's swamps in search of treasures from a sunken city.

I'm not sure I actually remember having planned this bit. When Ironbeard started listening to the goblins talk, I thought it would be a good way to let the players know where to find the island's main attraction -- the temple of the burbling god that could be found in the mucky ruins in the swamp. Of course, as soon as the goblins said they were going out there as soon as it got dark enough, it struck me that the players would probably try to beat them to the ruins. 

In fact, they decided to get a good night's rest and set out in the morning, preferring to explore dangerous swamps by day rather than in the dark. 

This added an interesting wrinkle to the adventure -- the goblins were already in the ruins causing havoc the night before the party arrived. In fact, I decided that the goblins would have made it to the second dungeon level when the PCs arrived at the ruins. 

The Temple of the Burbling God -- Some Background
The temple is the home base for a frog cult that has teamed up with the pirates. The pirates provide some extra "muscle" and get coin and treasures from the cult's profits. The pirates are set up in parts of the 1st level of the ruins, but they don't actually buy into the cult's religion or get involved in its weirder activities on the 2nd dungeon level. As the island map shows, the pirates also have their own home base outside the ruins in a wrecked ship. The frog cult is up to your typical frog cult behavior -- creating arcano-genetic frog/human hybrids, carrying out strange rituals to turn the whole world into a swamp, and crafting cheap little frog jewelry to sell to tourists at outrageous prices.

Deep in third dungeon level, there is a magical frog statue vomiting out water that flows upward through all three dungeon levels and out into the swamp. It's the reason the island is a swamp. There's a 1000 gp emerald coin in the dungeon (location 2 on the map) that can be placed in the frog's mouth to stop the waters from vomiting forth and so return to the island to its former state (not a swamp). That is, of course, assuming you're the kind of person who is willing to forego a 1000 gp coin in order to restore the natural balance of the island's ecology. 

All these things I knew about the dungeon, but there was no requirement that the players actually do anything in particular with them. What would happen in play was just going to depend on what the players decided to do. 

I'll talk about what the did do in the next post. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Isle of the Frog

Last fall, I kicked off a short campaign with an adventure loosely (and I do mean loosely) inspired by Dave Arneson's "Temple of the Frog." When Amityville Mike posted his "Fane of St. Toad," I was inspired to do something similar. Rather than writing up an adventure in detail, though, I thought I'd post all my game notes from the adventure we played last fall. I'll follow up by describing some of what happened in the session. 

I'll start with the game notes. I'm always curious about what other people's notes actually look like, and I can't be the only one. So here is a complete set of all my pre- and post-game notes for "The Isle of the Frog" (which bills itself as "The Emerald Isle" to new visitors). I ran the game with these notes, a couple rule books, and some dice. We used the Moldvay Basic book as our rules set. I originally had drawn the dungeon map to match some Dungeon Tiles that I had, but when we played the game we actually didn't use any tiles or minis. And NPCs and location names that were needed in play were either just made up by one of us or rolled up using tables from The Risus Companion ("That Last #@!% Cliche" and "The Megaversal Omnigroovy Background Machine"). I rolled random encounter results from The Monster and Treasure Assortment. Expert gaming archaeologists may find all sorts of clues about where I was stealing from with careful study of the notes. 

The maps are at the top of this post (here's another link to the pdf). 

My pre-session notes

My in-game notes (passage of time in game turns, etc) and my post-session notes and planning for the next session. 

Some NPCs -- the crew of the players' ship. 

Next time, I'll talk about how the adventure actually went down in play. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

One of a Kind Spells

The one of a kind campaign could easily be used in the set up for a low magic campaign, but it's equally at home in a high magic one. The Rainy City is a high magic place. At the end of the world, the elemental plane of water rains down on the city and streams through its streets, the great school of magic lies beneath the bay, and fire magics are weak, flickery, and smokey. Wizards with damp robes and damper spirits protect their rotting books and seek spells of greater and more potent mystery. 

