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

Friday, December 29, 2023

Encounter balance - how I avoid using it

As I have mentioned in the last post, I've been talking about "balanced encounters" on X/Twitter.

I half-jokingly mentioned that if "encounter balance" was real, the monsters would win half the battles [I heard this one from @rbalbi, who credits Carlinhos Malvadeza].

Ended up having a great conversation with balbi, my friend @JensD29 and @optionalrule, which you can check here.

Balbi and Jens had a great back and forth, but I didn't feel X was a good medium for that, so I decided to write this blog post instead of elaborating there.

[Here is Jens' take, BTW; we disagreed].

First, Jens and optionalrule defended that a "balanced encounter" does not mean fair - it is only a way to measure how challenging an encounter is (usually, when compared to the existing party).

They are right. Most people use the expression to indicate how much effort or resources the PCs need to apply to win the fight (not usually to evaluate IF they can win the fight, or the odds of a TPK).

But if "balance" means the PCs always have the upper hand, it should be called "unfair advantage" or "plot immunity".

This is my main problem with "balanced encounters", IMO: it is a misnomer. “Challenge rating”, from 5e D&D, is a better term.

Balanced sounds like it means fair; a 10th-level warrior against a goblin does not sound balanced, but if you call it "very easy"it might make sense,

[While we're at it, a hard encounter should necessarily mean decent changes of defeat. If you do not have the stomach for this, you should call it a "costly" encounter becasue it costs you a spell slot or lots of HP. Anyway.].

"Balance" sounds like two sides are (or should) be similar in power.

Worse, the idea that the monsters the PCs meet should be previously measured against the PC’s capabilities also often carries a lot of (unspoken) assumptions I do not like, such as:

- The world revolves around the PCs. For me, this ruins the feeling of "immersion", or the idea that the setting is a real place and not a playground with clear limits (and height requirements).

- The PCs can solve anything with a fight - since all creatures they encounter is level-appropriate. This may also lead to the belief that every encounter is a fight, which impoverishes the game as it discourages other creative approaches, such as negotiation, planning, sneaking, finding allies or even escaping.

- Every fight is winnable. If the PCs ever see a dragon attacking a city, they know they CAN win. They lose the sense of progress that they would get by encountering a foe that's just too strong for them at first... But that they can defeat later, after they get more XP and magic items.

- The GM picks the fights for the PCs. This is an implication that ties balanced encounters to railroading: why would the GM need to ensure balance if it was up to the PCs to decide if they'll fight a goblin or a dragon next?

Now, I'm not 100% against balanced encounters, as they are useful in a number of ways – for example, writing “for 4-6 characters of levels 5-8” in the cover of an adventure module, or to give you an idea of how many orcs were needed to destroy the kobold city the PCs have just entered.

By the way, I think saying a module is “unbalanced” is fair criticism IF the module indicates the PCs have to fight impossible odds to win (if there are ways AROUND those challenges, the module should disclose that to the GM).

But my games did become a lot better after I stopped worrying about “crafting balanced encounters” for the PCs. Instead, I scatter challenges around, and let the players choose where to go. If they choose violence, well, I have no kobold on this fight - now it is up to the dice.

However, I think that balanced encounters are a (sometimes misguided) solution to a real problem: nobody wants the PCs to be thrown into a fight that they have no chance of winning against their will.

If feels unfair and unfun. It robs the players of choice and even of their own PCs through no fault of their own, and can end a campaign for no good reason.

I think we can avoid this issue without having to worry about how “balanced” the encounters are. 
Here are a few suggestions:

- Information – To avoid entering unwinnable fights, the PCs must have some ways to gain access to information about the capabilities of their foes. There are innumerable ways to do that. 

Some are obvious (they expect giants to be stronger than goblins), some are more indirect (charred reamins of several people are found near the cave entrance), and part of the information is in the players' memories (from previous adventures, experiences and even pop culture - "did you say Tomb of Horrors?"). Foreshadowing is a popular tecnique. 

Consistency is important – if the PCs fought a giant, they know what to expect when they face his biger cousin. Monster stats do not vary that much under most circumstances (which is one of the reasons I disliked 4e minion rules).

The easiest way to balance fights to the PC's capabilities is probably using something similar to dungeon levels (i.e., the deeper you are in the dungeon, the more dangerous the monsters become). In this case, it is up to the players - not the GM - to decide how far they are willing to go ("wilderness levels" is a subject I am tackling soon...) 

- Options – Once the PCs have information, it will become obvious that they have options (conversely, if they have NO way to acquire information, their choices about where to go or which door to open are meaningless).

But the players do not simply pick their encounters - they must know they have options even after they encounter a creature. They can avoid, parlay, escape, etc.

- Freedom and responsibility. Now that the PCs have all the tools (and freedom) to make informed choices, encounter balance becomes their responsibility. It takes this load from the GM's back while empowering the players at the same time. 

Of course, adding unpredictability to this mix can occasionally be lots of fun. Even with the best information, the PCs can fail. 

For example, I was recently playing in another GM's campaign and a critical hit almost caused a TPK in a hard, but otherwise ordinary, encounter (that the PCs were "supposed" to win without heavy losses). 

The GM apologized, but I insisted this is part of the game - and, TBH, it was quite fun. 

But this is another matter, for another post... maybe in 2024!

Happy new year!

Friday, December 22, 2023

D&D (6e) recommends fudging? (Peril in Pinebrook)

I've been using X/Twitter lately, but I have no idea if I'm doing it right. 

I just take a look at what people I follow are talking about and start rambling over half a dozen tweets.

Today I've seen two related subjects: encounter balance and fudging (more specifically, a kind of "deus ex machina" that is tantamount to fudging, i.e., send the dragon or Paladin to save the PCs if they ever get caught in a bad situation).

The reason seems to be this bit from an upcoming D&D module that teaches new players how to play (Peril in Pinebrook). Apparently, it is a specifically written for children:


As you can see, they avoided recommending that you simply change the results of the dice - but the effects are pretty much the same.

Well, I have written several posts against fudging and illusionism already, so I'll try to avoid repeating myself too much.

Instead, I'll just mention a couple of thoughts I expressed on X/Twitter today.

---
"Fudging" and "illusionism" are popular among D&D players in 2023.
It's okay if your table likes them, but I hate to see it taught as if this was the ONLY valid playstyle.
ESPECIALLY while you are learning the game.

---
I don't like this, but if your table wants kids gloves this is a valid playstyle... just be honest that this is what you're doing.
I think kids have to learn honesty and fair play too.

