Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When is it okay to kill PCs?

As I begin writing this post, I have just finished helping an acquaintance make his character for B/X D&D. This session took less than 30 minutes, and highlights one of the major pluses of B/X for me: speed. He has, as far as I know, never played any version of D&D before, although his participation in innumerable games of Munchkin about two years ago has evidently familiarized him with the basic concepts of fantasy RPGs.

I have no qualms about killing player characters in B/X, mainly because of the fact that players seem to be inherently less strongly attached to their characters than in the more "crunchy" games. In part, this is because the time spent creating a character is halved or even quartered. Here's the entire process we went through, start to finish.
  • 3d6 in order: Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha. (My acquaintance actually got average to above-average scores, which is good for a beginning player.)
  • Class selection: since his highest score was 15 Dex, he chose a Thief. (I offered to let him raise it to 16 by lowering his Str or Int, but he declined.)
  • Saving throws: copied out of the table in the Basic Rulebook. (His Dex gives him a +1 on magic-based saves.)
  • Equipment: 2d6 x 10 gp. Normally it would be 3d6, but since the original group started off with almost nothing, I decided 20-120 gp would be fairer to them, while still allowing weapons and armor to be purchased. (Since this character had a -1 AC bonus from Dex, he decided to get extra weapons instead of leather armor.)
  • Hit points: d4. (He rolled a natural 4, thankfully.)
And... time! Half an hour. Since so little time was spent making this character, if he gets killed, I don't think my acquaintance would be too heartbroken; after all, he could just roll up another guy in even less time.

This is why I don't bother trying to run Pathfinder any more (not even the Beginner Box); we spend an entire session's worth of time just crunching numbers, and if the players act stupid - which they will - all that time will have been wasted. I think this is why there are so many rules in the newer iterations of post-A D&D to prevent player characters from dying.

Don't get me wrong, I will still try to give players a chance. There are two systems I have printed out for this purpose: the rule from the Rules Cyclopedia, and the one from the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide. I'll include them below:
Keeping Characters Alive

If you decide to get rid of the resurrection spells, you can also adopt another rule to make it a little harder for characters to die.

For instance, when a character is reduced to 0 hit points or below in combat (or from death spells), he's not yet dead. He's unconscious and mortally wounded; if left untended, he will die.

He must make a saving throw vs. death ray every turn. He makes the first roll on the round he drops to 0 hit point; he makes another every round he takes additional damage, and every 10 minutes (one turn) in addition. If he ever fails a roll, he's dead.

If he keeps making his rolls until reached by a healing cleric, someone with the Healing general skill, or someone with a healing potion to get to him, he can be saved. If the healers can heal him up to 1 hit point or more, or the Healing skill roll is made at a penalty of -5 (regardless of whether it heals him up to positive hit point or not), then the character is alive. He's critically wounded—but he'll survive.
The reason I don't use this one is because I don't use the general skill system, and first-level clerics can't heal. The next one is the one from the DMG, and it fits easily with B/X.
Hovering on Death's Door (Optional Rule)

You might find that your campaign has become particularly deadly. Too many player characters are dying. If this happens, you may want to allow characters to survive for short periods of time even after their hit points reach or drop below 0.

When this rule is in use, a character can remain alive until his hit points reach -10. However, as soon as the character reaches 0 hit points, he falls to the ground unconscious.

Thereafter, he automatically loses one hit point each round. His survival from this point on depends on the quick thinking of his companions. If they reach the character before his hit points reach -10 and spend at least one round tending to his wounds—stanching the flow of blood, etc., the character does not die immediately.

If the only action is to bind his wounds, the injured character no longer loses one hit point each round, but neither does he gain any. He remains unconscious and vulnerable to damage from further attacks.

If a cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point—no more. Further cures do the character no good until he has had at least one day of rest. Until such time, he is weak and feeble, unable to fight and barely able to move. He must stop and rest often, can't cast spells (the shock of near death has wiped them from his mind), and is generally confused and feverish. He is able to move and can hold somewhat disjointed conversations, but that's it.

If a heal spell is cast on the character, has hit points are restored as per the spell, and he has full vitality and wits. Any spells he may have known are still wiped from his memory. (Even this powerful spell does not negate the shock of the experience.)
The improvised rule I came up with in our first session is as follows: a character with 0 hit points is unconscious but stable. If an attack reduces them to -1 hit points or less, they must make a saving throw vs. death; if successful, they are stable. If they do fail the save, they can still be brought back to life (unconscious but stable) by giving them a healing potion within 1 turn (10 minutes). I probably won't be using this one, and I'll have the AD&D 2e rule in its place.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Power creep across editions

Reading through the Basic Rules for D&D 5th Edition, I am struck by how much more powerful wizards are at low level. Maybe this is just a reaction to my having spent the majority of my reading on B/X D&D and AD&D 2nd Edition, but the important magic missile spell is a good indicator of the relative power level of these games.

In B/X, a magic missile shoots one magical projectile which hits for 1d6+1 points of damage. A first-level magic-user has one 1st-level spell slot, and so the maximum amount of damage they could do in a single encounter without resorting to melee (pro tip: don't) is 7 points.

In AD&D 2nd Edition (and apparently 1st Edition as well), magic missile does 1d4+1 damage. A first-level mage has one spell slot, while a specialist in Evocation would have two; assuming both of these are used for the same spell, the most damage a wizard could do in one encounter is 10 points. A mage would only be able to to half this damage, at maximum.

In D&D 5th Edition, magic missile shoots three missiles for 1d4+1 force damage each! Also, first-level wizards have two spell slots, meaning that they could potentially do up to 30 points of damage in a single encounter - in addition to damage from cantrips like ray of frost! I'm picturing something like the spaz-lasers from The Lords of Magick, rather than the kind of fearful, fragile wizard portrayed in Dragonslayer.

True, the ability to shoot additional missiles was present even in B/X, but there a magic-user had to wait until 3rd level or higher before being able to launch multiple magic missiles!

It sucks having been the DM by default for such a long stretch of time; I find myself wanting to change things (like nerfing this spell, for one thing) as I read through 5th Edition. The reason I don't is that I want to experience this new version of D&D as a player first, and then as a DM. I feel like the new Starter Set will go a long way toward accomplishing this, but I still have to hold my house-rule instincts in check.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Magic-users in B/X D&D

I was surfing the web a little while back when I came across a post (probably by JB of B/X Blackrazor) that pointed out one of the flaws with the lower levels of the 1977-1991 "Basic" D&D game: until about 9th level, there's literally no reason to play a magic-user instead of an elf.

Let's look at this in more detail.
  • Magic-users have a d4 Hit Die, while elves have a d6.
  • Magic-users are limited to daggers for weapons (although many people house-rule to let them use staves, per AD&D), and cannot wear any armor. Elves can use any weapon and wear any armor, although the latter would seem to prevent them from casting spells; the usual house-rule solution I've seen is to let them wear leather armor only.
  • Elves also have infravision and an enhanced ability to detect secret doors.
The only advantage to a magic-user is seen at higher levels, since elves are capped at 10. The downside of this is that most players would be unwilling to wait that long, since a magic-user in a small party is unlikely to survive even to 2nd level.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Obligatory Alignment Post

To start, here's a brief overview of the major types of alignment categories used in the various version of D&D (in case this is your first time reading anything about D&D):
  • Three-point (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic). Used in OD&D, B/X, BECMI, and RC.
  • Five-point, type 1 (Good, Lawful, Chaotic, Evil, Neutral). Used only in Holmes, as far as I know.
  • Nine-point (LG, LN, LE, NG, TN, NE, CG, CN, CE). Used in almost every edition after AD&D 1e, including AD&D 2e, 3e and 3.5e, and the current 5e.
  • Five-point, type 2 (Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil). Used only in 4e and "Essentials".
Personally, I prefer the nine-point alignment system, since it's the one I started off with. It also informs my interpretation of the three-point system I use in B/X; I generally assume that all PCs are in the middle of the Good/Evil axis, so they are either Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, or Chaotic Neutral. One of my players, her play style informed by Pathfinder, chose Chaotic for her character's alignment, and heavily implied that her outlook was Chaotic Good. This is why I generally prefer the nine-point alignment system, if indeed any such system is present.