In this setup, individual spells are rare, restricted to only a very few spellbooks in the world. But the range of spells is wide. While as a GM, I'll be crossing off spells when I roll them up to place in spellbooks (because the spellbooks found in the game will have random contents), every single spell in the game is possible. I'll just check off entries as they come up. This means that my NPC wizards will have strange and unpredictable spellbooks, so I'll have to be creative in how they use those spells. It also means that as the campaign progresses, PC spellbooks will grow and change in semi-random ways, though the players will at least be choosing which spells to try to learn from the ones they find. The breadth comes from the game books -- every spell in the 4 volume Wizard's Spell Compendium set is available, and I'll be rolling them up from there. 

In the comments of my earlier "one of a kind" post, Kent pointed out that powerful wizards could reasonably be expected to have gone out and collected all the spells. This goes hand in hand with the "copying problem" -- unlike magic items, which can be passed from hand to hand without reproduction (perhaps simply by stating that the secrets to their production have been mostly lost), spells are different. You can easily copy of a spell from a spellbook and add it to your own. 

One check against this kind of thing happening is that I'll be using a modified version of the "Spells Known" table from Holmes Basic. The original table is here. The table is great, but it's designed for a version of the game with only about a dozen spells per level. Using the Wizard's Spell Compendium set means that I'll have hundreds of spells per level, so that jump from a maximum of 10 spells known at Int 16 to a maximum of "All" at Int 17 becomes a hell of a jump. I'll probably be changing the max spells for Intelligence 17 to a maximum of 12 known, and Intelligence 18 to a maximum of 14 spells known at each level. 

This really does force the wizard to choose. What spells do you study and attempt to master, so adding them to your spell book? Which do you not? When PCs find a new spellbook, the wizards will have some hard choices to make. This does raise the question of what to do with the other spells that aren't learned and added to the spellbook. The answer, it seems to me, is simple: you tear the pages out, and you have an instant scroll. And once you cast the spell, it's gone for good, consumed by the casting. 

This means that wizards will generally be able to master only a dozen or fewer spells. They'll have to pick and choose when a spell is worth putting the effort into learning. What's more, a lot of spells were lost when the world ended. To collect these spells, wizards need to first find out that they exist (through rumors, research, and so on), then find out where they were last known, then track them down and maybe find out where they now sit in a lonely ruin with the bones of their former master. And then you still have the task of going out to get them. Also, because it's a low level world -- there won't be many high level characters alive out there, there's a reduced chance that any cabal of master wizards will have collected all the good spells. 

Kent also suggested that maybe the act of copying spells might itself be intrinsically dangerous, and I like that. A "spell copying misfire" table could be fun, or I could go with one of the "wild magic" tables from the 2e books, possibly limiting the effect to times when the "chance to learn a spell" roll is a failure. I'm tempted to also use this "chance to learn" percentage as a casting roll for casting unknown spells directly from scrolls and books. Maybe a failure on this casting roll would call for a misfire roll as well. I don't want to make magic so dangerous and unpredictable as to be more trouble than its worth -- but I do like the idea of keeping it strange and wonderful. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Whoah, that was a close one" -- life, death, and heroes in D&D

This is an idea for more heroic style campaigns. The goal is to increase character survivability at higher levels, without taking the fear and danger out of adventuring. The solution is to steal a page from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay but put a decidedly D&D twist on it.

Here's how it works:

When a character is killed, be it through loss of hit points, failing a saving throw versus death, through poison, spell, or treachery, the player may opt to have the character lose a level instead. The DM or player can then describe a suitable "close call" that almost took the character's life, but that they escaped by the skin of their teeth. The character is still taken out of action for the rest of the encounter and suffers as much loss as possible, short of death or permanent disability. 

The level loss is permanent. The character must earn back the XP to regain the level. If the whole party falls, they'll surely be robbed, and quite possibly enslaved or imprisoned for ransom in addition to the loss of a level each. 

I like this system for a couple reasons. First, it allows for a little more continuity of character at higher experience levels. It makes heroic characters more robust, but it doesn't mean there are no consequences for deadly encounters. It is also tied directly into the D&D level system, meaning it can be used with a minimum of fuss. Unlike WFRP (a game I love deeply, I should add), the fate point mechanism isn't a separate pool. 

