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, December 28, 2015

Granularity: the ideal level of detail

This post by Delta has been a great inspiration to me since I read it a long while ago. It uses Miller's Law to discuss how many options are "too many options". It is a great post - go read it if you haven't yet.

According to Wikipedia, Miller's article ("The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information") "is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2".

There is more to it than that, as you can see on the link, and the whole notion is somewhat disputed (there is mention of a "Magical Number four", for example), but Delta makes a very interesting argument based on the number 7 (and often less) to explain why so many people might find 3e "too complicated" when compared to OD&D. I feel the same -  I really like having lots of options, but I also think they can be overwhelming.

This whole thing got me thinking about what is the ideal level of detail for my games. Should I use a d100 range for traits? Should I ignore +1 modifiers? Should I use a d6 for skills, or is it not detailed enough?

Bear in mind that all of this might be coincidental, and has a lot more to do with personal taste than mathematics or psychology.

So, what is the ideal level of detail for me?

As you would imagine, the answer is often... seven.

Take B/X ability modifiers, for example; they range from -3 to +3. So, you have seven degrees of Strength, for example (-3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 , +3). Sure, there might be some difference between Strength 10 (+0) and Strength 11 (+0), but it is ignored most of the time (and I appreciate the illusion of difference between 10 and 11, but that is a subject for another day).

Curiously, when the Fate RPG was created, the creators played with the idea of having three tiers of "strong", according to Rob Donoghue: The idea was to let a character be strong, stronger or strongest. But it also allowed someone to be drunk, drunker, or drunkest.

There something very straightforward (and Orwellian, I guess) of using a couple of words when describing all possible human tiers of Strength: weakest, weaker, weak, (ordinary), strong, stronger, strongest.

This applies to lots of RPGs, which use three levels of "Strong", for example, but only one level of "weak", since heroic characters will seldom have many "weak" traits. Both the Storyteller system and Savage Worlds, for example, use a kind of Weak/Average/Strong/Stronger/Strongest progression, going from one to five "dots" or from d4 to d12.

The Fate RPG, on the other hand, would adopt an "adjective ladder", with more tiers - which causes some confusion for me, because sometimes I forget if "Fantastic" beats "Superb" or if "Epic" beats "Legendary". It would seem that for this level of granularity numbers would be better than words.

Now, let's stretch the concept a bit further.

If you have seven possibilities with the same likelihood of happening, each has a 14,2% chance of taking place.

Well, this happens to be the granularity I like when dealing with modifiers, which is probably why I dislike using +1 modifiers when rolling a d20. Using a d20, the closest to 14,2% is a +3 bonus - which is what you get when you invest in a NWP in AD&D 2nd Edition. Some versions of old-school D&D use +4/-4 as the "go to" modifier when rolling 1d20.

But what if you're are using a d6? Well, +1 in 1d6 adds about 16,7% chance; very close to the ideal level of granularity I need.

Fifth Edition D&D has substituted most modifiers with a "2d20 pick highest/lowest" system, and that was one of the most universally admired features of this new version, because many people thought that those small +1 modifiers were too fiddly and somewhat of a nuisance. This method influences the results in different ways, depending on the Target Number, but on average the difference is 3,5 - or 17,5%.

By the way, the average result of a d6 is 3.5. Which means that adding a d6 to a d20 or to 3d6 has similar results... and may explain why the classic method of "roll 3d6 under ability, 4d6 if the task is hard, etc., works so well.

There are exceptions, of course. I still use the d20 and +1 increments for combat, since in the long run having a +1 bonus will give you an edge more than 5% of every combat. Also, if you take the "plus or minus two" idea into account, increments of 10% to 20% instead of about 15% could work too (using +2 to +4 to a d20 roll), if you prefer even numbers.

Coincidentally, I've recently realized that I also like the idea of SEVEN OUTCOMES for most actions. It is more than most people are used to (unless they play Fantasy Flight Star Wars, I guess), and certainly more than you need in most situations, but dividing outcomes in worst, worse, bad, ordinary, good, better, best, has worked for me; I can easily think of each category for most uses of a skill or ability.

Not all outcomes have the same chance of happening, of course.

You can find an explanation lots of examples in this post.





9-120Neutral, as expected




You can go the Rules Cyclopedia way to make it simpler (five outcomes, still within "seven, plus or minus 2"):




6-8Neutral, as expected



Again, all of this might have no basis in science; it is one of those happy coincidences that work for me, but might work differently for your group.

So, what's is the point?

In conclusion, systems that bother with +5% bonuses are too fiddly for my tastes, and these modifiers are too often ignored by my players. If your tastes are similar, you can keep these ideas in mind when designing your own games or house rules for your favorite systems.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and what makes a good setting

NOTE: there are NO SPOILERS in this post, and has nothing to do with the new movie, but hey, if you want to be on the safe side, just watch the movies first.

My friends are great fans of Star Wars; some of them, even more than me. We have probably played every RPG version out there, including d6, d20, FFG and some home-brews, not to mention video games, board games, etc.

I am a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. All my friends are, up to a point, but I might be the biggest fan in the group, so take the next sentence with a grain of salt: Westeros (the world of ASOIF), or something like it, might be the best possible setting for a group like ours, which is why some our best sessions were set in it.

As we get older and game a little less often, I'm starting to feel familiarity plays a bigger and bigger part in our games. Most of the players come to a session looking to have some fun in that particular session, but half of my group can hardly remember what happened in the last session, not to mention a couple of months ago. I try not to few bad about it, because half of them didn't remember ever playing a particular edition of DC Heroes - INCLUDING the GM that ran half a dozen sessions with it a couple of years ago!

In any case, "world building" is quite difficult to do in this circumstances, and I think most of the players wouldn't read more than a few pages of any given setting at once, as time is very scarce. Well, maybe they WOULD each one read about a particular setting... just not the same one. One of my friends seems to know everything about Warhammer 40,000, and another one has tons of Legends of the 5 Rings books, for example. But finding a setting that causes this much interest in everybody is hard to do.

Also, nowadays I find that reading about any given setting is very dull when compared to reading a novel, playing a video game or watching a movie. Describing a setting in a concise and interesting manner isn't easy to do; and it has been a while since I found any interesting RPG setting, to be honest.

So, having a familiar setting is very helpful. And any familiar setting would do: Star Wars, Westeros, Middle-Earth or even Dragonlance or Dark Sun (which we used a lot in the past) might be cool. But there are a few things that make Westeros the most interesting setting for me, when opposed to Star Was, for example.

In no particular order - they seem all related somehow, so forgive me if things get repetitive:

- Shades of Grey. There is no obvious "good versus evil" in Westeros. In fact, nobody is sure who the "good guys" are, and there is even some doubt that the world-threatening zombies might not be so bad after all. I find this makes easier to insert nuance and moral choices when compared to a "black and white" setting where the most frequent opponents are always irrevocably evil (albeit sometimes disguised), as often happens with the Sith or Tolkien's orcs.

- A Stable Social Order. There is a somewhat stable and predictable social order to fall back to when in doubt, with kings, high-lords, lords, vassals, knights, etc. There are codes of chivalry and "proper" behavior. This constraints seem to make player characters more likely to think about their relationships instead of just murdering anyone that gets in the way (unless that someone is bigger than themselves, which makes them resource to stealth and assassination). "Might makes right" limit the types of adventure you can have in a given setting.

A Flexible Social Order. On the other hand, I think it is very important to have some flexibility built in the system, including possibilities of social mobility and of turning the whole order upside down from time to time, which is basically what happens in various moments of ASOIF. When you're in a military setting such as WH40K (as far as I understand it), not following orders will make you the enemy, and rebelling against your own group is unthinkable; thus, freedom of choice is somewhat diminished.

- Weak Metaplot. Star Wars has a very strong conflict in its core; the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake. Same for Lord of The Rings, with the fate of Middle-earth hanging in the balance. Failure means total destruction, success means everything is going to be alright, more or less. This is somewhat better in ASOIF, where multiple outcomes seem possible, even if the "bad guys" (who are those again?) win.

Strong Supporting Cast. Having multiple interesting NPCs is good. Having multiple interesting NPCs that you already know is way better. It is also a good thing that many of this characters aren't the "mighty heroes" of the setting. Interacting with Gandalf or Luke Skywalker might overshadow the PCs; they outclass the PCs as allies, can hardly be defeated as foes (which is specially hard if you're trying to preserve canon to some extent), and even if you see them as patrons you might have difficulty in explaining why such people need help from simple adventurers.

Also, when you have lots of strong characters, you might be interested on finding out what happens next even if the most important character dies. This helps creating a sense that any character, including player characters, can become important.

Whats better, the minor characters have their own goals, often independent from major characters and even from major events. Take Quentyn Martell or Brienne of Tarth, that go through amazing adventures of their own with little relation to the main "Ice and Fire" plot. It really makes one feel like thee are innumerable possible adventures in that setting.

Compare that to Tolkien of Star Wars: most "minor" adventures are directly tied to the main conflict, with the most important characters fighting for one side or another, as you can see in Shadows of the Empire, Shadow of Mordor, etc.

Shifting allegiances. Another interesting feature of Westeros is how allegiances can change, putting characters in different positions. Defectors and traitors play an important part, and they are not always evil or weak, opening interesting possibilities for player characters other than victory or death. You could fight a friend at a tournament, or ally with a foe due to circumstances. You might have evil allies on your side, or noble warriors on the opposing force - which is rare in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, for example.

Multiple Important Factions. This might be the best feature of playing in Westeros for my group. It ties everything else together, in some ways.

First, it is easy to introduce an important NPC. When the group meets a knight called "Lyonel Lannister" or "Edic Stark", he already brings dozens of unspoken assumptions in his name. The same happens if they meet an unnamed member of the Kingsguard or the Night's Watch. The best thing, of course, is that there are NO guarantees that those assumptions will be true: the Lannister guy can be an impoverished and gentle warrior, and even a member of the Kingsguard can be incompetent and weak.

A single character can be part of multiple significant circles: a family, a foster family, a knightly order, a group of friends that fought side by side, etc.

And, again, no good or evil: every faction has its own interests, and not all of those interests point the same way. Or, as Jaime Lannister said in the TV series (source):

"So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another."

This kinds of choices - and, well, meaningful choices in general - is what a great campaign is made of.

By the way, I'm currently playing a D&D game set in Ravnica. Important factions are quite meaningful to me.

The problem with Canon. Playing an RPG in Westeros shares the same problems as any setting you didn't create: you must decide how close to canon you want to stick to. Too far, and you lose familiarity; too close, and the player characters cant seem to accomplish anything. My ideal solution is setting the game a few hundred years apart from the original story, so you can keep the same ideas, factions, etc, without feeling constrained by canon.

Also, one way or another, ASOIF will reach a conclusion. The world might get saved or doomed after all, which might make the player characters insignificant in the long run. I think I still might have fun with Westeros in my game, because there are still lots of significant things to do in the unknown past - topple an evil king, start an important lineage, destroy mythical creatures, etc.

What other settings have the same qualities?

Any setting your group is familiar with will do. Pendragon comes to mind, if your group is somewhat familiarized with Arthurian myth. Quasi-historical settings may work in the same way, but strictly historical ones will cause problems with "canon" as mentioned above, unless they happen in an era where there is little record of most events.

See this relevant article on Wikipedia describing the Hyborian Age:

Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research needed in maintaining historical accuracy. By conceiving a timeless setting – a vanished age – and by carefully choosing names that resembled our history, Howard avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.

Star Wars may work (there are a million books, cartoons, comic books and videogames to prove that), although you might want to include factions that are not in the movies (Yuuzhan Vong, Gray Jedi) if you dislike the somewhat "good versus evil" struggle of the original movies.

RPG settings work well enough if everybody is familiar with them, but they must believe the setting premises, which isn't always easy - I could never quite care about super-powerful NPCs in most RPGs, for example, because they often seem to serve no purpose other than being super-powerful NPCs.

Also, many RPG setting ruins things with metaplots. This, to me, defeats the whole purpose of having an RPG setting in the first place; if all the outcomes are already defined, how are the character choices relevant at all?

By the way, familiarity is a good argument to have dwarves, elves, and dragons (or, say, pseudo-England, pseudo-England, etc) instead of original creatures. Those things create immediate expectations in the players minds, and you can play with these expectations in your own setting to create interesting effects - which ASOIF does to some extent.

Still, most of RPG settings with "vanilla" dwarves, elves and dragon seem tiresome and clichéd to me. Go figure.

Thus, a good setting, for me, has to included: shades of grey, multiple interesting factions, a stable but malleable social order, cool but not all-important NPCs, no "hard" metaplot, and, specially, familiarity - preferably using familiar tropes in unexpected ways.

My favorite settings (or the ones that come to mind right now, in any case) are Westeros, Dark Sun, or something inspired by Ravnica or Dark Souls.

Can you think of other good examples?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Variations of the Same Principles - A few house rules for BD&D, LotFP, etc

I am always trying to break the code of BD&D to make it the perfect game for me and my group. It is a never-ending process, but from time to time I come up to something that resembles a "final" version.

So, here is a loose collection of house rules. Nothing ground-breaking, mostly variations of what you already know.

Hope you like it.

Inspirations: TSR D&D (mostly B/X and BECMI), the OSR (mostly Lamentations of the Flame Princess, obviously), some WotC D&D (mostly 5e). Also, this (Delta), this (Breeyark), this (Links to Wisdom), this (Daniel Sell), this (no idea who the author is, would love to find out), the stuff I linked below, and probably lots of stuff I can't remember.

Some goals: no classes but infinite archetypes, simplicity, quick character creation with enough customization later on, flexibility, compatibly, familiarity and some semblance of balance.

And here we go.


Any character can use any armor, weapon, skill or spell in the game. They can also sneak around and cast spells in armor, at a penalty. No classes, racial restrictions, ability requirements, separate archetypes, etc.


Modifiers: from -3 to +3, as in B/X. Modifiers always apply to skills (see below) as adequate. A 1-in-6 chance of climbing with a +2 Strength modifiers becomes 3-in-6.

Strength, Dexterity, Constitution: as usual. I'm considering ditching the to-hit bonuses of the first two, and just add Strength bonus to damage.

Charisma: as usual, plus becomes the main stat for measuring divine favor, luck and influencing demons (if you thought "lawful, neutral, chaotic", you might be on to something; if you tough "paladin, mountebank and sorcerer", you're getting ahead of yourself).

Once per session, you can roll 2d20 pick highest instead of 1d20. After you do that, roll under Charisma; failure means you're out of luck and cannot use this feature again until you level up (or some other period of time).

Wisdom: as usual. Affects saving throws (see below).

Intelligence: as usual, plus additional skills (see below).

Character creation

Abilities are rolled with 3d6 in order. 1st level character get no breaks; if you want to make things easier start at level 3.

Starting characters whose sum of stats (plus special powers) is smaller than 61 can add points freely until they reach 61.

Note: yes, I'm aware that the average of rolling 3d6 six times is 63 - I use 60+level, you can use what you want, of course. I'm considering raising this myself, but I like 1st level characters to be weak.  

2 points of skills at level 1, plus Intelligence modifier if positive. Nothing else.

Hit points

4 HP per level to everybody, plus Constitution bonus, until level 9. Your attack bonus applies to your total HP.

Example: if you have a +1 Constitution modifier, you get 20 HP at level 4. If you also have a +2 attack bonus, you get 22 HP instead.

Hit points are a measure of fighting ability; most other things cause Constitution damage. For starvation, dehydration, etc, use the rule of three.


Start with 1in6 chances, as LotFP (use your own little list of skills if you want; I would keep it around a dozen), but ability modifiers are always added to the roll. Choose the adequate ability to each skill, with Dexterity and Intelligence being the most useful ones.

Yes, you can use a d8, d10 or d12 to test skills in extreme cases, but don't overdo it, or you might cause an "arms race" and make competent characters seem incompetent, which is frustrating.

Optional: if you dislike Xin6 skills, try adding using a d20 and adding +1d6 or +3 per skill level. The results are similar, and you don't have to bother with +1/-1 modifiers on the d20  that will only matter 5% of the time.

At least until I can make a complete system out of this...

Attack bonus/THAC0/etc

Attack bonus is a skill (I call it "Fighting"). If you spend 3 skill points you get a +3 attack bonus. It also applies to HP (see above).

Fighting cannot be greater than level.

Note: this might make Fighting the uber-skill, but maybe not. Even if every characters get some Fighting skill, the true warriors will differentiate themselves by having great Strength, Constitution, etc. In any case, it is a problem I haven't seem in my games.