EDIT: Just realized that I did absolutely no research on Holmes for this, and therefore made a horribly inaccurate statement. I'm leaving it as it stands, though.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

More or less dice?

I have a large collection of dice, of various shapes and sizes, and I know I'm not the only tabletop gaming hobbyist who will gladly buy a die that I've never seen before, if it's in the bin at my FLGS. The most fun for me seem to be those that I know I'll never use. Among these are a pair of d6's that are numbered 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 (supposedly used for bite damage in the old Vampire: The Masquerade); another pair of translucent d6's that each have a tiny d6 inside them; a twenty-sided die numbered 1 to 5 four times; and several "old-school" twenty-sided d10's (two of which I actually use as percentile dice).

Mine are red with white numbers, and white with red numbers,
respectively; this makes them perfect for percentile rolls!

Whenever I decide to work on my own tabletop game, I wonder if I should have it use as many different types of dice as possible (i.e. the normal set of polys), or as few as possible (only d6's or d10's). On the one hand, some people like rolling various sizes and shapes of dice, due to how certain actions have a different "feel" from others. On the other hand, having a game that only relies on percentile rolls and d10 rolls (maybe along with 2d10) would be much more portable, and the idea of a "core mechanic" is not entirely a bad one.

At the extreme of different dice types is Dungeon Crawl Classics, to the point where Goodman Games actually sells a pack of the weirdest dice I've ever seen, mixed in with the standard Platonic solids. They can be found at the bottom of this page:

If anyone reads this blog, any thoughts on dice variety? How much is too much (or too little)?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Flakiness (a rant)

The big issue for me isn't getting people to agree on an edition: it's finding people in the first place. Not just anyone, but someone who's willing to read the rules (at least partially) and, y'know, actually show up.

I've had trouble getting reliable people since I first started GMing. My first group had four players, one of whom would follow exactly the same pattern for every session after the first two or three. I'd announce the time of the next session to everyone several days in advance, and he'd say that time worked for him. The day before the session, I would check with him to make sure he was still coming; he would assure me that he was.

The day of the session? Nothing. No phone call or text to say he wasn't coming, and no answer when any of us tried calling him ourselves.

(I hope it doesn't seem like I'm ragging on this guy; he was fun to hang out with, very knowledgeable about D&D - particularly Forgotten Realms, since he read a lot of fantasy fiction - and overall a good person, but this was a pretty annoying habit he had.)

In my slightly nebulous group that started off playing AD&D 2nd Edition, I was able to get the group to meet a total of one time. This session was never finished; one of the players had a call from "work" (of dubious legality), and had to leave immediately. The others soon followed. The next attempted session, the only group member who showed up was the guy whose house we were playing at. Fortunately, he brought one of his friends, and even more fortunately, I had a pre-made character he could use. Unfortunately, that unexpected friend had to leave unexpectedly.

More recently, a B/X D&D game I attempted to run (one session so far...) collapsed in a perfect storm of unplanned delays and last-minute changes of plan. One of the players wasn't feeling well, one was still out of town visiting friends, one was tied up in some kind of legal matter - a disputed ticket, or something of that nature - and one just plain overslept after a late night. The one guy who did show up went with me to grab some video games for what turned out to be (in a kind of baleful synchronicity) a mini LAN party that failed due to a faulty cable. Considering the work I've put into this so far, I'm wondering if I should try to have another session with the same group.

Speaking of video games, that's probably why tabletop games seem to be played so little. In today's world of blogs, PDF stores and print-on-demand, a game can be made and distributed for minimal cost, and reach a far wider audience than one which would be subject to corporate marketing requirements (side note: I saw a gigantic hardcover copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics at one of my local chain bookstores). The problem is, no one wants to put forth the effort to play in one of these games.