---
You absolutely can run a game where no PCs ever die for good.
E.g., Dark Souls. Or Toon.
Just be honest to your players about it.

---
I wish that everyone that recommends fudging the dice would add at least a few caveats:
- It is not universally accepted (and there are several people that strongly advises AGAINST it).
- Can lead to loss of trust (the GM is lying/cheating) and wrong assumptions (e.g., "we can defeat an adult red dragon"!).
- Puts an undue burden on the GM (e.g., "I am responsible for saving the PCs").

---
Some people believe both in "balanced encounters" and that "fudging is okay".
So, the encounters are designed for the PC's convenience, but if they (or you) FU you STILL have to save their asses?
I can see defending one or the other - I like neither - but defending BOTH is strange IMO.
Makes you think that the GM is not only responsible to create "fair" fights (or, to be more precise, fights the PCs will probably win) but ALSO to save them if they don't.

---
That's all I have for today... "Balanced encounters" deserve a post of its own.

For now...

I wish you all a Merry Christmas!

---
Aditional reading:

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

In praise of Basic Fantasy (BFRPG)

As we've mentioned before, Basic Fantasy RPG (BFRPG) is a clone of Basic D&D, "with small changes, mainly ascending armor class and separation of character race and class."

This post is just a homage to this system that you probably already know... and if you don't, you're missing out!

You can check the SRD and books for free (the SRD has a few "dice rolling" tools embedded... nice!).


Now, while I haven't played BFRPG by-the-book, I've read it multiple times and used many modules and ideas, so I can say I'm a fan.

The Blackapple Brugh is probably the best BFRPG adventure I ran (and probably one of the best free adventures available anywhere). It has social encounters, an interesting take on elves, a coherent dungeon, investigation, exploration... I definitely recommend it. My group had a blast!

But there are others!

F1 Morgansfort is a decent campaign starter, with a base and a few vanilla dungeons (which I usually dislike, but serves well for introductory purposes).

If you need a Castle by the Sea or a Dark Temple, you can check the respective modules... Each has half a dozen options for each, with a single map but different contents, levels, etc.

In addition, you have a couple of monster manuals, some high-level adventures, and entire campaigns you can get for free. There are also free modules with optional rules, such as additional classes and races, weapon proficiencies, backgrounds, skills, "ability rolls", etc..

The production values are very good for free products (probably superior to many classic modules) - the layout and maps are simple and easy-to-use, and many modules contain plenty B&W art ranging from weak to awesome.

I have read a few others but I'll save my impressions until I can actually run them - which should happen during 2024.

As a retroclone, it does its job well - the basic book has few but worthy changes. Classes have 20 levels, but are otherwise similar to B/X. Clerics spells and thief abilities are organized. Races are more or less well-balanced.

The bestiary is a bit more expansive (and, maybe, flavorful) than B/X, and the encounter tables are more sensible and coherent (but unfortunately too short for my tastes - 15 entries are not enough for me).

Magic items - which are a bit limited in B/X - are considerably expanded here. There is also an amazing supplement expanding all kinds of items (The Equipment Emporium).

Overall, as a basic retroclone, BFRPG stands somewhere between OSE (which has rules that are nearly identical to B/X) and DCC (which has lots of cool innovations). The system is Basic with some Advanced additions. Likewise, the flavor is somewhere between vanilla and weird. It has a good balance, usually choosing "classic" solutions over novelty.

The best thing about BFRPG, however, could be its open/free philosophy, encouraging people to participate and create their own stuff, which fosters an amazing community with lots of free tools, in addition to cheap physical books and good rules.

FWIW, most of my books (written with B/X in mind) are perfectly compatible to BFRPG, including Old School Feats and Alternate Magic. My OSR adventure adventure could be a good addition to a BFRPG campaign - I think the flavor fits perfectly!

BFRPG has a CC-BY-SA version too, which I appreciate; after the OGL debacle, I'm thinking of using it for my own games in the future.

After all, these are some of my favorite aspects of the OSR: the ability to build on top of each other's creations, combining rules and adventures from different sources, and creating a community with a shared language even if each table is using its own preferred rules.

EDIT: I created a small list of things I like about "core" BFRPG. Most of these are already mentioned above.

- CC license.

- Race separated from class.

- Cleric spells are "fixed".

- All thief abilities use percentages.

- PCs go to level 20.

- The weapon list is more sensible than B/X, and magic item tables are more expansive.

- Contains some new, interesting monsters.

Monday, December 04, 2023

Cutting fireballs in half

A small addition to a recent post.

As people noticed in the comments, it is not such a huge deal. But a random idea came to mind.

What if we just cut everything by half? Say, magic-users have a "Sorcery" skill that is half their level, round up (clerics use 1/3 level, round to nearest integer).

With sorcery 3, you can cast level 3 spells. Also, fireball does 1d6 damage per sorcery level. In B/X, this would mean 7d6 at most, but up to 10d6 in AD&D.


Now, to replace spell slots, just roll 1d20, add your sorcery level (and maybe INT), subtract spell level. 20 or more means you get to keep the spell. 

Or use spell points.

Magic-missile follow a similar pattern; you can throw three at once only when you get level 6 spells (3d6+3 with no saves and ignoring armor is not bad).

MAYBE you can choose to "upcast" by dealing maximum damage and losing the spell automatically, which adds a risk-reward aspect and allows you to cast fireball with its former glory once a day.

This makes magic-users weaker. To compensate, they use fighter XP table and can use any weapon and armor.

This doesn't really "solve" D&D magic but would allow to give old school games a stronger S&S feel - fireballs are less impressive, charm and sleep are still powerful, and wizards rely on swords often.

BTW: maybe the same goes for dragons. 10 HD means 5d6 breath. So PCs have a fighting chance - even if you give them more HD.

Anyway, just a random thought for now.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

My fireball problem

My fireball problem (in B/X) is the fact that, in wilderness adventuring, the magic-user (MU) can destroy most encounters with a single fireball.

Facing another MU is deadly: he can cause a TPK with a single fireball. 

The fighter will probably survive, but so wounded that the magic-user now has a decent chance of finishing him with a dagger (if the fighter can close in right after the fireball; otherwise, a magic missile could finish the job). 

MUs are also very susceptible to fireballs, so if two MUs are fighting, it boils down to "whoever wins initiative wins the duel".

In addition, fireballs are recovered every day - while the HP lost takes days or weeks. 

So the magic-user is likely to have his fireball prepared at any time (if you roll for encounters once a day - more than that feels strange to me), but the fighter may be wounded from previous encounters.

