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

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Dungeonborn (New 5e Background)

Here is a 5e background inspired by "The Outsider" by Lovecraft, some of Poe’s claustrophobic short stories, a bit of Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask), Mervyn Peake, Horace Walpole, and this awesome post by Jack Shear. There might be some Fallout in it too. Or Room, although I haven’t watched it or read more than a few pages.

The name was quite difficult to decide upon: “Castle born” sounds like a traditional noble background, something equivalent to “silver spoon”; “Tomb child” sounds vampiric or undead; “Shadow spawn” sounds like something out of the Shadowfell, etc. Of course, you can use any of them if you prefer.

This background is quite close to Sage, with a bit of Hermit, Noble and a Gothic flavor. If you like the idea but dislike the rules I’ve written, use Sage instead.

There are many interesting ways you can use that. A character like Bane, born in a prison, is one possibility; but a D&D version of they guy who spent all of his life in his mom's basement is also viable. Also, Rapunzel, Edward Scissorhands, etc.. A post-apocalyptic survivor like the protagonist of the Fallout games allows you to play the outsider who knows nothing of the current archetype in a fresh way. An artificial being, or a Quasimodo character are some of the possibilities I haven't explored to avoid making it too long.

In any case, here we go. Click here for a good-looking PDF, made with The Homebrewery.com.


You were born and raised into the depths of a huge castle, dungeon or tunnel complex. You have lacked nothing - you slept in fine linen, studied in huge libraries, and there was always a friendly hand to feed you. Whose hand is that, you don’t quite know – maybe a servant of your ancient family, or some forgotten creature or undead. You have never seen much of the world outside the walls (or maybe not even the light of the sun), or talked to common people, although you know they do exist somewhere. When you finally got out, you felt alienated from everybody, but also curious and eager to explore.

Inside & out
Why were you kept inside? Who raised you? You can create your own story with your GM or roll in the table below. You might also choose to not know all details beforehand, and find them out during play. Likewise, think of how you got out (did you escaped, reach maturity and was left to fend for yourself, walked away when all servants disappeared, was expelled, rescued by other PC’s), unless the adventure starts while you’re still inside.

1. I was a bastard unwanted by my highborn parents, kept secret to avoid shame.
2. I was abandoned and raised by benevolent spirits.
3. My caretakers were overprotective to the point of insanity, although I didn’t realize that.
4. I was kidnapped by a maniac and protected by another prisoner.
5. I was part of a doomsday cult that tough the world had ended.
6. The usurpers took my titles, but wouldn’t dare to kill me. 
7. My parents were imprisoned and killed by underground creatures that took pity on me.
8. I am a child of the undead or inhuman – I should never be living in the first place!

Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, History.
Languages: Two of your choice.
Equipment: fancy and peculiar clothes, a lantern, a necklace with two old portraits (your parents?), 25 gp.

Feature: Born in the Darkness 
You are used to move in the darkness, and you can see in dim light within 30 feet of you as if were bright light. You also have an instinctive sense that tells you of the existence of any secret doors or passageways within most buildings, as well as the purpose of most rooms.

Variant feature: Forgotten lore
You have acquired a huge volume of curious forgotten lore. Even when you do not know a particular piece of information, you often know some ancient and relevant trivia related to it. You might not know a particular noble, for examples, but would have heard about his ancestors or past landowners.

Suggested Characteristics
Darkness and isolation leave permanent marks on the dungeonborn. Whether curious about their own origins or eager to get away from them, they are still quite alien and ignorant of common people’s customs and manners. They can be shy, strange and socially inept, or adorable in their exotic naiveté.

Personality trait
1. I lack social skills and often commit innocent but embarrassing faux pas.
2. I am shy and get embarrassed when dealing with extroverted people.
3. I am eager to make new friends and treat everyone I find as a potential ally.
4. I am extremely curious about the outside world and marvel at the simplest things.
5. I am dismissive of people with little or no book learning.
6. I constantly quote from forgotten books that no one else has read, expecting to be immediately understood.
7. I do not know how to deal with money.
8. I am incredibly patient and think long–term in most of my actions.

