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

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Rule of Three - Easy outdoor survival rules for 5e, BD&D and DotD

A while ago, I explained why I dislike 5e’s rules for starvation and dehydration, and proposed something close to the original rules, while advocating using the same rules for both scenarios.

This time, I'll explain how I use the same rules for starvation, dehydration, suffocation, exposure, sleep deprivation and all kinds of hazards in my own game (Days of the Damned), and how you can use it in D&D to deal with this hazards without having to check your books.

The rule of three is a mnemonic device for outdoor survival that says one usually cannot live for more than 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. It is a very rough estimate and it varies from person to person in real life, but works well for gaming

In Days of the Damned, where damage means physical stress, this is quite easy to do: damage from this situations is 5 for the first third of this period, 10 for the second and 15 for the whole period - enough to kill most characters. If the character somehow survives, this keeps going: 20 for the fourth day without water, then 25, and so on.

Or you can just use the method I describe below.

If you assume (like I do in my games), that most 1st level characters should survive a day or two without water, but even a level 12 fighter cannot survive for more than 10 days without drinking, using HPs for this purpose (as Delta suggests for OD&D) might not be the optimal solution, specially in 5e, in which most high level characters are little better than ordinary people in most situations they aren't specialized in, but get lots of HP all the same.

Fortunately, 5e has a system that bypasses HP altogether: exhaustion, which is perfect for our purposes. It also has a different system to deal with skills that improve with level, but less dramatically than HPs: saving throws. Here is the simple rule for 5e:

Characters who spend more than one week without food. one day without water, one hour under extreme weather (heat or cold) without adequate clothing, or one minute without air suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). After each of this periods, she suffers two levels of exhaustion (but a DC 15 Constitution saving throw will halve this effect).
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.

This way, every character has a good chance of surviving a bit more than one would expect, specially the ones proficient in Constitutions saves, keeping the "heroic" tone of the game.

BD&D has no "exhaustion" system by default, but you can use something similar: Constitution damage. It affects total hit points and can cause death regardless of level. I would allow a save for half damage in order to let high level characters have a better chance of survival. 1d6 per period works well, but if you want to make it progressively harder to survive, start with 1d4, then 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12 and 1d20. You can use this pattern if you prefer hit point loss to Constitution loss, too: it will spare most characters in the first period, but even high level characters are unlikely to survive after a while. And you only need one set of dice.

In any case, the recovery rate should depend of the situation. In my games (unlike real life), lack of air causes no lasting effects if it doesn’t kill the character, so he could recover in a few minutes, while other kinds of damage could be cured in about one day per level of exhaustion or per period.

But why stop there? As you know, I like using the same rule for multiple purposes, and this is a good example. Here are some additional ways to use it.

Falling damage. Not the rule of three, but just picking up more damage dice for every 10 feet: 1d4 first, than add 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12 and 1d20. Falling from 50 feet would cause 1d4 + 1d6 + 1d8 +, 1d10 + 1d12 damage. You can cap the damage if you want to give better chances of survival on great falls; maybe 1d4 + 1d6 + 1d8 +, 1d10 + 1d12 plus 1d12 per additional 10 feet, save for half damage. Of course, iy you want to keep 1d6 per 10 feet fallen you can go directly to Con damage... few characters will survive a great fall.

Sleep deprivation. You can use a 3-day pattern for sleep deprivation, but six levels of exhaustion may cause fainting instead of death.

Poison and disease. The "running against time" sensation caused by growing danger can be simulated by this rules, with one difference: if a character survives three periods (minutes, hours, days, weeks, depends on the poison or disease), he starts to heal and gets no further damage. The best part, of course, is watching the characters run desperately for a cure!

So, there you have it. This is the rule I use for antibodies in D&D, if you ever need one!

Update: want to download this rule in PDF form for using in your game? Check this out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sidney Sime, the original Old School Artist

Fans of the Old School Renaissance are usually familiar with public domain fantasy art. Lots of retro-clones (and indie RPGs in general) have used this; of particular notice is Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, by Oakes Spalding, that uses John D. Batten's art for amazing effects. You can find it here, for free. Other games (and blogs, including this one...) use art by Henry Justice Ford, Willy Pogany, Gustave Dore, and Albrecht Dürer, among others.