I do not think I'm the only one to have this problem - the Rules Cyclopedia limits fireball damage at high levels, and AD&D has complex mechanics to allow for spell interrupting, and monsters with magic resistance.


There are no easy solutions here.

I think old school spells are just not balanced. And the MU is a glass cannon - does lots of damage but is incredibly fragile.

I suggested a system in Alternate Magic which limits fireball damage to 2d6 per spell level. The fireball is just as deadly, but a 10d6 fireball requires the same resources as a fifth level spell (e.g., you must spend your 5th level spell slot).

Come to think of it, maybe spell recovery should take a bit longer (if you're using 1d3 HP recovered per day). 

Maybe recover half level per day in spell slots?

So, a 6th-level could always recover at least one fireball per day, but not two, and definitely not all spells at once.

I don't know. Maybe I should just accept that I need to stick to an entire new magic system instead of trying to adapt old school Vancian spells.

P.S.: I have a similar problem with old school dragons and their breath weapons. 1d4 dragons causing 40 damage each... if the PCs lose initiative, they are (literally) toast before they can run. Dragon battles end in the first round unless one of the dragons save successfully. I might change dragon breath to 1d6 per HD to give their victims a better chance.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The BECMI reaction table

To be honest, I never paid much attention to the BECMI reaction table. 

I'm usually more interested in B/X and I thought that the BECMI table was just a needlessly convoluted version of the B/X table I liked, requiring multiple rolls to achieve the same result.

I was completely wrong, of course.


The part I overlooked is the asterisk. It explains in a succinct manner a  number of questions I had with B/X reactions:

- When do you use Charisma for reaction rolls?

- What happens in an "uncertain" result?

- What happens if the NPC is still uncertain after several rolls/actions?

It doesn't answer all questions of course, nor does it address all the issues I have with encounters, but it is a great starting point - probably much better than B/X.

It could probably be simplified to two rolls instead of three. Or to a single table with pone roll affecting the next, such as the Rules Cyclopedia (which also has a tendency towards hostility that I find appropriate for most monsters):


And as much as I dislike the number of rolls you need to create an encounter, I have to admit this "roll again" part has an interesting risk reward dynamic: 

"The NPC is obviously hostile, so what do we do?"

If we have something to offer, or a charismatic PC who can talk to him (in the same language), maybe negotiating is our best bet. Even if we do, however, there is a chance the NPC will suddenly use this opportunity to attack us!

And, of course, you only need one roll to start the encounter - further rolls depend entirely of the PCs actions. 

So you have cool "social mechanics" or even "roleplaying minigame", which is as interesting as combat - since it can also involve initiative, intimidation, role-playing AND "roll-playing" (or player skill AND character skill), languages, alignment, spells, etc.

And you can use this table regardless of your preferred D&D edition or OSR game.

These "social mechanics" are often and unjustly maligned in OSR circles - "just role-play it!" - but IMO these are great rules from a game that definitely has old school cred (Mentzer red box).

And, of course, this is just a refinement of a rule that was contained in the original D&D. 

Social mechanics are here from the start.

Additional reading:

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

How D&D 5e (XGtE) encounters succeed and fail at the same time

A small addendum to yesterday's post.

I used this table as an example:


This is only one the "swamp" tables in XGtE.  

There are always three: for low, mid and high-level encounters. Overall, I find them easy and decent enough if combined, and that is how they "succeed" - encounters are varied and appropriate for each terrain.

The first one contains, for example, "2d4 lizardfolk".

The table above is for high-level encounters, containing black dragons and yuan-ti instead.

But I noticed there is something missing in that high-level table...

A lizardfolk army!

Or a large group of orcs, a horde of zombies, etc.

Because this was the promise of 5e and bounded accuracy: "Low-level monsters would continue to be usable at higher level, as their attack bonus and AC would allow them to remain meaningful threats to player characters".

But these tables tell a different story: low level PCs fight goblins, high-level PCs fight adult dragons, and that is it.

This is a bad choice for a number of reasons:

- Makes the world feel fake as it revolves around the PCs.
- Robs the PCs of the opportunity to realize how stronger they got (remember when we had a hard time fighting goblins? Now we are fighting armies of them!).
- Feels unnatural and forced for the GM to have to introduce stronger and stronger monsters.
- Makes the PCs think that violence is always an option, as they'll seldom find monsters that are too tough for their current level.
- Robs the players of the opportunity of feeling overwhelmed and yearning for something they cannot get without effort - "we cannot face them now, but one day we'll get revenge against the goblin horde!".

I think it is conceivable to run a battle against an army in 5e, even if it would be much harder than OSR games, because the monsters are much more complex. The DMG even has a few suggestions to do that, which XGtE improves... but apparently doesn't fully use.

Now, I have never played 5e at such high levels - only three campaigns that ended on levels 5 to 10 and a few shorter ones. So please correct me if I'm wrong here.

My PCs did fight about a hundred skeletons once, but only about six at once (they were in a narrow spot). It went reasonably well.

I don't know why 5e gave up on this promise, betting instead in the repetitive process of fighting a dozen zombies at level 5 and a dozen revenants by level 15.

I think a world in which there are ALWAYS black dragons and zombies to be found in the swamps, and the PCs have to deal with them differently as they gain levels, is much more coherent, organic and fun.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Good generic wilderness encounter tables? (B/X vs. AD&D vs. 5e)

I've been analyzing the B/X wilderness encounter tables lately, and while I'll probably stick to that for now, I think since this blog talks about Basic, AD&D and (sometimes) 5e, one small observation is in order:

As often happens, the encounter tables in in B/X are oversimplified and the ones in AD&D are overcomplicated

And 5e got us beat again - but it took them a while!

Let me explain. 

The B/X wilderness encounter tables fit a couple of pages. While I love the fact that they are so slim, they produce strange results: dragons do not follow their natural habitats, there are too many dragon and basilisks, every result requires a sub-table, etc. 

There are (about) 96 possible results for each terrain, but many are repeated; dragons about happen 6% to 12% of the time.

AD&D, on the other hand, contains about a dozen pages of tables and sub-tables, using d100. 

You'd think they'd take the opportunity to organize all entries in single d100 table, but no, we have tables and sub-tables with incredible levels of detail; some monster will appear only 0.1% of the time.

It also has famous a sub-table to describe which type of prostitute appears if you ever find one...

[I'll ignore 2e, 3e and 4e for now because I haven't played them as much. From a  brief glance, 2e hasn't included such tables in the three core rulebooks, and 3e is even worse than 5e in forcing that encounters are adapted to the PC's needs. I'm guessing 4e is the same.].

