I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

One mechanic per (archetypal) trait

When I started playing GURPS, I was instantly hooked by the idea that I could create ANY CHARACTER I WANTED. And I still like the idea. Unfortunately, I eventually realized that in practice this meant character creation took two to three hours, as the players browsed the books with innumerable traits and skill and got decision paralysis (also, combat had some boring bits, and the sheet got to complicated, etc., but I don't think you came here looking for my GURPS house rules anyway).

By comparison, D&D started looking a bit boring - I could no longer accept Magic-Users being unable to use swords, for example. Eventually, I "got" lots of aspects and started ignoring the ones I dislike, and I fell in love with D&D again.

This whole thing color my preferences to this day. Even after D&D reclaimed its spot as my favorite RPG and I fully embraced levels and classes, I still like the option of customizing characters.  Here is how I do it in B/X, for example.

The dilema is: how can I have a game with a maximum number of options without adding complexity or decision paralysis?

And my answer is: by taking away every mechanic that means nothing.

Well, there is another answer I should explain first. I realized that, as much as I like GURPS, I don't really need rules for an albino psychic with a bad back. What I DO need is some way of creating an albino sorcerer who can hold a sword, like Elric, or a strong warrior that can fight without armor or even kill an opponent with a chair, like Conan, because those characters are important in the Appendix N. And nowadays I do need paladins and clerics and "beastmaster" rangers, because they have become important D&D archetypes.

In short, I need at least one way to create every relevant archetype for the campaign I'm playing.

by ChrisQuilliams - Source.
Now, the current version of D&D pretty much covers every archetype I would like to use in my game. A few things might be missing - a non-magical ranger, a 4e-style warlord - but my problem with 5e is actually the opposite: there is just too much stuff. I would prefer something simpler.

Well, old school D&D is simple enough and has enough methods of character creation, including multi-classing, dual-classing and so on (and even elves that can use swords and magics, so, Elric). Still, I feel this is still needlessly complicated.

The reason is that there are too many rules that mean nothing.

Take the "wizards cannot use swords" example; in old school D&D, there was a reason for that - the magic item charts. But if you're not using it, the rule accomplishes nothing, and creates lots of obstacles - now, for every new class, you must describe which weapons it allows, and so on. Last year, this caused me to write a whole series of articles about doing away with those limitations, starting here. It is amazing to think that, to this day, D&D still has rules concerning "wizards cannot use swords" (well, they can, but get no proficiency bonus, or they do, but they need a feat for that... why not just ignore this stuff and make everything simpler? A wizard with a sword is more likely to be hacked to pieces than to break the balance of the game).

But these limitations are not the only problem. There are whole concepts that could be thrown away without great loss. I know a lot of people will disagree here, but do we really need saving throw charts? What do they represent that cannot be better portrayed by a single saving throw (S&W style), or ability-based saving throws?

Basing this stuff on abilities, you can ditch saving throws and even different hit dice for different classes (check this, for example). Of course, you can go the other way and just ignore abilities altogether; everything is based on class instead (maybe like this?).

But having a lot of different mechanics (for example, a fighter with d8 HD, constitution bonus to HP, and good petrifaction saving throws) for a single archetypal trait ("Fighters are tough" or "dwarves are even tougher") seems like needlessly complex to me.

So here is my new design goal: one mechanic per archetypal trait.

Need an absent-minded genius? Intelligence is separated from perception (Wisdom) - that is why I have a hard time dealing with RPGs where wizards are necessarily charismatic. A fighter that can cast spells? We need some multi-classing or specific class for that too. A charismatic coward? Well, I guess will saving trows cannot use "the best of Charisma or Wisdom", then. A valiant, if inept, warrior? Then using Wisdom as the only option for courage will not do either. Characters that are better with swords than spears? Yeah, I probably need some form of proficiency or feats after all. And so on.

On the other hand, I really DON'T need a handful of different mechanics that all mean "deal more damage" (more attacks, more "crit range", re-roll 1s and 2s, minimum damage, is all pretty much the same to me) or "your skill or ability actually works", like some mechanics in Fifth Edition and other games. In this case, a single mechanic ("bigger strength", "better skill bonus") will do just fine for me.

I hope this allows me to have a game with almost as many character archetypes as 5e, but with half the page count - it would fit my preferences very well, and, maybe, would please other people too.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Intimidation: should it be a skill? (also, Diplomacy)

A few weeks ago I said torture, as a game mechanic, is a tool of intimidation, so both things should share the same skills, abilities, checks, etc. But do we need an intimidation skill?

Of course, I'm assuming you are o.k. with skills (and, worse, social skills) in the first place; else, the discussion has no meaning. I like skills, although I take a pretty minimalist approach, using the bare minimum of skills I need to portray the archetypes I want in my games (big post on that coming soon, unless I found out it was already written by someone else).