Encumbrance (this is somewhat important)

Weight is measured in stones, each weighting about ten pounds (or one bulky item).

A character can carry up to 1/4 strength without penalty. After that, she gets a -1 penalty to Armor Class, relevant skills, and spell casting (apply to spell level), and loses 1/4 of their movement.

Armor is light/medium/heavy, with AC 12/14/16, weighting 2/4/6 stones. Shields weight one stone, and I suggest giving +2 to AC, like 5e.

In the unlikely event that wearing armor makes AC equal or worse, the character is too weak to wear that type of armor with efficiency.

Example: a STR 12 character carrying 10 stones of weight has a -3 penalty to AC, skills and spells and loses 3/4 of his movement. He casts level 2 spells as if they were level 5.

Leveling up

Every time you level up, you gain one skill point.

You may also gain one ability point, depending on the sum of your abilities being smaller than 60+level. If you start with 65 ability points, for example, you start gaining ability points on level 6.

(The idea is that characters with humble beginnings gain more flexibility. You can even go the Dark Souls way and let players decide between starting at level 1, 2 or 3).

The maximum sum of your abilities is defined by the GM (I suggest 75; it is close enough to 4d6 per ability).

If you spend or lose your abilities for some reason, this still counts towards this limits. For example, if you spend two ability points to get some special powers, the actual limit to abilities drops to 73.

Optional: when you raise an ability over 17, it always "costs" one additional point. This applies at character creation if you roll an 18. If you use abilities greater than 18, 19 costs 21 (19+2), 20 costs 23 (20+3), and so on. Modifiers follow this progression: 20/+4, 22/+5, 24/+6, etc.

Leveling up works retroactively too. If your Constitution modifiers is raised from 0 to +1 at level 5, you gain 5 additional HP, not one. If your Intelligence modifier  is raised from 0 to +1 at level 5, you gain 1 extra skill point, as if you had this in level one.

After level 9: this is a whole different matter, but use what you already know: fewer HP, Constitution modifier doesn't apply, etc.

Saving throws

I don't care much for the detailed tables of classic D&D. I prefer using a single saving throw, like Swords & Wizardry, combined with optional rules from BECMI and some 5e.

Every character start with a single saving throw of 16, and it diminishes by one point every even level (you can make it once per level, but this way makes it closer to BD&D, specially if you follow the suggestions below).

Add the appropriate ability bonus to saving throws, with Constitution, Dexterity and Wisdom being the most useful ones.

Getting a special bonus against one type of peril (for example: poison/disease, mind affecting spells, etc) is a special feature anyone can get (but only once) in exchange for one ability point. 

Use your "go to" bonus for this: +3, +4, +1d6, roll twice and pick highest, etc.


To be honest, I don't care much for the traditional races or most of their mechanics in BD&D too. You can treat them like everyone else (chose appropriate skills, etc) or use whatever rules you prefer. Here are some random ideas:

* Just give them a different culture, this can be more interesting than bonuses.
* Grant them some additional bonuses to starting characteristics, but the same limits as everyone else.
* Darkvison costs 1 ability point.
* Dwarves move slower but can carry more weight. Halflings have less HP but better AC, or less STR but better chances at hiding.
* Etc.

Classes, XP, feats, etc.

Since there are no classes, all characters share the same XP progression - the Fighter's, for example. Differentiation between characters is made by their choices.

I am not a fan of big lists of feats, but you could add some simple ones to make more character concepts possible. They would each cost one ability point or one skill point (I'm not sure they are equivalent, but it will work for this purpose). Some examples:

* Use Wisdom or Charisma for your spells instead of Intelligence.
* Add Wisdom modifier to AC, provided the final AC isn't greater than Wisdom (for monks, etc. Barbarian types can do the same with Constitution instead, acrobats can double their Dexterity modifier, etc).
* Saving throws (see above).
* Ignore one penalty (cast spells while encumbered, etc).
* Cleave, bash, extra attacks, extra melee damage... Not sure about this one yet.
* Etc.


Well, this is the hardest one, right? I have a few ideas in my mind right now, but I figure they deserve a separate post. I'll let you with the "classic" one.

If you like "traditional" casting, just add a Arcana (or magic-use, wizardry, etc) skill similar to "Fighting". Your Arcana counts as your "Magic-User level" for all purposes (use MU charts). It costs you one ability point and one skill point (or one ability point and one HP, if you prefer) to raise Arcana, and you can only do it once per level.

Yes, this make MUs look somewhat weaker than other classes, but that is the whole point, since MUs usually can do more with less skills and abilities, and they get frailer, crazier and stranger as they delve into forbidden knowledge.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hit Points: What are they good for? Absolutely nothing! Except war.

Another quick brainstorming session.

Hit points and their progression are so important to (what I view as) traditional D&D that sometimes it seems that changing them would mess everything up.

The more I think of it, thought, it seems like HP are good for combat, and little else. Note that I'm taking the "in character" or "in fiction" view of HP here; of course you can use HP as character resource, pacing mechanic, narrative control or whatever.

HP and combat ability are very closely related; the relation is obvious in OD&D, but even in other editions you usually have characters with the most HP having the best attack bonuses, monster HD translating directly to attack bonus and HP, and so on. There are a few exceptions (old school dwarves come to mind), of course, but in general I would say HP reflects "fighting ability" better than "wounds" or anything similar.

And HPs ARE a great mechanic for D&D combat, in my opinion. Starting characters and mooks are always in danger of immediate death, while more experienced ones always have a chance of running away. HP is a good measure of your character's ability to know how far he is from death/serious harm, as I heard someone say.

But for (mostly) everything else, HP seems like a difficult fit, which is why there is all this silly talk about falling damage, etc. The main reason that makes HP a good mechanic for combat (training and adventuring increases survivability quickly) is a hindrance when you use to portray dangers that would affect any character (almost) regardless of experience.

In short, I am starting to wonder if HPs are really a good multipurpose mechanic or if they should mostly be limited to combat (and only indirectly for other purposes).

Let's see some examples.

Dehydration, starvation, etc: there are often better and simpler solutions than HP loss, unless you want a level 1 Fighter to risk death after one day without water and a level 10 fighter to be able to spend one week without drinking. Some systems that use alternatives to HP loss are 3e, 5e and LotFP; my favorite are the ones I wrote here.

Poison, Disease: each poison or disease should have unique effects, but if I were to make a generalization I would say saving throws and Constitution damage work better than HP loss. For poisoned weapons, for example, I find it quite redundant to deal damage, than deal more damage due to poison. Worse, lose HP, than make a saving throw to avoid losing more HP - but this saving throw is highly correlated to how many HP you have.

Assassination: even the mightiest human hero should be susceptible to a blade to the back while sleeping or distracted. In AD&D, assassination is based on level, not HP. Again, saving throws and Constitution damage might work better than HP.

Magic: I like the idea of spell points, and HP as spell points may work fine for some people, but creates all kinds of problems: wizards being afraid to cast spells (and not for fear of mutations and corruption, but for hoarding HP, which is a lot less fun), healing spell short-circuiting it all unless you add special rules for that, etc. It would be better to give all characters 1d10 hp per level and let wizards transform half of it in spell points, and then keep pools separated forever - or a similar solution.

Falling damage: not much to add to all known complaints. A level 1 thief is likely to die after falling 10 feet, a level 10 fighter is likely to survive after falling 70 feet. Again, easily solved with saving throw + Constitution damage.

Temporary HP, Subdual damage, etc: I think adding more uses to HP makes things more confusing rather than simpler. Here is a random rule for Berserkergang: all HP damage dealt to you is halved, after it ends you lose 1d4 Constitution (salve halves). I am sure there are other, simpler ways of dealing with this stuff than different pools of HP.

Monsters: they make things a little trickier. On one hand, there is no reason a cow would be much better at surviving a fall than cat (because physics, etc), and disease, starvation, dehydration, etc, will depend on the particular animal more than it's toughness or size. On the other hand, monsters with lots HP are often big, which should provide some defense against poison and assassination. Also, old school monsters need little but HD in their stats, so I would be careful about making the use of Constitution mandatory.

Should we get rid of D&D-like HP? I don't think so. It is still too useful for combat, and ditching it might cause more problems than it solves. I like the idea that a common soldier can die in a moment of fighting, while an experienced adventurer might have her fate defined by choice, more than chance. And most of the problems people seem to have with starting HP can be fixed by beginning on level 3 (more about that later).

There are plenty of systems that deal with HP differently, but the way HP works is one of the defining characteristics of every edition of D&D, and if you like D&D, you are probably fond of that, like me.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Brainstorming: D&D Abilities

My brainstorming posts are just that: lots of ideas thrown around, without much afterthough. Today's topic is D&D's six abilities and how we can use them.

We often say D&D is a level-based game, while other popular systems such as Runequest are skill-based. In OD&D, level was almost everything, and abilities were of little importance when compared to modern editions. They might give you a little bonus to XP or add HP and hirelings, but not much more. This why you could roll 3d6 in order for abilities without worrying too much; it will seldom ruin your character. OD&D has an example character, Xylarthen, that choose to be a Magic User even with Intelligence 11, Wisdom 13 and Constitution 12, abilities that might better fit a Cleric.

Abilities became more important quickly. Soon you needed higher and higher prerequisites for certain classes, modifiers got bigger, and any viable characters needed high abilities to survive. "Roll 4d6, take highest 3, and arrange at will" became a popular method of character generation. In D&D 5e abilities are sometimes more important than level.

This has some mixed effects on the game.

Using abilities for everything

Abilities can be used for many things. You can use them instead of skills, for example, rolling 1d20 under one ability, making D&D more "ability-based" and taking the focus from both level and skills - like 5e did, up to a point.

Why not simplify things further? Fighters get 1d8 HP and should be tougher against poison, disease, etc. Wizards get 1d4 and are frailer. You could just ditch the whole concept of different HP per level, give 1d6 per level to everybody and grant fighters a greater Constitution.

Do that for other abilities. 5e has high-level fighters (if "Champions") being able to jump, run, climb, etc. ACKS gives damage bonuses to to high-level fighters. Other games limit the type of weapons or armor a wizard can use. Why not ditch all of that, and just give more Strength to the fighter? The type of armor you can use is defined by Strength, and you can only sneak around or cast spells when unencumbered. And a wizard can use any weapon, because there is no reason to forbid them.

You could cut a lot of feats, proficiency and specific rules with that. Maybe you could ditch classes entirely and let characters gravitate towards their talents. But that is a whole different post.

4d6 makes starting characters are too powerful, 3d6 makes high level characters too weak

Rolling 4d6 or using other "high powered" method for starting characters causes some strange consequences. These characters are above average humans, talented in almost every field. Still, they have little HP and are likely to die in a minute of combat or after falling 10 feet (not to mention deadly house cats).

I think starting characters shouldn't be special; 3d6 in order makes them average and forces you to play different character concepts, often more interesting than the optimized characters you would play if you can choose your abilities. On the other hand, it might stop you from playing the character you want, specially if you need high abilities to qualify for a class.

But 3d6 in order makes high-level characters too incompetent. A 10th level fighter can survive almost anything, and a 10th level magic-user is messing with the fabric of reality, but they still very average in terms of abilities.

I like my 1st level characters to be weak, random and mundane, and my high level characters to be customized (or, even better, shaped by their experiences) and noteworthy.

The solution is obvious

Roll 3d6 in order at level 1. Gain 1 point to put in any ability per level. You can have the best of both worlds: quick, mundane characters at level 1, heroic characters at level 10, demigods at level 20 (if you go that far).

It might seem too much, but it really isn't excessive when compared to modern editions or some alternate methods of character creation. The 4d6 method gives you an average of 10 extra points to the sum of your abilities, so if you start with 3d6 in order you would be close to "4d6 arrange at will" by level 10.

One way to use this: the sum of all your abilities should never be less than 60+level. If you roll less than that at level 1, add to any ability you want until you get to 61. The average of 3d6 times six is 63. If you rolled well at level 1, it might take a while for you to gain more abilities. Like in Dark Souls, characters with humble beginnings have more space for customization.

Xylarthen can become a great wizard if he survives long enough. Any fighter can eventually become a paladin. But the best part is that they still keep the uniqueness that 3d6 in order granted them: Xylarthen will always be a bit wiser and tougher than most wizards.

There is nothing inherently "WotC-era" to the idea. Gaining more abilities is perfectly suited for old school D&D. AD&D had some ideas on the matter. Here is how Gygax described different abilities for Conan in 1980; you could do the same for many heroic characters.

You might still need a limit to abilities, in order to avoid all fighters from having STR 25 (or 18/00, etc) at level 10 or something similar. Also, different XP progressions may cause weird effects.

All characters are the same

One of the problems of choosing your abilities trough point buy or other methods is that it might take you into an endless quest for the perfect build, making characters quite similar to each other, while randomness makes them different from each other.

You can go one way or another, but I generally prefer a mix of choice and randomness. One loose idea: choose an ability to raise, roll 1d20, if you roll equal or higher you can raise it, if not choose another ability until you succeed. If you do this 6 times unsuccessfully, just choose an ability to raise.

MAD, SAD, but not that bad

Is is often said that Fighters should have good Strength, Constitution and Dexterity, but wizards only need Intelligence. There is also a whole discussion, specially in 3e, about classes that rely on multiple abilities (multiple ability dependency, MAD) , such as the Paladin, versus classes that rely on a single ability (SAD).

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A high level Fighter should be fast, strong, tough; a high level wizard, on the other hand, might be smart, but weak, sickly, unpleasant and insane, while still very powerful. A paladin is good overall, but not as strong or tough as a simple fighter, and so on.

Again, the solution is obvious: trade ability points for supernatural powers, such as spells.

Magic: what doesn't kill you makes you stranger

The explanation for trading abilities for spells is simple: magic takes a toll on your body, mind and soul. Or, if you want to be more mundane, all that time the wizard spent locked in and underground library has not been good for his health, sanity, or personal hygiene. You can come up with similar explanations for all classes with special powers, or just make it a game mechanics ("when you level up, increase one ability, take one feat or learn a couple of spells").

I don't have an exact formula, but 1 point for every couple of spells sounds good if you use flexible spells such as these. If you don't, the solution might be closer to 1 point for every 10 levels of spells (limits on casting still apply; if you learn a level 5 spell on level, you are risking your soul).

If you have a particulary harsh DM, he might make you roll 1d6 to see which ability is weakened... And require an explanation about the cause (did your eyes become reptilian, lowering Charisma? Are your feet inverted, lowering Dexterity? Etc). Or just find a good corruption table in the internet.

Charisma, dump stats and other problems

I dislike the idea that a character can basically ignore all abilities but your most important one. Fighters, for example, shouldn't be able to ignore Strength if they are "DEX-based", in my opinion. You can have a weak fighter, but is difficult to imagine any fighter that thinks Strength is unimportant.

I also dislike the idea that some abilities are only useful for some classes. What I would like to see is them opposite: ALL abilities being useful for ALL characters. The thief needs some Strength to use leather armor or carry stuff. The fighter needs Charisma to command her troops in battle. Etc.

This is quite easy to do with Strength (encumbrance, armor, combat), Dexterity (AC) and Constitution (HP). I like using abilities for saving throws; this can easily make Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom important for everybody. Using Intelligence for extra skills, as 3e does, is a good solution - better than using it for Reflex or Initiative in my opinion, but any solution will do.

Charisma is an interesting case. A very important ability in OD&D, it has become somewhat of a dump-stat in WotC-D&D, although it still has its uses for some characters (feinting and intimidating in 3e, saving throws in 4e, etc).

Finding uses for Charisma isn't impossible, but not particularly easy, specially if the party chooses an spokesperson to do all the socializing (you have similar problems for Intelligence and skills in general). You might use Charisma for status, starting gold, etc.

A cooler idea, in my opinion, is using Charisma for divine favor and dealing not only with people, but also deities. The faithful and the lucky can both be described as charismatic, and Charisma could grant you some luck points or similar. It works well for paladins, sorcerers and swashbucklers, but can be useful for anyone.

Even better is using it for followers, hirelings, etc, as old school D&D intended. You can make Charisma near useless at lower levels, but invaluable when you reach level 9 and gains lots of followers. Some fighters would naturally become champions, other would be great leaders instead.

It creates an interesting choice, which is often what the game is all about.

In Conclusion

Abilities are quite flexible, and have many interesting uses. Although they gained importance in WotC-era D&D, their usefulness is still very dependent on character class. Expanding their uses might make the game a lot simpler without losing much in the process, or make old school games more diverse without adding complexity.