5e did not even HAVE many random encounter tables at first - each table was part of a setting, which is fair enough if you're using a published setting - it only suggested you created your own and provided a small example, with about 20 entries and using 1d12+1d8 for some reason.

The tables included in the settings are often very good, but that's not what I am looking for. [BTW, this is why I haven't been analyzing random encounters in dungeons - I think these MUST be connected to each particular dungeon, and I simply cannot stomach a hill giant randomly appearing in a deep dungeon fro no reason].

Fortunately, Xanathar's Guide to Everything partially fixed that.

It contains simple d100 tables (simpler than AD&D but more complete than B/X) that list not only monsters but also number appearing - plus a few "cosmetic" encounters that don't really belong here (rain, "the sounds of drums", etc.).


Unfortunately, these tables are separated by CR, and are too slim unless combined.

This is a bad thing on principle - the world shouldn't conform to PC's level - and, combined with the existing tables, it is even worse - that means that past level 11 there is no more "rain" encounter but now there are "drums" for some reason (looking at the table above, I assume the yuan-ti like to play drums, but only when the PC's reach level 11).

Fortunately, you can integrate all these tables by adding another roll [e.g., "roll an extra d10, with 1-4: tier 1, 5-7: tier 2, 8-9: tier 3, 0: tier 4" - thank you Evan for commenting here!]

Maybe there is a game out there that uses the best of AD&D, BX and 5e. The tables in BFRPG look decent, but a bit slim. Dragons and rarer and appear in appropriate biomes! Yay!

I guess I could adapt my favorite bits from all these sources, but it is unlikely that no one else has compiled a better table... let me know in the comments!

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Confused wolves

I've been obsessing over random encounters for the past few days and, after much tweaking and rewriting, I am having trouble getting past confused wolves.

When you roll in the reaction table, "uncertain, confused" is the most common result.  

It is also a kind of non-result, since it doesn't tell you anything about the creature's reaction - except, maybe that is has NO immediate reaction.

This is easy to interpret for humans and humanoids - they'd rather talk and evaluate before they do anything - but what does it mean for wild animals? Or even monsters?

An "uncertain, confused" results indicates your answer is not  in the reaction roll, but maybe somewhere else. 

Let's try some options.


Surprise - surprising and surprised beasts are more likely to attack, but only if they think they can win the fight. Invertebrates can attack anyway - if you step on an ant hill or disturb wasps, they will not be afraid of your size.

Morale - testing morale to see if the creatures have the courage to approach or attack is interesting, but doesn't tell you if they are hostile and lead to unlikely results because the morale check usually doesn't take into account if the creatures are powerful or outnumbered.

Alignment - This is something I've seen in Dragon Quest but in no other D&D games. Most animals are neutral; chaotic and lawful ones have the label for a reason.

This is an aspect that deserves more attention; some creatures should just be more aggressive than others.

Monster description - sometimes the book will tell you how the creatures act. But this is rare.

Some descriptions are vague. "Have been know to attack humans". So what? Does it give it a penalty to reaction? Does it attack differently from other creatures if you roll "immediate attack"? You have to decide for yourself, but it is something.

Other descriptions are useless for this purpose. Displacer beasts hate blink dogs and vice-versa, but since PCs are unlikely to be accompanied by either, this is useless 99% of the time. How do they feel about humans?

Roll for goals - you can easily find random tables that will they you if the wolves are starved, semi-domesticated, migrating, mating, hunting, protecting cubs, etc. (my own Teratogenicon has some suggestions).

This is useful if you're creating an encounter beforehand, but for immediate use at the table, it requires more rolling for no obvious benefit. How do the PCs know if the wolves are hungry? Also, doesn't tell us how do hungry wolves act.

We shouldn't default to "they attack" - in fact, hungry wolves might be desperate enough to befriend the PCs, especially if they offer food.

"Do nothing" - Maybe "they do nothing" is the most obvious answer. So, it is up to the PC's to choose how to act. This would be a good idea, giving players more choice. However...

For NPCs, there is room for talk (and, unfortunately, REPEATING the reaction roll, maybe with Charisma and other modifiers). Even if they threaten, ignore, or lie to NPCs, there could be consequences.

But what about animals? It is likely that PCs do nothing in return. The wolves are confused, why would we attack them, or feed them?

If we can kill or ignore them with no consequences, why do we care?

The fact that wild animals hardly attack humans (let alone groups of humans) does not help much.

In short, an "uncertain" reaction roll turned your encounter into scenery. "In the second day, there is some light rain and you spot some wolves at a distance...".

By itself, this is no problem - except for the number of rolls (encounter, distance, surprise, reaction, etc.) and decisions the GM has to make to get there (and "there" is basically "nowhere").
 
Small 5e note

In a surprising turn of events, one of the latest WotC D&D books (BPGG) might have better reaction rules than (my beloved) B/X... 

After years without a proper reaction system, WotC added a simple and neat one in the Giant's book. It is similar to B/X, but instead of rolling 2d6, you roll 1d8, 1d4+1, 1d12, etc., depending on the creature encountered.

It is such an obvious solution. We could just add a hostile/friendly bonus to each encounter, or to each monster. 

Maybe with alignment: "Chaotic (-2)" means -2 to the reaction roll, but adding it to encounters would be even better - some creatures are more hostile in some environments, situations, etc. 

It would require some work, but would be immensely useful in play. For now, I can just use -1 for chaotic encounters and +1 for SOME lawful ones (maybe Rocs NEVER attack humans immediately? I don't know).
 
Solutions?

Let's use the fact that "uncertain" is the most common result to solve that.

Maybe each monster has a few instincts. For most beasts, the instinct is to ignore the PCs unless they look like invaders or prey. Some monsters instinctively attack (e.g., bees) while other might not attack but will instinctively chase, and most should have clear rules (e.g., attack if PCs are outnumbered or surprised).

An uncommon result (say, "immediate attack" or "friendly") can override these instincts. It is odd, but in a world with dwarves and dragons, sometimes hawks attack or befriend you for no apparent reason. Let's also assume humans (and their cities) are fewer in such worlds, and animals are less afraid of them.

In normal circumstances, however, animals fall back to their instincts.

Of course, we could assign instincts to humans, too (call them "inclinations", if you will). But it is probably not worth it. We can intuitively explain human actions - and human inclinations are too diverse and individual anyway.

The callous bandits are friendly? Well, of course, they rather attack someone less armed! The lawful pilgrims attack you on sight? Well, they thought you were bandits !