Intimidation is a recurring skill in WotC D&D, and (IIRC) was a proficiency even before that. Its existence makes some sense, as far as archetypes go: you can easily think of character types that are intimidating despite having no other social skills (for example, ASOIF's The Mountain) - hence, the need for a specific skill.

One problem with this skill is that it is commonly based on Charisma (or a similar stat), making characters that are suave, diplomatic or empathetic good at intimidation (and vice-versa - being the nest at intimidation requires a charismatic type), which is pretty much the opposite of many RPG archetypes; the brute, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the unrelenting fanatic, can all be very intimidating without having any social graces.

One common solution is basing it on Strength, so the character with mighty thews is the most intimidating foe. Again, it seems to make sense, but is he really? Is the dumb brute, by definition, more intimidating than the skilled martial artist or, say, the guy with a gun? Will he be able to intimidate the king with 10 bodyguards between them?

Anyone writing about the subject can tell you intimidation needs something to intimidate with; if you're severely outnumbered or outgunned in one form or another, being intimidated is not that different from plain common sense.

In many cases, intimidation is nothing more that an extreme and violent form of negotiation: "Give me your purse, or I will cut your throat", "surrender and I'll spare your troops", etc. There needn't be a skill roll involved, just a decision about the costs and risks one is willing to take. Charisma and Strength may play a part, sure, but reputation, status, martial skill, and specially the circumstances will be more important than the specific ability of intimidating people.

Having "intimidation" as a skill may encourage players to look at the character sheet instead of focusing on this negotiation (perhaps the same can be said of all social skills, but I don't think so; read on).

What about empty threats? There should certainly be a skill to allow you to intimidate people when you have no real leverage?

Well, there is - it is called "deception", "bluff", or something similar. The sweet-talking character archetype can paint itself as your friend and your foe at the same time, intimidating and seducing at the same time.

Basically, intimidation is about getting leverage, or faking it. The first is probably better handled through role-playing and common sense, the second makes more sense as a skill (since "lying convincingly" is probably a skill in real life too). Different archetypes, such as the brute and the sweet-talker, can achieve the same result through different means, which is why using a single skill might be a bad idea.

Still, I can see some cool uses to intimidation, specially if you want it to play a part in combat; but maybe intimidating a foe during combat to force him to make a mistake is a part of combat skill (or a fighting technique, akin to taunting, etc), not a separate thing that the sweet-talker does better than the seasoned fighter; and in any case I will probably take morale rules and common sense over this.

By the way, e same reasoning can apply to diplomacy: most diplomacy will be some form of etiquette, and thus be covered by "lore", "history" or familiarity with the culture you're dealing it; or be some kind of negotiation, involving common sense (reputation, circumstances, etc) or deception.

In any case, Courtney Campbell was written about the subject herehis whole skill deconstruction series (including one on intimidation) is a big inspiration and well worth a read.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Inverted Skill Roll (and Static DCs): fixing randomness (where none should be)

Although this post isn't about Basic D&D, specifically (it might be useful for ANY role-playing game), I want to begin with a side note: I'm reading BD&D for the hundredth time, and Moldvay never ceases to amaze me in how concise and to the point the book is. I wish more RPGs were like that.

Look at page B8:

Open Locks may only be tried once per lock. The thief may not "try again" on a difficult lock until he or she has gained another level of experience.

Pick pockets is even better. In a short paragraph, it explains that the DM makes the roll, the thief has a change of being caught, and that the victim will react in accordance to GM's decision and the reaction table.


One of the downsides of the "d20 skill roll" that modern D&D (including 5e) uses is that it doesn't work (see my reasoning here; and also here). Alas, 5e makes it even worse with bounded accuracy.

Basically, that situation where the hulking fighter fails to break down a door only to see the wizard roll well and succeed happens too often. It also makes "trying again" a very tempting and effective solution, since the difference between two subsequent rolls are very often 10 or more (the key here is "very often", which doesn't happen with 3d6, for example).

But this isn't a problem of them d20 roll only: it can obviously happen with a d6, 2d6, 3d6 or any other variation, albeit less often.

In fact, the problem might be conceptual, in many cases: in what circumstances can a weak character succeed in a feat of strength that was unattainable to a stronger one? In what circumstances can the same character try again after a failure?

This should be determined by the GM in a case by case basis, of course; but some cases are so common that clear rules become, if not a necessity, at least incredibly useful.

Such is the case with picking locks and forcing doors.

So, for a quick solution that - dare I say it? - may even better than Basic D&D (depending on your tastes, of course), try this inverted skill roll: for stationary objects, the GM rolls the dice, and the results never change (because the object doesn't move).

For example, if a regular person has 2-in-6 chance of forcing a door open, and the GM rolls a 2, anyone without a Strength penalty can open it. If the GM rolls a 5, you would need a +3 bonus to open it instead. There is no rolling again; if you lack the required Strength, you are simply not strong enough (you might get a +1 bonus with a crowbar, etc).

Alternatively, roll 3d6-2 to find out the door's Strength; if you roll 11, any character with Strength 11 or more can open it.

The same applies to lock-picking; if you want to use a d100 roll, like Basic does, and the GM rolls a 53, the thief will be unable to open it until level 7.

The DM doesn't have to roll for every object; ha can just pick a number when building the adventure. "This is a Strength 14 door, this is a quality 37 lock, this is a Intelligence 15 information", etc.

This doesn't apply to contested rolls against other creatures such as hiding or picking pockets. It might apply for such contests where no risk or randomness is involved: the Strength 15 girl IS stronger than the Strength 6 guy, all the time, and will ALWAYS win in an arm-wrestling contested unless duped, cheated, etc. A combat is a different matter; the Strength 6 guy may be quicker, more experienced, better armored, etc.

However, this DOES apply to knowledge checks, if you use them. The smart wizard will ALWAYS know that bears live in forests and caves (which is not the case for most characters in 4e, as you might remember), and the merchant will ALWAYS know the approximate price of a common item (again, not necessarily the case if you use 3e's rules).

As an alternate solution for modern D&D, I offer you the Static DC (or sDC): When you are testing a skill that doesn't rely on luck (which is often the case against an stationary object), you do not roll; the result of the d20 is always considered to be 10 ("take 10"). So if a challenge has sDC 15, it means that the DC is 15 and you cannot roll against it; you take 10 and automatically succeed if you have a +5 or greater bonus, automatically fail if you don't.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that someone had that idea a long while ago. Oh well...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Torture: should it have a game mechanic?

DISCLAIMER: Please understand that I am talking about torture in fictional narratives, not in real life. If you stumbled upon into this blog by accident, notice that this is about literature, movies, TV (think Game of Thrones), make-believe games, and so on. This has nothing to do with politics, human rights, or moral philosophy. If you cannot understand that, or just don't like to read about the subject or find it distasteful, please ignore this post.

"Interrogating goblins by torture seems to be creepily prevalent in D&D games. Anyway, it’s not necessary, because goblins will always tell you everything when threatened with torture, no Intimidate check necessary. They’ll mix in 20% malicious lies, but they’d do that under torture as well." - source

I don't like player characters torturing people in my games (I don't allow torture against them, too, but that is not what this post is about). It's not that I have a weak stomach for the suffering of fictional characters; I enjoy splatter films as much as the next guy (and FWIW I even think there might be a good argument of gory violence being more responsible to put on film than some kind of sanitized PG-13 violence when bad guys get shot and die without bleeding or suffering, as if violence was a nice, clean thing to do).

The problem is that torture quickly becomes a pointless, gruesome exercise.

A player character can torture another character for three main reasons: sadism, punishment/revenge, or information gathering. I have never seem the first one in my games; the second one is rare, and usually ends quickly; the third one is the problem.

In any brutal, lawless setting, medieval or otherwise, there will be plenty of PCs that are willing to resort to torture to get information, specially against foes that have attacked or murdered other people in the past, or might do so in the future.

The justifications are not that important; once the line is crossed, torture becomes just another tool for the PCs.

After that, every time a prisoners is captured, you go through the same process: torture is described until the GM thinks it is enough and then the NPC talks (true or not) or clearly demonstrates he will die before talking. Where is the fun in that? There is little creativity, no excitement, no risk, no surprises.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for the characters to avoid torture:

A) Someone in the group (player or GM) is uncomfortable with it, or it goes against the tone of the campaign; so it is just forbidden (maybe not even villains can torture, or player characters must all be people that would never do that).
B) A character has some kind of alignment or personal code of honor (or, I don't know, basic human decency) that prevents it.
C) Torture is a crime and has legal consequences even when murder is not (during wartime, for example).
D) Many NPCs are immune to torture, and they prefer to die than to tell any secrets about the guy they work for.
E) Torture brings some kind of mystical corruption or the wrath of the gods against those who perpetrate it.
F) Torture causes mental problems to the torturer.
G) There are other social consequences for torture - you will lose face (and allies), and now your enemies now will be more willing to torture your loved ones if they get captured.
H) Torture is useless because after a while most victims will say almost anything to avoid suffering, even if they have to lie or invent things they know nothing about.
I) Torture may kill the victim, making information impossible to recover (or maim the victim in unintended ways, making the crime very easy to prove).

Not all of those work for my group.

"A" is a very personal matter; in my "Game of Thrones"-like setting, villains are not above torture, for example, and everybody in the group is okay with most fictional violence (of course, you should be SURE that everybody on the table is on board before messing with such themes). "B" depends on the characters; it may work for most of the group, but not necessarily for all the characters all the time, and specially not for all the character concepts one might be willing to try. "C" depends on how willing characters are to obey the law - and, in most of my campaigns, the answer usually is "not very much". "D" is a bit ridiculous (unless used for special cases) - where does anyone finds thieves and villains that are so loyal and courageous?

