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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The utility belt: a rule to fix cost, weight, and inventories, for any system

"How did you escape prison?", the warrior asked. 
"The guard got too close to the cell. So I put my blade to his throat and took away his keys", said the thief.
"Your blade? I heard they'd took your sword the minute they got their hands in you! ".
"Well, I always keep an extra blade under my belt. Just in case".

Systems with detailed equipment rules often encourage players to go through extensive shopping lists in order to buy the stuff they want - and prepare for every eventuality. They may also encourage you to spend as much as you can, and carry as much as you can, as long as you stay within certain thresholds. No problem with that, really; choosing equipment this way becomes a mini-game in itself.

Here is an option that avoids these pitfalls (if you don't you like them, of course) and lets the character, not the player, make smart choices about what to carry. I'll give some examples based on my own game, so you get the gist of it, but it can be used in D&D, GURPS, Fate, or whatever.

These rules only make sense if you're spending some significant time in a place where your resources are scarce and you can't just walk into a store and get what you need, such as a dungeon or a forest.

Let's say your character can carry 20 pounds without being encumbered (or receiving any penalties at all) but is currently carrying only 15 pounds. This mean you can add 5 pounds of miscellany (or 5 slots, 5 kilos, 5 stone, 5 items, 5 gizmos, etc).

Whenever you need an item, you can roll to see if you remembered to pack for this exact occasion. The roll is based on Intelligence plus an adequate background - a Fighter may have an extra blade, a Scholar may have special herbs, a Diplomat may be carrying an appropriate gift, etc. The Target Number should be about 15, in order to make things a bit harder, but you can alter this number based on the likelihood of having the item under the current circumstances.

For example:

- We are climbing the Endless Tower! Of course I have some spare rope in my backpack besides the one I ruined! (TN 10).
- Belladonna? Why would you be carrying that if you never heard about werewolves in this region? Ok, maybe you're carrying some similar herb... (TN 20+)

Also, if an item is too rare, too expensive, too frail, too big (what do you mean you had an extra Zweihänder?), the GM should veto the roll or make it more difficult.

If the roll succeeds, you have the item you need. Write it down, pay the cost immediately (if you don't have any money left, well, you can't have the item), and that's it. If the item weights 2 pounds, you now have 3 pounds of miscellany instead of 5.

If you fail, you don't have the item, and suffer some additional setback, depending on the "mode" of play your group chooses:

* Easy mode: well, at least you might have some other useful item, or you might look through your stuff later to find something useful.
* Average mode: write down a few pounds of "useless miscellany" in your inventory (2 pounds, in the example above). If you keep it with you, you may still find an use to it, but add 5 to TN.
* Hard mode: you're carrying useless stuff. You packed extra clothes that you didn't need, more water or firewood than necessary, etc. You should get rid of it. Using the example above, you're down to 3 pounds of miscellany until you can go back to somewhere you can buy random stuff. The good thing is that you don't have to pay for that.

You can get rid of your miscellany at any time before using it - if you find valuable stuff that you must carry, for example.

What's the point? 
* Reduce the time you spend shopping and planning.
* Encourage players to carry fewer items.
* You don't need to check inventory or encumbrance at all times - only when it matters.
* Give a few advantages to character that are smart, strong or skilled. For example, the ranger will always be prepared to face natural dangers.
* Give the characters a chance to know the perils they face even if they players don't.
* Make characters with "utility belts" a viable concept - they might even have skills or feats that make their rolls easier.
* Make money more useful.
* Let players and characters surprise the GM - and foil the villain's plans.

What if I don't track encumbrance in my games? 
You can still roll to see if you have the item you need. Just use common sense instead of pounds.

What if I want other character to carry my stuff? 
No problem, provided you agreed on that before leaving town.


If you liked my 2d6 stuff, here is how to use it with this:


2You're carrying this? Though luck... (it explodes, attracts more foes, makes things worse, etc).

3-5This is beyond useless, better get rid of it.

6-8Not quite what you were looking for, but might be useful anyway.

9-11Yes, you have it!

12The perfect tool for the job!

Who knows, you might come up with a whole character class based around this idea... Reminds you of anything?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mad Max, Dark Sun and 50 random ideas

After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I couldn't keep Dark Sun (maybe the most awesome D&D setting of all times) off my mind, and how cool it would be to create a new post-apocalyptic desert landscape to play D&D in, maybe with less elves and more mutants.