But alignment, here, also works as an inclination. The bandits might try to befriend you, but better not trust them too soon...

Additional reading:

Monday, November 13, 2023

B/X wilderness encounters are bonkers

Last post was about the effort required to roll a single random encounter in B/X.

This post is about how this effort often leads to results that must be immediately discarded or changed.

This impression started when my players actually rolled two dragons in a row last week (in a three day trip). 

The first one (hydra) attacked on sight, but the second (three blue dragons) were indifferent so I decided they'd ignore the party.

If it had been the opposite, I'd have to fudge the dice or get a TPK.

And I do not think you could say I'd be "interpreting" the rolls. 

If you roll an "immediate attack" reaction, not attacking the PCs is simply changing the dice to save them, and even a "hostile" dragon could attack surprised PCs immediately - unless the GM wants to save them.

It is not unlikely that the players would be killed immediately by dragon breath (40 points of damage for each dragon, save for half) - before they could ever think about talking or evading (for example, if the are surprised or lose initiative).

Would it be fair game if that happened?

I am not sure it would.


First, the chances of finding 1d4 dragons in the wilderness are enormous - about 6% for every encounter, much greater if you're in the mountains or if you include hydras and wyverns (they are also under the "dragon" sub-table).

If you make one check per day, you might encounter 1d4 dragons per month in the forest, but the book suggests you could roll three or four times. You'd find 1d4 dragons every couple of days in the mountains!

I have never seen so many random dragons in any story, not even in Dragonlance novel (one random dragon was too much for me in the last one I've read, TBH). Maybe in Fire & Blood.

Also, every dragon has an identical chance of appearing - despite the fact that the book says blue dragons live in deserts and plains (mine appeared in a forest).

The basilisk is both under "dragon" and "unusual" - which means it is three times more "usual" than hawks in the mountains!

Dragons are more common than wolves and hawks!

OTOH, there are no gorillas anywhere, just albino gorillas for some reason.

But should the players know that wilderness adventuring is very dangerous in B/X? 

Again, not sure; we played multiple games (including a recent 5e campaign) and there was nothing like that in any other campaign.

Now I'm  wondering if other groups that play B/X use the tables as written or just change the results to save their PCs from three blue dragons attacking at once.

But fudging and "interpreting" the results in such a manner feels like more work to the GM. I'd prefer having a random table that gave me results that I can actually use. 

The OSRIC tables looks much better at a first glance (I'd have to try them in practice), but they require more complex/expansive sub-tables (including "harlot" tables that I'm unlikely to use).

I'd probably be better off creating my own tables so I can adapt it to my tastes. My ideal would be something like:

- One single table per terrain, no sub-tables.
- Fewer chances of multiple dragons.
- Encounters adequate to the terrain are more likely (e.g., dragons of the appropriate type, but also no salamanders except in extreme heat/cold, etc.).
- Probably adding number of creatures to the encounter table (e.g., "2d4 salamanders" instead of "salamander").
- Probably using a d100 or a bell curve.
- Add undead to forests because I like the idea!

And, of course, no tables "by CR" or "by PC level" - the world does not revolve around PCs' needs. I have a different solution for that, which deserves a post of its own.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

The painful procedure of random encounters

Let's look at the painful procedure of random encounters. 

This is not simply theorizing; it is something that has been bothering me in my current campaign - to the point of aggravation in some sessions.

I'll use B/X here, as it is an universal language.


Let's say the PCs are traveling the wilderness for one week.

First you have to check for encounters, once or more times per day. More often than not, the result will be that "nothing happens". So we are rolling over and over, with little input from the PCs actions (or even stats) to get nothing.

Second, if you get an encounter, you have to find the appropriate table (and sub-table) for the creature encountered, which requires two more rolls.

[And you have to decide - or roll - to see if the encounter happens during day or night, etc.]

Third, roll for surprise - for both the PCs and the creature encountered.

Fourth, you have to roll to find how many creatures appear (if you're playing AD&D, also roll to see if they are in their lair).

Fifth, roll for encounter distance.

Sixth, you roll reaction (let's assume you don't have to roll HP for each creature or I'll go crazy) - which is a bit of a challenge by itself.

That is half a dozen rolls for every single encounter.

Even if you memorize all of these, you still have to flip back and forth to find the monsters.

The worst part, however, is that at this point you have no guarantees that the encounter will be interesting or coherent. It falls on the shoulders off there GM to make it so.

The reaction part, for example, will often tell you the creature is confused - and it is up to the GM to interpret that. 

There is no easy way to skip that - deciding every beast attacks, for example, is both implausible and repetitive.

[Dragon Quest suggests chaotic creatures are more likely to attack, which is a nice touch, but might not be the case if the PCs are chaotic themselves].

In addition, if you get an unlikely result (lawful NPCs attack on sight? why???) you have to either come up with an explanation or roll again.

Some creatures have predetermined reactions (e.g., goblins attacking dwarves on sight), but these are rare - more often than not, you're on your own.

Everything works well in theory but lately I'm finding it too burdensome for the GM.

That would be very easy to solve with automation. Unfortunately,  my programming skills are slim to inexistent.

Fortunately, however, there are people out there who created awesome stuff such as this. Perfect!

Now we need an old school version. This one is incredibly helpful, as it replaces many rolls (rolling a random NPC party would be a nightmare without it!).

A perfect tool would not only replace ALL rolls but also add suggestions for the "creative" bits: why is the wolf so friendly? How does the indifferent dragon behaves if it sees the PCs before they can act? 

These are things that a computer would have a harder time writing, unlike dice rolls.

All these things could be decided in advance (with a few "ifs" and "buts"), leaving the GM free to add details as necessary. 

And, while we are at it, add some brief descriptions from days without encounters (or simple non-NPC encounters: items, droppings, tracks, corpses, etc.).

Put the whole thing together, fix some results so that wolf tracks are near wolves and brunt corpses near red dragons, and you'd have an awesome resource.

I have to say I'm very tempted to create such a tool - it would both solve my problems and possibly help other GMs. 

Let me know if this would be useful to you - and SPECIALLY if you can provide me some feedback on a few related ideas. Leave a comment or, even better, join my Discord channel. I promise it is EXTREMELY low maintenance.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

AD&D DMG cover to cover - part IX, pages 114-169 (MAGIC RESEARCH/ITEMS and TREASURE)

We´ve been reading the original DMG - the ultimate DM book! - but from a B/X and OSR point-of-view.

Check the other parts of this series here

Today we discuss MAGICAL RESEARCH, USE OF MAGIC ITEMS and TREASURE.