As amazing as this artists are, I think no artist (in the public domain) is more quintessentially OD&D than Sidney Sime. Although some people have drawn attention to Sime in D&D blogs, he seems to find little representation in OS games as far as I can tell.

Which is a pity, because his art portrays old school D&D like no other.

Just take a look at this stuff (click the image for greater detail):

How many "this is so D&D!" things can you count in this picture? We have the sphinx (far from Egypt...) in the first plane, the fallen explorer next her, the ominous ruins with partially collapsed stairs, the giant monster trying to escape from the door, the mysterious book under the candlelight, the treasure chest over the door (why is it in such an awkward place? Is it hidden? Is it some kind of trap?)... But the most amazing thing is the sense of danger. Even though they dress like knights and warriors, this adventurers are no heroes: one is already down, while the others prefer to avoid the monster instead of fighting it directly!

It is no coincidence that Sime is so close to D&D. He is most famous for working with Lord Dusany, one of the authors listed in the Appendix N without mention of a particular book (an one that I am particularly fond of).

Among other things, Lord Dunsany created the "gnoles" and influenced lots of other authors in the appendix N - including Tolkien, Vance, Lovecraft, Howard, etc. You can basically pick any of his short stories and borrow some ideas for your D&D games (and this stuff is public domain, too).

See this excerpt from Wikipedia, the opening paragraph of "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" (The Book of Wonder - 1912):

The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again.

Does a monster that hoards treasures to entice greedy adventures sound D&D enough for you?

Go read this story, by the way - it reads like an old school D&D adventure might turn out to be, much more than anything that more popular authors in the Appendix N might have written.

Now, take a look at Sime's rendition of this tale:

Again, look at the details: the blood flowing from the corpse at the door, the hanging skeletons, the tower within a dark forest that is lighted from the inside, the would-be hero sneaking with a bow while his dragon-mount and armor stay on the outside... Once more, the adventurer looks like  a sad figure against great sinister forces.

Another piece in the same vein:

All these mushrooms, spider-webs, mysterious lights and caves remind me of the Underdark... But the frail hero in the center of the picture, maybe protecting his treasure, is what really screams "low level D&D" to me.

There is a 3d version here.

According to Wikipedia, Sime was not only an illustrator for Lord Dunsany either: "For one volume, at least some of the stories were inspired by Sime works (The Book of Wonder), and for three, in special limited editions, each plate of illustration was signed by both author and artist."

He also collaborated with William Hope Hodgson ("The House on the Borderland"). Hodgson is not the appendix N, but could certainly be - he influenced Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, among others.

Not all of his art is about hopeless adventures, of course. Strange gods, bizarre monsters, mythic figures, epic struggles, fantastic maps, and gem-eyed idols are all pictured in his work. It would be easy to find a piece for each little white booklet in OD&D, although his art is more reminiscent of AD&D.

See more of Sidney Sime's in Monster Brains, where I got the pictures in this post.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The importance of levels

Even tough it can be said that every RPG in existence is inspired by D&D in one way or another, D&D has a few distinctive characteristics that are hard to find in most of the mainstream RPGs that aren’t D&D or direct clones.

One of this distinctive marks of D&D is the strong correlation between character level and the probability of surviving any given danger. In D&D, level measures survivability – almost regardless of edition. The two most important tools for that purpose are hit points and saving throws. Combat capability is also directly affected, through attack bonuses and more damaging spells. On the other hand, the effect of level on skills and general abilities (encumbrance, languages, etc) varies wildly from edition to edition.

The same cannot be said of most RPGs with point-buy characters. Take GURPS, for example: a character made with 200 points can be more fragile than the character made with 100 points in many circumstances, including combat, and even the same character can go from 100 to 200 points without increasing hit points. 

If you analyze all the things the characters can do (let's call them “capabilities”) and how they relate to levels, you can detect three main patterns (although the distinction isn’t always clear-cut). There are also some subdivisions that are worth mentioning.

1a. Direct correlation: the capability grows in direct proportion to level. For example, you gain 1d8 HP per level or +2 to attack rolls every three levels.