So here is a list of random ideas from Dark Sun, Mad Max, Dune, Fallout, and a bunch of different stuff. 1-10 are places, 11-20 are related to transportation, 21-30 are factions, 31-40 are visuals and apparel, 40-45 are dangers, and 46-50 objects.

Or, to sum up some ideas in the proverbial 25 words or less (almost):

Maniacs, mutants, and marauders, carrying obsidian and bone, ride oil-eating dragons through Endless Sands. Psionic monks battle radioactive sorcerers, dinosaurs and warlords in the apocalyptic heat. 

1. Ziggurat city, ruled by the god-emperor and his templars. 
2. Endless “seas” of silt, salt, or glass (excessive Ss, sorry).
3. Sky-high monasteries where holy-people sharpen their martial skills. 
4. Underground vaults with the last surviving fragments of the Old World. 
5. A building with innumerable floors inside the tableland.
6. A hill labyrinth of colored sands. 
7. The Vermilion plains, where even the trees have red leaves. 
8. The moving metropolis. 
9. The green places, filed with cannibals and dangerous animals. 
10. Cursed pyramids, with the remains of alien humanoids. . .  and their destroyers. 

Creatures & Transportation
11. Petrol-eating, fire-spitting, many-legged drakes that run around like crazy after a good meal.
12. Velociraptors, tyrannosaurs, stampeding apatosaurs and, why not, pterosaurs. 
13. Flying ships and stingrays. 
14. Sandworms, purple-worms, or bulletes. 
15. Giant insects. 
16. Tree-hoping people. 
17. Relentless runners. 
18. Gigantic warmachines. 
19. Psionic teleportation. 
20. Caravans, controlled by merchant-princes. 

21. Bloodthirsty youngsters eager to die in epic ways. 
22. The genetically engineered, with perfect bodies and deranged minds. 
23. Scorpion-smoking religious assassins. 
24. Preservers of the last seeds. 
25. Mutant sand raiders. 
26. Psionic monks. 
27. Rabid cannibals. 
28. Woman-hating slavers. . . 
29. . . . and the Amazons who survive them. 
30. The great desperate mass.

31. Leather, piercings and unusual hairstyles. 
32. Shaved heads, black and white paint, faces like skulls. 
33. S&M apparel. 
34. Demon masks and bizarre armor. 
35. Half naked with sunburns and unkempt hair. 
36. Heavy brown robes, kerchiefs and goggles. 
37. Silk robes with vivid colors. 
38. Ritual scarification. 
39. Bones and human ashes as accessories. 
40. War paint or lots of tatoos.

41. Sandstorms and lightning.
42. No ozone layer, sunlight slowly kills you. 
43. Water is scarce, non-radioactive water is scarcer.
44. Sinkholes and the things that cause them. 
45. Desert monsters above and below the ground. 
46. Flowers as signs of extreme wealth. 
47. A spice that causes hallucinations, mutations and increases psychic abilities. 
48. Weapons made of obsidian, glass and bone. 
49. Spikes in armors, mounts and buildings. 
50. Sun-powered death-ray lenses.

(image credits: right-click and "copy image address" for sources)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Saving Throws: Fortitude/Reflex/Will in 5th Edition

The way D&D 5th edition deals with saving throws is probably one of its most criticized aspects, mostly because:

* It's not like any other edition.
* High level characters don't get better saves automatically, making saving throws disproportionately difficult at high levels.
* Too many saving throws, and not enough reason to make the distinction.
* Some saving throws are simply better than others, although the "feat tax" is always the same.

I happen to like the general idea of "ability saving throws", specially in 5th edition, where abilities are meant to take a central role, but I do agree that the implementation has some problems. Fixing most of them is very easy. For example, you can:

* Give proficiency in all saves to everybody.
* Give proficiency in all saves to everybody, and advantage to those that would be proficient.
* Add half proficiency bonus if you don't have proficiency.
* Etc.

The good thing about all this solutions is that saving throws still differ a lot from character to character, because they are also based on abilities. The first one is probably the easiest.

My particular fix involves using Fortitude/Reflex/Will, but not quite like 3e and 4e. Instead, I would replace the "Resilient" feat for this three feats:

You are fit and able to endure great physical stress. You gain the following benefits:
* Increase your Strength or Constitution by 1, to a maximum of 20.
* You gain proficiency in saving throws using Strength and in saving throws using Constitution.

You are quick to think and to get out of the way. You gain the following benefits:
* Increase your Dexterity or Intelligence by 1, to a maximum of 20.
* You gain proficiency in saving throws using Dexterity and in saving throws using Intelligence.

You have a strong personality and amazing willpower. You gain the following benefits:
* Increase your Wisdom or Charisma by 1, to a maximum of 20.
* You gain proficiency in saving throws using Wisdom and in saving throws using Charisma.

Source: Fire and Ice - 1983
What's the point? Mainly, flavor. Its gives a reason to the fighter with low Charisma to withstand fear and mind control (he's mentally though!), and to raise Charisma or Wisdom at least once, for example. And he can choose between the two instead of having to pick Wisdom because it's saving throws are just better (Charisma saving throws are almost nonexistent).

What about classes that have different combinations of Saving Throws? Just let them choose. For example, the paladin gets Will or Fortitude. Or just Will, since Charisma is the main ability.

What about monsters? You can use them as they are. There is no problem in monsters using different rules than characters. To be honest, though, monster's saving throws don't seem to make much sense right now. Why does the Death Knight is proficient in Dexterity ST? Maybe Will would be enough.

What if I don't want feat taxes, or don't use feats at all? Just let them have the proficiency the first time they raise an ability after first level. For example, the first time the Fighter raises Wisdom after first level he gets proficiency in Wisdom and Charisma saving throws.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Actual Play Review - Prince Charming, Reanimator

I ran into this adventure when I was looking for something with an old-school feel. If you want to see how that went, take at look at my impressions here. If you already like the idea of playing with multiple 0-level characters, read on. If the adventure seems fun, you can get it here.

FT 0 - Prince Charming, Reanimator is a short adventure for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, inspired by fairy tales such as "The Sleeping Beauty". I found it to be clever, funny, and fun to play. There is a lot of little jokes in the text, such as Black Sabbath albums, animated brooms, undead princesses, and so on.

It is meant as "funnel" for 16 0-level characters, which means most of them will perish in the process. It can probably be played in a single session if you create the characters beforehand.

The adventure starts with the local prince rounding up some random villagers (the PCs) to explore the ruined castle in which, legend says, a Princess Beauty lies asleep for aeons. The prince, eager to take has a new bride (as his attempts to revive princesses Ella and Snow have failed), will not take "no" for an answer. Villagers that refuse must fight a group of 20 armed guards.

From there on, the adventure is a traditional (and well designed) dungeon crawl through the abandoned castle. The encounters are thematically appropriate and include goblin-like creatures, living vines, faeries with colorful dresses, a dragon made of roses and other plants, and a ghostly wizard that can give more information about the ruins.

Other than actually entering the castle (and not being allowed to leave), there is not much railroading in the adventure, nor is it too linear. There is significant part of the castle that MUST be explored in order to complete the mission, so at least half the keyed areas will be explored, but there are enough optional areas and choices for the players to make.

There are a few magic items scattered through the castle that I found quite powerful for 0-level characters, such as a shield that can always detect lies and an orb that can answer yes-or-no questions three time a day. Things like that can change the nature of a whole campaign whenever mysteries and conspiracies are involved, so the GM should consider this carefully before giving them away, although they are somewhat essential to the adventure itself.

I ran the game using modified TSR D&D system - adapting DCC stats was easy enough. About half the characters died, got incapacitated on ran away before the end of the adventure , although more would die if I used 0 HP = immediate death. All players found the adventure fun but showed no interested in going back to explore the castle further (nor is it the intention, anyway, as the series continues to other locations), even though I felt it would be a cool idea.

I strongly recommended this product for anyone looking for a short, old school lighthearted adventure that will kill lots of low-level characters while still allowing players to have plenty of fun.

* Affiliate links - by using this, you're helping to support this blog!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Going Old School, session 2

As promised, I gave another chance to what I see as "old school style" gaming. This isn't something my group is used to, as I've said before - in the past few years, all our games have been very story-oriented, "new school" affairs. It was a great experience nonetheless.

We didn't do 3d6 in order and B/X style modifiers like we did the last time. Instead, we used part of the tables on the Hill Cantons Compendium II with some house rules for character creation.

PCs had NO abilities. Instead, they've got backgrounds and on or two modifier between -1 and +2. Also, no levels or classes: all characters started at level 0 and were simple woodcutters, merchants, tax collectors, etc. One character was a knight, other a priest of the Great Old Ones, all with somewhat colorful stories. Also, no armor or elaborate weapons - they either had 1d4 clubs or 1d6 shortswords, spears, maces, etc. Each player had four characters, all human.

The time we've spent creating characters where similar than rolling 3d6 in order and choosing classes, skills (yes, I used those, a couple per character), and equipment, but the results were WAY more interesting. All the players agreed that character creation were more fun with backgrounds than with abilities, although they found quite strange to play D&D without them.

(In fact, I would like to have an even faster method of character creation, so that's what's I'm working on next. "One million instant characters for D&D" - sounds good?)

The backgrounds were the sources of many random ideas, jokes and interesting situations. The knight appointed himself leader, the merchant went looking for exotic goods to sell, and so on.

Instead of going with the one page dungeon I had written in a day, I went with something far more interesting: Daniel J. Bishop's adventure FT 0: Prince Charming, Reanimator, an adventure written for 16 0-level characters, based on fairy tales such as "The Sleeping Beauty". See my play-test review here.

With less HP, no classes and harsher rules (take a look at the death saving throws, old-school style I come up with after the game), the adventure was quite lethal. Some players cared a bit more about losing characters with interesting backgrounds, but not enough to upset the game. More important, some players liked the challenge of playing randomly-created characters with different backgrounds, although others felt there would be more connection if they created the characters themselves.

All this little changes made the session more enjoyable to everyone. As a GM, I had a great time watching the players face deadly challenges and come up with creative solutions - so much, in fact, that I think I will have a hard time playing other way. But not all players felt the same. They thought this to be fun, but maybe too simple, random, deadly and lighthearted to go on a extended campaign, preferring to be more involved with their characters, which was somewhat impaired by having multiple random PCs. I think some of it is because of personal preference, and some because of the way we got used to do things.

So, for the next session, we are probably going for something a bit more "modern". Still, I think my experiences with creepy dungeons, low level characters and random generation aren't over yet. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The scary thing about dragons

Player characters in D&D aren't ordinary people. Sure, they may look a bit frail at the beginning, but if they survive long enough they can become legendary heroes - capable of flying, defeating armies, raising the dead, and hiding in mere shadows.

There is something special about D&D characters. As the books often say, not every warrior is a Fighter, not every priest a Cleric, and so on. And what makes them unique is their potential. Adventurers gains levels, and in doing so they can gain the world.

At first, they are weak. An orc or lowly goblin can be deadly to starting adventurers. Barring divine intervention, mostly will fall. But some will survive, and fight on, until they become legends. They will fight ghouls and gorgons, wight and wraiths, oozes and ogres.

And some will live long enough to fancy themselves Dragons-slayers.

But Dragons are something else entirely. The first time they appeared, it was already obvious they were special. Sure, purple worms seemed bigger at first, but Dragons could cast spells, and they got stronger as they aged.

Still, this isn't the most important thing about dragons.

You see, adventurers change. With each new edition, the get distracted by their new toys, their skills, their weapons and spells, their increasing hit points and infinite options.

But not Dragons.

Yes, they were shunned by all subsequent editions, handbooks and manuals. Treated as mere "monsters" or relegated to an distant habitat, away from the core rulebooks.

It doesn't matter. Dragons know their history. They know their roots. They remember their ancient rights, and are willing and able to defend them. Dragons are hardcore. Dragons are old school.

Dragons aren't monsters. They aren't mere "dragons" in lowercase. They are player characters in their own right. It says it right there in the First Volume of the First Game, page 8:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon wold have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.
- Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

They are race-as-class before there were race-as-class. When elves, dwarves and halflings had limits when leveling up, Dragons had none.

"Just an example", you say? "Implicit limits"? "Referee's discretion"? This is not how Draconic Law works. Dragons are bound by the letter of the law, not its spirit. And this is what the rules says, on page 18:

There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress, i.e., 20th level Lord, 20th level Wizard, etc. Distinct names have only been included for the base levels, but this does not influence progression.
- Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

New editions would talk about level limits to other characters. But not Dragons. In fact, no edition would talk about Dragon player characters in the core rulebooks again. And nor will they ever do, because they've got it right the first time.

But don't let this fool you. You aren't playing Hamlets&Heroes, or Forts&Fighters. Dragons were given infinite potential, and no limits. You would think they are hoarding piles of gold, but in ancient Draconic Law, every gold piece is a point of experience. And once dragons get something, its theirs forever.

Because dragons don't change - they evolve.

And gain levels.

They have been doing it since 1974. They will never stop.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

D&D 5e: Fixing food and water

The amounts of food and water required to keep a group of adventurers sustained is usually ignored by many groups. After all, we don't usually weight what we eat, and nor should fictional heroes, right? On the other hand, if you're playing a game that focuses on hiking, hex-crawling, survival and resource management, like some versions of D&D, this data might be useful.