MAGICAL RESEARCH 114
— CREATION OF HOLY/UNHOLY WATER 114
— SPELL RESEARCH 115
— FABRICATION OF MAGIC ITEMS, INCLUDING POTIONS AND SCROLLS 116
— NON-STANDARD MAGIC ITEMS 118
USE OF MAGIC ITEMS 118
— COMMAND WORDS 118
— CRYSTAL BALLS & SCRYING 119
— DRINKING POTIONS 119
— APPLYING OILS 119
— POTION MISCIBILITY 119
— ENERGY DRAINING BY UNDEAD OR DEVICE 119
TREASURE 120
— RANDOM TREASURE DETERMINATION120
— EXPLANATIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF MAGIC ITEMS 125
— Potions 125
— Scrolls 127
— Rings 129
— Rods, et al (Including Staves and Wands) 132
— Miscellaneous Magic 136
Artifacts and Relics 155
Armor and Shields 164
Swords 165
— Miscellaneous Weapons 168

MAGICAL RESEARCH

This section contains detailed rules explaining how the PCs can create potions, spells, scrolls and magic items in general.

It mixes "hard" rules (e.g., costs and durations for the various tasks) with common sense advice (e.g., do not allow spells that are too powerful, compare new spells to existing ones, and so on). 

Holy water is treated first, apart from other potions/items, for no apparent reason. Nothing particularly interesting here.

Spell research is next. The rules are simple enough: "The basic cost for spell research is only 200 gold pieces per spell level per week", research takes a couple of week per spell level (and total dedication from the researcher).

There is an easy formula to calculate chances of success. Since the process requires repeated rolls, the chances of success look very slim.

Fabrication of magic items, potions and scrolls begins by saying "A properly run campaign will be relatively stringent with respect to the number of available magic items, so your players will sooner or later express a desire to manufacture their own".

Keep this in mind.

Beginning at 14th level an illusionist may attempt to make items with a truly permanent dweomer, such as a +1 dagger or a ring of protection, for example.

I find this example interesting for two reasons: it would seem that a +1 dagger is very weak for a 14th level illusionist; and there is no +1 dagger on the rest of the chapter (see below). But this is just a curiosity, it doesn't affect the example.

Potion creation is also described with relatively simple rules. They may require special ingredients, such as powdered kobold horn or a mind flayer brain. Neat!

Scrolls follow the same pattern: some clear and somewhat arbitrary rules, some interesting details (about the fabrication of ink), etc.

Magic item creation is described in a vague manner; apparently, the rules must be completed with the PHB.  

One example mentions using a "wish" spell to create a ring of spell storing. I am almost tempted to check to see if the PHB explains why you can't just with for such a ring, but I'll focus on the DMG for now.

"In all cases, the manufacture of any magic item other than a potion or scroll will be so debilitating as to necessitate the maker to rest for one day for each 100 g.p. of the item’s experience point value, i.e. one with a 2,000 experience point value means 20 days of complete rest.". 

Okay.

USE OF MAGIC ITEMS

This section describes miscellaneous questions: command words, crystal balls, drinking potions (it takes 1d4+1 "segments" for them to work), oils, and energy draining by undead and devices - which apparently has almost NOTHING TO DO WITH MAGIC ITEMS, except for the fact that one or two magic items (out of hundreds) can drain levels (like undead).

Sigh.

Well, we do get a very cool table about what happens when you mix potions - they might cancel each other, improve, turn into poison or even EXPLODE - sometimes after you have imbibed two portions! 

Fun stuff!

TREASURE

This section does not talk much about all kinds treasure, but mostly about magic items (plus MAPS). There is no mention of other possible treasures, such as art, fine clothing or luxurious items.

"PLACEMENT OF MONETARY TREASURE" is back in page 91.

A hoard may contain a map to another treasure. Nice. Keeps PCs adventuring.

This map will lead to more magic treasure about 30% of the time.

Magic treasure contains 2-3 items on average.

Remember that "a properly run campaign will be relatively stringent with respect to the number of available magic items"? I'm not sure the author followed this advice, but this is an error already admitted back in the treasure section. I mean, the campaign section.

Here, the author also advises to "Keep potent magic items rare. (Increase scarcity by destroying or stealing what is found!)". 

To me, it would be easier just to give away fewer items.

Pages 121-169 is just a long list of tables and magic items.

And, I must say, this one is incredibly creative and comprehensive.

The author really knocked the ball out of the park with this one.

There are hundreds of items, with sub-tables to give them unique traits, resulting in literally millions of possibilities.

Lots of things have values in gold and XP. 

Some items are almost self-explanatory (sword +2), other require detailed explanations. 

There are a few ridiculously tautological descriptions such as:

"Leather armor +1 is usable by those characters permitted to wear this form of armor."

Several items have unique effects. Some also have unique stories. 

There is not much about their appearances, unfortunately, except to notice magic items often look ordinary (the word "normal" is also mentioned many times).

Sometimes, items look like other magic items, that look ordinary... which doesn't make much sense. For example, the Horn of Bubbles "appears as a normal horn, or possibly any one of the many magical  ones". 

In other words: some magic items look ordinary. But the PCs will know some of them are magic anyway - and end up using cursed items because of that.

---

Allow me a brief detour. 

This is from Supplement I - Greyhawk:
Horn of Bubbles: This device exactly resembles a Horn of Valhalla, but when it is sounded it will bring forth a cloud of bubbles which surround its holder, completely obscuring his vision for 4-12 turns.
Greyhawk doesn't explain if there is anything special about the looks of the Horn of Valhalla (except the metal from which it is made).

In short, the author seemed to assume initially that the players would know a Horn of Valhalla, and then the Horn of Bubbles was created as a trap. But now both look ordinary, and the "trap" only works if you detect magic on it and hope for a positive effect. And the Horn of Valhalla is, by itself, a trap now (unlike the original version, you have to be a certain class or get attacked).

Anyway, I find these "trap items" curious, but for my players I'd give some items a distinct appearance and let them try it at their peril, without the need for confusing a magic item for another.

---

Scrolls are described here too. The author obsessively assigns different reading times, in segment, for each scroll. I cannot see myself powering through to this level of detail.

Rods, staves and wands are implement to create various magical effects. Each has its own limited number of charges. The obsession with segments often appears here too.

"At your option 1% of all wands are trapped to backfire." 

Yes, please!

MISCELLANEOUS MAGIC is a catch-all category of magic items. It includes swords (separated from other weapons - and "scimitar" is under other weapons...), armors and shields, in addition to powerful artifacts and relics.