"E" may be a bit of a cop-out - does humanity need some outside force to learn the obvious fact that torture is evil? - but the idea could still be interesting as horror; maybe the tortured souls come back as undead, or awaken demons that lie below. The players should be aware of the possibility beforehand, though, or it will fell like you're trying to teach them some lesson.

"F" is potentially more interesting, specially in character-driven campaigns where violence and madness play a significant part, like Call of Cthulhu and other games with sanity mechanics (check this for D&D - it is meant for the victim, but torture would surely affet the torturer somehow...). The best game about the subject that comes to mind is Unknown Armies, where perpetrating any kind of violence will make you more resistant to it, but also more callous (and, eventually, psychopathic). Still, these kind of mechanics are not for every game, and not for every setting.

"G" works quite well for my games. Even though it is also an "external" force to the individual character (but not to humanity itself), it makes players consider other aspects of the setting - NPCs, reputation, honor, and so on. Torture becomes a reason for shame, as it should be: it now must be kept secret, and torturers will be shunned. Villains get a tool the heroes cannot use without becoming villains themselves in the process (on the other hand, allies may turn a blind-eye if the tortures have other uses). And even foe may now claim the moral high ground over the PCs.

In short, resorting to torture makes the character less self-confident; it becomes a power other people may have over them.

"H" is also interesting to consider. If the victim is highly motivated to tell exactly what the torturer wants to hear, how can the PCs know the victim is telling the truth (or even knows it) at all? Most NPCs should quickly tell anything a torturer wants to hear to avoid further harm (in many books and movies, the character will allow himself to suffer significantly before lying, in order to make the lie more believable).

The only situation where torturing a character could yield useful results is when the truth can be checked before the prisoner is released ("Where is the treasure? If we don't find it, you'll suffer more!"). But this is not much different than intimidation; the pain only makes the threat more imediate and credible.

There are another, more interesting ways of making threats, specially by knowing the person being threatened. For a self-righteous man, blackmail could be worse than physical torture, for example. Or, if you captured an exotic monster, showing it to a captive might make him talk in no time - even if the creature is actually harmless. Deception may work well too. An example that comes to mind is what Jaime Lannister does to Edmure Tully in the book A Feast for Crows (or in the Game of Thrones TV show).

Again, this makes the characters engage with the characters and setting instead of just randomly cutting body parts until everyone is bored or sickened.

This way, torture becomes a tool of intimidation - so you don't necessarily need a specific game mechanic for it. This is how torture is handled in the Book of Vile Darkness, for example.

"I" is where game mechanics might becomes useful.

Now, you certainly don't need to have torture in your games, but if you do allow it, it seems to me it should include the possibility of real harm. This reminds the players that torture is gruesome and dangerous, but also includes a risk-reward mechanism to it: the more violent the torture, the more effective the intimation, but the higher the chance of death (or permanent injury, if the victim is someone who must be kept alive).

It also opens the possibility of having villain NPCs specialized in torture (which is to say, specialized in causing pain WITHOUT harming the victim), torture devices, or smart PCs that can threaten effectively WITHOUT using torture by resorting to creativity, deception, etc.

If you want to resort to die rolls, here are some mechanics to go with it.

Old-school D&D (or any other version):

There is a very easy method for this: the "subduing dragons" rules in AD&D. Decide the damage you want to inflict - say, 3d6 - and roll for it. If you take 50% of the victims HP, he has 50% chance of talking. If you roll too high, the victim dies before taking. Repeated attempts, if allowed, should be progressively harder.

Or just bypass HP completely: choose a number form 1% to 99%, and roll twice: the first to see if the victim survives, and the second to see if the victim talks.

In any case, even in failure the victim still gets a death saving throw to avoid death, and a spell saving throw to avoid talking.

D&D 5e:

From the torturer's point of view, you may gain advantage in the Intimidation roll, but roll Medicine to avoid killing the victim in the process.

From the victim's point of view, you may make a Constitution saving throw to avoid a failed death save (or permanent damage, etc), and a Wisdom saving throw to avoid compliance (succeeding three times means you will never break in the present situation).

Combining these two ideas: make the saving throws as described above, and BOTH the DCs is defined but how violent the torture is (i.e., it is the same DC). The Constitution save gets a bonus equal to the torturer's Medicine skill, and the Wisdom save gets a penalty equal to the torturer's Intimidation skill (or Deception, if using lies instead of pain).

Give advantage or disadvantage according to the nature of the secret being kept (and loyalty, etc) and the "creativity" of the torturer (for example, showing snakes to someone with ophidiophobia will be very efficient).

Should you roll or describe?

Making it a simple die roll allows you to use this without describing it (and thus making it happen on the background); I personally prefer to be gory and make clear that this is an ugly thing than to pretend it is a clean, efficient thing to do. If this problem comes up, I would use both descriptions and dice rolls (to add danger and unpredictability), but you mileage may vary.

