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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Success with a cost - but what cost (in Old School D&D)?

If you're following this blog, you know I like Moldvay's monster reaction table as a general resolution mechanic, as seen in this post. In fact, as I explained there, I think this is the original "old school" method of handling things.

Here is one way to use it: roll 2d6 and add attribute modifiers, etc. Check the result:


2Terrible, disaster

3-5Failure. Something bad happens.

6-8Nothing happens, partial success, as expected, uncertain results, success with a cost, etc.


12Critical success

As you can see, I had a hard time figuring 6-8. It seems to change a little from chart to chart in the RC - some tables include "roll again", which baffled me when I was younger; nowadays I interpret it as "roll again next round", i.e., nothing happens for now, but you can change things before you roll again.

Let us see how a "modern" RPG such as Apocalypse World handles conflict resolution (the quotation marks is both because AW uses the classic 2d6 method of resolution but also because there is some old school philosophy in the game, IMO; but this is the matter for a different post... or posts) .

Here is how it goes: you roll 2d6. Add modifiers (that are just slightly higher that you would expect on Moldvay). An then:

 "On a 10+, the best happens. On a 7-9, it's good but complicated. On a miss, it's never nothing, it's always something worse."

The idea of "good but complicated", or "success with a cost" is quite popular in modern games; many old games used a pass/fail system instead.

I never played AW, but I like Dungeon World, which uses the same base.

DW has no "critical failures" rule that I can remember right now (although there are soft moves and hard moves that can happen on a failure), but some classes have "critical success" on a 12+. The resulting matrix would look like this:


-(Terrible, disaster)

2-6Failure. Something bad happens.

7-9Good but complicated.

10+Success! / "the best"

(12+)Critical success (sometimes)

I like Dungeon world; besides the obvious reason of using a mechanic I am fond of, it spells out many tenets of good GMing, even though it is all very "new school" in some aspects, it has quite a few old school principles mixed in.

Anyway, the thing I want to to discuss is this idea that when you "fail" with the dice, there must be consequences. "If there is no consequence, why are you rolling?", or so the zeitgeist says.

The thing is, coming up with three possible outcomes whenever you roll the dice, with "nothing happens" out of the table, takes some effort, when compared to "if you succeed you get what you want, if you fail you don't".

Now, I have to say that, in my opinion, "critical success" and "critical failure" are less complicated than, well "good but complicated" (if you pardon the pun). They add less complexity than some kind of "complicated" middle ground, because the extremes are just "more success" and "more failure", most of the times.

I get it, there might be too many dice rolls in some games (which is why they say you shouldn't roll if there is no consequence for failure) - on the other hand, what I want to reduce isn't the NUMBER of dice rolls, but the TIME spent on such matters - which is why coming up with lots of consequences and complications for every dice roll might be a bad idea, even if you're improvising on the spot ("setting stakes" can often be even worse, as you prepare for lots of outcomes that never happen).

What I am trying to say is that "nothing happens" is often a good solution, at least in two situations.

When time management is important, like it happens to be in OD&D, "nothing happens" really means you wasted time, which is enough consequence by itself. The same idea applies when you're wasting other resources.

The other situation is combat. Coming up with clever complications and consequences for every to-hit roll seems like a waste of time when you're actually inside a dangerous situations where not getting out of it is often bad enough.

It is worth mentioning that Dungeon World has you covered, most of the time; it already says what to expect from a 7-9 roll, for example. You still have to come up with good ideas for failures, but they are somewhat implied by 7-9 results or the situation at hand.

But these emphasis on success at a cost cause some odd situations in combat. Very often, you find yourself choosing, after you roll, if you want to put yourself in danger to hit the enemy or run out of ammo, etc. This not only destroys my immersion in the game (yes, I like avoiding making decisions my character couldn't make - your taste might be different), but also makes combat a bit too cumbersome for my tastes - one must choose what to do, then roll the dice, and then choose what to do with the result of the dice.

"Say what you want to do, roll the dice to see you succeed" is often good enough for me.

What's the point?

Yeah, I'm rambling again.

Anyway, I like old school games, and I like modern games, but some ideas are just not to my tastes. One single resolution method for skills and combat are a bad idea, in my opinion: a d20 makes for insanely uneven skill rolls, while things like a bell curve and "success with a cost" seem to slow down combat. I played a lot of GURPS back in the day, and 3d6 made skills reliable, but combat got too predictable after a while.

All in all, I think old school and new school methods are tools, and nothing else; there is nothing inherently better about "unified mechanics" or "success at a cost". Just use what you want, when you want, and see what suits you better.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Some thoughs on level, XP progression, HP and HP-bloat in old school D&D

In old school D&D, as a general rule, you gain 1d6 hit point per level (1d8 for fighters, add Constitution modifier, etc), but only until level 9. After that, you get one or two HP per level.

This makes things a bit more manageable; even a 36th level fighter will seldom have more than 100 HP, for example. A 20th level fighter would have around 60-70 HP (depending on Constitution, etc). In WotC era D&D, a level 20 fighter might have 20d8+60 HP; an average of 150 (this is also due to increased ability scores).

(Don't worry about the exact numbers; I'm just trying to paint a picture in your mind).

HP bloat causes problems for some people, specially those who dislike dealing with big numbers or the fact that fighters might fall 100 feet without risking death.

But avoiding HP bloat doesn't seem to be the intention of the original rules.

Consider that in old school D&D, the amount of XP needed to level up rises exponentially until level 9; after that, it follows an arithmetic progression.

For example, check these experience tables (from AD&D 1e):

Here is a visual representation of the Fighters progression (with Rules Cyclopedia values, XP is divided by 1000; click to enlarge):

So, things get harder and harder until level 9, and get more linear after that. If it didn't, reaching higher levels would be near impossible.

After level 9, the amount of HP you get per level also declines; but the decline is "less dramatic" than the decline in XP requirements.

Here is what I mean: getting more HP is easier after level 9, because it the same geometric progression of levels 1-9 was kept it would be almost impossible to get to 100 HP, even if you still got 1d8 HP + Constitution modifier per level.

Look at the chart below: it compares HP and XP, considering the Rules Cyclopedia progression (blue line) and an hypothetical extrapolation of levels 1-9, where XP requirements double level after level but the HP progression of 1d8 per level is kept (the red line).

Squares represent levels. Until level 9, the two lines are together. When the blue line gets to levels 11-12, the red line reaches level 10 - but both share similar amounts of XP and HP. The same happens until level 14 (blue) and 11 (red). But red needs a lot more XP to get to level 12 than blue needs to reach level 17 - with more HP than red. To get 80 HP, red would need to be around level 15 or more - requiring more than 16,000,000 XP. Meanwhile, blue gets 100 HP around level 36, which requires less than 4,000,000 XP.

It is worth mentioning that this numbers don't take into account the byzantine formulas for calculating XP based on character level and dungeon level that are present in OD&D ("an 8th level Magic-User operating on the 5th dungeon level would be awarded 5/8 experience. Let us assume he gains 7,000 Gold Pieces by defeating a troll (which is a 7th level monster, as it has over 6 hit dice). Had the monster been only a 5th level one experience would be awarded on a 5/8 basis as already stated, but as the monster guarding the treasure was a 7th level one experience would be awarded on a 7/8 basis thus; 7,000 G.P. + 700 for killing the troll = 7,700 divided by 8 = 962.5 x 7 = 6,037.5", etc).

Besides, there are innumerable other variables that could be mentioned. For example, consider that a 5th level Fighter gains XP quicker than a 1st level one, but not enough to even things out between them -  if a 1st level  fighter must defeat 20 1 HD monsters to level up, a 5th level fighter must defeat 128 monsters with 5 HD each to get to level 6 (assuming 100 XP per HD, which is controversial by itself). This also changes after 9 levels - fortunately, because a 20th level fighter has a hard time fighting a 20 HD monster which might have almost twice his HP; so a 20th level fighter can still fight 9 HD monsters, but now more efficiently, which make leveling up EASIER at high level... Which also depends on the amount of gold given by the DM, and so on.

What's the point?

This is a thought experience, mostly. XP in old school D&D was created this way for lots of reasons. Messing with it might have unintended effects.

BUT consider this: if you continue with geometric progression for XP after level 9, you get a few interesting effects. First, you can safely ditch all XP charts and the need to list HP after 9 level, making all the classes a bit more elegant. At the same time, you will likely keep classic D&D level limits - few characters will get to level 15, for example. And those can be de made even more powerful - a few extra HP, one extra ability point per level, maybe add the whole level to all saving throws... 20th level characters would be closer to demi-gods of the "immortals" tradition. The increasing need of XP would make adventuring obsolete after a while, forcing characters to go the domain-management route or look for mythological threats to fight against.

All in all, I see some potential in this idea. Let us see what we can make of it!

Friday, May 06, 2016

Variations of the Same Principles - Magic & Mayhem

I have written some house rules, but I hadn't included magic. Also, I used 1-in-X skills, but I prefer 2d6. With this two things in mind, here is a simple magic system that you can use.