This organization feels completely arbitrary, like many other DMG sections.

But the contents are awesome- the book includes most D&D classic items you can think of: Bag of Holding, Book of Vile Darkness, Deck of Many Things, Figurines of Wondrous Power, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Ioun Stones, Portable Hole... in short, more items than you could ever use, and this is before we get to artifacts and relics!

So, let's get to them!

"Each artifact or relic is a singular thing of potent powers and possibly strange side effects as well. Regardless of how any of these items come into your campaign, only 1 of each may exist." 

These things are truly legendary - the book gives you a description, but you must assign powers and effects by yourself from other tables:


Because of the unique nature of each artifact and relic, their powers are only partially described. You, the Dungeon Master, must at least decide what the major powers of each item are to be. This prevents players from gaining any knowledge of these items, even if they happen to own or read a copy of this
volume, and it also makes each artifact and relic distinct from campaign to campaign.

As you can see, the fear that players might know the items beforehand was constant - but not a real problem in my games.

While this is a nice idea to provide great variety and mystery to magic items, it looks like a time-consuming process (the powers are not organized in a "random table" fashion; you choose them instead of rolling) and weakens the "mythic" significance of the items somehow (e.g., legends about the Axe of Dwarvish Lords should tell you about its properties - but since the Axe appears randomly, you're unlikely to assign effects before the PCs find it).

I can understand the reasoning - some effects would not mix well with certain items. But maybe you could list most effects and add some notes on replacing them as necessary.

These artifacts, as you can see, are very busy; the axe has lots of special powers even before you add your own.

There is not much more to say about swords, armor, etc., except that, again, all the classics are here: intelligent swords, Vorpal swords, Mace of Disruption, etc. Some are inspired by classic fantasy, of course, but overall this is a comprehensive list.

Most swords (and daggers) shed light when drawn, which is a good idea because it allows fighters to take advantage of them without detect magic. This doesn't seem to apply to maces, axes, etc.

A table of random weapons and another table of random weapon effects would be nice. But this is not hard to extrapolate from existing weapons and tables (e.g., the table in page 125, that lacks a simple "dagger +1", and the one for swords on page 124). 

Overall, these items are all very flavorful and varied. They resemble myth, fantasy, sci-fi, weird science, and even cartoons. The author suggested some restraint when allowing different races. Here, the reasoning seems to be that "everything goes". 

And I think this makes the game more fun. You could use this list to any weird setting.

Some final notes:

Armor of +3 bonus is of special meteorite iron steel, +4 is mithral alloyed steel, +5 is adamantite alloyed steel.

Makes me think a +1 weapon could simply be made of "Valyrian" or Damascus steel, for example, something I considered here.

Axes (hand, not battle) can be thrown up to 3” with the hit probability bonus, but no damage bonus.

Note to self: write a post about how old school D&D was right to limit the damage caused by ranged attacks.

And... that is it. We finished the main part of the DMG! 

The rest in appendices - which contain some great stuff too.

What have we learned today?

This is one of the best sections to use with your B/X games (or any OSR game). Having clear rules to create/buy potions and magic items is handy. Having more magic items to choose from is useful. Powerful weapons are a cool addition for fighters.

Despite any criticisms about the organization and verbosity (and I know I have been too harsh at some points), these items are classics, and will certainly add fun and variety to your table.

It is very interesting to look at the 5e DMG and see that, compared to the original, the "improvements" were really limited - and I don't remember many games with better magic items either (IIRC correctly, Numenera is largely based around discovering magic items, but I haven't played it).

BTW, check Dark Fantasy Magic Items if you want something leaner, with more random tables, or 100 Magic Weapons for finished examples.

Coming next... the APPENDICES begin! 

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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Quick HORROR tip: make it LIGHT and REALISTIC

After so many posts about "dark fantasy" games, talking about "light realistic" games might sounds strange... but might be appropriate.

In order to have a "scary" horror game, realism could be a good choice - otherwise, the players might fall back to fantasy tropes of peasants slaying giants. 

In the horror genre, there could be a single foe - say, a guy with an axe - and if he gets you, you're probably dead.

It happened to me in one D&D game. I describe a monstrous entity and the fighter said "I attack". I said, "well, it is the size of a bus...", he attacked anyway, dealt 8 damage or whatever, and got ignored by the entity. 

His actions were not absurd in a game where you're supposed to fight dragons.

"Light" rules are important too. If the rules are complex enough that make you study the character sheet for solutions, you disengage from the "fictional" and therefore lose any "scare value" that you could get from it - as described in the example above. The players was thinking "attack bonus" instead of "giant-sized flying worm".

In an horror game, you should spend significant amounts of time engaging with the fictional world - building tension, describing clues, etc.

I remember one CoC game that got my players scared by simply describing an empty room with some green ooze under the bed.

At this point, "I roll perception" could ruin the mood.

But if you need this "roll perception" stuff, the system should be quick and deadly about it.
 
Unknown Armies has the right idea about this - PC skills are often around 20% to 40%. They are unreliable and fail more often than not. Combat (especially with guns) is extremely swingy - you can die with a single shot OR after more than a dozen stab wounds.

[It does have a complex and interesting system for mental trauma, however. For short games, this isn't even necessary - you don't have to check if you're scared, you should know a dagger is extremely dangerous].

Cthulhu Dark took simple, deadly rules to the extreme: fight a monster and you die, period. Too extreme for my tastes, but adequate to some kinds of horror.

There are other forms of horror, of course - you could have all kinds of adventures in hellish landscapes, dream worlds, or full of powerful but flawed heroes struggling against inner demons or cosmic entities. The protagonists could be fighting trauma, madness, addiction or poverty instead of monsters. 

But these two guidelines seem adequate for, say, 80% of any "best horror movies" list.

Anyway.

If you're looking for good horror games, I've good experiences with Unknown Armies, Kult and, of course, CoC (I haven't tried the current versions, only old ones).

But, come to think of it, old school D&D might work too, especially if the PCs have no armor, few weapons and few ways to level up (e.g., a one-shot set in modern days). 

A 1st level fighter with 3-4 HP can do little against half a dozen zombies, except maybe run. If the PCs are stuck in a house with a 4 HD monster - or even maniac with an axe trying to get them by surprise - their chances are slim.

The PCs saving throws often fail and, if the adventure last for more than one day, they recover only 1d3 HP.

Stronger monsters (e.g., vampires) are unbeatable unless you find their weaknesses.

[There is more to be said about using FEWER monsters, BTW - something I addressed recently here and here]

Giving a very bad THAC0 to everyone (including monsters) might be a good way to ramp up the tension. 