1b. Direct correlation with hard limit: the capability grows in direct proportion to level until it reaches a limit. After that, even if the character can still gain lots of levels, the capability evolves no further. For example, the dwarf in Rules Compendium doesn't improve his saving trows after level 12 even if he can get to level 36 (variant rules) ; the Fighter in Lamentations of the Flame Princess (based on B/X) gets a +1 attack bonus per level until level 9, then no more.

1c. Direct correlation with soft limit: the capability grows in direct proportion to level until it reaches a limit. After that, the capacity still grows, but at a slower pace. For example, in pre-3e D&D you might gain 1d8 HP per level until level 9, and then 1 to 3 HP per level after that.

2a. Indirect correlation: the capability bears no direct correlation to level, but as the character gains levels he gains resources that he can invest in it. For example, a 10th level fighter is no better at Appraise than a 15th level fighter in 3e, but he gets more skill points that he can invest in skills – including Appraise – if he wishes to do so.

2b and 2c. You can have hard limits or soft limits in this pattern too. For example, a maximum number of skill ranks in a given skill. Soft limits with this pattern are hard to come by, which I’ll comment later.

3a. No correlation: the capability bears no correlation to level at all. This usually happens because the capability is basically immutable, or can only be changed trough in-game events, as it happens to abilities in most of pre-3e D&D, and to the capability of a fighter to do damage with a single hit in B/X (although total damage dealt per turn can be raised through extra attacks and greater chances of hitting).

3b and 3c. Whatever limits you have on this capabilities are usually determined in character creation. For example, in most editions abilities are capped at 18 or 20 (hard limit). In 4e and 5e, soft limits are used when buying ability scores with points – going from 8 to 10 is cheaper than going from 12 to 14.

The analysis isn't purely theoretical: it changes how the game feels, marks the difference between editions and might create problems and opportunities during play. Complaints about "linear fighter quadratic wizard" and "hit point inflation" are usually related to this patterns. Whole games can be created by emphasizing some of this patterns and de-emphasizing others.

Let's see some examples.

Some times, leveling up doesn't help... (Source: DCC RPG - Art by Doug Kovacs)

HP inflation, AC stasis

An interesting feature of most D&D editions is that, while HP raises dramatically with level (pattern 1a or 1c), the amount of damage a sword blow does stays basically the same (pattern 3). To compensate for that, BAB raises with level (pattern 1), while AC remains mostly the same (pattern 3). The fighter will attack more often and land more often, but since opponents have more HP, fights won't go any faster because of that. This is usually a feature: since more attacks and more granularity means more options, the game gets more complex as it progresses in levels.

In the versions of D&D that grant no extra attacks to fighters, combat may get very slow at high levels, because BAB doesn't make up for increased HP. Since wizards usually get better damage at higher levels, this doesn't apply to them.

Great balls of fire

In most editions, the Fire Ball spell causes 1d6 damage per level of the caster (pattern 1a). In B/X, HP reaches a soft limit in level 9 (pattern 1c). On the other hand, the Fire Ball allows a saving throw (pattern 1a - direct correlation to level) that halves damage if successful.

A 6th level wizard in B/X and BECMI, with his 6d6 fireball (average damage 21) isn't likely to kill a 6th level Fighter (average 33 HP, assuming 1d8 per level +1 bonus from CON) with a single spell. The chance, in fact, is less than 0.1%. The chance is lowered even further as they gain levels, until the HP soft limit is reached: after that, the fire ball becomes dangerous again, although better saving throws partially limit this effects. The RC dwarf mentioned above has the most chance of surviving a fire ball at level 12 - from them on, it only gets worse.

100 ways to die in a dungeon

One controversial effect of HP inflation (specially when HP follows pattern 1a - direct correlation to level) is how it affects the chance of survival from different sources of damage. There are quite a few people that accept than a 15th level fighter can take more than 15 hits with a sword and survive - since combat is abstract and HP includes the capability of avoiding killing blows - and at the same time get annoyed because the fighter can jump from a height of 100 feet and be sure to survive with no permanent damage.

In 3E, surviving without food or water is basically a matter of HP and level (and, to a lesser degree, Constitution). A 20th level fighter can be sure to survive about a month or more without food. 5E, curiously enough, has two different rules for dehydration and starvation, none of which involve HP. This is implemented in such a way that level may give you some protection against dehydration but has NOT effect on starvation (unless you add more Constitution).

E6, pattern 2c and soft limits

E6 is a way of playing 3e where, basically, you gain no more levels after the 6th, but you can get more feats. One of the goals behind the system is to avoid "HP bloat" that came with 3e using pattern 1a (direct correlation to level) instead of 1c (direct correlation with soft limit) for HP.

This works well for lots of people, but might be unattractive to those who dislike feats. One way of fixing that is using pattern 2c for abilities, as I suggested here.

Pattern 2c, in fact, is one of my favorite patterns, because it encourages characters to expand the number of capabilities (other goal behind E6), but at the same time allows them to specialize if they want to. 

Level is directly proportional to shoulder pads. (Source: Diablo III)  

The old-school inside 4e

There is a lot of talk about 5e being an old school inspired game, unlike 4e, but there are at least a few arguments in contrary. In OD&D, level was the main gauge of almost ALL of the characters abilities: HP, fighting ability, saving throws, skills, etc. There is some evidence (through people that played early on) that not only thieves but ALL classes relied on levels for their exploits.

4e does this by adding half level to almost every roll, so that a 20th level wizard is almost always stronger than a 1st level fighter (pattern 1a). By avoiding patterns 2 and 3, 4E makes sure that high-level characters are noteworthy in ANY situation.

Of course, there are many reasons to consider 4e a new school game, but is curious to notice this particular old school aspect is absent in most other editions.

The odd 5E pattern

Fifth edition has a curious implementation of this patterns, where some skills and saves will get better with level (pattern 1) while others don’t (pattern 3), although the feats may allow you to include more of them in the group that gains bonuses (pattern 2). Because of this, a 20th level character in 5E might look very similar to a regular person where most of her skills are concerned, but light-years ahead when her main capabilities are in question.

This pattern causes problems with saving throws, since the things that attacks STs always get better with levels (pattern 1), while most STs follow pattern 3 (unless you get the right feats). The result is that you are very unlikely to succeed in saving throws at high level, unless you're proficient.

To implement pattern 1a in 5th edition, one should starting by granting proficient bonuses to everyone, all the time, and letting proficiency grant a flat bonus instead (or advantage).

A caveat

This post doesn't concern starting capabilities. By changing the number of HP you get in the first level, you can change a lot of assumptions about the game. But this is a different subject, that deserves a post of it's own. It also doesn't discuss the exact number of HP or the exact bonus that is gained per level, which is also a different matter.

What's the point?

The main goal of this essay is to give you tools that you can use in your own games. How should a 15th level character look like? If you want her to be able to survive a 100 foot fall, use pattern 1. If you want her to be able to survive it up to a point, use 1b. If level shouldn't protect her at all, use pattern 3. The same reasoning may apply to any number of capabilities - should the Fighter attack more often, or should she get better at dealing damage and breaking down doors? Should a high level wizard be stronger than a low level fighter? Should a 15th level cleric be better at sneaking around than a 1st level one?

This might help you understand why you favor one edition over another, and how you can come up with your own house rules for D&D.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Minimalist Magician - easy spell-casting for BD&D

Last post I said I "kinda liked" wizards. To be sincere, I like them a lot more than that. In fact, they might be my favorite kind of characters. The problem is, I am not the biggest fan of D&D's spell system, the main reason being that I find it too complex - although I do understand the appeal of Jack Vance.

Wizards memorizing spells from ancient books and then forgetting it all of a sudden might sound cool, but it might get troublesome if you (the GM or player) are the one suddenly forgetting your spells and having to check your own books in the middle of the action.

I tried coming up with my own system many times, and I often erred on the side of free-form. Magic (and the gods, if we are talking about clerics) is capricious and unpredictable, and would-be-wizards should be prepare for that. Eventually I came to the conclusion that this could get unfair and quite annoying to the players, specially the ones who like tactical choices, planning in advance, etc.

When writing Days of the Damned, I came up with a very structured way of creating new spells. For BD&D, OTOH, there are so many good spells already that it seem a bit of a waste to redesign the whole system, specially after you beef up your fighter a little bit.