What do you think?

Is this useful? Is the subject too heavy for RPGs, or for my blog? Would you ever allow PCs as tortures or victims in your games? Do you have any interesting stories to tell? Let me hear from you in the comments.

Images from "Berserk" by Kentaro Miura.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Suicide Squad in Hell! A campaign pitch of Orphean Rescue

I'm pretty sure I read this idea (or something similar) in some old school blog or rpg thread recently. Let me know so I can give due credit. Lots of repeated themes coming from nowhere (and everywhere) in the last few days; see the end of the post for some references that may or may not have anything to do with this post.

BTW I haven't even watched the movie. But the trailers look cool, and I used some lines.

"This is blasphemy! Madness! Break into Hell, to steal from it! Why would one even try it? And for what? A soul which is exactly where Divine Law demands it to be!", said the old man.

"I know", the young man answered.

"How would you do such a thing? Enter the Abyss without permission! Fight layers upon layers of bloodthirsty demons! Hordes of damned things whose names even the foulest grimoires dare not mention! Go through rivers of fire, clouds of acid, halls of living flesh! Endless deserts of ash and glass with skies of blood!"

"I have a map. And I wouldn't be alone."

"Who would follow you in such lunacy?"

"I found some people. A mercenary. A barbarian. An assassin and a thief. A diabolist. A witch. A... lunatic, I guess."

"Bad people, then". 

"The worst of the worst." 

"And the price? Eternal damnation! Do you think the gods will ever forgive the attempted rescue of someone they put in Hell? Foiling of Divine Justice?".

"As you might have guessed, these people know they are not going to see Elysium anytime soon".

"Never mind Elysium! When you die, your souls will be trapped for eternity! The Abyss will punish you harshly for your arrogance!"

"We are aware of the risks".

"You will be on your own! The blessings..."

"Yes", the younger man interrupted. "I must do what I can with what I've got."

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, looking down. The elder man got closer to the fireplace, and shivered. Finally, he spoke again.

"I... I cannot help you. The price is too high. May the gods forgive me for even hearing you".

The younger man rose.

"I understand. Still, I had to let you know".

"Wait! You are not like this people! You spent your whole life in service! Your soul is meant for heaven!"

"Not anymore", the paladin replied, before leaving the room. "Pray for me, father".

Some random thoughts about the scenario:

- You thought the Paladin in Hell was doomed enough? Well, now he is also forsaken by the gods. Body sacrifice is nothing when compared to soul sacrifice.

- Here is a chance to use all those demons in the Monster Manual! And probably some Petty Gods too! What about deceased PCs and NPCs?

- This is certainly high-level and better suited for dark grey characters that already have committed their share of sin.

- Why would anyone do this? A tiefling, born cursed, rejoicing at the opportunity of offending the Abyss. A rogue looking for the ultimate heist. All kinds of people looking for power or wanting to defy the divine status quo. Obvious, a pious man who damns his own soul to save another.

- There is strict hierarchy in hell, and they want to keep their prisoners... but certainly not everyone is happy with the current arrangement. In fact, the whole idea is so blasphemous that only demons will be willing to help the group, and for the worse reasons one can think of. Even angels may descend to hell to stop the characters from foiling justice. Fallen angels, though, may be another story... Damned souls would be willing to cooperate, maybe. Or would they sell the group for a chance of redemption? And what about outsiders, elementals, etc?

- First idea that comes to mind is someone damning his own soul for a loved one... But what if the group needs to rescue someone with no redeeming qualities at all - and actually let him get away with his sins - in order to achieve a different objective? All the more dramatic.

- Don't pull any punches! The price for this mission is damnation. Even the most merciful gods will not help the PCs after this. They will be hated through heaven and hell. Better find a house in some forgotten corner of Limbo for the afterlife. Or try to convince some neutral or extra-planar divinity to take you in. Maybe the PCs can save themselves if they give up on the original mission and repent. When the campaign ends, at least one of three things (the mission, the PC's souls, or the whole universal order) will be destroyed.

Things on my mind in the last few days: Orpheus, Suicide Squad, the classic picture above (David Sutherland), Perdition, Hell is the Absence of God, Jurgen, True Story, and the Scorn trailer. I'm not necessarily recommending any of them or saying they fit the idea above, but they probably inspired this post. I am also writing an adventure on a similar subject, without the whole "spiritual" angle.

And TV Tropes, but I'm not linking it - you can thank me later!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Old school D&D and the Yin-Yang method of ability generation

The original order of abilities in old school D&D is Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (SIWDCC). The idea is that you had "prime" abilities first (Strength for Fighters, Intelligence for Magic Users, Wisdom for Clerics) and then three abilities that were useful for everyone (Dexterity for speed, Constitution for HP, Charisma for morale).