Just roll 2d6 + INT; add Arcana* and subtract spell level.


2-2Spell fumble!

3-5-1Spell failure.

6-80Success with a cost.


12+2Critical success!

* Arcana is a skill, and it shouldn't be greater than level nor greater than 9. Spells are "bought" with ability points (on a 1-by-1 basis), but are very flexible. 
If you aren't using skills, it is equal to MU level/2, round up. Cleric level/3, Rogue level/4 and even Fighter level/5 might work too.

I use this table with this Minimalist Magician, but you can use it with most "traditional" D&D spell systems.

Let us discuss some details.

Spell fumble: what this means depends on the tone of your campaign. You could insert corruption and mutations here, or you could use it for comical effect. As a rule of thumb, to measure the effects of a fumble, check what happens if the spell turns against the caster. A fireball spell gone wrong would cause a lot of damage to the caster and his allies, for example (saving throws still apply); it doesn't necessarily mean that the fireball exploded in the wizards face, but it is one possible interpretation - again, depending on the tone of your campaign, the philosophy behind your magic system, etc.
Decide this stuff beforehand to give a certain flavor to the magic-users' school, or tie with it the campaign: defilers, preservers, liches, angry deities, etc.

Side note: have you ever read a book with spell fumbles? I can hardly remember anything of the type "the spell goes off in the wizards face". There is the Wizard of Earthsea, of course, Discworld (IIRC), and D&D or D&D inspired novels (and TV series). 
Curiously enough, Jack Vance is the only author with "spell fumbles" that comes to mind right now, but D&D's "Vancian" system seldom use them...
In any case, for a more "serious" tone, what I suggest is that the spell works, but with unintended consequentes: a fireball burns the whole castle down, or summons a fire elemental, os shows your location to the whole world, etc. You summon the demon, but it tricks you; the ghost of your mother is actually an illusion from your head; the wounds heal, but just on the outside; and so on.

Spell failure: this is somewhat worse than nothing happens. One possible interpretation is to have the spell wiped from memory, as "Vancian" systems do. I would prefer losing 1 HP per spell level, instead (save vs spells halves damage).

Success with a cost: I use this entry to fix a problem I have: I like interrupting wizards, but I'm still not sure about complex initiative systems. So, here is my "cost": the spell goes off in the begging of the next round, but you cannot move, take damage, etc, until it does. For spells that aren't meant for combat, just double or triple the casting time.
If you dislike this option, make a "cost" in HP, spell slots, spell components, etc.

Success: the spell works as intended. You can cast it again next round if you want. Nothing is lost.

Critical success: anything you like! One option is using the +2 modifier, maybe add +2 damage per dice. It will give magic users good reason for using low level spells at higher levels.

This system seems sound enough, and I'm eager to use it, but I would like to hear other peoples opinions before I turn it into a one page rule.

What do you think?

EDIT: it might be worth noticing that this system is quite similar to the original Chainmail system. Even though I have never played Chainmail and didn't use it as a direct inspiration, the similarities are obviously more than simple coincidence. Also, it has been brought to my attention that one important spell fumble that inspired in D&D comes from The Lords of Quarmall (look here for more info).

Sunday, May 01, 2016

One Page Dungeon 2016 - The Magnificent Shadow

So here is my entry for this years' One Page Dungeon entry (you can find my 2015 entry here). As usual, I had to trim some stuff to fit everything in one (readable) page, so I'll put the text in this page with a few additional notes and the original map.


My original idea was to create a "defensive" dungeon; eventually, I chose to make it a village with few features; it is up to the PCs to create the traps, encounters, etc, against the coming "adventures" (OPD has been quite liberal with the term "dungeon"; also, there are two small dungeons and one megadungeon in there if you look for it). The two main inspirations should be obvious from the title and contents.

The monster art and layout were created by the awesome Rick Troula author of The Displaced, my favorite D&Dish comic out there (well, I'm a constant collaborator, so I'm obviously biased). You should definitely check it out if if you haven't yet - the first issue is free.

Link for the PDF above.

The Magnificent Shadow

The village of Calve Fort is in danger. A band of armed thugs and bandits is coming to steal all that is inside and kill anyone who resists. Even if the villagers surrender, there will be bloodshed - followed by starvation.

The citizens will beg strangers for salvation – they have enough gold and goods to offer, and they cannot find anyone else to help. The PCs might be passing by, or maybe some of they have been born in this village themselves (but shouldn’t be currently living in it). In any case, the PCs are the villagers' only hope. When the PCs arrive in the city, the attack is only a few days away (roll 1d4+2)

They would better take a side soon or get the hell out of there.

Calve Fort
The village has a wooden wall that will resist most attacks for at least a couple of days. Attackers will try to enter through the main gate (1), but the wall can be climbed with some effort (attackers are unlikely to climb while shot with arrows, rocks, etc).

The river (2) is currently 20 feet wide and 4 feet deep (speed is divided by four while crossing it; attacking from it is near impossible). The bridge is 40 feet long and 15 feet wide. It can be destroyed or made unstable in a days’ work.

The church (3) is locked and abandoned (villagers will tell the clergymen ran away when they heard about the attack, and no one dares to enter now), but the attackers will hesitate to harm anyone that hides inside it unless they have suffered great losses (they will pillage the town instead). The holy symbols of the church were vandalized and thrown into the ground. There is a holy sword hidden in the ruined catacombs, although it looks rusty and is only useful against demons and alien things.

The manor (4) is the richest house in town, and where city leaders make their meetings. Not too defensible, but better than most buildings. There is a small dungeon underneath it, with an altar of sacrifice in front of a black pool of goo (see The Demon, below), a cage with a couple of young prisoners, and a room with robes, daggers and forbidden books.

The thugs are people from nearby villages who have heard rumors about Calve Fort being full of gold and demon worshipers, and mobbed up for some justice and robbery. There are about fifty of them, most carrying a single weapon (usually spears and swords; one third carries bows) and little or no armor. They have a few leaders and very simple tactics (they might wait a day or two in the gates before attacking), but they can overwhelm smaller forces if they are able to surround them. They can be reasoned with, but it will take significant amounts of blood and gold to turn them back.

These thugs will back down the first time one of them dies and will seldom change tactics within the same day; but they will grow fiercer with time and won't give up until at least half of them (or all the leaders) are killed, unconscious or captured.

The villagers are nice and welcoming to anyone who can help, but they are also weak, miserable and coward, with little chance to defend themselves. A good leader can convince about twenty of them to fight (with clubs and spears), but they need training for a couple of days to avoiding giving up at the first charge. All villagers are secretive about what is really going on and will paint themselves as the victims of bloodthirsty robbers. There are about 100 people still in the village, including children and the elderly.

The mayor just wants the village to survive and will do anything to preserve save himself and his goods. He doesn’t want to hear about cults, demons or gods.

The crazy prophet will spent its days preaching against “wicked ways” and “unnatural fornication” over this world. Although his visions are true, he is obviously mad and has little clue of what is really happening. Others begrudgingly tolerate him for some reason.

Brad Homes, the aristocrat, is the head of the Order of Ydahgranod. He is charismatic, if somewhat slimy, but will welcome others into the cult if they are sincere and eager to learn the dark arts. He isn't a good fighter, but will lead three of his bravest (and more insane) cultists into battle if convinced. 

If all is lost, he will run to the manor to seek help from the Ydahgranod, or urge others to do it.

Auras Wok, the smith, is the bravest and most competent person on the village. She can organize villagers for one single task per day (repairing the wall, setting up traps, etc.) and is a decent fighter. She has done terrible things under the cultists order, but is ready to repent.

The lawful gods have turned away from Calve Fort in disgust. An act of piety (putting holy symbols back in their places, praying inside the church, showing genuine interest in the prophet or refusing to condone the evil cult in the most desperate circumstances) might attract their attention, although their boons will be limited (visions, weather, etc.; true believers might get holy powers for a while).

Ydahgranod, the Magnificent Shadow, is an alien thing of ancient times. It has brought gold and safety to the city in exchange of human sacrifice and worse – it mixed its blood with those of the villagers to create warped offspring (some seemingly human). Only a handful of the villagers are actual cultists, but almost everyone condones the arrangement.

Although the demon is nothing but black goo in its current form, significant bloodshed in the village (more than two dozen deaths in a day) will make it sprout into a solid mass of tentacles and mouths – a fearsome foe. Even in this form, it cannot leave its pool until directly fed with the blood of the innocent. It might accept a deal in exchange for its freedom.

The end? Even if the village is saved, it’s hard to tell which of the children are tainted by the Shadow. The adults are probably all damned. If Ydahgranod leaves its pool, an entrance to the massive cave complex  that spawned the demon is revealed.

By Eric Diaz (http://methodsetmadness.blogspot.com.br/). Released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/). Special thanks to Rick Troula.