With that in mind, here is my minimalist system for wizard in BD&D.

Wizards have a number of magic points (MP) that follows a progression very similar to their HP progression, but using INT mod instead of CON mod (and +3 MP after level 9). By making MP similar to HP, you keep the flatter power curve after level 9. By making it recover at the same rate as HP, you have the different classes in the game replenishing resources at similar rates (although they may require a library, meditation, prayer, etc., depending on the wizard).

Art by Rick Troula (from "The Displaced")
Wizards can cast spells that have a level equal to halve their own, round up. So, a 13th level wizard can cast 7th level spells. As for the number of spells, they get one or two at first level, and ONE extra spell per level.

Casting spell uses up a number of MP equal to spell level. Spell level is measured in a scale from 0 to 9. The guidelines are whatever spells you're using in this campaign, although rating something on a decimal scale comes very intuitively, with 0 being cheap tricks and 9 being spells like "wish" and "defeat anything without a saving throw" stuff (if you're using such spells). When in doubt, adding a level to the spell doubles the range, duration, or number of targets.

If you prefer to keep the spells as written, there is always a "predefined" spell to get you started.

Let's take a few examples from Labyrinth Lord, which I have at hand:

Continual Light is a level 2 spells that creates a "60 diameter sphere of light is brought into being, and is a permanent effect". It can also blind one creature if it fails a saving throw. If you cast at at level 5, it can blind 8 creatures around you instead, or light up a whole hall.

The famous Fire Ball is level 3 and causes great destruction. But at level 1 it just lights candles all across the table. Level 5 double the radius to 20' (which quadruple area, of course).

Teleport is a level 5 spell. It gets quite dangerous if you're not familiar with the destination. At level 6, you cast it as if you are one level more familiar with the destination than you actually are, and so on. Alternatively, add 2 levels to take a group of four with you - very useful for adventuring.

Although the wizard might seem to lose a little in total number of spells, he more than makes up for it in flexibility.

Now, you might argue that BD&D spells are not big on "balance", and I would agree. Ultimately, it is up to the group to decide what a 1st or 9th level spell looks like. For example one might limit spell's damage to 1d6 or 2d6 per level, always require a save, make magic more dangerous or unpredictable, etc. But once you got that going, it becomes a lot easier to play a wizard.

By the way, here is how spells work in Days of the Damned, adapted to BD&D. It bears mentioning that spells in this system are significantly weaker than their BD&D counterparts.

Level Number
0 1
1 2
2 4
3 8
4 16
5 32
6 64
7 128
8 256
9 512

Level is spell level. Number is any "real" number involved in the spell: distance, number of targets, duration, area, weight, etc, but not "game" numbers such as HP, AC, HD, damage etc. Those are directly based upon spell level, one-to-one: a 3rd level spell either causes 3d6 damage, summons a 3 HD creature, add +3 to AC, an ability modifier, saving throws, etc.

For me, these numbers are actually easier to remember than abstract measurements (line of sight, medium distance, etc), and better for games that are focused on resource administration. Your tastes may be different, of course.

You start with a baseline 1st level spell and add characteristics as desired. For each trait you add, raise the spell level accordingly. To add 3d damage would add 3 levels. To target 32 people instead of 8 would add 2 levels. And so on.

Touching the target, using somatic components, specializing and a magic school, being in the right place or at the right time (the stars are right!), making the spell dangerous to the caster, spending any adequate resources, etc, lowers the spell level.

The last thing you need is the baseline spells. There is not one single "right" way to do this; it depends on the type of campaign you're running, the system you're using for fighters and thieves, etc. Some examples could look like this:

Fireball (level 1): does 1d6 damage to 1 target up to 100 feet away.

Teleport (level 1): moves one person (that is within 100 feet) up to 100 feet away.

Some spells are better described in multiple levels:

Levitate: level 1 to slow down a fall, level 2 to levitate above the ground, level 3 to float horizontally, level 4 to fly freely. Speed is the same as walking speed. This lasts for one minute.

So what about powerful spells like Wish, Shape Change, and Resurrection? In this system, those are rituals, spells that can only be cast with rare materials, when the starts are right... Finding the formula and materials is an adventure in itself.