D&D 5e has very interesting rules about food and water consumption. Let's take a look on what basic D&D says:

Food and Water
Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.
A character needs one pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food. A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically suffers one level of exhaustion.
A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero.
A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of exhaustion at the end of the day.
If the character already has one or more levels of exhaustion, the character takes two levels in either case.

Now, there are a few ideas here that are worth mentioning. 

Starvation and dehydration do not cause damage. Instead of losing HP, a character gets exhausted after a few days without food or water (although your max HP is halved after a while), which means 10th level characters are as likely to die of starvation as 1st level characters if they have the same Constitution. Hit Points - the usual gauge of survivability - aren't important.

Interestingly, the same isn't entirely true for water, as a character can survive longer with little water if he has a good Constitution saving throw - which might be affected by proficiency (which is determined by level).

The whole exhaustion mechanic is very cool, but I dislike the idea that starvation affects characters of all levels equally. At least it is somewhat "realistic", right?

Well, in fact, the numbers are a bit unreal. The numbers below (for the real world) aren't exact figures, either, but let me give you some rough examples of what I mean when I say D&D figures strike me as odd. This isn't particular to 5e. 3e has similar figures (with some extra issues I won't discuss for now).

An average american eats about 4 pounds of food per day (with little exercise) - an average D&D character needs about one pound of food every four days (with lots of exercise). Okay, I get it - we eat more than we need, too many carbs, etc. But one pound a day is too little for active characters (and if you're weighting your food in D&D, it is because you're travelling around and carrying stuff, not because you're on a diet). You can probably survive with a pound of food a day while active if you're eating lots of fat and protein, but a couple of pounds would be more reasonable.

The idea that after three days without food you can go "back to normal" by eating normally for a day is probably a mistake and, if you're weighting food at all, must be altered (or ignored) or there will be no reason to eat every day (unless "the full required amount" is meant to say the character must eat three days worth of food in day or something similar, which is doubtful). I would suggest removing the sentence and letting the GM deal with players that abuse the system.

The idea that you can spend 3+CON days without food also doesn't seem a good idea for gaming purposes, as characters will have to check for starvation in different days.

On the other hand, after about 10 days without food, most characters will die, which is excessively harsh, specially if you aren't very active (trapped in a cage, for example).

As for water, a gallon a day is a reasonable figure if you're walking all day. And the rules for water work better than the rules for food, in my opinion - I can see no reason to use two different sets of rules.

The good thing about "one pound food, one quart of water" is that it's easy to remember - provided that you're used to imperial units and knows how much a quarter of water weights (8.33 pounds) without checking - because encumbrance, if you're counting, is measured in pounds. My own mnemonic device is "10 pounds of food and water per person per day of travel".

In any case, here is my rewritten version to make things easier and a bit more reasonable.

Food and Water
Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character spends a day eating (or drinking) the full required amount.
A character needs two pounds of food and eight pounds of water (about a gallon - double the amount of water if the weather is hot) per day. After every day without enough water or three days without enough food, she suffers one level of exhaustion and must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw, or suffer two levels instead. Consuming at least half the required amount of food (or water) doubles the number of days before each saving throw.

And if you think high level characters should always get a better chance, you can add proficiency bonus to everybody, and double it for characters proficient in Constitution saving throws.

UPDATE: check out my new take on a similar rule.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Death saving throws, old-school style

My house rule for death saving throws can be useful for 5e or other "modern" editions, but is way too merciful for old school, gritty games, where 0 HP usually carry very severe consequences. For this kinds of games, you can use something a tad more extreme. There are a couple of options below; you can use them in combination with the original post where applicable (specially, any rules for immediate death upon -10 HP, etc, still apply).

Option 1) If you reach 0 HP, save vs death. If you fail, you die. If you succeed, roll 1d6.

Option 2) If you reach 0 HP, roll 1d6.

Roll. Effect
1-2. Dying. Roll again every turn.
3-4. Disabled. Roll again if you try any significant effort (moving more than half speed, fighting, etc).
5-6. Unconscious. You can be awakened with ease by other characters, but if you aren't roll again after 10 minutes.

In any case, all dice rolled are kept on the table until you can get decent rest and healing (which usually means recovering HP). Rolling the same number twice means death.

Alternatively, you can use the table below, that includes more varied results.

1. Death.
2. Dying.
3. Disabled.
4. Unconscious.
5. Lasting injures to limbs, organs or abilities*.
6. Roll again, with 6s counting as "nothing happens for now".

* Roll 2d6 to find how many weeks until it naturally heals. If you roll the same number on both dice, it is permanent.