I know I'll probably come across as a disgruntled cynic of twice my actual age, but I see no more obvious culprit for this than video games. A person can sit at home on their computer (or in front of their console of choice, etc.) and immerse themselves in a highly addictive, brightly colored fantasy world with thousands of other people from all over the globe... or they can try to get together with half a dozen real-world friends, have to read stuff - read, as in words in a book! - and roll dice for four hours.

A telling sign? The university I attend has a semi-official League of Legends "team", but nothing in the way of tabletop gaming. I'd wager that there was a group of avid (A)D&D players here ten to fifteen years ago, but no more.

At least another FLGS opened up recently that has table space for RPGs; of the other hobby/game stores in town, one caters mostly to R/C and Gunpla (and consequently has no tables, although they do have some Warhammer and The Hobbit wargame stuff), and the other doesn't allow RPGs to be played at their tables (only card/board/wargames). Every so often when I'm doing stuff there, someone walks by and asks what we're doing. Genuinely curious.

...Maybe I should ask around there soon.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Metal and Plastic Miniatures

As I've been getting back into collecting a small number of miniatures to use in (A)D&D, I've noticed my attitudes changing slightly about different types of miniatures.

First, I've basically abandoned the idea of purchasing pre-painted plastic miniatures, of the kind out for both Pathfinder and D&D now. They're too expensive, especially because the only way to acquire multiple miniatures at once from a local store is to buy the blind booster packs. What's preventing my $18 to $20 (USD) from getting me three to four miniatures I'll never have the desire to use? In addition, I find that super-detailed, full-color miniatures - even the cardstock pawns that Paizo sells - tend to distract my players too much. Of course, I might have a skewed sample, considering that three of my original four players (back when we started with the Pathfinder RPG Beginner Box) had either ADD or ADHD; but the other reason for not actively seeking these out is due to the fact that they won't mesh well with the single-colored plastic minis I have a lot of. Currently, the only pre-painted minis that I own are the ones from HeroScape (many of which are poorly suited to fantasy games), and the Lizardfolk Champion I bought back when I was bopping around Golarion as Sradan.

Speaking of unpainted plastic minis, I found myself with a large number of them after buying the Temple of Elemental Evil board game. Not only do I have a decent set of PC minis (even if the dark blue coloring makes the details hard to pick out; nobody realized that Barrowin the cleric was a woman until I called her "she"), I also have a few good generic monsters. The hobgoblins are basically indistinguishable from orcs, and the troglodytes would make suitable, if slightly short, lizardfolk. The bigger 'boss' monsters (a salamander, an ettin, some elementals, and a beautifully sculpted dragon) might come in handy for future adventures, too. Honestly, for about $60, I feel like I got my money's worth on minis alone, even if I may never play the board game again. (Plus, I kind of want to do a random dungeon crawl using the jigsaw Dungeon Tiles.)

Reaper also makes some very nice 'plastic' (10% recycled resin) monsters, many of which are available in three- to six-packs. So far, I have only one set of these, but I definitely plan to acquire more in the future from their "Bones" lines.

Now we move on to metal minis. One of the three FLGSs in my city caters mostly to wargamers (Warhammer, Hordes, etc.) and TCG players; they have the standard selection of D&D and Pathfinder books - including the OD&D wood box set! - but I imagine those aren't their biggest sellers. I went to this store in search of some minis to use for D&D. One that I found was excellent on all counts: 1" square base, no assembly required (beyond gluing the base on), and dirt cheap at a current list price of $6. High off of this success, I went looking for another, but I seemed to have bought the one miniature in the entire store that didn't have to have its arms glued into place. The level of detail on some of these is excellent (even if a lot of Warhammer and other minis have too many gears and guns for straight fantasy), but the prices vary widely, and the assembly is not something I'd like to have to do too often. EDIT: One that I bought had its arm knocked off, which was almost impossible to glue back on since it had been attached to its base (causing it to roll). Yeah, no more metal minis for me.

Nor do I have the desire to paint said miniatures; I don't have the money to buy the necessary tools, and even if I had unlimited money that could be spent only on painting minis, I wouldn't have the patience or free time to do more than a couple.

What ever happened to fantasy miniatures that had built-in bases? When I played in the short-lived D&D 3.5 campaign, the DM brought a bunch of relics he apparently borrowed from his dad. Besides the wonderfully thick and durable Chessex mat, he had a bag of old, probably lead-based minis which were in various conditions. Some had little bits of paint left on them (probably also lead-based; it might actually have been a blessing that we didn't spend more time touching these while eating pizza), and some were partly or completely broken... but overall, they were pretty cool. My half-orc bard even got a figure which vaguely resembled some kind of demi-human in light armor! Anyway, these figures had their own bases, and I wonder why more people don't make minis like this these days. Having a built-in base cuts down on the assembly and prep time needed, and means less gluing for the player. (Reaper's "Bones" resin miniatures boast on the package that they're ready-to-play as soon as you open them, which is definitely a selling point for me.)

P. S.  The plastic minis are one reason I would love to get a hold of a good-condition copy of DragonStrike; having a generic group of PCs and a good variety of monsters would be pretty cool. I'm also partial to square bases, too; for some reason, I feel like they're 'cooler' than the small round ones which accompany modern D&D and Pathfinder minis.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

House Rule: Lizardfolk character class (D&D B/X)


Level                    Title                         Exp. Points      Hit Dice
   1         Lizardfolk Veteran                        0                 1d8
   2         Lizardfolk Warrior                    2000               2d8
   3         Lizardfolk Weaponmaster         4000               3d8

Lizardfolk are humanoids with scaly skin, long tails, and sharp teeth, who are 6 to 7 feet tall and weigh about 200 pounds. They usually live in swamps or marshes, and are carnivorous, sometimes even eating humans and demi-humans in the wilderness. Because of this, they tend not to get along with humans.

The prime requisite for a lizardfolk character is Strength. A Strength score of 13 or greater will give a lizardfolk a bonus on earned experience points.

Restrictions: Lizardfolk use eight-sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 8th level of experience. They can wear only leather armor, but can use shields. Their weapons are limited to those which can be made without metal - axes, bows (except crossbows), maces, clubs, pole arms, slings, spears, and war hammers. A lizardfolk character must have a minimum Strength score of 9. Many humans and demi-humans distrust lizardfolk, and will react with a -1 in addition to any normal reaction adjustment by Charisma.

Special Abilities: Lizardfolk have infravision and can see 60 feet in the dark. They use the same saving throws as dwarves and halflings. Although their maximum movement rate is half that of other characters on land - 60’ (20’) instead of 120’ (40’) - they are not slowed by leather armor, and can swim through water at 120’ (40’). All lizardfolk speak Common and their own language, plus the languages of dragons, kobolds, and orcs.

From the AD&D Monster Manual.
(yes, I know he's holding a sword)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cantrips in AD&D (1st Edition)

Looking over these things as they appear in Dragon magazine (issues #59 through #61, also printed in Unearthed Arcana), I find myself wondering why people think of Gary Gygax as some kind of game-design genius, and say that the game went to pot after he left TSR.

I'll wait for the torches to go out, and the pitchforks to rust, before I continue.

As useful as these are mechanically (some more so than others; couldn't bee, bug, gnats, and spider have been combined into a single entry, since they're almost identical in effects?) I find the detailed descriptions of the verbal and somatic components of these 0-level spells to be more than a little silly. For instance, from the description of the quite handy firefinger cantrip:
The caster speaks a word of power over elemental fire (ron-son, zip-po, or the much revered word, dun-hill), extends the forefinger, and makes a downward or sideways motion with the thumb.
(Dragon #60, p. 19)
Good gods! And I thought some of the material components of normal spells were jokey and anachronistic!

A legendary artifact.