Combat lasts for a few rolls, but every single one might mean death.

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Saturday, October 28, 2023

Skeleton with a bow

I was playing Castlevania and thinking of fun encounters. It got me thinking...

A skeleton in B/X is a 1 HD monster, maybe with 4-5 HP - relatively weak, unless you find half a dozen at once (which is likely).

But picture a skeleton with a bow in a place you cannot access easily - a tower, castle wall, or behind a chasm or river. Maybe you could climb it in, say, three rounds, less if you're a thief.

Now let's give him some resistance to arrows, since it has no flesh or organs. Maybe arrows do 1 point of damage to it at most (or half damage if you don't want to be mean to archers).

And put him in armor. To evil wizards, they are better than mercenaries, since they require no food, sleep, pay, or overtime. No morale checks either.

He is now a bit of a challenge to a group of first-level PCs by himself.

You could use turn undead if you have a cleric. That is, if there is no range/area limit.

But throw a robe over the skeleton and maybe the PCs are not even sure what they're dealing with - until they get close!


Now put ten skeletons with robes and armor over the wall an this becomes a challenge to a level 5 party. We don't even need to raise HP. 

A fireball might explode one of them - they are scattered. Charm, hold person, sleep, etc., are all useless here.

Arrows are of limited use, but slings and magic missiles get a chance to shine (even if a longbow has slightly better reach). The thief gets to use his climbing skills in an action scene - maybe even moving silently in the process while his allies take cover.

Come to think of it, is it fair that the skeletons can "see" the PCs? Well they are probably programmed to shoot at anyone who comes near the castle or try to cross a bridge.

If they run out of arrows - they probably only have a few - they might climb down the walls (sounds reasonable but the armor might make things difficult; some may fall and be destroyed in the process, which is a cool scene by itself).

And when the PCs find out what is happening, then the evil wizard unleashes the Bone Golem, to see all the usual tactics (turn undead, fireball and lighting bolts) fail spectacularly.

Sounds like a fun game to me!

Thursday, October 26, 2023

You can't solve B/X skills and checks (same goes for AD&D etc.)... and ONE MORE FIX

I've been working on a minimalist D&D for ages. 

B/X checks are a bit messy, as we discussed many times before; they could be vastly simplified.

For example: by RAW, a thief usually has better chances climbing sheer walls than climbing a rope (and uses two completely different systems), while the Halfling uses two different systems to hide (90% in the wilderness, 2-in-6 otherwise).

In total, there are at least six different systems:

- D20 roll high (attacks, saves).
- D20 roll low (ability checks).
- X-in-6 chances (foraging, getting lost, etc.).
- 2d6 roll high (reaction).
- 2d6 roll low (morale).
- Percentages.

If you consider wether the roll is affected by your abilities, level, both or none, the situation gets even more complicated:


I'm still ignoring things such as damage, surprise, initiative, 10% chance of arcane error for thieves, 90% chance of drowning, etc.

I tried to fix that more than half a dozen times in this blog.

But, ultimately, the problem becomes obvious: you cannot fix this because the fix is entirely dependent on matters of personal taste.

To put some order into it, you'd have to decide:

- Does it need any more order than that? Should the mechanics be more unified than that?

If the answer is positive, you'd have to choose:

- Do you prefer 1d6, 2d6, 1d20 or 1d100?
- Do you prefer roll high or low?
- Should your chances improve with a high ability score?
- Should your chances improve with a high level?

Assuming you can make a decision for each of these circumstances, you'd get at least thirty possible answers - none strictly better than the other, since 1d20 is no better than 1d6 or 1d100 and roll high/low each have their defenders.

[Each has its benefits, however; I find "30% chance" extremely intuitive, for example, and "rolling a natural 20" a fun thing to have in the game].

Now, if the answer is negative - i.e., if you're willing to accept the mess - things get even more complicated. 

Because - unless you accepted "because the book said so" as your only criteria, you'd have to ask yourself:

- Should you level affect your chances of foraging? 
- Should you Dex affect move silently?
- Should thieves have an easier time climbing a rope?
Et cetera ad nauseam.

Now you don't have thirty answers - you have thirty answers for each check.

And I haven't even started talking about quantity

- How hard should the checks be? 
- Should there be different "DCs"?
- How much should your level affect this?
- What about your abilities? 
- Should level matter more than ability or vice-versa? 
- Etc.

A 5e (Solomonic) solution

As a small aside, 5e solves this mostly by mentioning three types of rolls (attacks, saves, ability checks), but they all function in a roughly similar fashion: roll 1d20 + ability mod + proficiency.

Proficiency (defined by level) and ability mods have similar weights. 

(When I say "Solomonic" I do not mean "wise, but "cutting things in half".)

Sometimes proficiency doesn't apply, sometimes it is halved or doubled, so in the end a table would look somewhat better than B/X but not much simpler, and still need an external DC to function, which B/X usually doesn't.

A B/X (Solomonic) solution

Since there are no right answers, we can come up with our own. Target 20 is one of my favorites, but does not cover ability checks or 1d6 tasks explicitly. 

Here is one of mine.

- Do you prefer 1d6, 2d6, 1d20 or 1d100? 1d20.
- Do you prefer roll high or low? High.
- Should your chances improve with a high ability score? Yes.
- Should your chances improve with a high level? Yes.

Target 20 already covers attacks, saves and skills; we'd need a system for non-thief skills (1d6) and ability checks.

My suggestion:

Roll 1d20, add (ability+level)/2, Target 20.

To keep thief skills similar, just use:

Roll 1d20, add (ability/2)+level, Target 20.

E.g., Dex 14, level 8 means +15 to hide if you're a thief, +11 if you are not.

+11 seems a lot for a non-thief, but in the unlikely event you have a Dex 14 MU, it gives the sneaky bastard lots of personality!

If you prefer to ignore levels for non-thieves, I think this method (1d20+ability/2) is still better than simple ability checks as it makes things a bit harder (and closer to the usual 1-in-6 chances for general tasks). Or, to add more complexity, you only get to add half level if the task is somehow related to your class. But I'm not sure this is even necessary.

One side effect I enjoy is that every point matters - Dex 10 is different from Dex 11 at least half the time.

Similar methods have been used in "Action Throws" and BFRPG optional rules ("Ability Rolls"). 

Well, TBH I might have mentioned something similar in this blog before; I'm sorry to repeat myself, this seems to be an unsolvable matter indeed... but at least we gave it a shot! 

Recommended reading: