Sunday, October 8, 2017

Trimming the Fat II: The Trimmening

Here's the promised followup to my previous post. Last time, I pruned a few extraneous classes, and hung question marks over many more; today, I'll be looking at the typical selection of character races. As with the last post, to qualify here, the race in question must have appeared in the core rules of at least two "editions" of D&D.

Dwarves and Halflings

(First playable appearance: Men & Magic, 1974)

Dwarves have long been a staple of D&D, due to their ubiquity in Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories - major party members in The Hobbit, less so (at least directly) in The Lord of the Rings. These roles have been reversed in the latter, where four of the central characters are hobbits. These two races have often been grouped into similar categories; in original D&D (pre-Supplements), they are both restricted to the fighter class, while AD&D (both 1e and 2e) allow them to be thieves in addition. (1e is unusual in that halflings cannot be clerics, but halfling NPCs are allowed to be druids!)

The reason that I group these two together is as follows: I feel that having both as distinct species is a bit redundant. Short people, sometimes with long beards (including female dwarves, at least according to Gygax), who can't usually be wizards? In my campaign, I've long considered merging the two into a single species, with the subraces having different characteristics; perhaps it's the "Tallfellow" or "Stout" dwarves who are longer in leg and beard.

Elves

(First playable appearance: Men & Magic, 1974)

Elves are pretty much essential components of any high-fantasy game. They look and act similarly enough to humans that the two can conceivably adventure together, but are just different enough that a Referee with any creativity can put vast oceans between the two species just under the surface. (This is another reason that the Vulcans on Star Trek tend to pop up as major characters; in fact, one can easily draw parallels between the two). And if these are different species, not just different ethnicities of humans, then it makes sense that they would have some classes that are harder (or flat-out impossible) for them to pursue. An acquaintance pointed out that, logically, they should also be able to do things that humans can't do, and this is why I think multi-classing (with a few limits) is a good way to differentiate demihumans from humans.

Gnomes

(First playable appearance: Players Handbook, 1978)

Oh jeez... If dwarves and halflings as separate species seems superfluous to me, gnomes are about as useful as a third thumb. Rarely do I see anyone play them; in fact, I've only encountered two gnome player characters in any fantasy RPG I've run or played (one of which is my own PC, Roywyn Raulnor). Considering Tolkien's influence, it seems fairly obvious that their origin lies in Tom Bombadil, but it doesn't really seem necessary to have yet another species of short height and long beards.

"I gnow thee gnot, old man."
(model from Battle for Middle-Earth II)

The main point of interest is that, in AD&D (both editions), gnomes are the only demihuman race that can be illusionists; I concede that my own gnome PC, if ported over to AD&D from her current home of 5e, would be a multi-classed illusionist/thief. But I say just let the combined dwarf/halfling species be illusionists, and free up the gname of "gnome" for fey creatures more resembling those seen on American lawns.

Half-elves

(First playable appearance: Supplement I: Greyhawk, 1975)

Half-elves do technically appear in The Lord of the Rings. Elrond is called "Half-elven", although his parentage has little actual impact on his mortality or the way he is viewed by others (at least from what I read - I read all of The Fellowship of the Ring, but couldn't get through more than about a quarter of The Two Towers). He chose to identify with his elven ancestors, and so he's considered an elf.

If a player character wants to be a "half-elf", that's fine by me, but they have to choose whether that means they will identify as an elf or a human; there's no real reason for such a strong level of incomplete dominance that they're considered a separate race. I get the feeling that the desire for half-elves is largely based on min-maxing, as half-elves get more classes to choose from than elves, but still have some special abilities. In that cast, why not just let elves have more classes, and drop the mechanical differences of half-elves?

Half-orcs

(First playable appearance: Players Handbook, 1978)

Same here as for half-elves. If a Referee wants to let players be a potentially "monstrous" species, just remove the status of full orcs as mindless, faceless evil minions, and let players be orcs. The games in the Elder Scrolls series, starting with Morrowind, did this with great success; orcs are integrated into society for the most part, and their fierce reputation serves them well as soldiers.

Dragonborn and Tieflings

(First playable appearance: Player's Handbook, 2008)

I'm inclined to just say "no". Tieflings have a bit more history, appearing initially in the Planescape setting for AD&D 2e, but dragonborn have no excuse aside from Wizards of the Coast trying to cash in on the humanoid races popular in World of Warcraft. If someone wants to play a dragon-like character, there were already half-dragons for over ten years by the time 4e came out! Also, as Preston Selby pointed out here:
"I just think there's a sort of breakdown in the game when a player can say their character is a half-dragon with a horny lizard-head and a breath weapon, and there is an expectation that the character can walk into a town and an inn with the humans and the halflings and everyone will act like this is totally normal. At that point, the game has seriously damaged its potential for weirdness and wonderment."
At that point, discrimination by non-fire-breathing humans and dwarves isn't necessarily based on irrational, prejudicial fears (although there's probably an element of that); it's a very rational fear that the dragonborn might sneeze too hard and burn down your house!

I realize that this gets into the same thorny area as X-Men (as much of a prick as he was, Senator Kelly was right when he referred to powerful mutant teenagers as "weapons in our schools"). This is why fantasy and sci-fi can only use metaphors for racial and religious discrimination up to a point.

Ack, back on topic: I don't think dragonborn should be a "standard" species in the kind of games I like to run. As always, these are just my opinion, not some kind of holy pronouncement.

The Tally

Playable: Dwarves (including Gnomes and Halflings), Elves, Humans, possibly Orcs

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Trimming the Fat

I've been thinking a lot about the necessity of certain classes in D&D (and similar games). Fighters, mages, and thieves are pretty much essential in terms of both tone and gameplay. Clerics might not always fit tonally, but they're almost always a necessity for gameplay purposes (as the party needs to not die too quickly). Having these four as the "core" classes - a tack taken by virtually every iteration of D&D calling itself the "Basic Set" - gives a good range of options for players. The subclasses of these, however, are less clear-cut in their necessity.

Note that I'll only be talking about those classes that have been central options available in multiple editions. The class has to have been in the Player's Handbook or equivalent, and have appeared in more than one edition in such a capacity (so no cavaliers or gunslingers).

Warriors

Barbarians are completely unnecessary, and the RPG archetype is ridiculous; even Conan the Cimmerian, one of the most famous "barbarians" of fantasy literature and film, wore armor when it was appropriate. In my opinion, there's no need to have them as a distinct class from fighters.

Paladins are basically fighter/clerics, with the weapon selection of a fighter and some of the spell and turning ability of the cleric. Tonally, they might as well just be clerics, so in my view they aren't needed as a separate class.

Rangers' tracking ability and (in some editions) proficiency with two-weapon fighting are nice extra abilities, but not essential in a primarily dungeon-focused game. They might not be needed as a separate class from fighters.

Priests

Druids are a tough case, as besides their extra powers (like shape change), they sometimes have a very different set of spells from their parent class; in oD&D and AD&D 1e, they don't even get cure light wounds until second or third level! The issue is that having both clerics and druids can lead to some tonal mismatches. I might elaborate on this in a different post, but the jury's out on the necessity of druids.

Rogues

Assassins are in a similar boat as rangers, as they're basically normal thieves with some extra abilities. Assassination is largely redundant considering thieves can already backstab, but their disguise ability has so much potential; admittedly, it could just as easily be assigned to regular thieves instead (shades of Lupin the 3rd?). Since they're also of little extra use outside of cities, I'll call this one a draw.

Bards, on the other hand, are excellent to have in one type of game: one with a small number of players. In a group of six, it's easy to have at least one player character to fill each basic role, with some doubling-up as needed or desired. This is harder to do in a group of three or four, and while the bard is certainly no substitute for a fighter or a spellcaster (except in AD&D 1e, but that's a whole other kettle of fish), they can certainly pull their weight in a pinch. The problem comes when bards are designed to be equal or superior fighters, thieves, or spellcasters compared to actual, single-classed fighters, thieves, and spellcasters; 5th edition has this problem in a big way. I'll chalk this one up as a maybe due to their utility for some groups.

Wizards

Illusionists, if their spell lists are different enough from standard mages, can have interesting possibilities. I'm not a big fan of them in AD&D 2e due to the fact that mages can access every spell, with illusionists' (and other specialists') only advantage being more spell slots and easier learning. What are not different enough are...

Sorcerers. This step-headed redchild is so bafflingly similar to its parent class that both sorcerers and wizards share exactly the same spell list in D&D 3.5; even in 5th edition, their selection of cantrips is identical. If you prefer the sorcerer's more cleric-like method of casting spells, that's fine. But the presence of both sorcerers and normal wizards in the same setting destroys any reason to play the latter, and also destroys the entire rationale for wizards being somewhat rare and secretive.