With the introduction of many different classes, the original meaning of the SIWDCC order was lost, which is why WotC have adopted a Physical/Mental divide, listing abilities as: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

The modern order doesn't bother me; it seems to make sense, and I like the Physical/Mental division. Here is a great post about the subject, by the way.


There is at least one interesting (and probably accidental) feature of SIWDCC: when you think of most common archetypes, each pair of abilities can be viewed as "opposites" in a way.

Here is what I mean:

Strength x Intelligence: the dumb brute versus the weak wizard or scholar; Fighter versus Magic-user.

Wisdom x Dexterity: careful consideration and patience versus quick action; Cleric versus Thief.

Constitution x Charisma: the rugged, stoic type versus the sweet-talking singer or swindler. Dwarf versus Elf, or Ranger versus Bard.

This is mainly a curiosity; some D&D archetypes and classes will need "opposite" attributes (monks, assassins, etc), but it can become useful when generating NPCs or even PCs if you want results that might a little more sense than 3d6 in order (and yes, I get it, it might be cool to think of a justification for seemingly disparate abilities),

For example, let us assume you're using 3d6 in order and want "balanced" characters (i.e, not straight 18s or "hopeless" characters).

Try this: roll 3d6, write down the result, subtract this result from 21, and write down the new result. You now have two results that add to 21; for example, 15 and 6, 18 and 3, 7 and 14, etc.

Do this two more times, and you have three pairs of results (for example: 15 and 6, 18 and 3, 7 and 14).

(If you are using the "4d6 drop lowest" method you can make the sum of each pair equal to 24 or 25; see the table below).

If you already know the type of character you want, distribute the results accordingly - the original pairs should be kept.

For example, if we are creating a Wizard, we can use: Strength 3, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 15, Dexterity 6, Constitution 7, and Charisma 14. This is an old, wise wizard; a quick-thinking, smart but inattentive wizard (another common archetype) with the same numbers could have Dexterity 15 and Wisdom 6 instead.

A big, dumb Fighter, like Gregor Clegane from A Game of Thrones, would have Strength 18, Intelligence 3, Wisdom 7, Dexterity 14, Constitution 15, and Charisma 6.

If you don't know the type of character you want, use the original order (i.e., just fill the character sheet in order): Strength 15, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 18 , Dexterity 3, Constitution 7, and Charisma 14. This looks like some kind of stoic cleric (or paladin) to me; maybe an old veteran, a natural leader, still a good fighter although somewhat fragile and slowed down by age.

Let us try some other examples? I rolled these as I was writing, with no re-rolls, I promise:

- First I got 9, 12, 9, 12, 10, 11... yeah, a bit boring. Maybe I should do something to avoid such results. In any case, it clearly looks like a Thief (Strength 9, Intelligence 12, Wisdom 9, Dexterity 12, Constitution 10, and Charisma 11).

- Strength 15, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 12, Dexterity 9, Constitution 11, and Charisma 10. Your typical Fighter: strong, a bit slow, but with enough courage and common sense. Maybe a soldier or tough knight.

- Strength 11, Intelligence 10, Wisdom 14, Dexterity 7, Constitution 14, and Charisma 7. An average Cleric, hardy and strong-willed.

Most iconic classes AND races in D&D I can think off would fit in this Yin-Yang pattern, but a few exceptions can be made. The Monk (or Mystic), which requires Wisdom and Dexterity, seems to be the main problem (the Ranger in 5e is similar - although I would argue the archetypal Ranger would need Constitution or even Strength before Dexterity, if you think of Aragorn). There are also, of course, plenty of classes that rely on multiple abilities; a Paladin or Warlord might need both Charisma and Constitution, but also Strength, and probably some Wisdom or Intelligence (come to think of it, the Ranger and Monk could use some Strength and Constitution too...).

There are also some non-iconic "special classes" that would break the mold. The Muscle Wizard comes to mind. Some kind of super-model/celebrity class could be built around Constitution and Charisma.

For all those classes, some special exceptions would have to be made to make them "optimal" or even viable; one option is on the second table, below.

Source. Or maybe here?
In short: get an old school character sheet, roll 3d6 for Intelligence, calculate Strength, roll 3d6 for Dexterity, and so on, and you get a viable, balanced character very fast.

If you don't like subtracting, use this to find the value of the second ability in each pair:

First Ability Second

18 3

17 4

16 5

15 6

14 7

13 8

12 9

11 10

10 11

9 12

8 13

7 14

6 15

5 16

4 17

3 18

Or this one, if you prefer something closer to 4d6 drop lowest (the sum is 24, and the lowest ability is 6; if you roll 5 or lower, roll again):

First Ability Second

18 6

17 7

16 8

15 9

14 10

13 11

12 12

11 13

10 14

9 15

8 16

7 17

6 18

5 roll again*

4 roll again*

3 roll again*

* Alternatively, results from 3 to 5 in the first roll would break the mold to create a Monk, Dexterity Ranger, or some other special class.