Seriously, this would totally ruin the atmosphere of the game if left as written. I prefer to run a game with a modicum of seriousness, and let any humor come from the players or from the natural order of play (such as a rat exploding when hit with a magic missile for full damage). Just imagine a wizard in a fantasy film - if not The Fellowship of the Ring, then at least Willow - distracting a villain by wiggling their fingers and saying "kitchy-kitchy-coo", causing the villain's nose to be tweaked. (No, seriously, this is the actual description of the tweak cantrip.) Using a piece of copper wire for a message spell seems positively proper compared to crap like this.

Maybe Gygax was trying to alleviate concerns about this game being too violent, but turning a game of swords and sorcery into Harry Potter and the Wiggly Wizards seems like a very bad idea in hindsight. (Some people have expressed similar concern about the wild mage class from 2e's Tome of Magic, but at least that has some kind of actual impact on gameplay.)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

House Rules: Specialist Wizards (AD&D 2nd Edition)

(Note: Anyone already familiar with 2nd Edition's specialist rules can safely skip the first few paragraphs, and go straight to the "Class Selection" heading.)

The wizard group encompasses all arcane spellcaster classes: the mage, illusionist, and the other seven specialist wizards. Each of these specialist classes is an expert in a corresponding school of magic. Thus, the conjurer specializes in Conjuration/Summoning spells; the transmuter specializes in Alteration magic; and so on. A notable quirk of the nine schools is that one - Lesser Divination - does not have a specialist class (although its advanced form, Greater Divination, does have one in the Diviner class). The spells of this school, enumerated in the rules as all Divination spells of 4th level or below, are essential to the work of any and every wizard, and so can be learned and cast by any wizard class. The 1st-level spell cantrip is also available to all wizards, as it is present in every school.

In addition to their favored school, each specialist class has one or more opposition schools, from which they can never, ever learn or cast spells under any circumstances (barring divine intervention or, at the DM's discretion, a wish spell). Under the standard rules given in the PHB, specialists gain a bonus to learn spells from their favored school (as well as an extra spell slot and a saving throw bonus for such), and a penalty to learn spells from other schools which are not their opposition school.

Diagram illustrating the schools of magic.
From the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook, 1995.
The following are my own house rules to decrease the sameness among many wizards, encourage creativity, and reflect in the mechanics what is constantly put forth in the 'flavor': magic is poorly understood, and those who can use it are rare in the wider world(s).

Class Selection

The mage class is not available to player characters. Arcane magic is an esoteric discipline that requires a naturally strong mind and years of rigorous training; the notion of anyone with average intellect and a cheap spellbook being able to learn magic of any and every school is ridiculous.

All wizards must be specialists. The specialist classes available to a character (depending on ability scores and race) are the same as those given in the PHB; the level limits for demihuman specialists are the same as the ones for mages given in the DMG. Note that to become a specialist, a character must not only meet the ability score requirements for their race (if demihuman) and those for their chosen specialist class, but also have the 9 (preferably much higher) Intelligence required of a mage in the standard rules. Thus, a player hoping to play an elf enchanter would need at least 6 Dex, 7 Con, 9 Int, and 16 Cha, and would have a maximum level of 15 (unless the optional Slow Advancement rules are used). The total unlikelihood of getting all of these in order is one reason why I usually use Method III to roll up ability scores, i.e., 3d6 arranged to taste.

Per the PHB, specialist demihumans cannot multi-class, with the sole exception of gnome illusionists. Specialist humans, however, can dual-class at the DM's discretion; normal dual-classing rules still apply with regard to class groups.

Spell Selection

Specialists can learn and cast only spells from their favored school, or from Lesser Divination, and no others. They can, however, use magic items (including level-appropriate scrolls) from other schools without penalty, except for those which duplicate spells from their opposition school(s).

If 0-level spells (cantrips) are used as they appear in AD&D 1st Edition (Unearthed Arcana and issues 59-61 of Dragon), the specialist is still limited by the school in which the cantrip is listed. For those schools which have no cantrips (notably Necromancy), the players and DM should cooperate to create new ones, without necessitating spell research in this instance. Note that cantrips of the Divination school will be available for use by all specialist wizards.