1. Freedom. No one should be forced to live in a prison of any kind (Chaotic).
2. Knowledge. I must learn as much as I can from this huge, strange world (Neutral).
3. People. Most people are inherently good and should be treated as such (Good).
4. Traditions. I must keep the traditions of my family, no matter how the world sees them (Lawful).
5. Power. I will show this degenerate, ignorant people that they should do as I say (Evil).
6. Self-knowledge. I must find where I came from and what I can become (any).

1. I am the last heir to my family and I must protect their good name.
2. These people are my first friends and I must treasure them forever.
3. I is my duty to maintain my lands and castle.
4. This picture is the only remainder of my ancestors, I shall never lose it.
5. I will take revenge against the ones who imprisoned me.
6. I will return to the castle one day, and make it a better place.

1. I look down on the ignorant masses.
2. I cannot trust anyone.
3. I was imprisoned by my own fault and want to keep it a secret.
4. I am vengeful and cannot forgive an insult.
5. I am oblivious to other peoples’ feelings.
6. I believe everyone should pay attention to my needs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The fallacy of unified mechanics

In the classic TSR-era, D&D famously had a big number of task resolution mechanics. Some things used 1d20, roll high. Others, 1d20 roll low. Thieves skills used both a d% and 1d6 roll low - same as most other tasks. Reactions and morale used 2d6. Initiative, 1d6 roll high. And so on.

The number and type of dice were not the only thing the varied: attacks with a weapons would be rolled by the attacker, while spells would grant a roll to the defender, etc. A number of tasks would require having the necessary resources (spells, equipment, HP, etc) and no roll. Some stuff seems to be decided by GM fiat (a witches reaction to a high-charisma PC, for example).

And, of course, many old school enthusiasts believe most challenges would be resolved without using the dice, just by describing the PCs actions. Some will even rage against thieves skills as detrimental to the whole game.

Nowadays, I'm somewhat used to it. But at some point in the nineties that irritated me greatly; the "new" D&D stuff that I liked (AD&D 2e and the Rules Cyclopedia) insisted in the same confusion as the original versions, when there were more streamlined games around. Why not just use one single method of resolution?

As you might know from my last post, I eventually started playing GURPS, and when D&D 3e hit (to supposedly fix such problems, but we all know how that went) I already thought D&D was too complicated. One of the things that attracted me in GURPS is how everything was "roll 3d6 under your attribute or skill". So simple!

People call this "unified mechanics" - all "modern" games do it. And, of course, D&D eventually followed suit in the year 2000. 1d20, roll high, for everything! Quite elegant!


It is easy to see how old school D&D might look messy at first. Let us take what, in my opinion, is the simpler, cleaner, and easier version of D&D ever (Moldvay´s) as an example:

- Attack and saving throws use a d20 - you want to roll high.
- Well, there might be a saving throw for falling, if the GM allows it. It uses a d%.
- Thieves skills use d%. Well, except hear noise. It uses 1d6, like most other tasks anyone can do (forcing doors, etc). Roll low.
- Oh, initiative also uses a d6. You want to roll high.
- There is also some uses of 2d6, but the GM rolls them. Monster reaction uses 2d6 - rolling low means the monster is aggressive. Morale (optional) uses 2d6 - you want to roll low, because rolling high means surrender.
- Other tasks use a d20. Except you want to roll low, lower than your ability score. A "20" is always a failure. Climbing a rope, for example. No, climbing sheer surfaces use a different mechanics. Yes, most thieves might have better chance at climbing sheer walls than climbing ropes...

Compare this to 5e (and most WotC D&D):

- Attack roll? Roll a d20, and roll high. Saving throw? Same thing. Skills? Yup, d20, roll high. Thieves too? Yes. What about ability checks? Same deal. Initiative? d20. Morale (optional)? That is a d20 check. Roll high.

Pretty good, huh?

However... Skills and abilities become quite unreliable. Your dexterity 18 gives you 40% extra chance in succeeding in some crazy acrobatics test in B/X (if you use "there is always a chance"), but only 20% in modern D&D. And a 3rd level thief can often succeed where a 10th level thief has failed.

Same with initiative - you could be quite sure of acting first in B/X, but with a d20 your dexterity means very little. Forcing doors with Strength 18? That would be a 5/6 chance in B/X, more than double the usual 2/6 - but in modern D&D your Strength bonus will mean nothing 80% of the time. Likewise, morale becomes quite the coin toss.

The problem isn't numbers; the problem is my players that don't even care about the math realizing the dice is more important than their characters when resolving most tasks (and they do).

Well, at least everything is resolved the same way now, right? From fighting to, say, climbing? Really straightforward! Not quite.

When you climb, you roll a d20. If you roll high enough - success!

When you attack, you roll a d20. If you roll high enough - success! But wait, roll for damage. No, no d20s here - a d4, d6, d8, d10 or d12, depending on the case. Rolled a 1? Yeah, not such a great success after all. What if you rolled the maximum number? Well, then your enemy loses some HP. Success? Not quite, you must roll the d20 again next round to attack again. Did we roll initiative? Yeah, you must roll a d20 BEFORE attacking, to see who goes first...

I see no honest way to say that combat and skills use the same mechanics in any version of D&D. And, if they don't, using a d20 for both seems forced - because there are many more effective ways that have been used before.

Even when 5e tries to fix the d20 problems - but giving reliable skills to rogues or reliable strength for barbarians - it does so by adding NEW mechanics, often more complicated than just rolling a different kind of dice.

Back to GURPS then! At least 3d6 creates a good bell curve, making skills reliable, and all damage uses d6s. Not 3d6, but, still...

The problem is that "reliable" and "combat" don't mesh too well. Fighting can become quite predictable, and depending on the rules you're using, you can spend rounds and rounds with nothing happening because both foes have more than 70% chance of blocking an attack! There are some critical hits, but they are hard to come by... and then you roll in a critical hit table where "nothing happens" is what you 37% of the time!

You can imagine "reliable combat" got a bit boring after a while.

Now, let us make a few things clear. B/X. GURPS, and D&D 5e are some of my favorite RPGs.

And I quite LIKE the idea of unified mechanics - as one possible goal, not as a straitjacket. Yes, I have proposed some for B/X in this very blog and I use them in my own RPG, Days of the Damned.

But, here is the point:

The most important thing about a game mechanic is that it is FUN and it WORKS.

The rest is secondary. The fact that mechanics are similar to each other is a nice addition, but not a requirement. Games are meant to be PLAYED, not to be admired by the reader ("oh, how elegant, armor class is equivalent to difficulty class"...).

If the price for fun is using some different types of dice, I'll pay it gladly.

ADDENDUM: how to solve all my problems with GURPS, B/X and 5e, "unified" style!

These ideas are old, but they work well enough.

- Combat uses 1d20. A "bell curve" effect is created by dividing it in many rolls. Saving throws use the same because the risk is exciting. Skills uses 3d6. "Natural" bell curve.

- For 5e: use 3d6+mods, 4d6 if you have advantage, 2d6 for disadvantage. DC 30 is actually "nearly impossible" now. Or just fix the DCs accordingly (maybe 10/14/18/22/26).

- For B/X: everything but combat and saving throws is now 3d6 roll under, 4d6 if the task is hard, etc. Thieves have no skills, but they get a bonus equal to their level when trying to hide, climb, open locks, etc. It is not hard to remember: roll high with 1d20, roll low with d6s. Natural 20 good, 666 bad. Morale and reactions stay as they are, because they work.

- For GURPS: use a d20 in combat and high-risk scenes. And no more "nothing happens" results in the critical hit table!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

GURPS D&D, part I: some quick thoughts on the matter (and attributes)

As you probably know, there is a kickstarter  for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy going on. For all I know, it should be great. And I should know a little about the subject, since I've been playing GURPS fantasy for more than 20 years until switching to old school D&D, a few years ago.

Reading about new GURPS stuff fills me with nostalgia. It is an awesome game and I should probably write more stuff about it.

So, why did I stop playing? Well, I think GURPS can do a lot MORE than D&D with fewer rules. For all the "complexity" fame that GURPS has, I am constantly reminding people that I played GURPS because I though D&D was too complicated and made little sense - of course, had I know B/X before, my experience might have been different.

Still, I switched to old-school D&D because I think there are quite a few things that D&D can do a lot BETTER than GURPS.