The system also has interesting implications when viewed in the context of level draining undead. The touch of a vampire is as bad as being killed twice, and I like that. The more soft-hearted DM has fewer worries about introducing deadly poisons and "Save or Die" effects in games with beloved characters, but the players still aren't free to take these kinds of threats lightly. It turns levels into a slightly more fluid resource, something you can expect to gain and lose from time to time. It'll take longer for many characters to reach higher levels, but at least they have the possibility of getting there without relying too much on Raise Dead spells, which could themselves be quite rare. 

First level characters are still in the same horrifying danger they've always been -- they just don't have any levels to spend. This means that 1st level remains the gauntlet. If you make it through, you've established that you're "hero material." If not, you were just another desparate bastard who tried. 

Optionally, you could rule that a first level character has the option of losing a level and becoming a "normal man." Having experienced harrowing encounters in the otherworldly halls of a dungeon, the character tries to get out of the dungeon as soon as is (safely) possible to retire to a peaceful life of farming and telling his tale to village youths and passing adventures at the local tavern. 

I'd also restrict the system to PCs (hirelings wouldn't have access to it). It might be extended to the greatest of villains and monsters, which would allow for recurring foes, but I'd actually be hesitant to use this much (if at all). As DM, I have plenty of other tricks up my sleave, and it's usually more interesting to let the chips fall where they may. This "fate point" system already has a high potential to create recurring villains without allowing villains access to the fate point effect. Eventually, at some point, some villain or monster may well score a TPK. The characters will each lose a level, all their worldly goods, their pride, and perhaps their freedom. When they recover, it'll be up to them whether to pursue vengeance against their enemy or not, andif so, when. Also, I don't feel that giving the PCs access to extra "lives" is necessarily just a perk for players. The DM's increased ability to throw "Save or Die" effects around with greater impunity is already a nice perk. And if it means more buy in on characters, and less need to cross "Thorgo" off the character sheet and write "Thorog, Thorgo's brother" on the top, I'm happy with that too. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Skilled Thieves in BECM/RC

I like the thief class, on a number of levels. Conceptually, it's a good, iconic class, and even though it wasn't native to OD&D, it entered the game very early. I also like the effect of thief skills. They set thieves apart -- with their percentile based skills, they just play by different rules from the other classes (much as fighters and wizards also play by different rules). And maybe most importantly, I like thieves because, in my experience, they're fun in play. 

So I've been thinking about the thief since we decided to go ahead and adopt BECM/Rules Cyclopedia as our core rules set for the Rainy City campaign. 

Because they suffer a bit in the 1-36 level spread. They just don't get truly competent at the speed they did in earlier versions of the game, and while I see the rationale for it (at least, I get where that comes from), I'd be happier with faster advancement. Balance between classes is only a minor issue for me in D&D, and I'm more than happy to let wizards become powerful in ways mere mortals can't even approach. That said, wizards (and clerics) just get even higher level spells compared to B/X, while thieves get a slowed down Thief skill progression. 

Poor bastards. 

I briefly considered just going with the B/X progression, but that interferes with my ability to actually rely on the BECM/RC rules as a simple core reference. (And yes, this is a bit of an odd concern given that I'm happily using the 1e and 2e AD&D Monster Manuals and 2e Wizard's Spell Compendium and Ecyclopedia Magica books in the campaign, but there it is.) 

Instead, I'm planning on taking the rules for picking pockets and expanding them to the rest of the thief skills. The rule for pick pockets is basically this -- if you're picking the pocket of a higher level character, subtract 5% per difference in level. In the Rules Cyclopedia, this is a one way street -- you don't get any benefits if you're higher level than the victim. 

I'm thinking about a) making this work in both directions and b) applying it to any thief skill it seems to fit. So if you're 5th level and picking the pocket of a 2nd level victim, you'd get a +15% to your chance of success. Similarly, if you're hiding from a lower level opponent, you'd get the appropriate bonus. This makes the skills a little swingier in both directions, but I'm alright with that. It'll be up to the players to choose when and how (and against whom) to try their skills, since they'll only have a rough idea in many cases of the level of opposition they're facing.