The Monk (or Mystic)

Monks are... an odd case. AD&D treated them as the fifth core class, and with good reason: their means of attack, defense, and other abilities can't be easily slotted under the warrior, priest, rogue, or wizard groups (although some editions, including oD&D, consider them a cleric sub-class for attack and hit dice purposes). Even in BECMI, the rechristened mystic was added as the only other human class available at first level (the druid, as well as the name-level fighter trifecta of paladin/knight/avenger, being more akin to WOTC's prestige classes). Tonally, they might not fit certain settings in their default form, but I would argue for their inclusion.

The Final Count-up

Assassin - Maybe
Barbarian - No
Bard - Maybe
Cleric - Yes
Druid - Maybe

Fighter - Yes
Illusionist - Maybe
Mage - Yes
Monk - Yes
Paladin - No
Ranger - Maybe
Sorcerer - No
Thief - Yes

(Reminder: this is all my personal opinion. Feel free to disagree, but please do so civilly.)

Friday, September 29, 2017

Change, changing places

A lot has been going on, both inside and outside cyberspace. In the "real world", I've had very little success in gathering people together for games - at least the kinds of games that I want to run or play. I've used that time in overhauling my hex-map of my campaign world, finally adding roads (or at least trails) and cleaning up the coastlines.

Here's a snippet of my campaign world, rendered in Hexographer.
(Scale: 1 hex = 6 miles. The tan lines [heh] are roads.)




In cyberland, I have been neglecting this blog, though that's mostly due to the lull in actual play; without continuing to run, I run out of new challenges and new ideas. Hopefully my attempts at getting a group together will produce results; at the very least, I can post about some of my ideas that I've been working on (and I will very shortly).

Meanwhile, Stelios of The Word of Stelios has converted his gaming blog into a writing blog. Thankfully, he hasn't deleted any of his old gaming-related posts, and his few posts on writing thus far have been quite specific and relatable (as opposed to just rehashing "advice for new writers" that I had to read a lot of in junior high). DM Wieg of Save Vs. Poison has also started posting again, with some interesting content; hopefully he'll be able to share some similar content as time and occasion permit.

I'll try not to neglect this blog as much, more for my own sake than for anyone else (though I am thankful for the comments of those who do read it!), and maybe get some feedback on a few ideas.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Yet Another Post About Helmets

"A helmet is usually thought to be very heavy, but when one is attacking a castle or something similar, and arrows, bullets, large rocks, great pieces of wood, and the like are coming down, it will not seem the least bit so."
- from the 11th chapter of Hagakure
Helmets have been around since the literal beginning of D&D as a commercially available product, but their actual use in play has never been straightforward. I won't go into detail on the rules for helmets tucked away in an obscure paragraph of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, but instead I'll focus on the edition in which I've logged the most designing time (refereeing time is a close tie with B/X): AD&D 2nd Edition.

The Player's Handbook for 2e has two types of helmet listed: the basinet and the great helm. Their use or employment is never described, even though the designers thought that the people actually reading the rules would need an explanation of what a magnifying glass does. As much as I want to keep things in the core books whenever possible (to cut down on the strain on my back, if for no other reason), the solution is found in supplements.

The Complete Fighter's Handbook (PHBR1) gives several types of helmets, but doesn't provide specific rules as to what helms should be used with what armor. I realize that such is a task I could undertake myself, but there's little point in doing so if someone else has already done it. In Player's Option: Combat and Tactics, there are more specific rules for different helmets, along with corresponding Armor Class values.

In my current house rules, I use helmets a little bit differently (though still heavily inspired by both of those books), so I'll provide the pertinent rules below.

Fuzzy's Helmet Rules for AD&D 2nd Edition

AC 8-7 (padded, leather, studded leather, ring mail): Leather helm
AC 6 (brigandine, scale mail, hide): Cap
AC 5 (chain mail): Mail coif
AC 4 (splint mail, banded mail, bronze plate): Open-faced helm
AC 3-2 (plate mail, field plate): Closed-face helm
AC 1 (full plate): Great helm

A helmet can be worn with different armor (i.e., wearing a great helm with bronze plate), although in some cases this will look off-putting to observers, though not usually resulting in any penalty to interaction. A mail coif can be worn underneath a great helm; this does not provide a bonus to protection, but still allows some protection for the head if the great helm must be removed.

The main function of helmets is to prevent called shots being made to the head. If the head is unarmored, it has AC 10, and a successful called shot will deal the maximum possible damage for that weapon (so a long sword against a Medium opponent would deal 8 points of damage, plus Strength bonus if applicable).