What is the point?

This method is good for creating fastrandombalanced, archetypal characters. If you want more creative results, less randomness, more customization, and so on, many traditional methods will do just fine.

UPDATE: reading the AD&D PHB again, there are some additional reasons to believe this is a deliberate pattern: a low Strength character can only be a Magic-User, while a low Intelligence character can only be a Fighter; a low Dexterity character can only be a Cleric, and for low Wisdom, a thief. On the other hand, special classes such as the Assassin, Illusionist and Monk break the mold.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Lost Mines of Ravnica, III - Phandelver Remade

Read Part I here and Part II here. The first two parts were about ideas and techniques for adapting LMoP to Ravnica or some other setting. This third and final part is a straight-up conversion, or a description of what I did to LMoP without any criticism or analysis of the original module.

It will probably only be useful if you actually want to run LMoP in Ravnica, but who knows. I still plan to run this campaign again to people that are new both to Ravnica AND LMoP, one day.

Here you go - you need to be familiar with LMoP, but not necessarily Ravnica, to make this work. In fact, I altered some bits of Ravnica lore to fit my tastes, and I encourage you to do the same.


Introduction to Ravnica

(There is an astonishing amount of lore in the MTG salvation wiki; the challenge is reducing it to avoid overwhelming first-time visitors).

The city of Ravnica is a sprawling gigalopolis that covers most of the surface of the planet. It looks like a high-tech world with magic in place of technology, insanely tall spires and towers, and multiple underground levels.

There are innumerable creatures in Ravnica, but most intelligent humanoids are humans, goblins, minotaurs, elves, centaurs, dryads, ogres, trolls, giants, Vedalken (think of blue-skinned, bald Vulkans), Viashino (lizard-people), Loxodon (elephant men), demons, mutants and the undead. Other races in the PHB such as orcs, dwarves, haflings and dragonborn should be re-skinned, although in such a cosmopolitan setting almost everything is possible.

In ancient times, innumerable factions were in constant war against each other (and, as legend goes, against gigantic alien monsters, but that is probably exaggerated...), until the ten most powerful ones made a magical contract - the Guildpact - that would keep the planet peaceful. The lesser factions were disbanded or destroyed.

999 years later, the guilds are still at relative peace - even if they disliked each other, the Guildpact stops any serious attempts of war. One of the guilds has been destroyed and forgotten. The other nine guilds control a separate aspect of civilization each - law, religion, food, mining, recycling, and so on.

There is no government "per se"; the guild often negotiate with each other and the Guildpact prevents things from derailing. The exact terms of the Guildpact are known to few, and understood by fewer, but basically it is a set of magically enforced laws that cannot be broken, lest the whole order be destroyed,

Most of the populace is Guildless, though, and they must offer services to the guilds in order to be admitted - or just to survive. Many resent the guilds and some even long for the days before the Guildpact, but without the guilds the world would go back to chaos.

Your guild is The Boros Legion, and your mission is to keep the peace and bring troublemakers to judgment. You were probably invited to join after showing martial progress at a young age. You are still being tested before being made a permanent member.

Most of the legion is comprised of humans, goblins, viashino (lizard-people) and minotaurs, but others can join too. The leaders of your guild are avenging angels with fiery blades; you hardly see them, but they inspire you with ideals of justice and vengeance.

In theory, you have to follow the byzantine laws of Ravnica, but in practice you can do harm with relative impunity as long as you follow your orders and don't disrupt official guild business (either Boros or otherwise).

[It is possible that people from other guilds will accompany a Boros band for various reasons, such as providing healing or technology, but I'm assuming most of the PCs to be Boros. Most classes will do just fine, with a few exceptions such as bards and druids. Alternatively, you can let the PCs start without a guild and acquire one during play. Also, I do not expected players that are not familiar with Ravnica to memorize all the guilds at first; three guilds, plus the knowledge of a missing one, will be enough for LMoP].


In Ravnica, mining is the job of the sadistic Cult of Rakdos, one of the most dangerous guilds around. In their underground domains, they do as they wish, but they give plenty of gold to the other guilds in return. Still, there are plenty of ancient mines that the cult haven't found yet - the Wave Echo Cave is one of them. In theory, any mines should be given to the Rakdos, but in practice there are plenty of greedy, foolhardy opportunists that would try to take the gold for themselves.

This is what happened here. An ancient mine was found in Phandalin by Rockseeker, a goblin explorer. Soon enough, all criminal gangs in the area started being suspicious and started looking for a way to get their cut.

The thing is, Phandalin is basically a gigantic slum, filled with ruins and partly covered by overgrown forests. Worse, the Gruul clans are very active in the area. The Gruul clans were once responsible for the forest, but singe the growth or Ravnica has destroyed most great forest in the planets, the Gruul are now homeless, marginalized and angry. Swindled out of their share in the Guildpact, now the Gruul threaten civilization from within. Even then, their numbers never seem to dwindle, maybe because any guildless can potentially join the Gruul, although the weak are brutalized by the strong.

Chaotic, angry and prepared for war, the Gruul are in many ways the savage counterpart to the Boros. Like the Boros, they have humans, goblins, viashino and minotaur in their ranks, but also trolls, ogres, centaurs, elves and other creatures that are either martial or aligned with nature.

There is no strict hierarchy among the Gruul; many criminal gangs fancy themselves part of the guild, but they fight each other almost as often as they cooperate.

Let the players know that they can arrest any Gruul that comis a crime and can destroy them in self-defense, but merely being a Gruul is no crime, although many Boros hate them. Some Grull might be informants, friends or even family to the PCs.

Part 1 - Goblin arrows

The players are charged with investigating the disappearance of Sildar Hallwinter, a Boros officer that was investigating a supposed criminal gang in Phandalin (in my campaign, Sildar was involved with the hiding of the mine). They have an informer in Phandalin that could help. As they meet this informer, he will say he must meet the PCs in a more private place. If the players are smart or suspicious enough, they will realize that this is an ambush; the informant has been compromised.

Part 2 - Phandalin

Phandalin causes mixed reactions to the Boros; they might be appalled by the poverty and lawlessness of the people, but the simple fact that the place is so filled with natural life could cause some admiration. While interacting with people in the city, it will soon become obvious that not not all guildless are alike, and even among the Gruul there are very different people.

The factions of Phandalin are mostly substituted by guilds in my version, but you can certainly have smaller groups that are not directly tied to any of the major guilds. If your PCs are Boros, they will probably not pledge allegiance to any competing faction, but they can - and should - cooperate with other guilds to advance the goals of the Boros or their own - make clear that this is part of normal life in Ravnica.

Part 3 - The Spider's Web

Not much to add here. The green dragon is a giant worm (or "Wurm") in Ravnica instead; a creature worshiped by some of the Gruul as a symbol of primal power and chaos unleashed upon civilization. The owl-bear might be a symbol of corrupted nature gone wild, too - like a giant boar out of Princess Mononoke. Or say it is a giant bear - and that the PCs had never seen a bear before. It adds to the strangeness of the setting.

Part 4 - Wave Echo Cave

The story behind WEC is that is was sealed a thousand years ago because it was overrun by the undead and many other foul creatures - specially one particular being (the spectator) that is an envoy from the dangerous, forgotten gods from before the Guildpact. The Black Spider is interested not only in the gold, but in the ghost-stones that kept the undead active for all this time. He wants to study them and use them to help building his own undead army.

The wraith and the spectator have a pact of their own, so they cant destroy each other. They will try to enlist the PCs for their cause, promising many rewards. The spectator will claim to be a herald of ancient gods that were hidden from the people of Ravnica by the corrupted guilds.

The Black Spider, in reality, is the psychic vampire Szadek, head of the secret tenth guild. In the original Guildpact, the tenth guild was charged with secretly challenging the power of the other guilds, a fact that only the ones who signed the pact know. The other guilds are forbidden to let the secret out.

He will not fight to the death; instead, he tries to flee (even before the fight ends) or surrender (promptly reminding the PCs they shouldn't attack a surpreender foe).

What comes next?

Giving the mines to the despised Rakdos will be an issue in itself - many Boros might agree with Sildar and try to take some of the gold for themselves. If the PCs arrest Szadek, the Boros will have a problem on their hands, since his existence being known would break the Guildpact. He might find a way to escape (in which case the Boros will eventually give the PCs job of assassinating him), or maybe he will be quietly executed.

Even if Szadek dies, there are still plenty of things to do in Ravnica, based on MtG lore, novels, etc. 

Here are some ideas:

- The PCs are assigned to look for one of the Ten Most Wanted of Ravnica, or maybe they are just looking for the reward.
- The angels that rule the Boros disappear, leaving a power vacuum.
- The ghost-stones will be used by other guild as a weapon to try and exterminate the Gruul, creating a ghost-town in Phandalin.
- A creature created by the Simic combine escapes and hides within Golgari territory.
- A power struggle within a guild makes conspirators search for allies in other guilds.
- Two guilds associate in order to gain supreme power.
- The guildless revolt against the guilds. Some Boros want to massacre them, some understand the anger, some want to leave the legion.
- The Guildpact is eventually broken. This opens Ravnica up to visitor form other planes.
- The ancient gods, no longer held back by the Guildpact, attack Ravnica. They look like somethign out of a Lovecraft story.
- The last dragon, Niv-Mizzet, finds a megadungeon under the Senate: the Implicit Maze. It contains the power to re-establishing the Guildpact, but all guilds must cooperate (even though not all members are willing).

(all art belongs to Wizards of the Coast)
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