First, GURPS combat got boring after a while, for reasons I will explain later. But this might be contentious; a better example is old D&D adventures and OSR stuff - GURPS has nothing quite like it (on the other hand, it has great sourcebooks on everything, and you can use most of those for any RPG). And those Monster Manuals! GURPS has a few good ones, but nothing compared to D&D.

Much of this is OGL's fault. Anyone can do D&D nowadays, and, although there is lots of trash, there are also more hidden gems than I can count. On the other hand, only SJG can do GURPS. The upside is that I used to buy EVERY. SINGLE BOOK. that SJG published because I already knew that they would be good (more than I can say about WotC, to be honest).

In my last years of GURPS, I spent lots of times trying to convert D&D stuff to GURPS. Eventually, I didn't see the point anymore. GURPS is quite simple, despite what people might say; but there is just TOO MUCH stuff (too many skills, advantages and disadvantadges, for one).

So I probably won't back the kickstarter, for lots of reasons - mostly, time and money, but if you have those available, I think you should. I can guarantee GURPS has useful stuff for pretty much everyone.

In any case, there is still a place in my heart for GURPS stuff. There is so much I learned from it, and I reckon some people that never played GURPS can find something useful in it. There is so much I would change too - that is why I play D&D.

And I think Ic an explain GURPS in D&D-speak, which might be relevant to some readers.

If there is enough interest, this might become a long series of posts; if not, maybe I will go back to writing about D&D sooner (who knows, I love when people read and comment on my blog, but I'm doing this for fun).

This probably beats most D&D settings, Seriously.
So, how would my version of GURPS D&D be like? Let us start with attributes.

First, if you've never played GURPS, it has "attributes" instead of abilities. Strength [ST], Dexterity [DX], Health [HT] and Intelligence [IQ].

All attributes start at 10. You can roll 3d6 in order, if you want, or use point-buy, which is quite central in GURPS. Most skills are based on DX and IQ, so they cost 20 points to raise (from 10 to 11, 11 to 12, etc). ST and HT cost 10.

All combat skills are based on DX, unlike D&D, and although ST is what causes damage, a good DX can make up for it, by targeting the throat, etc. This made lot of sense to me back in the day. For combat, DX is probably the main stat.

IQ is another important stat. It is Wisdom and Intelligence rolled up in one, as it includes magic, many skills, perception and will power (and you thought D&D was silly to use Wisdom for the last two!). It also includes Charisma stuff - fast talk, diplomacy, etc. I am not the first person to suggest this is just too much stuff for a single attribute; there are lots of house rules that address this in one form or another.

There is no easy way to elegantly fix that that I can think of without making it too complicated.

One could just use D&D abilities, and it would actually IMPROVE the game in lots of ways. Everything should cost 10 points per level - this is actually very close to how GURPS does things (see Sean Punch /Kromm about charisma cost here).

DEX and INT are too powerful in GURPS terms, since it is a skill-based game and most skills are based in DEX and INT, but INT can be easily fixed if you move some of the skills around.

DEX, on the other hand, is harder. Not only is the one you use to attack, but is also useful for dodging, no matter your armor. And, of course, most "thief skills" are also DEX-based. This is one thing you could change - maybe lock-picking and sneaking require more attention than agility - but then you've got a lot of wise thieves walking around... Not a good idea when you are trying to create archetypal characters.

You might just keep the cost at 20 points per level, if you want the six abilities or think the ability to dodge a punch is akin to the ability of picking as lock. In my own game, I just use two "Dexterity" and "Agility" instead, but adding a new ability kinda ruins my whole "GURPS D&D" theme. To stay true to my D&D house rules, I could rule there is NO combat attribute, and you must rely on classes/skills instead, like in OD&D. This seems quite natural to me in D&D, but feels very strange in GURPS, which has no other skills without attributes that I can think of.

In short, to make this compatible with both GURPS and D&D in some way, I guess I would prefer to have six abilities with DEX defining all attack rolls but having twice the cost of other abilities.

GURPS' way still makes a lot of sense to me, but this whole exercise always makes me reflect on how elegant and effective the six D&D abilities are for this kind of fantasy. There are plenty of reasons to like D&D, but some good ones' for playing GURPS too - which we will cover on future posts.

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.
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