Unofficial Rule (need to test this out in play first): A natural 20 on a called shot to the head will result in the target being instantly reduced to 0 hit points, thereby falling unconscious and "hovering on death's door".

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reheated Leftovers

My previous post on the lack of creativity in the modern "hobby" reminded me of a quote from Ed Wood:
"So, uh, you made the movie, and now you wanna make it again?"
The urge to remake old stuff for each new edition is funny to me. We've had versions of The Temple of Elemental Evil for AD&D (the original version), 2e (Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil), 3e/3.5 (in both module and computer game formats), 4e (twice!), the D&D Adventure System boardgame (which is based on 4e's mechanics), and 5e.

The only place where such retreading is this common is in the movie industry, although I have to say that (for the most part) things have slowed down a bit since the heady days of the 1920s through the 1940s, when a movie might be remade several times within the same decade.

I'll just leave this here...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Matter of Magic

After Ozymandias expressed some curiosity as to the specific attributions alluded to in this post, I decided to write this up here - both to share it with anyone else who might find it useful, and to create yet another backup of this information should my hard drive and cloud storage fail. I was concerned about my players finding it, but my players are becoming less and less of a factor in my ongoing development of my campaign setting (largely by "substance of absence", or in layperson's terms, "not showing up"). Even if they find this blog, they'll still have to create a wizard to take advantage of this information.

Note that the first section is mostly a primer for those unfamiliar with AD&D 2nd Edition's magic system (as I'm intending this to be useful as a handout to players in the future); if you're already familiar with it, go ahead and skip down to "Correspondences".

The Schools of Magic

Wizard spells (also called "arcane magic" or "thaumaturgy") are each classified into one or more schools defining their function. There are eight of these schools in total, although there is a ninth "pseudo-school" that is sometimes added to these (described below).

Abjuration spells are protective in nature, shielding the caster or others from mundane or magical effects. Specialists in this school* are called abjurers; the schools opposed to Abjuration are Alteration and Illusion/Phantasm.

Alteration (also called Transmutation) spells reshape the environment or the caster in some way; these spells are among the most common ones used by wizards. Specialists are called transmuters; the opposition schools are Abjuration and Necromancy.

Conjuration/Summoning spells call forth objects or beings from other planes, to serve various functions. Specialists are called conjurers; the opposition schools are Divination and Invocation/Evocation.

Divination spells seek to gain information about people, places, or things, in the present or future. The spells of the fourth level and below in this school are sometimes referred to as "Lesser Divination", as they may be learned by any mage or specialist; only the "Greater" spells of the fifth level and above are forbidden to certain specialists. Those who specialize in this school are called diviners; the only opposition school is Conjuration/Summoning.

Enchantment/Charm spells seek to affect either beings or items in some fashion; the former tend to be mind-affecting and temporary, while the latter are permanent if the right conditions are met. Specialists are called enchanters; the opposition schools are Invocation/Evocation and Necromancy.

Illusion/Phantasm spells are focused on creating effects that only seem real, often attempting to disguise themselves as the work of other schools. The specialists of this school, illusionists, are among the most common of all specialist wizards (not that specialists themselves are all that common!); their opposition schools are Abjuration, Invocation/Evocation, and Necromancy.

Invocation/Evocation spells call upon magical energies, acting on and with them how the workings of Conjuration/Summoning spells involve objects and beings. Specialists are called invokers; the opposition schools are Conjuration/Summoning and Enchantment/Charm.

Necromancy spells manipulate the energies of life and death for various purposes, with many spells involving the undead in some fashion. Specialists are called necromancers; the opposition schools are Enchantment/Charm and Illusion/Phantasm.

It is important to note that some spells fall under more than one of these schools. A select few - such as the 1st-level spell cantrip - are classified under all eight of these schools simultaneously, because they can be cast using any of the methods and energies available to a wizard.

* (In my current house rules, the only specialist wizards allowed are illusionists; this may change in the future, and in any case the reader is free to do as they please.)

Correspondences

The following table gives a summary of the attributions of various qualities and types of matter to the eight schools, as well as certain other parts of existence.

You might need to view the image separately to see it properly, depending on your screen resolution.


Certain terms here bear explanation. Pachyderms are considered mammals in the modern "real" world, yes, but to a pseudo-medieval mindset, elephants and rhinoceroses would seem pretty strange animals. Similarly, the category of "live-rearing fish" includes dolphins and whales as well; the attribution of this category to the Patron Saint of Executioners is because of the legendary viciousness of certain species of sharks, and their popularity as animals of execution in the Principality of Le'var. And as the Patron Saint of Warriors (St. Girtus) traditionally has a longsword as his weapon, what better representative in the animal kingdom than the swordfish?

Finally, "Primortal" refers to St. Desial's title "Patron of All Mortals"; they are traditionally thought to be the first ancestor of all mortal races, including humans, demihumans, and humanoids. (I thought of the contraction as I was making the table, and it just seemed too cool - in a Katanas and Trenchcoats way - to pass up.)

And here's an edited version of the eight-color wheel, with my terrible Microsoft Paint skills used to add the school symbols from the reprinted 2nd Edition Player's Handbook.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Combat Rounds

I'll give you my thesis up front: One-minute combat rounds - at least where melee combat is concerned - are ridiculous.

How do I know this? Well, I've been irregularly sparring with one of my friends for a few months now, using various wooden and polypropylene practice weapons. As time goes on, and we acquire more and more Martial implements, the level of physical strain being placed on our bodies increases. My friend lives out in the middle of nowhere, has two horses and a stable of standard poodles, and works as a furrier; the result is someone who is more accustomed to physical labor and exertion than a Dungeon Master with a liberal arts degree. Despite this, even recreational sparring with arming swords and hand-held bucklers (and hopefully other weapons in the future - check out my list of budget-priced practice arms, if you're interested) is a massive effort; I can't imagine doing so in full maille or plate armor, on a hot day, after a mile-long march.

After one especially intense list, I estimated the total duration of that match-up: two minutes. In AD&D terms, two combat rounds. Ridiculous.

Granted, neither of us are in the kind of shape required of a medieval (or present-day) mercenary soldier, let alone a knight trained from birth. But I'd estimate that I am at least in good shape as the average 0-level human, or an especially kapable kobold. Let's measure two minutes out in combat rounds, by edition of D&D.
  • Basic/Expert D&D: One round is ten seconds, so two minutes translates to twelve rounds. Not too shabby in game terms, as this would be a tough and grueling fight for low-level characters.
  • D&D 3rd Edition (and onwards): One round is six seconds, so two minutes translates to twenty rounds. I could buy this, if the pumped-up nature of d20 System heroes is taken into account.
  • AD&D 1st or 2nd Edition: One round is one minute, so two minutes translates to... two rounds. One set of attack rolls on each side, except for fighters with weapon specialization or those using ranged weapons.
See the problem? Even if a combat round has more than one "attack" being made in it - as Gygax argued in AD&D - how fun would it be to require a full turn or more spent resting every two rounds?

Being the literal stubborn bastard that I am, I set out to fix this. The simplest solution seemed to be to change the rounds to ten seconds long. This keeps the idea of segments intact (even if they're never mentioned by name in 2e, they're still there), only reducing them to 1 second and thereby removing the need for a specialized term; 1 round = 10 seconds, 1 turn = 10 minutes. It also allows everyone to continue using a low d10 roll for initiative. But a big problem immediately comes up: rate of fire.

In AD&D, certain ranged weapons can make multiple attacks per round. Additional melee attacks (for fighters of sufficiently high level, or those with weapon specialization) are no problem, since they start off pretty low at 3 attacks for every 2 rounds. But weapons like the bow (2 attacks per round) or the dart (4 attacks per round for specialists) start getting a bit out of hand. I saw only two solutions to the suspension of disbelief that would snap like a guitar's high E string if the ROF was left intact: limit all weapons to the number of attacks granted to melee weapons - thus still allowing for specialists to shoot faster - or just limit everything to 1 attack per round, the way they are in B/X.

But then the thought occurred to me: if I'm going to change the whole combat system to be like B/X, why not just run B/X? This ties in with my previous post on my issues with excessive house-ruling. In the case of AD&D, it's even worse, because I want the Player's Handbook to still be a useful reference for players in as many cases as possible. The more I change about the fundamental mechanics of the game, the more of that book (that somebody paid good money for - I wanted to eventually give several of my players their own copies) becomes dead weight, useless to anyone who delves into my campaign.

The poor correspondence of one-minute combat rounds to the realities of melee battle (more irritating than the continued classification of maille as being lighter in weight than field plate armor - one of the few areas in which I grudgingly concede that 5th edition did something right) is one of the reasons I might convert my campaign over to B/X or Basic Fantasy. From Basic it came, and to Basic it may yet return.